March 27, 2008


Gustave Dore's illustration of Little Red Riding Hood, courtesy of wikipedia.

The nature of myth is the theme at Goat Rope these days, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Maybe you've noticed that many myths and folktales follow a sort of pattern. In a typical Appalachian Jack tale, the eponymous hero leaves home to seek his fortune. He finds out about or runs right smack dab into some problem. Along the way, he is tested by a stranger and does the right thing. The stranger then gives Jack some help along the way. He then beats the haint (or king or giant or dragon or witch or whatever), gets the girl and then goes home.

Lots of tales are different but there is usually a pattern.

The Russian scholar Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) collected and traced the patterns in Russian folktales. He found that most were built around a quest pattern and contained certain elements or functions--31 to be exact--and a certain number of stock characters (he came up with seven, including typically the good guy, the bad guy, and the girl). What makes tales vary from each other is more the sequence of elements or functions than differences about characters.

A similar schema could easily explain most of the movies I've seen...

One approach to myth that sees people as basically wired to come up with patterns and narratives is called structuralism. The best known structuralist theorist was Claude Levi-Strauss, who aside from some fieldwork in Brazil was mostly an armchair anthropologist.

Levi-Strauss is as far as I can tell almost impossible to read, but here's the Goat Rope version: people are wired to classify things, often into binary pairs of opposites like night/day, raw/cooked, living/dead, etc. Every society does it, although each does it differently.

The elements of such a system only make sense in the context of the system itself, like a letter only makes sense as part of the alphabet or a playing card only makes sense as part of a full deck or a pawn as part of a chess set. The parts are only understandable as pieces of the whole. One function of myth is to mediate between the pairs of binary oppositions.

Note: I'm probably not getting that right, but what do you expect from a goat herder?

Of all the theories of myth discussed in this series, I find structuralism to be among the most intriguing, although it's as impossible to prove as it is to read. I do think we're wired to think in binary terms even when we shouldn't and we seem pre-packaged for story and metaphor as well.

MORE ON IRAQ. Here's more on the cost, human and financial. Here's a local op-ed on the Iraq mess by Carli Mareneck. And here's coverage on the unraveling of the surge.

NEW PROGRESSIVE BLOG. Check out The Wonk Room.

COAL AND HEALTH. Here's more on the WVU study of health in coal counties.

YES, VIRGINIA, there is a runner's high.


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