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Structural Analysis of Myth

28 Dec 2016School

Native American myths: The White Buffalo Woman:

“White Buffalo Woman” is a myth, very popular and adored amongst the Native Americans. This is the central myth of the Plains tribes, especially the Lakota, or Sioux. It tells how the Lakota first received their sacred pipe and the ceremony in which to use it. It has often been related, for example by Black Elk, Lame Deer and Looks for Buffalo.” (Living myths….)

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The people of Lakota used horses for hunting the buffalo. The food was scarce. From the camp of Lakota two young men of the Itazipcho band (the Without-Bows) moved out early in the morning for game. Their only companion was the song of the yellow meadowlark. As the day advanced, nothing tangible happened and they moved towards a hill hoping to survey the vast expanse of the plain prairie. They parried all around, and soon they saw something bright. The emerging figure had two legs, not four. The figure can’t be an animal! Soon everything was crystal clear—a woman emerged, she was pretty and in glowing buckskin.

She came closer, sacred designs adored her buckskin in porcupine quills like the vibrant coos of a rainbow. “She carried a bundle on her back, and a fan of fragrant sage leaves in her hand. Her jet-black hair was loose, except for a single strand tied with buffalo fur. Her eyes were full of light and power, and the young men were transfixed.”(Living Myths…) Satanic thoughts emerged in the mind of one of the men. His friend cautioned, “This woman is holy.” Fortunately or unfortunately, the woman signaled him to come and instantly he advanced towards her with malicious intentions. Soon, both of them were engulfed in a cloud. When it withered, the woman was there, the young man was not there, but at her feet a heap of bones and the ghastly sight of snakes coiled amongst them, sent shivers in the spine of the other young man.

‘‘Behold,’ said the woman to the good brave man. ‘I am coming to your people with a message from Tatanka Oyate, the buffalo nation. Return to Chief Standing Hollow Horn and tell him what you have seen. Tell him to prepare a tipi large enough for all his people, and to get ready for my coming.”(Living Myths….) The young man returns to the camp with the message. The Chief and the people wait expectantly for her arrival. The woman gives them the bundle with stern instructions that no one who is impure should ever touch it. The bundle has the pipe and a small round stone.

The woman tells them how sacred is the Earth and other significant aspects of the pipe, especially the carved buffalo calf on it. She also explains how the Mother Earth belongs to all types of creatures, not to human beings alone “You are all one family, and you will be reminded of this when you smoke the pipe,” she says. And what she says next is a revelation. “This pipe will carry you to the end. Remember that in me there are four ages. I am going now, but I will look on your people in every age, and at the end I will return.” She walks away, and people see her taking the form of a young red and brown buffalo calf, then transforming into a white buffalo, and next, a black buffalo. The black buffalo bows to all the four directions, before disappearing over the hill.

Details of the culture and the logic of the above myth:

Sinouxn (Lakota) is the living culture of American Indians. They have a glorious past, with a present and a future. The myth above elucidates the important aspects of their life. The Lakota (Sinoux) means, “An alliance of people.” The advise of the woman for the people of Lakota is to live in cooperation, mutual respect etc. The noble traits like community feeling, generosity and goodwill, mutual respect and strength are evident in the day to day life of the people. Sense of equality prevails in the extended family, even though there are several Heads in such a set up. In the family, children are given lots of importance –they are sacred and pure. The holy woman’s advice to the people to remain pure in the above myth is worth remembering. They believe in the supreme spiritual power. How the man with an evil heart is annihilated by the holy woman, her advice to love and respect all, including the animals and birds merits comparison. Symbolism has great impact and influence on the culture of Lakaota.

The number four is revered much. In the above myth, the holy woman refers to four directions, the four ages(the cyclic circles)They also used number four as for the elements, earth, fire, air and water, the seasons, winter, spring, summer and fall, the directions north, south, east and west. Cleanliness and purity are the emphatic themes of the myth and Lakota believe that if one contaminates one’s own home, one will be suffocated by one’s own waste. The transformation of the holy woman as different types of buffalo-calf shows the unlimited power of the pine powers, before which a human being needs to surrender with reverence. The above myth is culturally and spiritually interlinked to the actual lifestyles and beliefs of the Lakota.

This myth is probably the most important one in the life of Lakota. It is also the spiritual focus of the people. The spirit of the woman is highlighted and this is the myth in which White Buffalo Woman appears. She is mysterious; she arrives for a purpose and departs after fulfilling the objective. Note the emphasis of her virgin inviolability. Many Native people have identified her with the Virgin Mary, since the establishment of the Native American Church. Her gift, the sacred pipe, is all important with the people of Lakota. She emphasizes the qualities of self-discipline and endurance. Buffalo has the dominant influence and utility in the lives of Lakota. In any ritual, the pipe is very important for Lakota. It is the link between the humanity and the spirit world. It is offered to the Four Directions, when smoked. The rising of the smoke is compared to the spirit world.


Myths have the dominant influence on the standard of life (from the cultural aspect) of people all over the world. The Native American myths relate to stories of creation, heroic deeds and journeys. When cultural and psychological developments that make a civilization defy scientific explanations, myths intervene to provide explanations that would satisfy the psyche of the inpidual and society. Myths are faith-based. They are not the subjects of arguments and counter-arguments, they are to be listened to, ‘experienced’ and enjoyed for self-satisfaction. Myths help to satisfy the physical as well as the cultural appetite of human beings. Important myths dominate in customs, major ceremonies and they assist one in spiritual progression.

Levi-Strauss and the Structural Analysis of Myth:

Levi-Strauss often refers structural linguistics as the grail of the humanities. How the social sciences can be transformed into exact ones. Influences of various thinkers and his own level of spiritual progression dominate his writings. He is a French anthropologist. Myths are the cornerstones that provide relevant structures to understand the cultural relations. It has been observed by him that myths from different cultures relating to any part of the world are identical. The cultures may be widely separated, but the similarity of the myths is not only apparent, but astounding. Structure of the myth is more important than the contents.

Contents will differ widely, but the similarities noticed are dependent on their structural sameness. “A myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is both historically specific--it's almost always set in some time long ago--and a-historical, meaning that its story is timeless. As history, myth is parole; as timeless, it's langue….He thus argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it's actually something different from language per se--he says it operates on a higher, or more complex level. Myth shares with language the following characteristics :”(Klages, 1997)

To sum up, Levi-Strauss indicates: Repetition as in oral literature is necessary in myth also. That helps to reveal the structure of the myth. Myth tells the story in layer after layer and it is the inherent beauty of the myth. He further says, “That the "logic" of myth is just as rigorous and "logical" as the logic of science. It's not that science is somehow smarter or more evolved than myth, but rather that the two modes of understanding and interpreting the world share the same basic structure (that of logic) applied to different things.” (Klages, 1997)

In conclusion, this essay:

“In our haste to apply the methods of linguistic analysis, we must not forget that, as a part of vocabulary, kinship terms must be treated with linguistic methods in direct and not analogous fashion. Linguistics teaches us precisely that structural analysis cannot be applied to words directly, but only to words previously broken down into phonemes. There are no necessary relationships at the vocabulary level ("Structural Analysis," 36; Lévi-Strauss' italics).” (Countermemory…) Having said this, in any culture myths are looked upon as the repository of cultural traditions, not as the storehouses of reasoning. Emotions and faith score over reasoning and logic. An inpidual needs to have the heart of a child to understand and enjoy the beauty of myths.

That the myths have survived for centuries is the proof for their intrinsic strength to influence the lives of people. In the present times, when various societies are deeply impacted by the negativities of materialistic civilization and the impact of industrial and internet revolutions is rampart on the children and combustible younger generation, study of myths needs to be made compulsory.


  • LIV I N G M Y T H S: Native American myths: www.livingmyths.com/Native.htm - 29k – Retrieved on June 10, 2008
  • Klages, Mary Dr. (1977) Claude Levi-Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth: www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/levi-strauss.html - 14k - Retrieved on June 10, 2008
  • COUNTERMEMORY: Some notes on Lévi-Strauss 24 Mar 2008 ... Here are just some.. "Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology,"mikejohnduff.blogspot.com/2008/03/some-notes-on-lvi-strauss.html - 76k – Retrieved on June 10, 2008
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