ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Wednesday, April 17

"After Structuralism"


On Monday I suggested that Structuralism represents the farthest extension of the principle of abstraction in the study of myth. For a scholar like Levi-Strauss, the motif of incest in the Oedipus myth means nothing in and of itself, but rather gains meaning only from its relationship to other motifs in the myth. Post-Structuralist analysis takes a variety of forms, some of which incorporate Structuralist techniques to a certain extent retreating somewhat from Structuralist abstraction in favor of a reading that takes more account of the historical and social context in which the myth is found. An example of this is Jan Bremmer's essay on the ancient Greek Oedipus complex.

Today we will go over some of the details of Levi-Strauss' analysis and of Bremmer's critique. While there are many other approaches to the study of the Greek myths -- some of which we have encountered at various times throughout the semester -- these essays will serve to represent some of the most important questions that arise from contemporary investigations into the meaning of mythology. Next week we will turn to examine some uses of Greek myth in twentieth century art, literature, music, and poular culture.

Levi-Strauss on the Oedipus Myth

As the chart in his essay shows, Levi-Strauss works by breaking a myth down into individual motifs, and then sorting the motifs to facilitate comparing them to one another in order to find patterns of relationship (and therefore significance). He begins with a series of events in the Oedipus myth (p. 214; phrases in square brackets are my additions):
  1. Cadmus seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus
  2. Cadmus kills the dragon (and sows its teeth into the ground)
  3. [Armed men known as] the Spartoi [spring up out of the gound and] kill one another
  4. Labdacus (Laius' father) = lame (?)
  5. Laius (Oedipus' father) = left-sided (?)
  6. Oedipus = swollen-foot (?)
  7. Oedipus kills his father, Laius
  8. Oedipus kills the Sphinx
  9. Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta
  10. Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices
  11. Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition
This chronological series Levi-Strauss then rearranges on two axes, preserving approximate chronological order on the vertical axis, and introducing categories of similar motifs on the horizontal axis (NB: I have made a few minor adjustments in Levi-Strauss' chart for the sake of clarity):

Overrating of blood relations Underrating of blood relations Slaying monsters Difficulty walking and standing upright
Cadmus seeks his sister Eurpoa, ravished by Zeus   Cadmus kills the dragon  
  The Spartoi kill one another    
      Labdacus (Laius' father) = lame (?)
      Laius (Oedipus' father) = left-sided (?)
Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta Oedipus kills his father, Laius Oedipus kills the Sphinx Oedipus = swollen-foot (?)
  Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices    
Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition      

Levi-Strauss analyzes the myth first by looking for recurring motifs, such as the motif of killing. But rather than identify killing per se as a meaningful category, he breaks it down further into the two recurring types of killing found in the story: killing a close relative, and killing a monster. This involves a basic procedure of structuralist analysis, which works by identifying pairs of opposites that are taken as defining an area of significance. In this myth, charcters kill only those who are very much like themselves (blood relations) or those who are entirely different from themselves (monsters). Therefore, part of the myth's meaning presumably has to do with this dichotomy.

Note that this dicotomy is not the only or even the most important one that Levi-Strauss identifies. In fact, he places the category of "killing a close relative" in opposition to a class of acts that involve extreme love for a close relative (Cadmus' pursuit of his sister, Europa; Oedipus' marriage to his mother, Jocasta; Antigone's burial of her brother, Polynices). The opposition Levi-Strauss sees between these categories has nothing to do with killing or with incest per se, but rather with the more abstract motifs that he labels "overvaluing" or "undervaluing blood relations". Similarly, killing monsters, a feat of heroic prowess, stands in opposition to some sort of debility (lameness, vel. sim.). For Levi-Strauss, this opposition involves contradictory positions on the question of whether humans are born from the earth: killing earth-born monsters would be a denial, acknowledgement of debility an admission of this origin.

In sum, then, Levi-Strauss reads the myth as being not at all about killing or incest, but about a contrast between the belief that human beings were originally born from the earth, which is the area of concern marked out by the two right-hand columns (and a major element of the Theban cycle), and the knowledge that they are born now of a sexual union between man and woman, the major concern of the two left-hand columns. The point is not so much that the myth solves a problem as that it outlines a problem or a set of problems and provides, in Levi-Strauss' words, "a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem -- born from one or born from two? -- to the derivative problem: born from different or born from the same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. Although experience contradicts theory, social life validates cosmology by its similarity of structure. Hence cosmology is true" (p. 216).

A Return (?) to Contextualization

Levi-Strauss goes on to compare the structure of the Oedipus myth to the structure he finds in a variety of Native American myths, and he finds them to be rather similar. Thus Sstructuralist analysis is offered as a tool that can be applied universally to the study of all myths to unlock their meaning. One of the criticisms that have been made of Structuralism, however, is precisely its tendency to make everything look the same. Another is that in abstracting meaning from the elements that make up a myth -- so that murdering your father is no longer parricide, but an undervaluing of blood-relationships, for example -- something important is lost in the translation.

Jan Bremmer attempts to address these problems by asking not "What does the Oedipus myth mean in a universal sense?" but rather, "What did it mean in its ancient context?" A second but still important question he asks is, "Why do we still find it important today?" Rather than assuming that the meaning of the myth is universal, he instead assumes that it will be found meaningful by different cultures under similar circumstances, and tries to back up this belief by analyzing the meaning of the myth in classical Greece, particularly in fifth-century Athens, and in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the time and place within which Sigmund Freud developed his infuential ideas about the Oedipus complex.

For Bremmer, the structure of the Oedipus myth corresponds to that of many other tales in which children are abandoned, reveal themselves as heroes, and succeed their fathers as king, often through some violent event. This aspect of the myth he relates to the very widespread existence of puberty rites in many world cultures, rites that speak to the psychological problems that attend a growing awareness of oneself as a maturing adult and a concomitant understanding of what this implies about the inevitable death of one's parents, the necessity to succeed them, and so forth. According to Bremmer, Oedipus, like Theseus elsewhere in Greek myth and like Geriguiguiatugo in South American mythology, is an example of a common story type in which "a young man performs an impressive feat, defeats a monster, kills his fatyher (or is the cause of his death) and becomes king (or culture hero)" (p. 48). To this extent the Oedipus myth is found to correspond to a universal story type that is rooted in the experience of approaching adulthood. Its meaning in the context of archaic Greece is rather simple: "the Oedipus myth can be read as a warning to the younger generation: 'you have grown up, but you must continue to respect your fathers.'"

At this point Bremmer distinguishes the Oedipus myth from others of this type because of the prominence that it places on the incest motif. Despite the fact that sexuality might seem an inevitable part of any myth involving a rite of passage from childhoos to adulthood, it is not the case that the story type Bremmer identifies really is overtly concerned with sexuality of any sort, let alone incest. Thus for bremmer, unlike Levi-Strauss, the incest motif is not just a structural element, but actually means something in ancient Greek culture -- and, he infers, in the modern cultural setting that produced Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.

Here especially Bremmer's investigation takes on a historical dimension. He begins by noting that there exist many Greek myths in which incest is a motif, but in which incest is not regraded as a crime or even as particularly deviant behavior. Further, he argues, the fact that we know of pre-Sophoclean version of the Oedipus story in which Oedipus' mother has a different name indicates that she was originally not an important character in the myth. He therefore concludes that the prominence of Jocasta and of the incest motif are later additions to the myth, and that these additions reflect social consditions at a particular time (and perhaps place) in Greek history. This he identifies as Athens in the fifth century, the social milieu in which Sophocles' "definitive" version of the Oedipus myth was first produced, society in which we know that women were segregated from adult men to an extreme degree and also one in which relations between young men and their fathers was, among the upper classes especially, often far from close. Bremmer finds in this setting fertile ground for the specific relationship between parricide and maternal incest that form the crux of Sophocles' tragedy.

Although he does not go into comparable detail, Bremmer suggests that Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus myth "took place after drastic changes in most women's lives, since in the course of the nineteenth century the social contacts open to women once again became restricted in the upper classes. It seems likely that these developments, coupled with the rise of the nuclear family as we know it today, generated the social environment wich produced the feelings observed by Freud. Even the Oedipus complex has a history" (p. 55).


Whether Bremmer's essay, or any Post-Structural analysis, may be said to involve a "return" to conextualization is open to question. We have seen that Renaissance mythography seems to represent a return to a more "authentic" version of the Greek myths, but that this authenticism is often superficial and, in any case, tells us as much about the time in which it was produced as does any other application of ancient mythology. But between them, Levi-Strauss and Bremmer usefully illustrate the differences between a thoroughly abstract, universalizing approach to ancient mythology and one that seeks to isolate elements of particular importance within the Greek myths in contrast to similar myths produced by other cultures. Levi-Strauss has invented a powerful analytical tool, even if it has certain limitations; and Bremmer, with others, has shown that a judicious assortment of methods can help to reveal that part of what we still find so fascinating about the Greek myths does have to do with their similarity to apparently universal story-types, while another part has to do with the details of the Greek versions and that speak to certain issues of particular relevance at crucial moments in western culture.
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