Levi Strauss’s structural analysis of myth

Levi Strauss, as a structuralist thinker, is interested in analyzing the myths and folklore available throughout the whole world from the structuralist perspective as defined by Saussure in his analysis of language. He published the essay entitled “Structural Study of Myth” at the end of 1955 in The Journal of American Folklore. His aim is to offer an identical process of analyzing all the myths available in different cultures with the help of the fundamental processes of structuralism founded by Saussure. In the field of anthropology, there are diversified ways to interpret myths which put the whole process into chaos. For this reason, he attempts to explore a homogenous system of examining all the myths following Saussure who has attempted to find out a particular way to analyze all the languages existing in the world.

Background of Saussure’s study of myth

Strauss dedicated himself to the study of the American myth as it ignited his research interests profoundly. He started his research career in America with the discovery of the myths found among the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma Indians of the Pueblo Group. Gradually, he expanded his research area on the other myths of the Keres, Tiwa, and Tewa. In course of his study of these people’s myths, Strauss began to form his ideas in accordance with Saussure’s structural analysis of language.

Strauss’s idea of myth

In his “The Structural Study of Myth”, Strauss argues that the cultures, which are so much different from each other by geography or time, have similar or almost similar myths on the creation of the world, creation of language, differences between the sexes, and other facts of human existence. He discovers that the myths may be different in their contents but share identical structures. Mary Klages defines it stating that in his essay “The Structural Study of Myth”, Strauss “looks at another kind of human universal: the similarity of myths from cultures all over the world” (43). She also connects Strauss’s study of myth with language. To her, myth is nothing but language as “it has to be told in order to exist” (43). Moreover, both the myth and language function through an identical signifying system. Strauss’s idea about myth and language is also clarified by Godelier in his Claude Levi-Strauss: A Critical Study of his Thought. He summarises the thesis offered by Strauss, “a myth is made up of all its variants; there is no true version of a myth; the substance of the myth resides in the story it tells; a myth is composed of constituent units, or ‘mythemes’, which are “‘clusters of relation’” (145).

Strauss’s idea of myth and mytheme

Strauss further adds that the smallest unit of a myth is mytheme. He coined it in accordance with the Saussurean idea of phonemes to refer to “elementary units” (Macey 262). It is like Saussure’s “sign” (Macey 262) which is originated from binary oppositions. Moreover, it can be created by “ternary” (Macey 262) oppositions. So, the structural analysis of a myth has to be done in two ways. First of all, one has to find out the fundamental unit of a myth which is mytheme. It is the smallest atom of a myth that is irreducible in nature. It carries meaning at this level. For doing the structural analysis of myth, it is important to discover the mythemes of a myth and then, the necessary mechanisms by which they are connected with each other. What is arguable about the mytheme is that it is generally identified considering the functions of the mythical tale.

Analysis how mytheme work

Strauss argues that mythemes offer the structuralists to find out the event, position, or action in the narrative, or in the story of the myth. Then, he lays the mythemes horizontally and vertically or diachronically or synchronically to discover the plot or theme of the myth. According to him, the story of myth exists in the linear position and the theme in the horizontal or vertical axis.

Strauss on the way of reading a myth

While Saussure’s language functions in a linear way, Strauss’s myth is like a square or rectangle. It has both a horizontal and vertical dimension. Saussure’s reading of language can be horizontal and so, it is non-reversible. It means that it can be read only from left to right. Strauss is with the view that a myth has a linear quality. He also opines that a myth can be read vertically or up-and-down to find out the boundless relations among the mythemes of a myth.

Myth in parole and langue levels

A myth may exist both in parole and langue levels. At the parole level, it exists in a non-reversible time which is also ahistorical while it can also exist as a part of a timeless structure at the langue level because “it is simply the structure itself, which doesn’t ever change, can exist in the past, present, or future” (Klages 43). He remarks that myth can also exist in the third level. At this level, it can take different shapes in translations and multifarious presentations. At this level, it can be altered, expanded, reduced, and paraphrased without losing its basic shape or structure. The best example of this kind of myth is the myth of the prince, the princess, and the stepmother. If the story is placed in any culture or country, the eventual structure is that the princess would be suppressed, the stepmother suppressor, and the prince a benevolent one. This story can be “altered, expanded, reduced, paraphrased, and otherwise manipulated without losing its basic shape or structure” Klages 44), but “the structure of relations among the units remains the same” (Klages 44).


Strauss occupies a remarkable position for his wonderful application of Saussure’s structural analysis of language for seeing what happens if it is applied for myth. Taking myth as a language, he shows how all the myths can be analyzed because they share the same structural characteristics.


  • Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Viva Books, 2010
  • Godelier, Maurice. Claude Levi-Strauss: A Critical Study of his Thought. Verso Books, 2018
  • Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2014
Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298

Email: ar.dell.pu@gmail.com

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