Levi-Strauss and Structural Analysis

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Introduction to Structural Analysis

We examined the motif of living water in Slavic tradition in

Slavic Origins of Living Water

Now that the common Slavic origin of the motif is confirmed, the collected Eastern Slavic folktales of Afanasev will be used as a data base from which to apply the analytical methodology of Levi-Strauss. By applying his methods of structural analysis to these tales, the underlying mythical thought behind the living water motif may emerge. A complete description of structural analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, but the specific aspects which are incorporated into this investigation can be summarized in the paragraphs that follow.

Structural anthropology derived many of its concepts from linguistics. In fact, the very system of basic concepts, elements and their relations has been taken from structural linguistics. Roman Jakobson considered the phoneme to be a relational element, a purely differential and meaningless sign.1 Just as in mathematics, where a point is defined by its relationship to other points, la langue is a system of relations whose elements are defined in differential terms with other phonemes.2 Levi-Strauss uses this relational concept of phonemics as a methodological model for research in mythology. He formulates the pertinent distinctions between mythical elements and derives the rules which govern their relations.3 Just as Jakobson used phonemes to describe linguistic structure, Levi-Strauss analyzes the relationship between elements that he calls "mythemes." Mythemes consist of bundles of relations which produce meaning.4 He does not study the individual mythemes, but the relationships between them, and by studying the interplay of binary oppositions and transformation rules he concludes that mythemes are oppositive, relative and negative entities.5 A mytheme therefore exists on a higher level than a narrative element and is not tied to a particular tale. It is defined only in opposition to another mytheme.6

Mythical Structure

According to Levi-Strauss' methodology, determining the nature of a relation is similar to deriving the meaning of an unknown word on the basis of its syntax. To understand the meaning of the word, the word must be analyzed in as many contexts as possible. This is accomplished by examining its syntactic relation to the other parts of the sentences in which it is used. By analogy mythemes emerge from an analysis of the structural oppositions produced by the narrative elements of as many folktale variants as possible. These oppositions represent a mythical structure which transcends the apparent arbitrariness of folklore elements. The overall scheme of functions, conjunctive elements, motivations, forms of appearance of dramatis personae, and attributive elements often vary considerably between folktales and sometimes even between variants of the same tale. However, because the oppositions forming myth transcend these differences the mythical structure is preserved. Levi-Strauss therefore disputes the attempts of earlier scholars to find the "true" or "preferred" version of a particular tale. He contends that all variants should be taken into account and analyzed structurally.7

Next we examine a specific example of how the methods of Levi-Strauss can be applied:

Structural Analysis of the Living Water Motif in Slavic Folklore


1Levi-Strauss, Claude, The View from Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschal and Phoebe Hoss (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 145.

2Culler, Jonathon, Structural Poetics, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 11.

3ibid., p. 31.

4Levi-Strauss, Claude, Structural Anthropology, (New York: Basic Books, 1976), I:211.

5Levi-Strauss, The View from Afar, pp. 115, 144-145.

6ibid., p. 145.

7Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology,, I:217-218.