Department of Social Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand


Ritual and Power – Lecture on myth § 2


31 August 2001



How did different anthropologists approach myth? One of the main ways of interpreting it was through the study of “myth and ritual”, which can be traced to the Scottish Semitist, theologian and Biblical scholar, William Robertson Smith (1846-1894). But first, briefly, on theories of some early scholars…

            Sir E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) considered myths to be expression of a kind of “primitive mentality” that is incompatible with the modern ideas of progress and reason. In his view, myth is totally opposed to and incompatible with science. In order to study the progress of human race, one must study “contemporary primitives”, in whose thought one could observe the creation, function, and development of myths.

            Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) in his monumental Golden Bough (first ed. 1890, abridged edition 1922) tried to explain myths through studies of cultures where they originate. Myths are means by which people make sense of the world, in the progress of human mind (which he saw in three big stages: Magic, Religion, and Science). Frazer interpreted myths symbolically: myths of the death and rebirth of the god of vegetation, for example, testify to the natural cycles of death and rebirth of vegetation itself.

            Andrew Lang (1844-1912) applied a comparative ethnographic method to the study of ancient Greek myths. His intention was to compare “the apparent customs and uses that don’t make sense of the civilised races with the similar customs and uses that can be found among the civilised peoples, which still have their plain signification.” He considered myths of the American Indians, Australian Aborigines, the Bushmen and the Eskimos as the key to understand the mentality of the ancient Greeks.


William Robertson Smith

            Unlike many of his contemporaries, who wrote extensively about peoples and cultures that they had never seen, Smith was able to make several trips to the geographic area of his expertise.  In the winter of 1878/79 he went to Cairo and Palestine. His relatively dark complexion, the fact that he wore native clothes, and his excellent command of Arabic enabled him to blend easily with people and make friends. He returned to the Middle East in 1880, and then traveled extensively throughout the Arabian peninsula all the way to Suez, spending two months at Jeddah and visiting Palestine, Syria, and Tunis (Smith 1912b). He again traveled to the Middle East in 1889 and 1890.

            Details and observations from the 1880 trip were preserved in a series of 11 letters published between February and June 1880 in the Scotsman. In this ethnographic account Smith demonstrates his great knowledge of the countries that he traveled through and the customs of the people inhabiting them.  Unfortunately, he was also a prisoner of the prejudices of his time, quite happy with his own Britishness (ibid.: 493, 500), and not particularly well disposed towards Islam (p. 511). In regard to the distribution of Christian books in the area, he noted that “in the interests of civilisation and of that progress which is seriously retarded by the current Moslem notion that their dry and barren literature is the most perfect that can be considered, it is heartily to be desired that a door should be opened to the circulation of Christian literature” (pp. 566-567). This, among other things, because he believed that “[t]he Koran is the bullwark of all the prejudices and social backwardness in the East” (p. 568).

            Smith came to anthropology after the publication of Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871), and he shared an evolutionist perspective (cf. Smith 1914: 2; Jones 1984: 50-51)[1] with his fellow anthropologists.[2] He firmly believed that Christianity (especially as exemplified in Scottish Presbyterianism) is the highest possible form of religion, although he did give credit to the ancient Semitic peoples (especially the Jews) for being essentially on the right track. Both the Arabs and the Jews, he felt, represented religious practices that Christian religion had to pass in the past, so it was very important to understand these religions (as well as other, “primitive” ones, which could be successfully contrasted with them) in order to fully understand Christianity.   

            The “comparative method” that he advocated was based on the concept of “survivals,” made especially popular by Tylor. These “survivals” were traits of the ancient beliefs and social customs that have been preserved in the contemporary societies, even though their original function and meaning were lost. The main problem with  this method, as pointed out by Margit Warburg, was “that deciding whether something is a survival or not must be based on a priori suppositions of the direction and character of historical development. As a consequence the method easily leads to tautologies and/or becomes supported by prejudices” (1989: 45).    

            In his article “Sacrifice” for the Encyclopædia Britannica, Smith makes a distinction between “natural” and “positive” religions (1886: 132). The former ones (“nature religions of the civilized races of antiquity”) are defined as


... [the] religions which had a predominantly joyous character, and in which the relations of man to the gods were not troubled by any habitual and oppressive sense of human guilt, because the divine standard of man’s duty corresponded broadly with the accepted standard of civil conduct, and therefore, though the god might be angry with his people for a time, or even irreconcilably wroth with individuals, the idea was hardly conceivable that he could be permanently alienated from the whole circle of his worshippers, —  that is, from all who participated in a certain local (tribal or national) cult.                                         

(Smith 1886: 134; cf. also Smith 1914: 285)


            On the other hand, “positive” religions are the ones of the inhabitants of the ancient Near East, or, as Smith put it, “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are positive religions” because they “trace their origin to the teaching of the great religious innovators, who spoke as the organs of a divine revelation, and deliberately departed from the traditions of the past” (1914: 1). Smith also saw these religions as “tribal or national” (1892: 281), a concept which introduced a very important social component into the study of religion.


The god, it would appear, was frequently thought of as the physical progenitor or first father of his people.[3] At any rate, the god and his worshippers formed a natural unity, which was also bound up with the land they occupied... The dissolution of the nation destroys the national religion, and dethrones the national deity. The god can no more exist without his people than the nation without its god  [emphasis mine].[4]                                                          

                                                                        (Smith 1892: 281)

            The supreme deity is associated with the concept of the ruler or king (1886: 133).[5] The local god is in this perspective seen as a mediator between the people and the various aspects of their environment (“nature”), so the worshippers are in a permanent alliance with selected aspects of a natural life (1914: 124). The beginnings of the sociology of religion do not seem too far from realizations like this one:


We are so accustomed to think of religion as a thing between individual men and God that we can hardly enter into the idea of a religion in which a whole nation in its national organisation appears as the religious unit, — in which we have to deal not with the faith and obedience of individual persons, but with the faith and obedience of a nation as expressed in the functions of national life.

                                                                         (Smith 1902: 20)


            This social concept of religion predates Durkheim and, in fact, Durkheim (1982: XV-XVI, 311, 371 ff; cf. also Beidelman 1974: 58) was quite clear in giving Smith the credit that he deserves.[6]

            Like the great majority of his contemporaries (with the notable exception of Müller and his followers), Smith believed that the best way to study religion was to examine its most primitive form. In the case of the Semitic peoples, this form was preserved in the life and customs of the Bedouin pastoralists, an argument that he already made in his book Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885). His emphasis on the social components of religion led him to postulate that it is the action that matters, much more than the belief. The ritual, therefore, must come before the myth. The passage where Smith argued for the supremacy of ritual over myth is one of the most influential passages in the history of anthropology, so I will quote from it extensively:


In all the antique religions, mythology takes the place of dogma; that is, the sacred lore of priests and people, so far as it does not consist of mere rules for the performance of religious acts, assumes the form of stories about gods; and these stories afford the only explanation that is offered of the precepts of religion and the prescribed rules of ritual. But, strictly speaking, this mythology was no essential part of ancient religion, for it had no sacred sanction and no binding force on the worshippers. The myths connected with individual sanctuaries and ceremonies were merely part of the apparatus of the worship; they served to excite the fancy and sustain the interest of the worshipper; but he was often offered a choice of the several accounts of the same thing, and, provided that he fulfilled the ritual with accuracy, no one cared what he believed about its origin. Belief in a certain series of myths was neither obligatory as a part of the true religion, nor was it supposed that, by believing, a man acquired religious merit and conciliated the favour of the gods. What was obligatory or meritorious was the exact performance of certain acts prescribed by religious tradition. This being so, it follows that mythology ought not to take the prominent place that is too often assigned to it in the scientific study of ancient faiths. So far as the myths consist of explanation of ritual, their value is altogether secondary, and it may be affirmed with confidence that in almost every case the myth was derived from the ritual and not the ritual from the myth; for the ritual was fixed and the myth was variable, the ritual was obligatory and faith in the myth was at the discretion of the worshipper. (...) As a rule the myth is no explanation of the origin of the ritual to any one who does not believe it to be a narrative of real occurrences, and the boldest mythologist will not believe that. But if it not be true, the myth itself requires to be explained, and every principle of philosophy and common sense demand that the explanation be sought, not in arbitrary allegorical categories, but in the actual facts of ritual or religious custom to which the myth attaches. The conclusion is, that in the study of ancient religions we must begin, not with myth, but with ritual and traditional usage.

                                                            (Smith 1914: 17-18, passim)


            Smith believed that ritual should be considered before myth not only in order of importance (unlike the majority of the studies of his time), but that ritual literally preceded myth in time (Beidelman 1974: 64). Actions come first, human attempts to explain and rationalize them afterwards.[7] This passage can also be understood as a reaction against the generalizations on the lines of the idea of the “primitive science” of the “savages,” as expressed by Lang (1884, 1887, 1911). Smith obviously believed that too much attention in the works of his time was being devoted to the beliefs and “stories about gods,” at the expense of the rituals. Rituals should form the basis of any serious scholarship on “primitive religion,” since they are essentially social in character, and since they reaffirm places and roles of average human beings within their communities (ethnic groups or tribes). What these individuals believed (or did not believe) in was a matter of their personal choice. What they were performing or participating in was not.

            In the commentary to the third edition of the Lectures, Stanley A. Cook noted that myths “are specifically of personal interest, but, in general, they appeal differently to the different types of mind in normal mixed communities” (Smith 1969: 502). The notion of the “personal interest” is very important here, considering Smith’s emphasis on the social components in all religions. Naturally, since the “positive religions” are much more elaborate and “advanced,” this social component becomes more prominent in them. Myths might have been more important to the less civilized cultures, but in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they play a secondary role, more as a remnant and a reminder of the less civilized stages through which even these religions had to pass. 

            In his commentary Cook distinguished between “primary” and “secondary” myths (Smith 1969: 500-503). The “primary” ones are connected with the system of beliefs and the specific worldview, and they are primarily associated with the ritual action. On the other hand, “secondary” ones are less important in terms of their value. “They are based upon misunderstandings (e.g. of images, words, names); they are explanations of explanations, the key to an old tradition having been lost” (Smith 1969: 501). It is possible for these myths to get “purified” and reworked into the “pleasing tales,” but in all cases these myths are very remote from the concepts associated with them in “primitive” cultures. While accepting the concept of the greater importance of ritual action, Cook also noted “the risk of going into another extreme and making the distinction between myth and ritual too absolute” (ibid.). 

            Although Smith’s theory received high praise by some of the leading scholars at the beginning of the 20th century (cf. Reinach 1911: 437-438), it stood in sharp contrast to the view about the complexity of the material that myths consisted of (Lang 1884, 1911). Andrew Lang has already profoundly influenced the study of myth with his notion that myths should be studied as some kind of a “primitive science.” The idea of the essential difference between different cultures was the fatal blow to the comparative study of myths.  There is a degree of similarity necessary for any comparison, and Lang showed that this degree is not present in, for example, ancient Greek and Australian Aboriginal cultures. 

            The concept of the subordination of myth to ritual was already challenged in the articles for the another monument of scholarship, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Fallaize 1924). In the same project, Hartley Burr Alexander (1924: 752) noted that “the meaning does not stop with the notion of act, it is also the attitude.” The attitude is influenced by the belief, which is in its turn influenced by the faculty, etc. The explanation of ritual action is extremely complex, and if we attempt to understand myths primarily as something subordinate to rituals, we will not get very far. The implications of Smith’s views for the study of totemism have been criticized by Cook (1902),[8] and his theory has been completely rejected by the disciples of Durkheim, especially Mauss (1982). It is no wonder that Smith’s view of myth and ritual did not exercise great influence in the history of religion, sociology of religion, and related disciplines.[9] Anthropology, however, was a completely different story.


Myth and Ritual in anthropology


            William Robertson Smith was the first scholar who tried to define the relationship between myth and ritual. As already shown above, he clearly gave the preference to ritual. This influenced anthropologists after him to the effect that they were primarily looking at the social (sociological) aspects of the cultures and societies that they were studying. The myths were considered important primarily because they could tell something about the social organization, kinship, customs, etc. 

            The importance of myths was clearly recognized from the beginnings of anthropology as a scientific discipline in the late 1880s. Chapters on “beliefs” and “rituals” were standard in all major ethnographies. A view of the founder of the American anthropology, Franz Boas (1858-1942), was that the native peoples’ customs and rituals were rapidly disappearing in light of huge technological advances and enormous colonial expansion. This was leading to the permanent disappearance of something that Boas saw as the legacy of the whole world. One way to preserve this legacy was to go to the field and record Native American narratives — as many as possible.  

            Of course, now we know that the Native American societies were constantly changing and adapting under new circumstances, not disappearing, but the misconception of Boas and his followers led to the production of some excellent collections of narratives. In fact, no period can match the amount of ethnographic data gathered on the Native American cultures in the two decades at the beginning of our century. Tsimshian Mythology stands as perhaps the finest example of scholarship from this period. 

            In this magnificent volume, Boas attempted to present a summary of the customs and society of Tsimshian Indians from the British Columbia. This account was based on the stories collected by a native Tsimshian, Henry W. Tate. Boas also attempted to make a distinction between myths and tales (1916: 31), but without much success, since for the Tsimshians, there was no difference — at least none that the outside observer could be aware of. In the end, he settled for a compromise, describing the subject of this volume “a series of tales all of which are considered by the Tsimshian as myths” (1916: 595). 

            The issue of distinguishing between myths and “ordinary” or “folk” tales has puzzled anthropologists since Andrew Lang. The problem was clearly recognized by the functionalists, beginning with Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942). 

            Malinowski’s field work experience came virtually as an accident, since he was stranded at the Trobriand Islands, off the Northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea, during the WW I (1915-1918). This experience eventually resulted in a monograph devoted to the Trobriand islanders (Malinowski 1979[10]). Parts of this monograph deal with the myths and rituals connected with the Kula. Malinowski believed that myths represent a “pragmatic charter,” a set of rules or codes of conduct, that enable the social functions of the culture to flourish. “The myth comes into play when rite, ceremony, or a social or moral rule demands justification, warrant of antiquity, reality, and sanctity” (1926: 28). Like Boas before him, Malinowski sought to distinguish between three types of tales that he encountered in the Trobriand Islands. Unlike fairy tales and legends, which are told “for amusement” and as “a social statement” intended to “satisfy social ambition” (Malinowski, ibid.), myth is “a reality lived” (1926: 18), “not symbolic, but a direct expression of its subject-matter; it is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality” (1926: 19). 

            This, of course, stood in sharp contrast to the words of Smith, since for Malinowski, myths offer justification for belief. They are again intimately associated with rituals (on mythology of the Kula, see Malinowski 1979: 196-198, 256 ff), but in an inverted order of importance. Even if rituals do come first, myths are necessary in order to comprehend their meaning and true function. If rituals form a reenactment of the events that are considered to have happened in another reality,[11] myths are necessary in order to place individuals (and the society or the culture itself) within that reality.

            In the Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski distinguished between several classes of myths (1979: 268-270). The ancient myths describe events that occurred when the earth was being inhabited from the underworlds, and they are related to the origin of the first human beings, clans, and villages, as well as the relationship between this world and any future world. The culture myths relate to ogres and cannibals, as well as to the human beings that institute certain customs and ceremonies. They relate to the events when human beings already inhabit the earth, and when the social customs are already established. Stories about the Trobriand culture hero, Tudawa, were also included within this class. Finally, the third class consists of myths in which only ordinary human beings appear. These human beings do have extraordinary powers (magic, which is, for Malinowski, closely related to religion), and these stories describe the origins of witchcraft, love potions, flying canoes (1979: 275-279), as well as some Kula myths.

            Of course, many myths fall within two or even all three of these categories (1979: 269), and the distinctions between them are not always clear. The main force that lies behind the life of the Trobriands is inertia of the customs (1979: 288). Since the Trobriands pay so much attention to the customs, Malinowski concluded that “the past is more important than the present” (ibid.). Stories from the past also possess an element of universality (everybody knows them and everybody talks about them), and this contributes to the normative function of myths. 

            The emphasis on normative and social aspects clearly distinguishes anthropology from the other disciplines that deal with myths, like philosophy (Ricœur 1990), history (Ricœur 1987), or history of religions (Boon 1987). Another important distinction is the emphasis of anthropologists and ethnologists since Smith on the ritual action itself. As far as anthropologists and ethnologists are concerned, this emphasis was mostly taken for granted, and myths and rituals were studied together, without any attempt to clarify their relationship. One of the first anthropologists that attempted to clarify this relationship was Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-1960). 

            In his seminal article “Myths and Rituals: A General Theory,” originally presented in 1939,[12] Kluckhohn elaborated on the “connection between rite and myth,” clearly recognized by the psychoanalysts like Reik and Freud, who “verbally agreed to Robertson Smith’s proposition that mythology was mainly a description of ritual” (1942: 45-46). This reference to psychoanalytical interpretations is not an accident, since Kluckhohn was very interested in various psychological explanations (1942: 50-52), which he believed to have been neglected in prior anthropological research. He also pointed at the difficulties of making a clear distinction between myths, legends, and fairy tales (1942: 46-47) — unlike Malinowski before him.[13] He did consider a definition of myth as a “sacred tale” (p. 47),[14] but found it unsatisfactory because of the lack of association with ritual.[15] And, while there are cultures that associate myths and rituals (Kluckhohn gave an example of the Christian Mass), there are clearly others (and here he drew on his extensive fieldwork experience among Navahos and Pueblos) that do not. As a matter of fact, “the whole question of the primacy of ceremonial or mythology is as meaningless as all the questions of ‘the hen or the egg’ form” (1942: 54). 

            The truly important thing is the recognition of the “intricate interdependence of myth (which is one form of ideology) with ritual and many other forms of behavior” (ibid.). Here Kluckhohn gave full credit to Malinowski (Malinowski 1926), although he in fact went much further by pointing at the potential absurdity of another “hen or egg” type problem. Together with Boas and Benedict, Kluckhohn opposed any grand generalizations or “simplistic statements.” There is no practical way to establish the primacy of one or the other, but one can only look at the “general tendency” within specific culture. This tendency will depend on a number of specific cultural traits, as well as on the individual responses to these traits (1942: 70). In the end, Kluckhohn remained close to the psychology-influenced theories, since he concludes that “[m]yths and rituals equally facilitate the adjustment of the individual to his society” (p. 74). They have “a common psychological basis” (p. 78), and in a sense they are “supra-individual.” They are both “cultural products, part of the social heredity of a society” (p. 79). 

            The idea of both myth and ritual as cultural products was further developed by Sir Edmund Leach (1910-1989). Like Malinowski, Leach was caught up during the war (in his case, WW II) in the area where he was doing his field work, Burma (Myanmar). Several years before (in 1938), his fieldwork in Kurdistan had been frustrated by another political crisis (München declaration), so this almost looked like a pattern. However, Leach was able to save most of his field notes, and, after the intensive archival work after the war, he was able to put forth his monograph on the Political Systems of Highland Burma in 1954. 

            Like Smith’s, Leach’s discussion of myth and ritual is rather brief, confined to less than seven pages of the Introduction. Unlike most of his famous predecessors, Leach did not attempt to define ritual, and from his perspective any particular definition (except one as broad as “a system of symbolic communication” [cf. Aimer 1987: 7]) is irrelevant. What is relevant is the very specific context he provides for any situation where rituals are observed. In this approach, Leach attempted to reconcile divergent views represented by Durkheim, Mauss, and Malinowski before him. The solution, in his opinion, was a view of a ritual as something related to technique just as sacred is related to profane. They “do not denote types of action but aspects of almost any kind of action.” Ritual “is a symbolic statement which ‘says’ something about the individuals involved in the action” (1970: 13).

            “Myth, in my terminology, is the counterpart of ritual; myth implies ritual, ritual implies myth, they are one and the same” (ibid.).  In this sense, Leach consciously stepped away from what he regarded to be “the classical doctrine in English social anthropology” which, according to him, claimed


 that myth and ritual are conceptually separate entities which perpetuate one another through functional interdependence — the rite is a dramatization of the myth, the myth is the sanction or charter for the rite (...) As I see it, myth regarded as a statement in words ‘says’ the same thing as ritual regarded as a statement in action. To ask questions about the content of belief which are not contained in the content of ritual is nonsense

                                                                        (1970: 13-14)


            This presents a radical break with the functionalism, and an important step towards the structural interpretations of myth.[16] For Leach, myths are only “one way of describing certain types of human behavior” (p. 14). Furthermore, “ritual action and belief are alike to be understood as forms of symbolic statement about the social order” (ibid.). This is possible because rituals in their cultural contexts are always patterns of symbols, and they have the same structure as the other pattern of symbols, consisting of the phrases and technical terms that the anthropologist devises in order to interpret them (1970: 15). 

            This structure is “the system of socially approved ‘proper’ relations between individuals and groups” (ibid.). Although this system is not always practically recognized, “if anarchy is to be avoided,” members of the society must be reminded of the underlying structure that provides the frame for all of their social activities. “Ritual performances have this function for the participating group as a whole; they momentarily make explicit what is otherwise a fiction” (p. 16). 

            In a later stage of his career, during his experiments with the interpretation of the Biblical myths, Leach came to regard myths as information (1969: 8; cf. supra, p. 7), not unlike the bits in the contemporary information systems. However, he eventually rejected this view and the structuralism notion of the universal processes in human minds as a kind of “metaphysics.”[17] His negative attitude towards grand generalizations places him as one of the important predecessors of the “narrative approach.”

            In 1955, the article “The Structural Study of Myth” by Claude Lévi-Strauss

(b. 1908) announced the coming of structuralism to the anthropological study of myth.  In this extraordinary article, the French professor argued that we should proceed directly from the apparent contradictions that myths pose (1963: 208). Myths offer direct insights into the ways the human mind operates. Although Lévi-Strauss studied myths of American Indians (from both North and South America), he considered the cognitive processes to be universal – hence, myths provide us with the key to understand how the human mind functions.

            Just like Frazer before him, Lévi-Strauss advocated symbolic approach to the study of myths. (Unlike Frazer, of course, there are no “primitives” for L-S, the most traditional and pre-literate society is just as complex as any industrialized society.) Approximately at the same time as Leach, but more clearly and much more explicitly, Lévi-Strauss recognized myths as communication. In fact, he recognized a clear connection between myths and language (since myths are expressed through language). Along the lines of the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Assure, as well as Trubetzkoy, Jakobson and Hjelmslev,[18] Lévi-Strauss recognized another system of signs that could be interpreted in a similar way as language.  Since myth, just like language, is made of constitutive units, these units “presuppose the constituent units present in language when analyzed on other levels — namely, phonemes, morphemes, and sememes — but they, nevertheless, differ from the latter in the same way as the latter differ among themselves; they belong to a higher and a more complex order” (1963: 210-211). He called these units mythemes.  It is only through the analysis of the relations of different mythemes (whose structure remains in the unconscious) that we can understand the meaning of a myth. Understood in this way, we can say that myth, using Saussurean terminology, should serve as a kind of an allochronic device, bridging the gap between the synchronic and diachronic perspective. 

            Lévi-Strauss began teaching Amerindian “mythology” in 1952/53, and in an outline of his first course, he presented three ways of analyzing a myth: “in terms of the reversible or irreversible character of the sequences present in it,” in terms of “the tests of commutability,” and, finally, “the myth, considered as a thought ritual, is submitted to a direction which is in some way natural and emerges from the analysis of ritual considered as an acted myth. This third method provides a valuable verification of the results obtained by the other two” (1987: 200-201).

            His view of the relationship between myth and ritual is a little bit more elaborated in his lectures for 1954/55. Unlike his predecessors (especially Leach), Lévi-Strauss pointed at the fact that in many cases (he was still working primarily with the Amerindian material, mostly Pueblo and Pawnee) there is no proof of the interrelationship between myth and ritual. 


There is no myth underlying the ritual as a whole, and when foundation myths exist, they generally bear on details of the ritual which appear secondary or supernumerary. However, if myth and ritual do not mirror each other, they often reciprocally complete each other, and it is only by comparing them that one can formulate hypotheses on the nature of certain intellectual strategies typical of the culture under consideration.

                                                            (Lévi-Strauss 1987: 204)


            In a way, this brings us full circle in the consideration of the relationship between myth and ritual. For Lévi-Strauss (as for Smith, but for entirely different reasons), this relationship is not a matter of great importance. Theoretically speaking, any myth can be reenacted just by being spoken (narrated or written down). As far as the meaning of the myths and their interpretation is concerned, rituals are irrelevant. 

            Although it exercised enormous influence in anthropology (Mandelbaum 1987), Lévi-Strauss’ theory of the interpretation of myth was severely criticized (for example, Kirk 1970, Cohen 1969: 345-347).[19] Some of his basic theoretical assumptions were questioned by Geertz (1973, 1988) and Ricœur (1981, 1987, 1990). While acknowledging its importance, Ricœur criticized structural analysis for “de-chronologizing” the narrative, since “[the] structural analysis tends to reduce the role of plot to a secondary function of figuration in relation to underlying logical structures and the transformation of these structures” (1981: 280).

            Barthes (1988: 170) questioned the binary oppositions that form the basis of

Lévi-Strauss’ (and all other structural) theoretical models:


Binarism is seductive logical hypothesis: we know its success in phonology, in cybernetics, even in physiology. Yet limits are already appearing, and certain compromises are required; Martinet refuses to grant a universal  status to the binarism of phonological oppositions, and Jakobson has completed the schema of the binary opposition (a/b) by the adjunction of two derived terms, one neutral (neither a nor b), the other mixed (both a and b); Lévi-Strauss himself has often acknowledged the importance of the neutral term or zero degree.[20]


            It can be argued that, by taking the structuralist method from Saussurean linguistics, Lévi-Strauss tries to extend the usefulness of this method far beyond the Saussure’s original intent. In doing this, he would have to modify significantly the method itself (which he does not do) in order to succeed. Nevertheless, the structuralist insistence on language (Saussurean langue and parole, von Humboldt’s ergon and energia), as well as on the use of signs and symbols in the explanation of myths, was the important step forward. In more than a century since Smith’s death, the world had changed. So have our attempts to understand it.

[1] The following lines from Lectures provide a good example: “Savages, we know, are not only incapable of separating in thought between phenomenal and noumenal existence, but habitually ignore the distinctions, which to us seem obvious, between organic and inorganic nature, or within the former region between animals and plants” (1914: 85-86).

[2] With the possible exception of Lang who, while drawing heavily on Tylor’s work in his earlier publications (1885, 1887), is very critical of both Tylor and Frazer in his Magic, Science, and Religion (1901).

[3] On the concept of the deity as father (“progenitor and lord”), cf. Smith 1886: 135.

[4] Cf. Smith 1912a: 463: “There is nothing surprising in the conception that the worshippers are sons of their god.”  On the “kinship between gods and men,” cf. also Smith 1914: 87-88. “Broadly speaking, the land of a god corresponds with the land of his worshippers; Canaan is Jehovah’s land as Israel is Jehovah’s people,” in the same way as “the land of Assyria (Asshur) has its name from the god Asshur” (1914: 92). Smith also ventures in the attempts to explain the concept of the holy (1914: 91ff), making the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Like many other aspects of his work, this distinction came into the anthropology via Durkheim.

[5] This closely corresponds to information that has been gained from subsequent research into the extensive written records of the ancient Near Eastern cities, since it seems that all of them had a principal deity, who was paired with a consort (Pritchard 1991: 68). The ancient Greek texts, beginning with the Iliad and Odyssey, indicate the same pattern.

[6] “Émile Durkheim indicated that he owed Smith his insights regarding the close relation between people’s perceptions of nature and their experience in society, his views on the periodic need for ritual to reinforce social beliefs and values, and his method of explaining religion in terms of the irreducible elements exhibited in its most primitive state” (Beidelman 1987: 366). 

[7] A similar view was expressed in the early 1940s by Susanne K. Langer (1971: 126 ff), who noted that “[i]t is not at all impossible that ritual, solemn and significant, antedates the evolution of language” (1971: 128). Cassirer also believed (following the predominant anthropological theories of his time) that ritual comes before myth (cf. Krois 1987: 85-99).

[8] S. A. Cook actually noted that if Smith was still alive, he would have modified his position (1902: 447).    

[9] With the exception of the British and Scandinavian “myth and ritualists” (cf. Harrelson 1987).

[10]  All the page references refer to the Serbo-Croatian edition of the Argonauts (Argonauti zapadnog pacifika, BIGZ, Beograd, 1979).

[11] Which is, nevertheless, as real as the one that we live in.

[12] Several years before this article, an interesting (although very brief) discussion on the value of “Myth and Ritual” approach was published in the September and November 1936 issues of Man.  On the one side was the greatest anthropological proponent of this approach, A. M. Hocart. On the other side was the famous Classical scholar H. J. Rose.  Rose’s expertise in a specific area (ancient Greece) outweighed Hocart’s general argumentation.

[13] A clear impossibility of making this kind of distinction was demonstrated by Kirk (1974: 31-37) on the material from Greece. 

[14] Nevertheless, there is at least one place in the text (1942: 59) where he does use this definition himself.

[15] In this article, Kluckhohn uses words ritual, rite, and ceremony interchangeably.

[16] The works of Lévi-Strauss became better known in the English-speaking world only after 1955.  However, it is reasonable to expect that Leach was aware to a certain extent of some of his concepts before that.

[17] The word “metaphysics” is used in this context in the same sense as it is used by Popper and logical positivists: to denote something that cannot be proved or disproved by a rational argumentation, and something that is, therefore, not worthy of any discussion. Lévi-Strauss sometimes himself stressed the intuitive part in his reasoning (Lévi-Strauss 1978).

[18] For the practical as well as theoretical aspects of their works, I refer to Nöth 1990. See also chapter on myth (almost exclusively dedicated to the structuralist aspects of study) in this volume (1990: 374-377). 

[19] For the reply to Kirk (and Mary Douglas), see Lévi-Strauss 1987: 96-101.

[20] For example, see his Introduction in Mauss’ Sociology and Anthropology (originally published 1950). [This is also referred to in a footnote by Barthes.]