What are the theories of myth interpretation

Claude Lévi-Strauss - The Structural Interpretation of Myths


I. Introduction

II. Main part
1. The history of structuralism
2. Parallels with linguistics
3. The individual myth analysis
4. Myth comparison
4.1 Myth as a re-presentation of reality?
4.2 Attenuation and transformation in the wet version
5. Criticisms of structural myth research

III. Enough

I. Introduction:

The following paper deals with the structural analysis of myths by Claude Lévi-Strauss, a representative of French structuralism. Lévi-Strauss is considered to be the main founder of structuralism. He was best known for his interpretations of myths, which I will present in the following. His work attracted a lot of attention and criticism, especially because of his methodology, which was based on the natural sciences. With his interpretation of myths, he sets himself apart from his predecessors both methodically and in terms of content. He got his inspiration from structural linguistics, which were very successful at the time. With these methods he tries to separate the myth interpretation from the purely content of the myth. He was looking for the strictly logical laws by which our society functions. According to Lévi-Strauss, the structure of our society can only be found on the level of the subconscious and not on the level of the directly observable. The thesis that all existing societies are based on a common, universal structure (regardless of fluctuating, changing social realities) can, in his opinion, be substantiated primarily in myths, since these are known to every population. These subconscious categories of our mind are made up of binary opposing pairs. Man tries unsuccessfully to overcome these pairs of opposites that exist everywhere. It is precisely here that he sees the function of myths: They represent the opposites that we perceive, but which we know are insurmountable. In the myths we confess their existence. By depicting the insurmountable primal conflicts of human beings, one comes close to the constants and fundamentals of human nature.

In addition to the methodological objections of the critics of Lévi-Strauss, his opponents primarily criticize this universal claim, as the points of criticism listed under point 5 of the housework will show.

However, in order to first give a little insight into the history of structuralism, I will examine the relationships between structuralism and linguistics, which show the basis of Lévi-Strauss' methodology.

In a next step I summarize the individual myth analysis based on the History of Asdiwal together. However, in order to grasp the entirety of a myth, all versions of a myth must be analyzed and put in relation to one another. I explain this process in the fourth chapter of my term paper, where I will also go into the transformation process of one of the versions before I finish with the critics' interpretations.

II. Main part

1. The history of structuralism

The position of anthropology in research into myths was characterized by abstinence. There were no constructive new findings. Research into the ethnology of religion was much more active. The founders of the ethnology of religion Tylor, Frazer and Durkheim were the first to include the mind-psychological aspect in their analysis. In general, however, the ethnology of religion did not bring in any new knowledge. The outdated interpretive approaches were still predominant: Myths represent dreams of the old collective consciousness, historical figures are deified or vice versa. The cosmological and naturalistic interpretations understand the myth as an attempt to explain the people to explain astronomical or naturalistic phenomena that are not understandable1. A third variant of interpretation is represented by the representatives of the sociological and psychological approach: the myths are to be seen as a reflex of the social structure and the social relationship. According to this thesis, myths are based on suppressed, repressed feelings. There must now be means of making these true feelings clear through myth. It is precisely at this point that the old findings differ from those of Lévi-Strauss2.

His thesis seeks the basis of the myths elsewhere. In his opinion, the order of events in a myth is not subject to any rule, the order seems to be arbitrary. Every subject of a myth can be assigned any predicate. Yet the myths must have a common ground, something that all myths in the world have in common. However, these cannot be collectively shared repressed, repressed feelings. At this point, one comes to the initial question, which is the impetus for Lévi-Strauss' research into myths: the subjects and predicates seem to be arbitrarily interchangeable, but what is significant is that the same character traits and events can be found in the most diverse myths from all parts of the world are. So why are the myths so similar in the world when the content appears randomly? Why are myths in the world recognized as such by everyone? This commonality can certainly not be found on the purely linguistic level or through superficial interpretations.

Lévi-Strauss found an analytical method in linguistics that he hoped would provide answers to these questions. In contrast to anthropology, the linguistics and natural sciences recorded great successes in development at this time. Basically, the linguistic approach was not a new or revolutionary idea. Most of the theories of the predecessors of structuralism were based on knowledge of the linguistics. In the following chapter, I shall explain what an important basis the linguists and, above all, the spiritual father of the structural analysis of language Saussure provided for the work of Lévi-Strauss.

2. Parallels with linguistics

I have already indicated that the linguistic findings have often had an impact on the ethnology of religion throughout history. A short summary provides a rough overview of the development of this knowledge: In ancient times it was still assumed that certain groups of sounds correspond to certain meanings. This thesis was later replaced by the following: The meaning of language is not directly linked to the sounds themselves, but depends on the combination of the sounds. Like Lévi-Strauss, for example, C.G. Young3 Parallels between his analysis of myths and the prevailing language skills at the time: Jung advocated the thesis that certain mythological topics, so-called archetypes, were afflicted with precise meanings. For comparison, an analogous thesis in linguistics: Different sounds have a natural affinity for this or that meaning (according to this, for example, liquid half-vowels are reminiscent of more liquid matter).

Since there is a similar relationship between structuralism and linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure is also considered the spiritual father of structuralism: he defines language as a system of signs. The task of the structuralists is to describe the structure of the linguistic sign as well as the relations that exist between signs on the different levels of the linguistic system and to work out general laws of human language. In order to encounter these structures, one has to distinguish between two language levels: ´langue` and ´parole`. ´Langue` denotes the system of signs of a language, ´parole`, on the other hand, is the use of language, i.e. what is ´spoken`.

What does this mean when applied to myth analysis? Myth is first and foremost a component of language, it is known to us through language, it is hung with speech. But just as myth is related to language, it is also beyond language. Language has two levels, a structural (reversible time) and a static (no longer reversible). Myths refer both to the past (structural structure): “Before the creation of time”, “A long time ago”, as well as to a static structure, a permanent structure that relates equally to the past, present and future. Lévi-Strauss goes one step further than Ferdinand de Saussure, he distinguishes a third level, the character of the absolute object. To introduce this level, he introduces the example of poetry: poetry is difficult to translate into other languages, but if you translate it, it is always deformed. The value of a myth, on the other hand, always remains; a myth is recognized as such throughout the world.

So it belongs to the order of language, it forms the integral part, but the language in myth shows specific properties. These properties can only be above the normal level, they are of a more complex nature.

In summary one can say that the myth consists of constitutive units, similar to the language structure. These sub-units assume the presence of units that are normally present in the structure of language: phonemes, morphemes and semantemes. The elements that make up a myth are large constitutive units. Every constitutive unit is by its nature a relationship.

I have hereby explained the external structure of a myth, but how is this implemented in practical myth analysis? I explain the analysis of a single myth in the next section.

3. The individual myth analysis

The first step in the analysis is to isolate and compare the levels in the myth. Each sentence of a myth is written on a card. Each card has a predicate assigned to a subject. However, this step first shows the synchronous aspect. In order to work out the diachronic aspect, these units have to be connected to one another. Lévi-Strauss compares this to reading an orchestral score: the notes read from left to right result in the melody (synchronized). In order to grasp and understand the song as a whole, one must also compare the end with the beginning of the score (diachronic). Individual groups of grades do not make sense on their own. Lévi-Strauss therefore comes to the conclusion that the real units of the myth are not isolated relationships, but rather bundles of relationships and that these only have a meaningful function in the form of combinations of such bundles. Consequently, a myth must not only be read from left to right, i.e. in order, but the elements must be linked to one another, i.e. read vertically.

By following these steps, the myth of Asdiwal breaks down4 in 4 levels: geographical, economic, sociological and cosmological level.
1. Geographical level: This includes real sites and populations, places and their inhabitants are real.
2. Economic level: This level is just as real as the geographical level. The winter famine, the time of the "candle fish" and the "salmon", are real events in the life of the Tsimshian Indians.
3. Sociological level: Usually the lineage of the Indians is matrilineal and the place of residence is patrilinear. This rule is broken several times in this myth. A second aspect to be assigned to this level is that the myth begins with the union of mother and daughter and ends with the union of father and son.
4. Cosmological level: Here two opposites can be recognized: Asdiwal's ´real` wanderings compared to his ´natural` journeys. In addition, there is another insight: the first supernatural journey results in a matrilocal marriage with a maximized exogamous distance (“earthly” with “heavenly”). In the second supernatural journey this tendency is neutralized again, the woman is separated from her brothers, the hero from his wife, her son from his mother, only the relationship between father and son remains.

The apparent result here is that the first and second levels correspond to reality, the fourth level is outside of reality, and the third level eventually mixes reality and imagination. Lévi-Strauss claims that the natives do not recognize this intermingling. Thus, the myth seems to provide all the codes that the natives need depending on their circumstances. The question arises as to which messages are transmitted. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss delves deeper into the analysis. Just as we find the contrast between reality and imaginity here, there are other obvious pairs of opposites in the following section of the analysis, starting with the initial situation:

Mother Daughter

older - younger

downstream - upstream west - east

South - north

Since the meeting of mother and daughter takes place halfway, the patrilocality is neutralized and a matrilocality is realized.

Asdiwal's first adventure creates another pair of opposites: heaven - earth. The hero can initially overcome this contradiction with supernatural help, but ultimately fails because he cannot shed his earthly roots. A number of unresolved opposites arise:

down up

Earth - heaven man - woman

Endogamy - exogamy

It is the same with Asdiwal's second marriage: hunting in the mountains - hunting in the sea

Earth - water

These opposites are also insurmountable. The insurmountability of opposites plays an elementary role in the structural analysis of myths, as will be shown in the course of the work. Although the opposites are insurmountable, their terms converge, as can be seen if one takes a more differentiated look at the various levels listed above. In addition, one looks at the adventures of Asdiwal with his brothers-in-law when hunting. Previously, the hunt took place either on the water or on the ground, but now it takes place at the same time (on the cliff on the sea). Previously, he and his brothers-in-law tread opposing paths, now they are going together. His brothers-in-law leave him humiliated and alone on the cliff. Asdiwal, a being tied to the earth, is at the westernmost point of its travels. This on the geographical and economic level, on the spatial level, its failure shows a maximum distance in relation to its starting point. On the logical level he has also failed, since he embarrasses his brothers-in-law by his unabashed use of his magical objects. This although the contrast between hunting at sea and hunting at sea is reduced to a minimum there. His failure becomes all the more evident when one keeps in mind that Asdiwal, the “mountain conqueror” sits helplessly on a cliff, the bear-slayer is rescued by a mouse, which forces him on an underground journey. To exacerbate this situation, according to Lévi-Strauss, the mouse would only have to transform into a woman and marry him. It is known that the mouse is a fairy among the Indians of this region and that it is an incapable of procreation, that is to say an ´reversed´ woman. Ultimately, this episode even causes Asdiwal to heal animals instead of killing them, and his rescue in the seal's stomach ends his journey to the west, which from now on runs east. When he returns to his home environment, he loses his life due to wrongdoing, where he is petrified and reduced to his "earthy nature".

According to Lévi-Strauss, this analysis was still too superficial to work out the codes that encode the actual message of the myth. So he introduces a new term: schemes. The schemes lie on an even deeper level of the myth and are further separated from the pure sequence of events of the myth. These schemes are superimposed and organized simultaneously. Lévi-Strauss compares this to a polyphonic melody5. This sequence of events, as they are told chronologically, the sequences, no longer play a role in the subsequent analysis. The terminology of the schemes reminds us strongly of the previous levels.

First to the geographical scheme:
1. Geographical scheme: Asdiwal first travels from east to west and back again. According to the seasonal conditions of this region, it also migrates from south to north and from north to south6.
2. Cosmological scheme: This deals with the three supernatural visits of Asdiwals: The end of Asdiwals neutralizes the middle mediation, which was successful through Asdiwal's birth, but which did not enable him to mediate between the two extremes: heaven - earth, sea - Country, east - west. Both of the previous schemes are integrated in the following:
3. Integration scheme: This scheme shows the binary, insurmountable opposites with which Asdiwal is confronted [see ibid.]: The starting and ending opposites are "vertical" and belong to the cosmological scheme. The middle contrasts (water - earth, hunting on the sea - hunting on land) are "horizontal" and belong to the geographical scheme.
The last contrast (summit - valley) connects the two previous schemes: it is vertical in its form but geographical in its content. Asdiwal's failure has three meanings: geographical, cosmological and logical. The complementary character of the three schemes can be seen if one reduces the outline and only looks at the order and amplitude of the opposites:
Scheme 1 consists of a series of oscillations of constant amplitude: East - West - South - East.
Scheme 2 is based on a zero point and then continues in an oscillation with medium amplitude in oscillations of maximum amplitude, which come to rest at the zero point.
The third scheme begins with an oscillation of maximum amplitude, which attenuates in a series of oscillations of medium amplitude7.
4. Sociological scheme: the initially patrilocal residence is followed by the matrilocal residence, which changes from the initially murderous to the hostile. This hostile abode then weakens and finally turns into its opposite and ends in the patrilocal abode. In contrast to the geographical scheme, this scheme does not have a closed structure: the scheme begins with mother and daughter and ends with father and son8.
5. Technical-economic scheme: This scheme begins with a famine, then follows the seasonal life cycle and ends in a productive hunt: famine - candle fishing - salmon fishing - productive hunt.
6. Global Integration: This is the last scheme listed. If you now correlate the beginning of the myth with the end of the myth, the following opposites result:

female Male

East - west above - below

Famine abundance

Motion immobility

In summary, Lévi-Strauss has the different levels from the myth

(geographical, sociological, cosmological and economic) and assigned thematic events. This step led to the conclusion that the myth consists of insurmountable pairs of opposites. In order to make the structure of the myths visible, however, he distinguished between the individual codes (geographical, cosmological, integrative, sociological and technical-economic scheme) that make up the myth and that convey the actual message. What is the content of this message?

In order to grasp the entirety of a myth, it is essential to include all versions of a myth. Here, however, it is necessary to pay equal attention to all versions. According to Lévi-Strauss, this method avoids the previous problem that researchers have had to look for an authentic and original version, for a primordial myth. He is of the opinion that motifs that are not identical, as they appear in different versions, for which examples are given below, do not change the correlate of the myth, but on the contrary confirm it.

4. The myth comparison

For the comparison, Lévi-Strauss uses a mythical version by Franz Boas from 19169. Since this myth also contains a son of Asdiwal (Waux) in addition to the characters we know, it seems at first glance that this version is an addition to the one discussed above. But in the further course of this version it becomes clear that the following sequences and schemes are both homologous but also more explicit than these. It seems as if the sequences at the end of the myth approximate the schemes.

But first to the obvious differences and transformations of these two versions: First of all, it is noticeable that Asdiwal only had one son in contrast to his son Waux, whose wife has twins. If there was only one mediator in the version analyzed first, a pair of dioscurs appears in this version. For the North American Indians, the Dioscuri couple combines opposites without limiting their individual character (in contrast to the Messiah who unites them and the trickster who puts them next to each other). This weakening is exacerbated by the fact that the twins die quickly without fulfilling any function in the events of the myth.

A further weakening can be found in the mediation instruments. Waux spear is actually a more powerful tool than Asdiwal's snowshoes. Asdiwal's snowshoes can conquer mountains, while Waux Speer can split mountains. But it is still a weakening, since Waux dies despite the stronger mediation instrument. The weaker mediator loses the stronger mediating instrument, so its effectiveness is doubly diminished. This “new” version made it possible to develop an aspect that was not or could not be taken into account before.

Another difference cannot be overlooked if one takes a closer look at the nutritional aspect. Waux's wife dies of overcrowding at the end of the myth. The "original" myth begins with Asdiwal's starving mother. Because of her hunger, she leaves her village and makes her way to her mother. Hunger makes them move. The overcrowding of Waux's wife makes her freeze in contrast to Asdiwal's mother. Ultimately, however, both are equally “paralyzed”.

In the opening sequences we see two women outside of a pairing (unmarried) who were not nourished and in motion, in the closing sequence of the second version we see a married couple, the man a breadwinner (not understood) and a woman who was too nourished (because she didn't understand her husband).

However, Lévi-Strauss sees the marriage of the two heroes as the most important transformation. It is therefore advisable to anticipate a few things in the following analysis. This aspect shows the relationship between myth and reality. Because here parting, the views of Franz Boas and Lévi-Strauss diverge strongly. Boas saw in myths an image of real society. According to Lévi-Strauss, on the other hand, the myth is related to reality, but it is not a representation. So it is also possible that the opposite of reality is represented.

Now first back to the analysis: Asdiwal marries several times in his life, without exception every marriage fails (he is abandoned, he leaves his wife or he cannot choose between his “heavenly” wife and a compatriot). Waux, on the other hand, has only one wife who is loyal to him, but who brings him no luck because she dies because of her. Asdiwal meets his wives in the course of his adventures, and Waux is married. It is an arranged wedding with his cousin, the daughter of his mother's brother.

Lévi-Strauss is working on this aspect more intensively. It is of great importance for the distinction between structural myth analysis and others (such as those mentioned under point 1). Boas assumes that the myths are based on an image of real society. For this it is important to compare the marriages and marriages represented in the myth with the "ideal" marriage of the Tsimshian Indians.

4.1. Myth as a representation of reality?

The preferred lineage of the Tsimshian Indians was the matrilineal10. The children grow up patrilocally, but if they wanted to inherit the hunting grounds and titles they had to get in touch with their mother's brother. It was therefore considered ideal for the son to marry his cousin, the daughter of the mother's brother. This system solved two problems: firstly, it kept the inheritance (hunting grounds, titles, etc.) in the close family circle, and secondly, it was able to neutralize a conflict between the donor family and the recipient family. “Giver” and “taker” refer to the view that a marriage between two families is a barter: one party takes (the object of barter is the woman), the other gives. The family that gives inevitably assumes that they will later get a wife back for it. While this is not completely guaranteed, it creates a relative balance as every family sooner or later comes into this situation. The North American Indians did not want to accept this balance. Lévi-Strauss quotes an informant Franz Boas'11according to which chiefs married their daughters to their nephews so that he could succeed him. This marriage is said to have been realized under duress. Finally, both families of the bride and groom set in motion and fought against each other. The resulting scars are said to have represented the contract. Both barter transactions, where the latter is more radical, refer not only to the exchange of women, but also to the exchange of goods (titles, hunting grounds, chief positions). Each exchange changed the relationship between superiority and inferiority and was at the same time a way of eliminating older conflicts. Why the Tsimshian Indians get a rather bloody picture of this marriage arrangement and cannot decide on this form, Lévi-Strauss tries through another Tsimshian myth12 to represent.

These insurmountable contradictions, which determine the thinking of the Tsimshian Indians, show up not only in the contradictions that exist in the form of marriage, but on all levels that Lévi-Strauss differentiated in his analysis (geographical, sociological, economic, cosmological) . The contrasts of these levels are, however, adjusted to the antimony of the unsuccessful attempt to overcome the "cousin marriage". This, according to Lévi-Strauss, confesses the myths and that is their function. To make this clear he goes back to the opening sequence:

The husbands of the two initial heroines die from the famine. They leave their patrilocal residence, meet halfway and return to the younger woman's home village. Your son grows up in a patrilocal residence. The lack of food is thus related to the export of the daughters and, if there is a lack of food, they return to their line of origin. The disappearing food is vividly illustrated in the myth by the migration of the candle fish and the salmon. These fish come out of the sea from the west and south and move east up the river. Similar to this event, Asdiwal's mother continues her migration towards the west and sea, where Asdiwal enters into his first marriage with a heavenly being.

Food plays a major role in this aspect, so Lévi-Strauss goes into this point in more detail13. This sequence also includes the correlation between the feminine heavens and the masculine earth: Asdiwal is fished up by a she-bear who lures him into the sky. In myths, the bear is often called the salmon fisherman. Like a salmon, Asdiwal is fished up by the she-bear and later by the sun (when Asdiwal dies). The comparison Asdiwal equals food also appears on his second supernatural journey, the journey into the subterranean realm of the seals. It makes the journey in the stomach, like food (like the candle fish), of an animal. This time Asdiwal's journey is in the opposite direction, from west to east and not from east to west, like the declining food. This change is accompanied by a change of residence: the residence is no longer matrilocal but patrilocal. His position changes from earth, male, ruled, to earth, male, ruling. But the patrilocal residence does not work either, he gets his son back, but loses his wife and her relatives. With the change of direction, not only did the type of residence change, but food also returned. With the return of food, he has lost his freedom of movement, since the hunger that previously caused movement no longer exists. Instead came the abundance and thus the paralysis (Asdiwal petrified, because he can no longer return home due to the forgotten magical snowshoes.). Lévi-Strauss sees this as the reason for Waux's marriage to his matrilateral cousin. The Tsimshian Indians saw this as the last chance to overcome the contradictions of their society. But even this possibility is in vain, the Waux marriage fails due to a misunderstanding between the married couple and the forgetting Waux (who does not have his magic spear with him on the hunt). Although he has managed to stay with his maternal relatives and at the same time keep his father's inheritance and the inheritance of his mother's family, he and his cross cousins ​​remain strangers. The marriage of cross cousins ​​is a palliative and a mistake in a feudal society. In these societies you exchange your wives, but you also fight for goods.

As one could see, the myth does not represent the real marriage institution of the Tsimshians. The opposite is more the case: neither Waux's paternal inheritance nor Asdiwal's matrilocal marriages represent reality. It therefore seems that the myths represent the opposite of reality whenever a negative truth is involved. The Tsimshian do not try to portray the real marriage institution, but to justify their poor condition. The extremes described (Waux Erbe and Asdiwals' matrilocal marriages) only show that they are untenable. They show that there is an insurmountable contradiction in the practice of marriage. This statement is representative of all representations in the myth.

The myth represents the insurmountable primal conflicts of the people. Consequently, the myth can serve less as an ethnographic source. Lévi-Strauss therefore sees myths more as a means of reaching into the unconscious categories of human beings. To deepen the evidence, he goes back to his analysis and looks at the relationship between Asdiwal's residence and travel. Asdiwal's travels were always related to residence: the journey from east to west was shaped by the matrilocalism. The return from west to east was accompanied by a return to patrilocalism. The direction from west to east is therefore the only real one. This aspect is supported by Asdiwal's return to his element, his earth and his place of birth. At the beginning of the myth he was the breadwinner when he set out on the journey to the west, the direction of the migrating fish. Finally, when it travels in the seal's stomach (in the opposite direction) it is automatically identified with food and at the same time moves in the direction that food returns annually.

The question arises as to what significance the west - east direction has for the Tsimshian. If one compares this direction with the way of the salmon and the candle fish, who undertake this migration every year, one might wonder whether this is not also the direction that the Tsimshians have to take in order to get a concrete picture of their social reality . If you do this, don't you compare them to fish? Lévi-Strauss found various rites and myths on this, which underpin his hypothesis14. All the rites and prohibitions seem to aim at making the relationship between humans and fish "immediate", that is, that all human cultural achievements (such as knives) are not allowed. The only real relationship between fish and humans is food. This relationship can neither be changed nor exceeded its limits. There are only two alternatives: either you eat like salmon even though you are human or you eat salmon even though they are like human beings15. The second alternative is the right one if one observes the rites of fishing and their preparation. Those who identify with the first alternative are either transformed into a root like the prince in Boaz's myth or petrified like Asdiwal. He was condemned to immobility and irrevocably connected to the earth. If one starts from an initial situation that is characterized by non-suppressible movement, but which turns into final lifelessness in the final sequence, one can say that the myth in its own way brings with it a fundamental aspect of indigenous philosophy. Above all, the lack of food is posited and everything that has gone before suggests that Asdiwal as the breadwinner consists in a negation of this absence, which is anything but presence. When the presence has finally been attained from the aspect of Asdiwal equal to food and no more than food, it ends in a state of lifelessness.

But now to the last problem:

4.2. Attenuation and transformation in the wet version

At this point I come to the last analysis point of the work. On the last few pages, two versions of the myths were analyzed in comparison. These were two mythical versions of the Skeena. In the following, a myth of the wet region, which takes place on the Skeena River, will be included in the analysis16. If you look at this version of the myths, it seems to be poorer or swapped in some sequences compared to the previously edited versions. Lévi-Strauss begins by listing the similarities and the transformed, i.e. changed, elements of this version with the previous ones. The myth begins similarly in both versions: it's winter, a famine breaks out, and two related women decide to band together over the famine. But there are already some differences:

Action location Nass Skeena

State of the river? frozen over

Situation of the two villages a little distant "very distant"

Relationship of the sisters mother and daughter

both women

Personal condition 1 Married 2 widows

1 unmarried

All contrasts in the wet version are weakened. The Skeena version is about mother and daughter who live further apart like the sisters in the wet version. These sisters differentiate themselves only through older-younger sister and are not as spatially separated from one another as mother and daughter. Mother and daughter suffer a radical blow, their husbands both die. All that is known of the sisters is that one is unmarried and the other is married, although it is not known where her husband is.

That the wet version is a weakening of the Skeena version and not a reinforcement is made clear by the transfer of the mother-daughter relationship (at least remnants of it) into the wet version. The elder of the sisters is the mother of a daughter who accompanies them. The function of this relationship is not relevant in this version of the Mythos. This statement results in the following scheme:

a) [mother: daughter]:: [(mother + daughter): non-mother]

The constant element here is the contrast between retrospective and prospective fertility.

But in comparison to this contrast, far stronger reversals can be seen. In the Skeena version, for example, the daughter, the younger, comes from above and the mother from below. In the wet version it is exactly the opposite, the younger, unmarried sister comes from below and the older sister from above. Another example is the supplies that the women had available in the opening sequence. The women in the Skeena version have nothing but a rotten berry, the women in the wet version have a handful of berries and spawn:

Skeena version: O rotten berry O

Wet version: berries spawn

It should be added that putrefaction in this culture is considered to be the boundary between food and excrement. The food of the two women of the Skeena version therefore has a very low nutritional value qualitatively (because it is rotten) and quantitatively (because only one berry). The berry is therefore more associated with a lack of food than with the type of food. The women are thus associated with lack of food. In the myth, however, they are also connected with the east or the west, with the earth or the sea. Within the myth there is a similar contrast, hunters in the mountains - hunters on the sea, which is also associated with the same cardinal points and the elements. There is consequently a twofold contrast between animal food - vegetable food and marine animals (west) - land animals (east). This can be illustrated as follows:

Vegetable food: center not marked

Animal food (sea) (earth) marked

(West East)

Converted into a formula analogous to a) it looks like this: b) [earth: sea]:: [(sea + earth): middle]

In the wet version we find weakened opposites. The women in the wet version have little food, both vegetable and animal. So vegetable food is no longer so opposed to animal food. The food itself is better than that in the Skeena version, both qualitatively and quantitatively. One must, however, note that animal food is available in the smallest possible form, namely fish and not meat, it is fish spawn and not fish and only a small amount, i.e. a finger-thick piece, is available. There is therefore a weakly marked contrast:

Sea earth

West weakly marked east

Vegetable food contrasts with animal food

(relatively more abundant) (relatively sparse)

These two variants can be summarized in one formula:

C1) [(- meat) - (fish)]:: [dx (meat + fish): dx (vegetable food)] The unit dx, which stands for small quantity, can also be omitted:

C2) [meat: fish]:: [(meat + fish): (vegetable food) (meat and fish make up the animal food here)

Here, too, we can see the similarities between the individual formulas a, b, c.

The diet of women in the wet version consists of berries (which one woman who comes from downstream brings) and spawn (which is brought from upstream). The spawn is an animal product from the river, the berries a vegetable food from the earth. Berries are usually found on the banks of the river. The transition from one version to the other realizes the following transformation:

d) [West: East]:: [Sea: Earth):: [Water: Mainland]:: [River: Shore]

The river-bank opposition is not only a weakening of the fundamental antinomies such as east-west, mainland-water or the strongest sea-earth opposition, but it is also a function of the latter opposition. If one looks at the contrast between bank and river inland, it is stronger than in the coastal regions. Here the sea has priority over the river in the water category and the coast has priority over the river bank in the earth category. The following formula results upstream:

d) [water: mainland]:: [river: shore)

Downstream, on the other hand, there is a different formula because the perspective changes:

e) [water: mainland]:: [sea: (river + shore)]

(here the sum of river and water is exchanged with the earth)

In summary, there is a common formula: f) [earth: water]:: [(river + shore): sea]

This formula could be summarized from the formulas d and e, which in turn were comparable with the formulas a, b and c.

It became apparent how a myth transformation (from Skeena to the Nass version) can express equivalences although it initially appears extremely different. In fact, in the last stage of the transformation, the position takes on plant-based, i.e. earthly food, while the position takes on animal food, since it consists of fish spawn and is river food, i.e. water food. The two women, in their connection from older to younger, are thus interchanged in a coherent way with regard to the below and the above17.

In the Skeena version, the weak contrast between river and bank (the river is frozen over, can be walked on) is neutralized in favor of the strong contrast between sea and earth.

In the wet version, the stronger contrast (sea-earth) is neutralized by weakening and reversing in favor of the weaker contrast (river bank)18.

A very similar transformation can be found when one looks at the supernatural protector. In the Skeena version it only supplies the women with meat in increasing quantities, in the wet version, on the other hand, it supplies both meat and fish in large quantities. In the Skeena version, the food supply only increases in Asdiwal's third marriage, where he and his brothers-in-law sell salmon and meat. This condition is only temporary.

The situation is different with the magical objects that both Asdiwal and Asihwil receive from their father. In the Skeena myth, the magical objects are immediately usable and perfected, in the wet myth, on the other hand, the objects must first be perfected.

One thing in common is the end sequence, both heroes return from east to west, like the recurring food. Both travel back to land in the seals' bowels. But Asdiwal, unlike Asi-hwil (as he is called in the wet version), who travels in the intestine, travels back in the stomach. Lévi-Strauss suspects here that food in the intestine can be associated with advanced putrefaction19. Putrefaction is more of an ending theme in the wet version than a starting theme, as is the case in the Skeena version (the rotten berries that are the food in the opening sequence).

Lévi-Strauss finally adds that the candle fish, which represents security against famine, must be put through to rotting during its preparation, otherwise the candle fish would not return because it would feel humiliated.

This section of the structural myth analysis not only proved the existence of weakenings and transformations, as they can occur between two myth versions of two regions (here between Nass and Skeena), but also explained their connection. As an example, Lévi-Strauss explained how a mythological transformation can express itself through a sequence of equivalences, although both extremes appear radically reversed. One final question remained open: How do these reversals come about? Where does it come from?

Lévi-Strauss found an answer in the different geographical locations in which the myth originated. The wet region is geographically located in the north of the Skeena region.

In order to get married in a foreign land, the hero of the wet version goes to the Skeena area and the hero of the Skeena version goes to the wet area. Each population spontaneously forms inversely symmetrical images of the same country. Each region is automatically associated with its economic activities that are related to the respective river: that is, the Skeena with the salmon and the wet with the migration of the candlefish20. As we have already seen, the reversal of the correlations themselves is a function of a general weakening of all opposites. A simple replacement of the north by the south and vice versa is not the only decisive point here.

In general, the people of Skeena and Nass share almost the same language and have the same social order. But the way of life is very different from one another. The inhabitants of the Skeena have to wander back and forth between Skeena and Nass, depending on the season, in order to ensure their food supply. This is not known of the people of the wet. The migrations of this population seem to have been limited to the wet (they only appear to have migrated to the wet estuary). The Skeena population thus inhabited both valleys, whereas the wet population only inhabited the Wet Valley. Both populations therefore probably know the contrast between candlefish and salmon. But this contrast is not of equal importance for both populations. The people of the Skeena had to live with it, the people of the wet only knew this change, but did not have to conform to it in their lives.

At this point Lévi-Strauss comes to what, in his opinion, is a fundamental characteristic of mythical thought. This example of myths can be found again in other myths in other places.

His thesis is that if a mythical theme passes from one population to another and there are difficulties in language and social organization between the two populations, then the original version of the myth will become impoverished and unclear. This was the case when the myth of the Skeena switched to the myth of the wet because the communication was inconsistent. Through his previous analysis, Lévi-Strauss believes that he has overcome this difficulty. Because, he argues, when communication is reduced to a minimum, the situation is reversed and everything becomes clearly recognizable again. A comparison with the optics should make this clear: A light beam that falls through an appropriate opening is correctly perceived as an image. If, on the other hand, the opening becomes smaller, the image becomes almost unrecognizable. However, shortly before it is no longer visible, because it is reduced to a tiny point, it suddenly becomes clear again.

5. Criticism of the structures of myth research

In view of such an extensive and revolutionary research approach, a wide range of criticism was inevitable. If you look at the amount of myth analyzes by Lévi- Strauss (from the collection of myths Mythologiques apart from that) compares with the works that others have written about him, the latter are in the majority. It is not very surprising, however. Such a complex thesis also offers a lot of attack surface.

In this chapter I mainly refer to Michael Opitz21 and Edmund Leachs'22 Summary back. Since the range of critics and their content is very large, I unfortunately cannot go into all of the criticisms at this point. The following points of criticism are intended to give an overview of the most common.

Michael Opitz divides the criticism approaches into three fields: methodological, philosophical and general textual criticism. But first to the text criticism:

Text reviews:

These criticisms are directed at the analytical material to which Lévi-Strauss falls back. The myths that Lévi-Strauss deals with are for the most part not originals but retellings by ethnologists (such as Franz Boas) in European languages. These retellings are often short versions of the original. These are interventions that make it difficult to understand to what extent the original has been defaced and ultimately only represent the intent of the interpreter23. This is first

a fact. However, it can be argued that it would be an impossible task for an anthropologist to translate all the myths himself (especially if one considers the extensive collection of myths by Lévi-Strauss).

Lévi-Strauss also objects that a myth is essentially shaped by the story that is being told and less by the linguistic form it has. A translation can therefore convey the essential traits that are necessary for an analysis. If one assumes a transformative character of the myth, a myth is always a translation anyway.

Methodological objections:

A widespread accusation relates to the abstraction of the translations of myths into mathematical-logical formulas24. Lévi-Strauss has reformulated the myths in an egocentric way. Here, too, Opitz cites arguments that in a certain way weaken this criticism. According to Opitz, social science models always abstract reality to a certain extent. Abstractions generally serve as a means of expressing knowledge in a short and understandable manner, which otherwise can only be said tautologically. Therefore, according to Lévi-Strauss, it is even dangerous and unhistorical to want to play off fundamentally different types of thinking against one another.

Apart from the strong abstraction through mathematical-logical formulas, these formulas themselves are criticized because they are not used in their usual use. Here, too, it can be objected that Lévi-Strauss does not fall back on these formulas without prior explanation. He warns readers not to take these mathematical formulas too seriously, as they are more of a kind of shorthand to summarize what has been said. Furthermore, these formulas themselves are not evidence, as the evidence is provided in language25.

The last methodological objection raised by Opitz relates to the myth system itself. On the one hand, Lévi-Strauss claims that the myths and their analysis cannot be concluded, i.e. can be continued indefinitely; on the other hand, Lévi-Strauss repeatedly refers to the closed system of the myth. Lévi-Strauss refers here to the distinction he made from Saussure between ´langue` and ´parole`. The speech (´parole`) of the myth is always open and incomplete, its language (´langue`), on the other hand, forms a closed system.

Ultimately, the philosophical objections are still missing:

Philosophical objections: According to Opitz, these more general objections are mostly raised by the humanistic Canto26. Lévi-Strauss is accused of transforming the living substance of myth into a dead form in which people's emotional lives are neglected. This is the nostalgic mysticism of scientists who can perceive a meaning behind a myth but cannot explicitly name it, so the objection Lévi-Strauss.

Last but not least, Opitz gives more general criticisms from an ethnological and anthropological point of view27. D.H. Salmann, for example, doubts whether it is possible to turn individual myths that come from a delimited, sociological, economic and geographical milieu into myths per se. For him there are only myths, no the Myth par excellence28.

Leach. 1971. pp. 61f.

Leach's objections also tend in the same direction. He cannot make friends with the idea of ​​the human spirit, since it is an over-empirical quantity. The criticisms directed against the concept of transformation are more concrete29. They assume that transformations are an invention of the researcher and are not embedded in the myths themselves. Certainly, so Opitz, one can assume that the population writing a myth does not know anything about the similarities in other myths of other populations. However, this is not yet proof that the transformations do not exist. These objections refer to even more fundamental criticisms: even if the transformations, as Lévi-Strauss presents them in his Mythologiques, are understandable, they say nothing about the converted myths themselves.The Lévi-Strauss method does not take into account the question of the social function of a myth. One can, however, ask the question whether the fact that one myth transforms another does not itself have a social function?

Opitz precedes this question with the following questions: If every myth does indeed irrevocably refer to another, how can this myth be restricted to the meaning that lies within itself? What justification remains for the individual analysis when the transformative character of the mythical system has been proven? This is a contradiction between two statements, which can also be expressed in the opposite way: If one believes that one can prove that a single myth can be fully explained from itself and its ethnographic context, why do we need the concept of transformation? between the myths? Opitz is of the opinion that a constructive development in the analysis of myths must face these questions.

At this point I have to note that in this chapter Opitz goes into further points of criticism even more explicitly, but explaining them would go beyond the scope of this work.

As already mentioned, the reviews include extensive work. The extent to which these criticisms come closer to the truth than Lévi-Strauss' structural analysis of myths depends on the individual point of view, whether one considers it to be pure speculation or whether one can infer more from it. So I close this chapter with a quote from Edmund Leach30by drawing parallels between Freud's psychoanalysis and Lévi-Strauss' structural analysis of myths. Leach notes that Lévi-Strauss' remarks are just as fascinating to read as Freund's interpretation of dreams. Both works sound so convincing at first glance that one assumes at first that they have to be correct. But there are doubts about both. However: >> If Freud's entire considerations about the symbolic connections and the layers of the conscious, unconscious and subconscious were completely wrong - one could ever to provethat they are wrong? '' Assuming that this is not possible, one must also admit that it is not certain whether Freud's theories will ever be anything more than speculation. Therefore one can neither agree with absolute certainty nor clearly refute Lévi-Strauss' structural analysis of myths.

III. Enough

Unfortunately, this housework could not go into detail on all aspects of structural myth analysis, as it would have become too large. Above all, the history of structuralism and its demarcation from other theories should be examined more intensively. Saussure's structural linguistics contain such a large number of details, which in turn can be found in Lévi Strauss' works, that there are so many works on them. As revolutionary as Lévi-Strauss' access to the results of linguistics may appear at first glance, at second glance it is only a continuation of the tradition (such as Jung, for example).

In his opinion, only the methodology of linguistics could bring out the structures inherent in all things. The distinction between the various language levels is decisive for this: `static`,` structural` level and the level of the `` character of the absolute object ''. At the last level, the myth stands out from the integral part of the language and moves to a higher level.

The myth itself consists of constitutive units, the relationships between which create a bundle of relationships. So much for the external structure of the myth. The individual myth analysis differentiates the levels below the obvious: geographical, economic, sociological and cosmological level. What is significant here is that not all levels correspond to reality or mix with it. The pairs of opposites that can be established from this turn out to be insurmountable in the following analysis. These do not seem to be conscious to the natives, so they must consequently be encoded by codes which convey a message, a meaning, to the natives on the subconscious level of their minds. According to Lévi-Strauss, these codes can only be recognized by intensifying the analysis through a greater abstraction (schemes). The pure sequence of events in the story (sequences) is subordinate. Lévi-Strauss works out the following schemes: geographical, cosmological, integrative, technical-economic and global scheme. However, in order to work out the totality of the myth and the content of the myth, a comparison between the different versions of the myth is necessary. At first it appears as if the Myths versions cannot provide any further information, since they appear as a weakened and transformed version. However, this turns out to be wrong. The transformations and attenuations indicate aspects that were not or could not be noticed in the individual analysis. When one considers the different lifestyles of the populations that adopted the myths, these transformations confirm the previous results.

In a separate analysis, Lévi-Strauss focuses on the demarcation between reality and myth. In this point he differs greatly from the theses of other scholars who use myth as an ethnographic source. According to Lévi-Strauss, however, the Tsimshian Indians only deal with their reality and their possibilities in myths. Myths do not represent reality; their function is to deal with the insurmountable primal conflicts of humanity.

I have shown in the previous chapter that these theses by Lévi-Strauss did not meet with general approval and I do not want to go into the formal, methodical and philosophical approaches to criticism again at this point. To what extent his theories prove to be true remains to be seen. So I close my housework with a quote from Lévi-Strauss: << I have no illusions about the survival of my books. In thirty years my arguments will be completely out of date. >>


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. The structure of the myths. In Lévi-Strauss, Claude: Structural Anthropology I. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1959/1992. The story of Asdiwal. In Lévi-Strauss, Claude: Structural Anthropology II. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp, ​​169-224.

Leach, Edmund. 1971. Claude Lé vi-Strauss. Ed. Kermode, Frank, Modern theorists. Munich: dtv.

Oppitz, Michael. 1975. Necessary relationships. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp. 177-327.


1 please refer The natural myth school, Opitz. 1975, p. 180f.

2 see Lévi-Strauss, The structure of the myths, P.228. and Opitz, 1975, P.180ff.

3 Representatives of the natural myth school, see Opitz, 1975 p. 195f.

4 Lévi-Strauss, The story of Asdiwal, 1959/1992, p.175ff

5 see Lévi-Strauss. The story of Asdiwal, P. 186.

6 see scheme ibid. P. 187.

7 See scheme, Lévi-Strauss. The story of Asdiwal. 1959/1992. P.188

8 See scheme, Ibid. 189

9 Retelling see: The story of Asdiwal, 1959/1992, pp. 190f.

10 see The Story of Asdiwal, p. 194.

11 see The story of Asdiwal, pp. 195 f.

12 Ibid. P. 195.

13 Ibid. P. 198f.

14 see retelling The story of Asdiwal, 1959/1992, p. 171 1st section, p.202, 2nd section

15 Ibid., P. 202f

16 Ibid., Pp.204f

17 Please refer The story of Asdiwal, 1959/1992, p. 210, footnote 56

18 Ibid. P. 210, section 3

19 Ibid. P. 211,

20 see inserted myth Ibid. P. 212

21 Opitz, Michael. 1975. Necessary relationships.

22 Leach, Edmund. 1971. Modern theorists.

23 Opitz, 1975 p. 295.

24 Opitz. 1975. p. 297.

25 Ibid. 297f.

26 Ibid. 298f.

27 Ibid. 299f

28 see also Leach. 1971, p. 66

29 Opitz. 1975 p. 300

30 Leach, 1971, p. 59