The Study of Myth


The folklore of indigenous tribes has been gathered by a variety of sources.  Frequently the people recording this information are not trained anthropologists and just as frequently it seems that their informants do not know the complete story that they are relaying.  However, even considering these drawbacks, there is a great deal we can learn from studying them.  In fact, as sources of primitive mythology diminish, the interest in studying them increases.

The question becomes how should these stories be approached?  How can they be studied so that they not only can be understood, but also so they can be interpreted?  Is there some way that the information they carry can be applied in new and unique ways?

Very different approaches to the study of mythology are represented by two greatly renown people who applied the study of the “primitive” folklore to their own work.  They are Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist and Sigmund Freud, a psychologist.  Each man was a leader in his own field.  Although the approach and application of each man to the study of primitive mythology are quite dissimilar, they have taught us that this study can benefit us in many ways including a better understanding of ourselves and of other peoples.  I would like to look more deeply into the work of these two as it relates to their approach to mythological studies.

Sigmund Freud

Probably Sigmund Freud’s most well know work on “primitive” mythology is his book,
Totem and Taboo. His underlying basis for this study is the assumption that prehistoric man is reasonably represented by the modern primitive and these “savages” [Freud’s term, not mine] provide a “well-preserved picture of an early stage of our own development.”  Freud goes on to say: “If that supposition is correct, a comparison between the psychology of primitive peoples…and the psychology of neurotics…will be bound to show numerous points of agreement and will throw new light upon familiar facts in both sciences.” He introduces myth, ritual and customs as a means to penetrate the psychology of the primitive.

He approaches mythology as a detective looking for clues.  He observes a specific behavior, for example exogamy, then using the mythology of various primitive peoples, he finds evidence to explain the behavior and then extrapolates that this might be the origin of our own societal behaviors.  It is as if he sees these people and their folklore and customs as pieces of a puzzle; a puzzle he is determined to solve.  His sources tend to be from a very broad spectrum of geographic locations, language groups and time periods.

In his book, Totem and Taboo, Freud explores the definition of kinship especially as it affects exogamy and incest avoidance in the “religion” of totemism.  Kinship is commonly a sophisticated and complex system within a society.  For example, he cites Australian aboriginal tribes who receive their totem through their mother’s line and are forever prohibited intimate contact with women of that same totem, thereby preventing sexual intercourse with a sister or mother.  He discusses the lengths that these people go to by means of ritual and customs to avoid unacceptable social contact between various relations.

In this book, he limits his exploration of totemism primarily to sexual prohibitions, animism, magic and omnipotent thought.  In his study of the prohibitions, customs, ritual and mythology, he does not attempt to understand the primitive in their own world, but rather how to understand modern man.  He interprets these prohibitions not as self evident with inherent consequences.  He states that the prohibitions are necessary specifically because man has a tendency toward unacceptable behavior (for example incest) and therefore requires the restrictions to prevent acting these natural tendencies out.  He then goes on to develop the theory that modern man is not that far removed from his “primitive” brother and that these inappropriate desires are still active but suppressed in modern man.

Freud of course is first and foremost a psychologist.  His interest in mythology, especially primitive mythology, is to identify traits of humankind that very likely have not changed much over time.  He saw similarities between patient behaviors and those of the primitive.  For example, he could see how a client with “obsession neuroses” and “omnipotent thought” was not far removed from the primitive.  Of these clients he says: “This [obsessional] behavior as well as the superstitions which he practices in ordinary life, reveals his resemblance to the savages who believe that can alter the external world by mere thinking.” He builds a believable case that the study of the primitive as he was known to Freud does in fact offer us a picture of our own development. And this study is based primarily on the mythology of these people.

The approach of Claude Levi-Strauss is from a totally different perspective.  He is primarily an anthropologist.  Here psychology has little to no influence.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss developed an approach to the study of mythology called “structural analysis.” Structural analysis takes one story and breaks it down into “cells”. It then takes another story from the same tribe or neighboring tribe or even foreign tribe and similarly breaks this down into cells.  These stories are then laid out cell by cell and similarities become easier to see.  It also is easier to see where one story departs from another by using this method.

In his book, The Story of Lynx, Claude Levi-Strauss focuses on one family of stories.  In his analysis of these stories he sometimes becomes very specific.  He goes so far as to identify the species of flora and fauna mentioned in a story, frequently providing the Latin name.  On occasion he breaks a cell down further into smaller components as he finds meaningful some of the most minute detail.  He points out that the ecological system that a people participate in have significance to their mythology that should not be glossed over.

In this book he focuses on stories from the Pacific Northwest, but by applying his method of structural analysis he finds similarities in the native folklore from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. In this book he summarizes a story.  He then identifies the cells within the story and even sometimes isolates the cell from the story.  He is also able to identify what he calls inversions. An example of an inversion might be where one story explains when certain animals are not found in the same places; whereas a neighboring story might be presenting new conditions under which these same animals can be found together. He also finds a symmetry evident as the story “cells” change from one tribe to another, possibly thousands of miles apart or possibly bordering each other but speaking a different language.

Shown below is an example of a figure from his book showing the graphical representation of his structural analysis. In describing it he says, “This schema. . .shows how complex forms are, so to speak, grafted onto the simpler one. . . this later occupies the right part, while the others occupy the segments in the left part of the network.”

From "The Story of Lynx" by Claude Levi-Strauss

From “The Story of Lynx” by Claude Levi-Strauss

He also says about this same graph: “Finally, it must be noted that the network, drawn here in two dimensions, would require more dimensions…One the left of the schema, the dentalia shells have a positive function as a factor of conjunction. On the right side, where the indiscreet sisters are feature, dentalia shells fill a negative function; they cause the disjunction of the thieves from their parents.  By analyzing the schema, one would easily come across other dimensions that graphic constraints do not allow us to represent.”

Breaking down the native stories in this manner assists in seeing how stories change over time, change from one location to another and even how they migrate from one language speaking people to another with sometimes very little change sometimes with changes that make them almost unrecognizable.

Claude Levi-Strauss seems to want to protect the integrity of the native world from which these stoies came.  Structural ayalysis as an approach to the study of mythology appears objective and emotionally removed from the subject.  However, when Claude Levi-Strauss incorporates this tool into his study of the native people of the Pacific Northwest, a sensitivity to their world comes through. His primary interest in the study of these stories seem to be to enter the world as seen by the people he studies and to share that perspective with the rest of the world. He says,

We thus learn from the structural analysis of myths…each local mythology, matched with a given history and ecological environment, teaches us a lot about the society from which it comes, exposes its inner workings, and sheds light on the functioning, the meaning, and the origin of its beliefs and customs, some of them having, sometimes already for several centuries, raised unresolvable problems. this, however, requires that structural analysis meet one condition: it must never cut itself off from the facts…we should give up pursuing the structural analysis of the myths of a society for which we lack an ethnographic context or, at any rate, a context that is independent from the information carries by the myths themselves. [emphasis mine]

He was an anthropologist.  The conclusions he drew were more specific to his area of study. He was also concerned that structural analysis and the study of native mythology might be misused. He felt that if a story was removed too far from its origin, it would become distorted and lose any significance it might have.

Comparison and Contrast

Both of these men were drawn to study primitive mythology.  There is something about folklore, ritual and customs of these peoples that appealed to them.  But their approaches and application were so different from each other that it is hard to believe that they were studying the same thing. Freud seemed to be looking for some general mythology that might apply to all humanity (and it appears he was successful), while Levi-Strauss seemed to want to understand on a personal face-to-face basis how the native peoples perceived their world.

Freud did not take into account the ecological system of the primitive.  He took their stories out of the context of environment and circumstance and put them on a stand alone basis.  Levi-Strauss argued that if you stood far enough above, looking down on a mythology your perspective laced any detail and the image became indistinct and therefore meaningless. He says,

…the more the field of analysis is broadened, the more resemblances are uncovered, but they have less and less meaning.  Though this is the case for general mythology, it isn’t so anymore when comparison is undertaken within mythological systems bounded in time and space.  For these, the inverse proposition holds true: the more the field is restricted, the more differences are uncovered.  It is to the relations these differences have with one another that meanings are attached.

Levi-Strauss successfully compares these “mythological systems bounded in time and space” looking for the meaning those differences might hold.

Freud interpreted the myths psychologically, but he also seemed to moralize and judge.  He suggested that although primitive behavior still lurks within us and is acted out in the neurotic, it is inferior to what had been made possible with the “scientific” mode of being and immoral by a Victorian perspective.

Levi-Strauss on the other hand didn’t do either.  He uses his structural analysis to understand and explain how these people integrate their existence with their environment, create the structure of the respective societies, and function in a challenging world avoiding judgement or moral commentary.


The study of mythology is as richly varied as the myths that are under investigation.  The completely different approaches that each of these men applied in his study of the primitive folklore exemplifies the diversity of humankind and the uniqueness of the individual.  However, each in his own way, seemed to be searching to understand this thing called humanity, which clearly exemplifies characteristics common to all, such as the desire to understand who we are! We continue to be a curiosity to ourselves and the study of mythology is one of our ways to see more deeply into the species Homo Sapiens.

These difference of approach and their application are very striking.  But what is just as striking is that study of mythology can offer to such different people such satisfying results.  This is very exciting for the student of mythology but just as intimidating.  Which direction should the serious student of mythology go? And how can you follow in the footsteps of such eminent men? All I can say is that like these men, it calls to me and I anticipate the result being just as satisfying if not as eloquent or profound.