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Introduction to Anthropology

13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine

Introduction to Anthropology13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define myth.
  • Explain the social importance of myth.
  • Analyze mythic meaning using a structural approach.
  • Explain the importance of oral tradition in religion.

The Role of Myth in Religion

Sometimes, our everyday usage of a word is the same as its scholarly use; when it comes to the word myth, however, this is not the case. Myth is used often in popular culture to mean something that is false or deceptive, a made-up story that is not true, as in the TV series MythBusters. In anthropology, however, myth is defined as a well-known story that explains primary principles, beliefs, and values outside of chronological time. Pieces of a myth may or may not be true. Its veracity is not what matters; it is most important for what it teaches. Many times, the characters within myths are culture heroes, semidivine persons whose experiences and lives serve as a teaching tool, allowing those within the culture to identify with them and learn from their challenges. Myths shape a society’s worldview, explain its origins, and also teach and affirm social norms (Moro 2012).

There are various types of myths, including creation/origin myths, culture hero myths, and animal myths. The study of myth overlaps with many different scholarly disciplines, including anthropology, folklore, mythology studies, and psychology. Anthropology approaches the study of myth by examining each story for its primary messages about the society and culture it comes from.

Creation/origin myths are among the best-known and most universal myths. Among these, a common type of creation story is the earth-diver myth, famously studied by folklorist and anthropologist Alan Dundes (1962). In earth-diver myths, a creator deity sends an agent, usually an animal, into deep waters to find a bit of mud that the deity will use to create dry land and, later, humans. Through this single act, the deity begins a creative cycle that will eventually result in life as it is known today. Although there are cultural differences in the way this myth is told, Dundes argues that the key elements of the myth are universal: a creator deity, an intermediary agent, and humans created from earth elements.

A Brief Structural Analysis of a Myth

Contemporary photograph of an elderly man wearing large glasses and a black suit jacket.
Figure 13.10 Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) collected and analyzed myths as a way of studying culture. (credit: Michel Ravassard, UNESCO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss saw myths as containing both universal messages about shared human experiences and concerns and particular messages about the cultures with which they are associated. His approach to understanding myth is part of the theory of structuralism, and it separates myth into its component parts in order to understand the underlying form—the structure. Lévi-Strauss believed that mythic structure was the same across all cultures. He argued that the concerns of all cultures, expressed within their myths, are very similar. Structural analysis can be very complicated. At each step, as the myth is gradually “stripped down,” the information it reveals is more enlightening. There are approaches to structuralism that can be applied more quickly, however, allowing a more penetrating look at the “real story” within the myth.

A brief version of a structural analysis will have at least three major components: binary oppositions, which are two contrasting concepts; mythemes, which are the stripped-down minimal units, or story components, that form the structure of the myth; and the primary messages of the myth, which are universal. Let’s look at a version of structuralism in action by analyzing a myth from the Tsimshian people of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, collected by Franz Boas in 1916.

The Myth

“The Bear Who Married a Woman,” collected by anthropologist Franz Boas (1916, 192):

  1. Once upon a time there lived a widow of the tribe of the G·i-spa-x-lâ′°ts. Many men tried to marry her daughter, but she declined them all. The mother said, “When a man comes to marry you, feel of the palms of his hands. If they are soft, decline him; if they are rough, accept him.” She meant that she wanted to have for a son-in-law a man skillful in building canoes.
  2. Her daughter obeyed her commands, and refused the wooings of all young men. One night a youth came to her bed. The palms of his hands were very rough, and therefore she accepted his suit. Early in the morning, however, he had suddenly disappeared, even before she had seen him.
  3. When her mother arose early in the morning and went out, she found a halibut on the beach in front of the house, although it was midwinter. The following evening the young man came back, but disappeared again before the dawn of the day. In the morning the widow found a seal in front of the house. Thus they lived for some time. The young woman never saw the face of her husband; but every morning she found an animal on the beach, every day a larger one. Thus the widow came to be very rich.
  4. She was anxious to see her son-in-law, and one day she waited until he arrived. Suddenly she saw a red bear . . . emerge from the water. He carried a whale on each side, and put them down on the beach. As soon as he noticed that he was observed, he was transformed into a rock, which may be seen up to this day. He was a supernatural being of the sea.

The Binary Oppositions

In order to find binary oppositions, one must identity the important points within the myth—what exactly is asserted in the story. The opposite of each of these points, which may or may not be openly expressed in the myth, is the primary term’s opposition. The oppositions form the structure of the myth because they identify what is important. Below are the binary oppositions in the first paragraph of the myth (1). Note that the specific words are not always critical, and sometimes there is more than one version of the quality that can be expressed.

Once upon a time there lived a widow of the tribe of the G·i-spa-x-lâ′ts. (then vs. now, live vs. die, male vs. female, married vs. widowed, together vs. alone, member of the tribe v. nonmember or belong vs. not belong)

Many men tried to marry her daughter, but she declined them all. (many vs. few, men vs. women, marry vs. not marry, daughter vs. son, child vs. childless, accept vs. decline, all vs. none)

The mother said, “When a man comes to marry you, feel the palms of his hands.” (female vs. male, mother vs. father, say vs. not say, man vs. woman, come vs. not come, marry vs. not marry, feel vs. not feel or test vs. not test or do vs. not do, palms of his hands vs. another body part)

“If they are soft, decline him; if they are rough, accept him.” (soft vs. rough, decline vs. accept, rough vs. soft, accept vs. decline)

She meant that she wanted to have for a son-in-law a man skillful in building canoes. (female vs. male, want vs. not want, have a son-in-law vs. not have a son-in-law, man vs. woman, skillful vs. inept)

Even this cursory analysis reveals certain qualities that come up again and again: male versus female, married versus unmarried, belonging versus not belonging (expressed also as accepted versus declined). The emphases seem to be on sex, family, and legitimacy.

The Mythemes

In the “light” version of structuralism, the mythemes are best revealed by retelling the story in shorter and shorter versions, each time with fewer particular details. Using the first paragraph, again:

(original) Once upon a time there lived a widow of the tribe of the G·i-spa-x-lâ′°ts. Many men tried to marry her daughter, but she declined them all. The mother said, “When a man comes to marry you, feel of the palms of his hands. If they are soft, decline him; if they are rough, accept him.” She meant that she wanted to have for a son-in-law a man skillful in building canoes.

(first retelling) Once upon a time there was a widow. Many men tried to marry her daughter, but she declined them all. The mother said, “Feel the palms of his hands, and if they are rough, accept him.” She wanted a son-in-law who was skillful in building canoes.

(second retelling) A widowed mother told her daughter to get a husband with rough hands. She wanted a hardworking son-in-law.

Note how the second version of the story has only mythemes of action and consequence. The information left in the mythemes is the critical information, the major points, of the myth. Lévi-Strauss argued that mythemes reveal universal cross-cultural concerns. All specific “local” information is removed. Considering the myth as a whole, the tribe and the characteristics to avoid can be omitted.

The Primary Messages

In this version of structuralism, the specific ways in which the messages are written are less important than what they are generally saying. The general messages are extracted from the emphasis within the binary oppositions. How much emphasis is put on something such as kinship? Sharing? There are several possible ways to say each of the following, but the central messages in this myth seem to be the following:

  • Be careful what you wish for. (There may be unforeseen consequences to what you think you want.)
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. (Don’t find fault with things that are good.)
  • Family matters. (Kinship is important.)

Oral and Written Religious Traditions

Religion scholars often separate religions into oral traditions, or local or indigenous religions passed down across generations through storytelling, and written traditions, or world religions that are primarily associated with sacred, written texts. While each may use components of the other tradition—oral storytelling is still occasionally used in a religion that is primarily a written tradition, for example—the emphasis on either oral or written worship affects the nature of the religious system in various ways.

Religions that remain primarily oral, such as most tribal and non-state religions, rely on religious performance as a way of bringing history to life instead of storing this cultural knowledge in written form. Most oral traditions have a cyclical connection to time, interpreting the past as repeating in cycles over and over, and see themselves and their ancestors as connected by enduring relationships over time. One of the clearest contemporary examples of this is a concept in the belief systems of various Indigenous Australian peoples commonly known as Dreamtime. In her study of women’s rituals and song lines among the Warlpiri people, Diane Bell (1993) became very interested in the yawulyu tradition, the women’s Dreamtime rituals. Through rituals of song, dance, and ceremony, Warlpiri women bring their ancestors to life. In one specific ritual, they walk paths near their communities where various historic and mythic events are believed to have occurred. These ritualized walks are called storylines because the women believe they are actually reliving the events that occurred in those locations and bringing their ancestors to life by remembering what happened in these meaningful and sacred places. Men have their own storylines and Dreamtime. Among indigenous Australian peoples, as among many small-scale societies, religion is not separate from everyday life. Instead, it infuses what they do and how they think about themselves. Theirs are oral and performative traditions in which they walk alongside their ancestors as they walk the same trails that their ancestors walked and remember them by remembering their stories. In this way, they turn myth into ritual itself, one intermingling with the other. Myths, for the Warlpiri, are alive and relived when they are performed. Dreamtime connects the Warlpiri people to their ancestors and their history and strengthens their cultural identity.

Even in religious faiths that rely primarily on doctrine, storytelling remains critical. The phrase “people of the book,” an Islamic reference to the Abrahamic religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—is used to describe religious traditions that primarily, although not exclusively, rely on text and textual study. Each of these traditions has a primary sacred book used as the foundation of the religion—the Bible in Christianity, the Qur’an in Islam, and the Torah in Judaism. Yet while these traditions are based on scripture (writings), there are also significant oral components in the practice of these faiths. Many of the writings are based on earlier oral traditions and retain characteristics of oral performance, such as repetition for emphasis and to encourage remembering and story units that are self-contained and can be moved around. And each tradition utilizes oral performance in worship, reading aloud from their sacred texts during religious services.

Profiles in Anthropology

Manuel Zapata Olivella

Personal History: Zapata Olivella was born in Lorica, Colombia, in 1920 and studied medicine in the capital at the Universidad de Bogotá, eventually working as a physician and psychiatrist. He traveled throughout Latin America, Europe, and the United States, lecturing in the United States at Howard University and the University of Kansas. When introducing himself at the Library of Congress, he stated, “Soy Manuel Zapata Olivella, colombiano, novelista, médico, y antropólogo” (I am Manuel Zapata Olivella, Colombian, novelist, medical doctor, and anthropologist). His work— academic, literary, and medical—extends across all areas of what it means to be human.

Area of Anthropology: Born into a family of mixed ethnic and racial heritage—his father was of European and African ancestry, and his mother was of Indigenous and Spanish descent—Zapata Olivella was interested in identity and cultural diversity in Colombia. While traveling in the United States in the 1940s, he witnessed segregation and racial discrimination against Black Americans; he returned to Colombia and dedicated himself to studying the culture of afrocolombianos (Colombians of African descent), even as he continued his medical practice.

Accomplishments in the Field: For his ethnographic-literary works, Zapata Olivella received many awards throughout the Americas and Europe. Afro-Hispanic and Americanist scholars today value Zapata Olivella’s work for its cultural detail and focus on an understudied and too often overlooked population.

Importance of His Work: His ethnographic work provided the material for him to write a series of historical novels, the best known of which is Changó, el gran putas (Changó, the badass, 1983), an epic novel tracing the African diaspora from its origins in the slave trade across generations. His work incorporated many of the syncretic religious and mythic elements of contemporary afrocolombianos. Speaking at a national literary event on the importance of studying Afro-Colombian identity and culture today, he said, “For young countries such as ours, to assert our traditions, our evolutionary reality, our creative force is to take possession of ourselves, to come of age” (Zapata Olivella 2010, 185). On the afrocolombiano experience in the Americas, Zapata Olivella published more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories and essays (Selected Correspondence).

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