The Structuralist Approach To Myth
Lévi-Strauss sees a basic paradox in the study of myth. On one hand, mythical stories are fantastic and unpredictable: the content of myth seems completely arbitrary. On the other hand, the myths of different cultures are surprisingly similar:
On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent, how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?
Lévi-Strauss proposed that universal laws must govern mythical thought and resolve this seeming paradox, producing similar myths in different cultures. Each myth may seem unique, but he proposed it is just one particular instance of a universal law of human thought. In studying myth, Lévi-Strauss tries "to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, and to attain a level at which a kind of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of liberty".
- elements that oppose or contradict each other and
- other elements that "mediate", or resolve, those oppositions.
For example, Lévi-Strauss thinks the trickster of many Native American mythologies acts as a "mediator". Lévi-Strauss's argument hinges on two facts about the Native American trickster:
- the trickster has a contradictory and unpredictable personality;
- the trickster is almost always a raven or a coyote.
Lévi-Strauss argues that the raven and coyote "mediate" the opposition between life and death. The relationship between agriculture and hunting is analogous to the opposition between life and death: agriculture is solely concerned with producing life (at least up until harvest time); hunting is concerned with producing death. Furthermore, the relationship between herbivores and beasts of prey is analogous to the relationship between agriculture and hunting: like agriculture, herbivores are concerned with plants; like hunting, beasts of prey are concerned with catching meat. Lévi-Strauss points out that the raven and coyote eat carrion and are therefore halfway between herbivores and beasts of prey: like beasts of prey, they eat meat; like herbivores, they don't catch their food. Thus, he argues, "we have a mediating structure of the following type":
By uniting herbivore traits with traits of beasts of prey, the raven and coyote somewhat reconcile herbivores and beasts of prey: in other words, they mediate the opposition between herbivores and beasts of prey. As we have seen, this opposition ultimately is analogous to the opposition between life and death. Therefore, the raven and coyote ultimately mediate the opposition between life and death. This, Lévi-Strauss believes, explains why the coyote and raven have a contradictory personality when they appear as the mythical trickster:
The trickster is a mediator. Since his mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.
Because the raven and coyote reconcile profoundly opposed concepts (i.e., life and death), their own mythical personalities must reflect this duality or contradiction: in other words, they must have a contradictory, "tricky" personality.
This theory about the structure of myth helps support Lévi-Strauss's more basic theory about human thought. According to this more basic theory, universal laws govern all areas of human thought:
If it were possible to prove in this instance, too, that the apparent arbitrariness of the mind, its supposedly spontaneous flow of inspiration, and its seemingly uncontrolled inventiveness laws operating at a deeper level if the human mind appears determined even in the realm of mythology, a fortiori it must also be determined in all its spheres of activity.
Out of all the products of culture, myths seem the most fantastic and unpredictable. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, if even mythical thought obeys universal laws, then all human thought must obey universal laws.
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... Ironically, the criticism of playing the trickster was leveled by some at Lévi-Strauss himself, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek ... Edmund Leach noted that "The outstanding characteristic of his writing, whether in French or English, is that it is difficult to understand his sociological theories combine baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition ...
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