Structuralist theory of mythology

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In structural anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, makes the claim that “myth is language”. Through approaching mythology as language, Lévi-Strauss suggests that it can be approached the same way as language can be approached by the same structuralist methods used to address language. Lévi-Strauss clarifies, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.”

Lévi-Strauss breaks down his argument into three main parts. Meaning is not isolated within the specific fundamental parts of the myth, but rather within the composition of these parts. Although myth and language are of similar categories, language functions differently in myth. Finally, language in myth exhibits more complex functions than in any other linguistic expression. From these suggestions, he draws the conclusion that myth can be broken down into constituent units, and these units are different from the constituents of language. Finally, unlike the constituents of language, the constituents of a myth, which he labels “mythemes,” function as “bundles of relations.”

This approach is a break from the “symbolists”, such as Carl Jung, who dedicate themselves to find meaning solely within the constituents rather than their relations.For instance, Lévi-Strauss uses the example of the Oedipus myth and breaks it down to its component parts:

Reading it in sequence from left to right, top to bottom, the myth is categorized sequentially and by similarities. Through analyzing the commonalities between the “mythemes” of the Oedipus story, understandings can be wrought from its categories.

Thus, a structural approach towards myths is to address all of these constituents. Furthermore, a structural approach should account for all versions of a myth, as all versions are relevant to the function of the myth as a whole. This leads to what Lévi-Strauss calls a spiral growth of the myth which is continuous while the structure itself is not. The growth of the myth only ends when the “intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted.”

From mythology to literary criticism

Myths are primarily acknowledged as oral traditions, while literature is in the form of written text. Still, anthropologists and literary critics would both acknowledge the links between myths and relatively more contemporary literature. Therefore, many literary critics take the same Lévi-Straussian structuralist, as it is coined, approach to literature. This approach is, again, similar to Symbolist critic’s approach to literature. There is a search for the lowest constituent of the story. But as with the myth, Lévi-Straussian structuralism then analyzes the relations between these constituent parts in order to compare even greater relations between versions of stories as well as among stories themselves.

Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss suggests that the structural approach and mental processes dedicated towards analyzing the myth are similar in nature to those in science. This connection between myth and science is further elaborated in his books, “Myth and Meaning” and “The Savage Mind”. He suggests that the foundation of structuralism is based upon an innate understanding of the scientific process, which seeks to break down complex phenomena into its component parts and then analyze the relations between them. The structuralist approach to myth is precisely the same method, and as a method this can be readily applied to literature.