Betwixt, Bothered & Bewildered

Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth

by Edmund Leach, by D. Alan Aycock
Cambridge University Press, 132 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Edmund Leach—president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, fellow of the British Academy, receipient of many scholarly awards, former provost of King’s College, Cambridge—has long been the doyen of British anthropology. For more than twenty years, he has been developing his own method of analyzing myths, which he is careful to distinguish from the methods of such “world mythologists” as James Frazer and Mircea Eliade. Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890–1915) imposed on the myths of the world a uniform pattern in which divine kings were killed so as to give energy to the biological cycle of birth and death. Frazer implied that Jesus Christ was only one among a long series of mythological divinities slain to renew the world.

Mircea Eliade, in books such as The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), reworked much the same corpus of myths into a message more acceptable to religious believers. He found everywhere a narrative of arduous journeys, in which a hero equipped with magic ladders, clothes, and weapons transcends the divisions of sky, land, sea, and finally transcends the boundary between life and death. This is attractive to those who tend to believe that humankind started out in some pre-civilized, romantic dawn in which emotions, will, and intellect were one. In their view, our own tragedy is to have lost that original unity.

Both Frazer and Eliade forced the myths of the world into a shape that their readers could respond to. In a sense, they were themselves great mythmakers. But if we are no longer content to have our desires, crudely mythologized, we will easily find holes in the methods of Frazer, Eliade, and other scholars who offer a single scheme for interpreting all mythology. For none of them can escape the charge of imposing his own categories on the myths, arbitrarily selecting elements, and losing in the overall scheme the myths’ peculiar differences.

Rejecting these traditions, Leach follows Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist method instead, but he follows it with a difference. Lévi-Strauss’s method is adapted from linguistics. Each myth is minutely examined for the contrasts, or “oppositions,” around which it is constructed. The story unfolds in multiple dimensions, which the trained analyst notes. The main dimensions are often spatial: up and down, east and west, north and south. The analyst may also be attentive to regular patterns of sound or smell, or of other elements in the myth he examines. To take a simple nursery tale, Jack and the Beanstalk unfolds on a vertical dimension, and reveals a culinary pattern of people who eat beans and ogres who eat people. At the climax, the ogre is foiled by a hen who tells Jack how to escape. In Lévi-Strauss’s analyses of North American myths, the denouement is often provided by a miraculous creature like the talking hen, a “mediating being” who can bridge the major contrasts of the myth. From one cultural region to another it is not possible to know in advance what the crucial …

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Not a Talking Hen June 27, 1985