ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Monday, April 15

Anthropology and Structuralism


The universalizing ideas of Freud and Jung beg many important questions about the nature of myth. Freud in particular expressed himself in terms of canonical Western European culture. For him Sophocles’ rendition of the Oedipus myth was a timeless expression of a trascendent truth, an insight into the human condition that was applicable to all cultures. Not that he neglected to allow for variations; indeed, his comments on the Oedipus myth in The Interpretation of Dreams illustrtate his belief that the motif occurs in a wide variety of disguised forms. Nevertheless, it is his opinion that the form of the myth familiar to the Greeks and dramatized by Sophocles reveals the reason for its power and universality, dealing openly as it does with feelings of violence and aggression towards the father and of erotic longing for the mother that Freud regarded as universal elements of every child’s experience.

For Jung, the pattern represented by the Oedipus story was only one important pattern among the many that inform human experience. Understanding that the “universality” of the “Oedipus complex” really applies only to male experience, he posited an “Electra complex” as a complementary female version, basing himself on the behavior of Electra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, who shuns marriage after the murder of her father Agamemnon and helps her brother Orestes to avenge the murder upon their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Recognizing that Freud and, especially, Freud’s followers put too much emphasis on the Oedipus myth alone, Jung posited the existence of many patterms, which he called “achetypes,” within the “collective unconscious” of all people. Besides recognizing the inability of the Oedipal archetype to account for female experience, he also understood that ancient Greek culture was only one among many world cultures, and should not be regarded as the unique repository of all the archetypes that might exist within the collective unconscious. This led Jung to look especially to the classical civilizations of Asia in his effort to describe a universal mythology of the human psyche.

The Beginnings of Cultural Anthropology

At about the same time that Freud and Jung were at work, the field of cultural anthropology was beginning to make an impression on the study of mythology. One of the tasks the anthropologists set themselves was to collect mythological material from a variety of world cultures and, using compara tive methods, to attempt to find in it some common basis. In this case, the goal not to explain the similarities among world mythologies in historical terms, as if all cultures were ultimately descended from one ancestor, but rather to suggest that the world’s different cultures developed mythologies in response to basically similar experiences (those of birth, death, reproduction, etc.) that were taken as collectively defining the human condition.

One of the most important products of this movement is Sir James Frazer’s monumental study The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Frazer collects an immense amount of information from a wide variety of world cultures, including those of ancient Greece and Rome, and attempts to correlate it in order to answer certain basic questions about the nature of primitive religious belief.

In order to compare material that is on the surface so diverse requires that it be translated into a more abstract language. Thus Frazer treats the myth of Dionysus, for example, by focussing on certain key motifs. “The god Dionysus,” he writes,

is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of the exhileration produced by the juice of the grape. His ecstatic worship, characterized by wild dances, thrilling music, and tipsy excess, appears to have originated among the rude tribes of Thrace, who were notoriously addicted to drunkenness. Its mystic doctrines and extravagent rites were essentially foreign to the clear intelligence and sober temperament of the Greek race. Yet appealing as it did to that love of mystery and that proneness | to revert to savagery which seems to be innate in most men, the religion spread like wildfire through Greece until the god whom Homer hardly deigned to notice had become the most popular figure of the pantheon. [pp. 386-87 of the abridged edition]
Frazer goes on to observe that Dionysus was regarded not only as a god of the vine, but a god of trees in general, and “was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again” (p. 388). He is able to compare Dionysus on these terms with other gods (like the Egyptian Osiris, the Phrygian Attis, and the Syrian Adonis) and heroes (the Greek Hippolytus and the Roman Virbius) whose stories feature similar motifs. In this way he develops a theory that derives the human religious impulse from wonder at the natural process of annual, cyclic vegetation.


The tendency towards abstraction in the interpretation of myth, which is represented in different ways by Freud, Jung, and Frazer, reaches its zenith in the Structuralist movement. In his article on the structural study of myth, Claude Levi-Strauss explains in detail how structuralist analysis works, citing as illustrations first the Oedipus myth, then a variety of similar Native American myths.

Like students of comparative religion, the Structuralists take their main inspiration from linguistic research; but the source of their inspiration and the goal of their inquiry differ from those of the comparatists. Comparative linguistics accounts for differences among the world’s languages by positing their descent from a common ancestor. Originally it was felt that this linguistic ancestor might be a more transparent medium of communication than the various, mutually incomprehensible languages descended from it. That is to say, it was hoped that the relationship between the sounds of the original language and the things to which these sounds referred might be intuitively obvious. With the reconstruction of Proto- Indo-European this proved not to be the case. As a result, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed a new theory of language positing that meaning resides not in the actual sounds that are common to all languages, but in the relationships between those sounds, relationships that take on different meanings in each language. For example, the sounds represented by the letters p-a-i-n are similar in English and French, but have very different meanings (“pain” and “bread”, respectively). And the English homonyms “pain” and “pane” also possess different meanings, which are attached to the sound of the words only by convention, not by any intrinsic relationship. When this idea is applied to the study of myth, the hypothesis becomes one in which meaning is not found in any specific motif, such as the incest motif in the Oedipus myth, but rather in the relationship between the various motifs that make up the myth--as, for example, in the relationship between the motif of killing the father and solving the riddle of the Sphinx.

The question therefore becomes one of how to analyze properly the structural relationship that is thought to exist among the various motifs contained within a single myth. Levi-Strauss makes several key points, some of them explicit, others implicit:

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