myths and mythologies
myths and mythologiesreligious or sacred folktales, whose content concerns the origins or creation of the world, gods, a particular people or society, etc. Sometimes these stories, which have a particular importance in preliterate societies as part of an ‘oral tradition’ are acted out in RITUALS. See also NARRATIVES.
Mythologies have been of interest to anthropologists:
- as a source of quasi-historical data about societies which have no written record;
- as a coded indication of the central values of a society;
- as a heavily symbolic metaphorical expression of perennial psychic and social tensions e.g. the Oedipus myth (see also OEDIPUS COMPLEX, JUNG);
- as revealing, via the logics of myths, the universal structures of the human mind (e.g. the work of LÉVI-STRAUSS). It is the last of these that has recently attracted most interest and has generated much debate.
In LÉVI-STRAUSS's structuralist approach recurring universal ‘binary oppositions ’ are identified in myths, e.g. opposition between nature and culture, male and female, friendship and hostility. Lévi-Strauss quotes Mauss: ‘Men communicate by symbols… but they can only have those symbols and communicate by them because they have the same instincts.’ Lévi-Strauss regards the function of myths as providing ‘justifications’ for the particular combination of all possible binary oppositions which have been actually adopted in a particular society However, Lévi-Strauss is more interested in the complex transformations of mythologies across time and across cultures, as in the analysis of particular societies, in the way in which myths structure reality, and in what this reveals about ‘primitive universal logic’. The main objection to Lévi-Strauss's structuralist analysis of mythologies, however, is that it is not clear how one can move beyond ‘possible’ interpretations of the universal logics of myths when many of these interpretations seem arbitrary and leave open other possible interpretations (see Leach, 1970). See also BARTHES.