Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Claude Lévi-Strauss, considered by many an inadequate anthropologist in the field but a brilliant “poetic” theorist, examined the myths of North, Central, and South America, finding in them an underlying common structure. He believed there exists a universal logic in the ways people divide and classify the perceived world and in the ways people use fundamental divisions by mapping them onto other areas of experience.

Summary of Event

Claude Lévi-Strauss is the premier anthropologist of a school known as structuralism. In 1964, he published Le Cru et le cuit, the first volume of his masterpiece, Mythologiques (1964-1971; Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 1969-1981). It appeared in English as The Raw and the Cooked Raw and the Cooked, The (Lévi-Strauss) in 1969 and was followed quickly by three more volumes. Structuralism Anthropology;structural Mythology;structural analysis of Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Lévi-Strauss) [kw]Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths (1964-1971)[Lévi Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths] [kw]Structures in World Myths, Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common (1964-1971) [kw]Myths, Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World (1964-1971)[Myths, Lévi Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World] Structuralism Anthropology;structural Mythology;structural analysis of Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Lévi-Strauss) [g]Europe;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] [g]France;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] [c]Mythology and folklore;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] [c]Anthropology;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] [c]Philosophy;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1964-1971: Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths[07890] Lévi-Strauss, Claude Paz, Octavio Leach, Edmund

Lévi-Strauss connected the definition of structuralism, a highly theoretical issue, with the question of why racism and sexism exist. There is a connection between these two topics, and understanding that connection aids in understanding the kind of thinking that Lévi-Strauss explores in all of his major works as well as in understanding why this seemingly very abstract style of thought is considered to be so important by those who have made it through the dense, almost impenetrable thickets of his magnum opus, Introduction to a Science of Mythology.

From the moment of birth, well before the acquisition of language, humans experience opposites—there is day, and there is night. Life experience enforces this opposition. The day is the time for being awake and getting things done, and the night is the time for rest and recuperation. Day and night are not absolute phenomena, however: There are passages called twilight and dawn, when no one is quite sure whether it is day or night. In this sense, the division between day and night is both practical (easily perceived and understood) and somewhat arbitrary. It is also universal.

Language Languages;cultural importance creates a structure. It divides time into days and nights, and people understand them—dimly at first—as opposites. By extension, that division can be made more abstract, so that one can speak of “light” and “darkness” in other circumstances than day and night—light and dark within a room—and can be abstracted again, making “white” and “black” opposites as well. The opposition of day and night becomes the basis for many other opposites. In the daytime, one is able to see clearly; by night, there is less visual information available. Night, then, is like ignorance, and day is like knowledge, understanding, and enlightenment. Night is the opposite of day, and ignorance is the opposite of understanding.

The sun is in the sky by day, and the moon is in the sky by night. Both are disks that subtend the same angle to the eye, and they illuminate, respectively, the day and the night. Sunlight, however, is warm to the skin, and moonlight confers no heat. “Hot” and “cold” therefore can be mapped onto the same primary division of day and night. The sun is always round and full; the moon waxes and wanes, disappearing altogether for three nights every month. The sun is thus unchanging and dependable, the moon inconstant and unpredictable. Children are afraid of the dark. It, too, is unpredictable and hence dangerous.

A variety of opposites can be mapped onto the primary opposition between day and night: sun and moon, waking and sleeping, activity and inactivity, industriousness and laziness, warmth and cold, knowledge and ignorance, and safety and danger. The map of opposites begins to take on a moral tone. One can sense that inactivity, cold, ignorance, and danger are “not so good,” while activity, warmth, knowledge, and safety are better. It is not far from this to the proposition that light is good and dark is bad, or that white is good and black is bad. It is a small jump by this line of thought to the idea that people whose skins are black are probably also lazy, unpredictable, and ignorant. This is the threshold of racism.

Women have a monthly menstrual cycle, tied to the moon’s phases. They are “lunar” beings and can be presumed to partake in the lunar attributes. The line of reasoning above leads to a conclusion that they can be expected to be inconstant, fickle, ignorant, and dangerous. This is the threshold of sexism. The step from day and night, then, via the logic of opposition, to racism and sexism is much shorter than it might at first appear.

Structuralism is the study of this kind of thinking and this kind of logic. Because it is a logic that people learn very early, it is something that is carried unconsciously. It is the logic of dreams, rituals, and myths. Like technology, it works for both good and ill, informing both the greatest poetry and the deepest fears of humanity.

Lévi-Strauss’s purpose, then, like that of the Welsh poet Robert Graves Graves, Robert , is to discover the logic that underlies mythological thinking. Graves entitled one book The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth White Goddess, The (Graves) (1948); Lévi-Strauss’s title for his masterpiece, Introduction to a Science of Mythology, suggests much the same kind of endeavor.

As the title of the first volume of Introduction to a Science of Mythology suggests, it is the distinction between raw food and food that has been cooked that Lévi-Strauss uses as an aid in untangling the complexities of structure and association that underpin a wide variety of myths from Central and South America. Raw corresponds to “natural” and cooked to “social” in a mapping that corresponds roughly to the “nature” and “nurture” of sociobiological debate, which also includes the distinction between concepts such as organic and human-made.

In the first volume, Lévi-Strauss begins by comparing a Bororo myth about the origin of water with a Ge myth about the origin of fire. By the conclusion of the fourth volume, his net has taken in the mythologies of the North American indigenous peoples and added 284 new myths and their variants to 529 already discussed in the first three volumes.

By the end, Lévi-Strauss (if not his readers) is ready to assert that his first myth “contains the whole system in embryo.” It is a system that, as he unravels it, has encompassed fire and water, foods raw and cooked, honey and tobacco, hollow trees and canoes, marriage and incest, stars, flagellation, and much more. Taken as a whole, it comprises

a symbolic gesture holding in balance the most profoundly meaningful oppositions that it is given to the mind of man to conceive: between the sky and the earth on the level of the physical world, between man and woman on the level of the natural world, and between relations by marriage on the level of the social world.

There is all of this—and still, to quote the title of the final volume’s penultimate chapter, it is “One Myth Only” that Lévi-Strauss has explored throughout.


By the time that The Raw and the Cooked appeared in English in 1969, the next two volumes had appeared in French: Du miel aux cendres (1967; From Honey to Ashes, 1973) and L’Origine des manières de table (1968; The Origin of Table Manners, 1978). The fourth and final volume in the series, L’Homme nu, appeared in 1971 (translated as The Naked Man, 1981). For Lévi-Strauss, the task was complete. For his readers, the task had just begun.

The argument of Introduction to a Science of Mythology is dense. To follow it, one must be able to hold whole groups of myths from many cultures simultaneously in mind, along with a variety of correspondences, oppositions, and inversions. The form of Lévi-Strauss’s entire work is consciously and appropriately modeled on musical form (The Raw and the Cooked is dedicated “to Music,” and Lévi-Strauss is himself an accomplished musician). The style (in French) is filled with puns and plays on words. Poet Octavio Paz, a sensitive reader of Lévi-Strauss, has compared his writing to that of Marcel Proust.

Most anthropologists are specialists, in the tradition of Bronislaw Malinowsky Malinowsky, Bronislaw : They study a handful of societies at most and usually can speak the indigenous languages concerned. Others, in a tradition that can be traced back to Sir James Frazer Frazer, James and his classic The Golden Bough Golden Bough, The (Frazer) (1890-1915), make broad generalizations about all cultures and all human thought, based on their readings of many specialist anthropologists working with many different cultures.

The specialists in particular cultures tend to believe that Lévi-Strauss’s theories are often based on inaccurate readings of local details, but this kind of charge can almost always be leveled by specialists against even the most brilliant of generalists. Some among them also find Lévi-Strauss’s view fascinating, even compelling, in its grand sweep.

Anthropologist Edmund Leach of King’s College, Cambridge, published a critique and appreciation of Lévi-Strauss. He noted that Lévi-Strauss “can never have stayed in one place for more than a few weeks at a time” in the course of his Brazilian travels, and that he “was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language.” Further, he suggested that Lévi-Strauss was willing to cite “any evidence, however dubious” that suited his purpose, while either bypassing or ridiculing other evidence that did not fit in with his overall scheme.

Despite this, Leach clearly admired Introduction to a Science of Mythology. He declared that Lévi-Strauss was in some sense a poet. His object of exploring the mysterious interconnections between myth-logics and other logics, Leach wrote,

is poet’s country, and those who get impatient with the tortuous gymnastics of Lévi-Straussian argument—as most of us do—need to remember that he shares with Freud a most remarkable capacity for leading us all unawares into the innermost recesses of our secret emotions.

If anthropologists, then, find Lévi-Strauss to be a poor fieldworker but an insightful “poetic” theorist, it is not surprising that one of the readers most drawn to Lévi-Strauss’s work should be the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Paz. Paz’s comments on Lévi-Strauss are to be found in his slim volume Claude Lévi-Strauss: O, El nuevo festín de Esopo Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paz)[Claude Lévi Strauss (Paz)] (1967; Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction, 1970). Paz suffered “intellectual vertigo” while reading The Raw and the Cooked for pleasure. He found himself elated, enlightened, and annoyed by turns. “The reading of Lévi-Strauss revealed so much to me and awakened so many questions in me that, almost without realizing it, I made some notes.” These notes became his book.

Paz, like Leach, finds Lévi-Strauss “brilliant, although not always convincing.” He notes that Lévi-Strauss claims to have been influenced by three currents of thought—geology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis—and that of the three, geology was his first love. Geology, the coming together in one place of distinct places and times by natural process, informs the reading of a structure implicit in the invisible strata buried beneath the contemporary landscape. With this in mind, Paz observes, Marxism can be seen as a geology of society and psychoanalysis as a geology of the psyche.

What do these disciplines have in common? “Marx, Freud and geology taught [Lévi-Strauss] to explain the visible by the hidden; that is, to search out the relationships between the sensible and the rational.” Lévi-Strauss’s search is not, Paz concludes, for “a dissolution of reason in the unconscious, but a search for the rationality of the unconscious.” It is an attempt to understand the reasons of the heart, as in Blaise Pascal’s well-known remark that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Paz writes that “Like all of science’s great hypotheses”—and, he might have added, particularly those hypotheses that treat this hidden reason of the heart—Lévi-Strauss’s ideas “are destined to change our image of the world and of man.”

The impact of Lévi-Strauss’s work, then, has naturally been felt less within his own chosen field of anthropology than in a wider context: the developing understanding of unconscious processes. Introduction to a Science of Mythology is a work to set beside Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Graves’s The White Goddess, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), or Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious (1912). It is, perhaps, not so much an exploration of the varied cultures it pretends to address as it is an exploration of a single brilliant mind, that of Lévi-Strauss himself. Structuralism Anthropology;structural Mythology;structural analysis of Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Lévi-Strauss)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hénaff, Marcel. Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. Translated by Mary Baker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. An introduction to Levi-Strauss’s foundational work in developing structural anthropology. Chapters include “The Anthropologist, the West, and the Others,” “Structures of Kinship,” “Unconscious Categories and Universality of the Mind,” “Symbolic Thought,” “The Logic of Sensible Qualities,” “The Analysis of Myths,” and “The Lesson of the Work of Art.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Christopher. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A biography of Lévi-Strauss. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leach, Edmund. Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1970. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. This classic anthropological introduction to Lévi-Strauss’s work explains structuralism, faults Lévi-Strauss on many points of detail, and welcomes his overall vision as a contribution to rank with that of Freud. Short bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to a Science of Mythology. 4 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1969-1981. Lévi-Strauss’s masterwork, in which he ties more than eight hundred myths from South, Central, and North American tribal cultures into an almost persuasive explanation of almost everything. With extensive bibliographies, indexes of myths, and general indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Another major work by Lévi-Strauss, this one dealing largely with totemism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Structural Anthropology. 1963. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. A collection of key essays by Lévi-Strauss that can serve as an introduction to his thought. See especially “Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology” and “The Structural Study of Myth.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paz, Octavio. Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. The Mexican poet’s notes on reading Lévi-Strauss themselves make for enjoyable reading, as Paz emphasizes and explores the analogies Lévi-Strauss sees between poetry, music, dance, and myth. With bibliographic notes and index.

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