Mythemes are units of narrative features we can use to compare different myths from around the world. The concept was devised in the 1950s by Claude Lévi-Strauss who wanted a more scientific approach to analysing tribal stories and folklore. By breaking down myths into their characters, actions and themes, Strauss hoped he could quantify culturally important meanings and celebrate our rich diversity of thinking.
Why Study Myths?
Lévi-Strauss believed anthropologists were too quick to dismiss myths as “idle play” or a “coarse kind of speculation” because he recognised the stories expressed “fundamental feelings common to the whole of mankind”, offered some sort of “explanations for phenomena” science had yet to explain, and reflected complex “social structure and social relations”.
He was also fascinated by the “astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions”. Could closer scrutiny of myths help develop our understanding of the world and reveal something about mankind?
Lévi-Strauss needed a way to compare and contrast myths. He needed a method.
Mytheme and Semiotics
After splitting signs into two parts, the signifier and signified, Ferdinand de Saussure established the principle of an arbitrary relationship between signs and their meaning. For instance, there is no reason whatsoever the combination of sounds which form the word “water” should refer to its equivalent in the real world. Lévi-Strauss applied a similar approach to analysing myths.
A mytheme consists of the narrative feature and what it signifies.
However, in the same way the Latin “aqua” was perfectly fine for centuries, Lévi-Strauss also realised myths and their individual units were influenced by the culture that produced the story. The physical form of the mytheme might change, but its “properties” will remain.
He also argued we can update and translate myths, but their meanings will be “preserved” because mythemes contain “properties… above the ordinary linguistic level”. That process sounds a lot like Roland Barthes’ second order of signification – myth. But please do not confuse the two terms.
Character, Action and Theme
In order to collect useful data, Lévi-Strauss had to devise his own way of breaking down myths into units of meaning he could use to compare and contrast the narratives. He identified character, action and theme to be their smallest elements.
Lévi-Strauss illustrated this approach by comparing the Greek myths of Cadmus slaying the dragon and Oedipus killing the Sphinx. Both of these monsters are trying to destroy mankind. Although some of the specific details in the stories are different, the signification remains the same – men overcoming the supernatural to save society.
If you are already familiar with Vladimir Propp’s character types and spheres of action, you will appreciate Lévi-Strauss’ method here. You can also see this approach in the way Roland Barthes divided stories into lexias so he could classify the narrative codes.
Once you have identified the various mythemes, you can start arranging them into semantic packets and try to uncover some of the underlying meanings in the myths.
Mythemes and the Media
Although Lévi-Strauss was investigating classical myths and tribal stories, we can use his ideas to find out more about our own culture and society because media texts often reveal our dominant values and beliefs. Since the media has an agenda-setting function and helps to normalise views and attitudes, the study of its output is essential in the fight against inequality and injustice, especially when important ideas are misrepresented and minority groups are reduced to inappropriate stereotypes.
Mythemes and Superheroes
Here is a quick and obvious example of using mythemes to interpret contemporary texts. Batman, Superman and Shazam are different superheroes who use their powers and skills to protect mankind from various forces of evil. Think about their origin stories. Batman’s parents are killed outside the theatre, Superman’s parents remain on Krypton, and Shazam loses his parents to a mysterious accident when they are an archaeological dig.
Each of these narrative actions could be considered a mytheme. What do these semantic echoes reveal about our culture and our understanding of the world?
By the way, Lévi-Strauss identified bloodlines as an important feature in the Cadmus and Oedipus stories.