Chapter 22

The Structural Study of Myth
Claude Levi-Strauss

While history tells us about specific events that happen in a society, myth provides an additional perspective: it describes the most fundamental ideas and ideals shared by a group. For Claude Levi-Strauss, it is the passing on of this message that forms the basis for each culture's storytelling. In his view, getting to the most complete message requires studying all possible versions of the myth (called a "cycle"), because each version contains at least some elements of the ideals people believe in.

This chapter describes Levi-Strauss' principles of structural analysis and illustrates his method for comparing stories to identify the cultural values of a group. Also in this chapter, Edmund Leach explains Levi-Strauss' theories, especially that of weighing apparent contradictions in various versions of a myth and coming to the point of finding an all-encompassing belief characteristic of the culture, for example, oppositions such as Nature versus Culture and Life versus Death. Levi-Strauss' interest is not so much in the oppositions themselves but in how the society, or the story, achieves a balance between them. Describing Levi-Strauss' use of the Oedipus story, Leach shows the interconnectedness of the versions and how they convey basic beliefs of the ancient Greeks.

Because Levi-Strauss focuses on achieving a balance between the fundamental oppositions found in myth, the trickster is very important to his structural study of myth. This chapter contains the first description of this figure found in a variety of cultures, including Native American (Chapter 23), Greek (Chapter 25), and African and African-American (Chapter 24). And finally, if you have not already done so, you may want to go back, after reading this chapter, to G. S. Kirk's application of Levi-Strauss' ideas to the Epic of Gilgamesh in Chapter 17.

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