Introduction to Semiotics of Cultures, 2010
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Totemism, Savage Mind, Myths
Vesa Matteo Piludu
University of Helsinki
Another unconscious
 The unconscious level isn’t personal, as in psychoanalysis
 It is cultural, collective, independent from the individuals’ desires
 It permits to fly upon the barriers that divides different societies
 It’ a mediator between us and the others, it consents
 It imposes a form, a group of laws, to a sets of contents: it deals
with the regularities found in the human mind, that Lévi-Strauss
called the human spirit
 The human spirit is logic, systematic: the unconscious
possibilities are limited in number, their structure forms a logic
Influence of Georges Dumézil
(March 4, 1898, Paris – October 11, 1986)
 Comparative linguistic, Historian, mythologist
 Famous scholars of Indo-European mythologies
 He compared the same mechanism and structures that are common
in the myths of several Indo-European people
 Critics:
 Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and
Scholarship. 2000.
 Littleton, C. S. The New Comparative Mythology. 3rd ed. Berkeley
 Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore 1987.
 Haugen, Einar "The Mythical Structure of the Ancient Scandinavians:
Some Thoughts on Reading Dumézil" in Introduction to
Structuralism, edited by Michael Lane, Basic Books, 1970
Lévi-Strauss’ model:
order in chaos i.e. Dumézil in and his studio
Le Totemisme aujourdhui
(1962, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham, 1963)
 Totemism: a theory about the connection with a exogamic clan and
an animal or vegetal species
 The old theorist considered totemism a step of human development,
the most barbaric and illogical, in which the native people “maked
confusion” between humans and nature
 Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that this notion is completely fictional,
created by the ethnologist
Totem is not a pole!
Totemism for Lévi-Strauss
 It is not a historical phase, is not barbarian or illogic
 It is a sophisticate organization system that joins the social
system and the natural world
 The natural differences are used to hit light social differences:
the natives are good observers, not children making confusion
 The necessity to classify the world it common to native and modern
 the totemism is similar to scientific procedures, even if the
organization system is quite different
 Primitive cultures never existed: the humans have always think “well”
Effects: totemism taboo
 After the book totemism, the use of the concept become a taboo in
anthropological literature: it disappeared for a long time
La Pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1966)
 In this book, that is “the second part” of Totemism, Lévi-Strauss
demonstrated, using an enormous quantity of dates, how rich and
complex were the systems of natural classification of the natives
 The capacity to create complex classification isn’t a prerogative of
the scientific thought
Good to eat (Malinowsi) vs. good to think (L-S)
 The natural world for the natives isn’t only an ”instrument to satisfy
needs” (Malinowski) but
 Object of sophisticate thoughts, a cognitive map
 Many animals present in the native speculation (lynx) aren’t
useful, and aren’t good to eat
 But they are good to think
 The natives aren’t reacting passively to the natural environment, they
elaborate speculations about it
 The animal symbolism operate in a semiotic web: every animal
related to another one and is opposed to another one
 So the savage mind isn’t savage at all: it is able to built complicate
operations of classification and organization
Coyote isn’t good to eat, but is good to think
Good to think, but not tasty at all
Myths and Science
 Mythical thought and scientific thought are living on the same
historical reality, not in different steps
 Even today there are many mythological systems working in native
cultures and in modern ones (nationalist propaganda and
commercials – Barthes)
 Remember the “magic powers” of Mr. Clean and their physical and
psychological effects
Myths acooding to L-V
 Traditional sense:
 Archaic narratives related to gods, heroes, animals, fantastic beings
that have a deep meaning, subject to speculation
 Barthes use myth in another, negative, way: simple modern
narratives that considers natural and obvious what is historical and
Myths and Science
 Myths and science are only two different way to organize the dates of
 They are parallel axes, similar at the formal level, different in their
presupposes about the essence of the natural world
 The natives domesticated a great number of plants also for the
pleasure to know new things, not only for their practical use
 The native world is more close to the sensible qualities and it have a
more immediate connection with nature
Marcel Griaule
 Demonstrated how sophisticate are the systems of thought of West
The mythological thought: savage
 Science of concrete
 Actor: bricoleur, someone that have many objects to create many
results, that are more casual
 It is possible to built, break and built again
 Many variations of the same mythological theme
 The natural object acquire a cultural meaning, that is clearly not
 The thought is savage in the sense that is more casual, more free
 The mythological thought is alive in modern art
Scientific thought: domesticated
 Science of projects
 Actor: engineer
 the scientist has a clear project from the beginning, rigorous
 The possible results are limited, not so various as myths
 The though is domesticated in the sense that is less free, more
rational, less subject to fly of fantasy
Magic thought
 Also magic is a way to think, a way to organize reality based on its
own rigorous logic, it’s an independent system
 If we understand the logic of the mythological or magical thought, we
are able to understand their meaning
 Different systems could be transformed into other ones reversing the
importance of single elements
Australian totemistic system
and Indian caste system
 Exogamic: each group should marry another clan
 Social group divided on the base of natural species: the natural world
is considered social and cultural
 Endogamic: members of caste couldn’t marry a member of another
 Social order considered as natural
 The two system are logically opposed, based on the opposition of the
same elements: variant of a combinatory system
 The human mind is working using the same logic, but with reversal
 A system is in theory transformable in another one if their elements
are put in opposition
 That happens often in politics: a party give a different interpretation
of the symbols of the other party
Myths in Structural Anthropology 1
 The Boas’ school collected a large amount of myths, but the result of
the research were deluding
 The myths seemed extremely chaotic: disorder and disorganization
in their analysis
 Simple speculations
 Evil Grandma in myth = in this society there were evil grandmothers
 Evil Grandma in myth = in this society the Grandmother is a symbol
for some feeling lost in the unconscious
The Structural Study of Myth:
Chapter XI in Structural Anthropology 1
 Linguistic: connects a groups of sounds (phonemes) to certain
 The meaning in in the system, not in the single souns
 Mythology: is not useful to analyze the “best version of the myths”
(single myth), it is necessary to analyze all the versions of the myths
to find out analogies and differences (system of myths)
 The meaning is the relations: there are relations between different
version of the myths
Myth and language
 The myth is inside and over the language
 Is in the language, because is based on a set of linguistic enunciates
(it’s a narrative)
 Is over the language, because what is important in the myth isn’t the
style or syntaxes, but the story or narrative itself
 It’s the myth reduced to short, essential sentence or even to a group
of symbols: a simplification of the whole plot
 Different mythemes should be connected in pairs of mutual or
opposite elements
 If the meaning of a mytheme is different in a different version, we
have a transformation of the myth itself
 The mythemes are element of variation
Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (Владимир
Яковлевич Пропп) 1895 - 1970
 Formalism
 Considered possible the variation of contents in fables, but it
considered the changes as purely arbitrary
 For L-S there is a logic in the transformation of myths
 Should be considered different explications for a single myth
 A myth shouldn’t considered as an isolated element, but in its
relation with other myths
 It’s important to connect the myth to all the other relevant
ethnographic information about the societies in which the myths was
born and told
Mythologiques I–IV (1964-71)
 Mythologiques I–IV (trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman)
 Le Cru et le cuit (1964, The Raw and the Cooked, 1969)
 Du miel aux cendres (1966, From Honey to Ashes, 1973)
 L'Origine des manières de table (1968, The Origin of Table
Manners, 1978)
 L'Homme nu (1971, The Naked Man, 1981)
 No evident practical function
 Cultural function: when it is possible, to reduce the contrasts present
in the existence and social life
 Contrast life and death
 Sacred fool
 Creator of disorders and order
 He is smart, but often is punished by his own tricks
Trickster: Coyote
Raven and Coyote
 Eaters of dead corpses
 Middle position between predators (killers of other animals), and
herbivorous (animals that don’t kills other animals)
 Mediator between oppositions
 Life coming from death
 Similar situation: war (destruction) and agriculture (creation)
 Middle position: hunt (nutrition and life given by killing)
 Life and death mutually connected: unthinkable without each other
 The myth doesn’t resolve completely the contradiction (life-death) ,
but give an interpretation about their connections
Myths: many answers
 No religious dogmas
 There isn’t an answer, but many possible answers: variation of myths
 Possibilities in the past, in the present, in different societies
 The mythological thought is creative:
 The same concepts in a similar myths are revolted and in
contradiction with each other
Influence of Dumézil
 Importance to work comparing myths of people that are historically
 Lévi-Strauss analyzed myths of Amazion indios or Pueblo natives
searching for all the possible variants of the same myth, including the
ones that are opposite
La Potière jalouse (1985, The Jealous Potter,
trans. Bénédicte Chorier, 1988)
Variation 1:
A thirsty man asked his son water to drink, the son refused
Variation 2:
A thirsty man asked his wife water to drink, the wife refused
Variation 3:
 Opposed variation 3:
 A mother want to wash her son, the son refused
 Situation 1: water inside the body
 Situation 3: body inside the water
 Inversion: woman that refused, woman that impose
Lévi-Strauss ”mysticism”
 The humans doesn’t think myths, but the myths are thinking each
others in humans
 The myths are thinking in us, and we don’t think about that
 Mythical though as a cultural imposition to subjects (similarity
between Lévi-Strauss and Barthes)
 The narrator loose importance
 If the comparison is extended to other people, there are more
similarities , but many of them aren’t of great significance
 If the comparison is more restricted to a certain group of peoples, it is
possible to find out differences in the variations
 The differences are significative
Myths: nature and culture
 In myths there are fenomena of centralization, fragmentation and
oppositions of variants … but all in a common vision of the world
Division between the nature and culture:
Raw – cooked
naked – clothed
 Refuse or acceptation of exchanges: food, cultural products,
marriages, importance of gifts
Lévi-Strauss: lost in myths
 Myths are superb stories, literary texts
 I’ve lived in another world, I lived with myths
 The mythologist is like a crazy artists, working continuously with his
Myths and music
 Wagner has done structural mythology in music
 Affinity between music and myths: variation on same themes
 Myths and melodies use the time to annul the time and to throw us in
a dimension outside the time
 Creator of music similar to a demiurge
 Music and myths are impossible to translate in other languages
(written ones)
 A melody could only change into another melody and a myth into
another myth
 Myths and music are able to express something that couldn’t be
expressed in other ways: both are emotional, full of pathos
 The analysis impoverish the myth, we can’t enjoy completely the
myths analyzing them, because we are operating simplifications and
 The goal of the analysis isn’t esthetical: is to find sense and what are
the fundamental questions in the myths
Myth and ritual
 The ritual is a set of action based on myths
 Ritual is fragmented in gestures and procedures, that are
continuously repeated: less information that in myths
 Myths distinguish, separate the elements of reality to transform them
in instrument of thought
 The ritual is always connected to a myth, not to natural reality
 Rituals are connected to the world view present in myths
 Ritual is a “bastard” son of myth: thought connected to the necessity
of life
 This negative interpretation of ritual has been criticized

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