Burkert's Structure and History. Ch. 1

This is a difficult book--prepare to be challenged, to read beyond obscure examples to comprehend the big idea. Here in the first chapter B starts with a conventional description of Myth as 'traditional tale' and builds upon that basis.

[Cf. synopsis of major myth-theories]

'Tradition,' of course, means 'handing on': as traditional tale, a myth is a story handed on for generations. That seems unobjectionable. But B wants to lose some of the baggage that usually comes with this idea: Myth, he insists, is a 'structure of sense' or a pattern of elements in the story; it is not an allegory or code for some particular events in the real world. This is what he means by saying that myth 'belongs to the category of "sense"' and not 'sign,' that it "has no immediate reference." (4-5)

This "structure of sense" only becomes clear with illustration from V. Propp (a pioneer in studying story patterns). Propp reduced the vast catalogue of Russian folk tales to a standard series of 31 'functions' (or 'motifemes') = 'units of plot action'. To show how this way of analyzing and comparing stories works for Greek myth, B gives some examples, pp. 6-7.

Some of these will be unfamiliar, but you should be able to get the gist.

Burkert then turns to  a grand demonstration from the Greek and Hittite creation struggles (remember, we saw that these stories include a 'struggle for kingship') 7-9.   [Review of Greek and parallel Creations]

The Hittite story is itself preserved in 2 different versions, both illustrating the same sequence of 'motifemes' or pivotal events. The Greek parallel, preserved in Apollodorus, then follows the same pattern (of course, with different characters and altered features).

Levi-Strauss is introduced with something like scorn. The essence of his approach is the principle that stories are constructed like language, from 'binary oppositions.' Myth is about the conflict of deep and antagonistic motives, so that a story such as the Oedipus myth can be reduced to man-against-monster, obsessive love for kin followed by obsessive hate for kin, and so on; these opposites are 'mediated' by figures stuck between the two opposites. Burkert doesn't think enough of L-S to give the sort of helpful examples he gives for Propp.

Section4, pp.14ff. B gets down to constructing his own model, with 'programs of action'.

The basic idea is that the functions in Propp's scheme correspond to real-life needs in a primitive setting--the 'quest' for some magic trophy parallels the struggle for necessities: "Every rat in search of food will incessantly run through all these 'functions'."

This is the 'biological perspective'--the idea that certain kinds of events in story have a powerful appeal to us because they are deeply rooted in our evolution.

Section5, pp. 18 ff. This biological approach is (arguably) consistent with the multi-level character of myth (the way myths seem inevitably readable in several ways at once); this is because, the myth reproduces the pattern, not a particular original. The way different levels of meaning coincide B calls 'crystallization.' The parallel 'struggles for kingship' of Kronos and Kumarbi serve to illustrate.

Section6, pp.22 ff. Myth, of this biologically-based, multi-faceted character, is really defined by its "collective importance." That is, myth has to do with some issue that preoccupies the community. It often revolves around "social charters" as Malinowski called them, such as the young man's passage from boyhood into adulthood, joining the ranks of the menfolk (illustrated in the concluding sections).

The tale of Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops serves as a concluding illustration.