Classical Mythology/Structuralism

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Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens

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What is a myth?



Structuralism arose out of linguistic theory, particularly the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. There are several different structuralist approaches to myth, but they share a common view that a myth cannot be interpreted in isolation but only has meaning within an entire cultural system or structure of myth.

Consider a linguistic example. The word brat

  • in English brat means an obnoxious person, usually a child or younger person
  • in Serbocroatian and many slavic languages brat means "brother"
  • in German brat can be a command, meaning "Roast!"

In short, there is no inherent meaning in the arbitrary sounds of the word brat. Each community of language speakers agrees on the meaning of the word. Within the system of English it has one meaning. In another system it has another meaning. The meaning of the word needs to be understood in context.


A structuralist interpretation attempts to see how a myth fits with other myths from the same culture or from many cultures. A few detailed examples will be presented later, but consider these patterns:

  • A young girl of marriageable age, refuses marriage but somehow is abducted/raped/transformed by a god (Persephone, Daphne, Cyrene,Io)
  • A male god or hero connected to the sky proves himself and establishes power by defeating a female goddess/creature from the sea ( Zeus and Typhoeus, Marduk and Tiamat, Heracles and the Hydra, Achilles and Scamander )
  • A male hero is given a mission that involves overcoming death, by rescuing someone from the underworld, getting healing/resurrecting/immortality powers, or somehow taking some token of power away from death. Although the hero does not win immortality or gain full mastery over death, some notion of overcoming death is central to the myth. ( Heracles and the Apples of Hesperides, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Perseus and Medusa's head, Gilgamesh and Enkidu )

Each of these patterns occurs many times in the system of Greek mythology. It makes sense to consider how all the myths work together instead of considering just one example of the pattern.

The linguistic underpinnings of structuralism go even deeper. Linguists call the basic sound units of a language phonemes. For example, English includes the voiceless T sound and the voiced D sound. The only difference between the two is there is more vibration of the vocal chords i the D. The fact that this distinction has meaning to English speakers is shown by the fact that brad is a different word from brat, although the only difference is the two sounds T and D. The sound systems are often made manifest through the binary opposition of elements (here voiced D and voiceless T).

Languages also have morphemes, parts of words that convey grammatical information. For example, the Latin word perturbabitur contains these morphemes:

  • per --extremely, very
  • turba -- turn, spin
  • bi -- (future, in the future)
  • t -- he, she it
  • ur -- (passive)

The combination of these morphemes yields the word perturbabitur meaning "It will be thoroughly turned around (confused)."

So several morphemes can combine to form a word, or lexeme. Linguists have demonstrated how languages develop complex syntax rules for putting the words together into sentences. The studies of historical linguistics, phonology, and syntax have yielded impressive scientific results for understanding language, thoughts, and the brain. Structuralism began as an attempt by scholars of myth and folktales to put myths on a similar scientific footing. They hoped that just as sounds combine in a logical, grammatical fashion to form words, which combine with a logically structured syntax to produce sentences, so to sentences combine in a structured way to produce stories.

Linguistic Unit Definition Example
phoneme smallest unit of meaningful sounds T
morpheme smallest grammatical unit of meaning -ed (the ending for verb past tense in English)
lexeme basic unit of meaning at the word level download
mytheme a basic unit of narrative structure A god impregnates a mortal woman.

How can the linguistic underpinnings of structuralism help explain myths? Here is an attempt to define myths using structuralism:

A myth is the sum of all stories of a particular type within a cultural system; furthermore the meaning and interpretation of the myth is only clear when one views how it relates to the other myths in the same system.

Polyphemus the cyclops (right) eating one of Odysseus's companions. The cannibalism is compounded by a violation of the food code.

This definition, and structuralism in general, runs the risk of being too vague to be useful. However, many scholars have pursued structural understandings of Greek myths and other myths that have given great insight into the myth systems. A frequent structuralist interpretation of Greek myths is the Food Code. In many Greek myths, a series of oppositions and identities is set up around the foods that creatures eat. The foods distinguish mankind from animals, and mankind from gods.

Being Food Violation
animals raw meat, unprocessed vegetables Polyphemus the cyclops eats Odysseus's companions raw, showing that he is not human.
humans cooked meat, processed foods (wine, cheese, olives) Demeter accidentally eats a boiled piece of Pelops' shoulder.
gods smoke of sacrifice, ambrosia, nectar The Hymn to Hermes has Hermes wanting to eat the meat of sacrifice, but instead resisting and just enjoying the smoke.

The main alimentary code is built around the rite of sacrifice. Almost every slaughter of a domestic mammal or bird was understood as a rite of sacrifice dedicated to a deity. Every time ancient Greeks or Romans ate meat, they validated and confirmed these classes of beings.


Theories of Myth Interpretation[edit]

References[edit]


Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens

Return to
What is a myth?