What Does Ritual Have to Do With Myth?

Ritual and myth are often discussed in the same breath in introductory cultural anthropology textbooks (e.g., Rosman et al. 2009). Indeed, it is striking how–in so many cultural traditions–myths evoke or claim to explain the existence of certain rituals. Or how myths and rituals alike share sets of interrelated symbols, narrative arcs that challenge our everyday sense of time and geography, a general feature of symbolic richness, or emotional intensity. What is it that ritual and myth really share? And even when they don’t share formal similarities, why do they seem to be systemically interlinked in the process of culture, ultimately influencing how we think and act?

Of course, I have to remind my students in Anthro 101 that here, we’re talking about traditional stories that are rich in symbolism, are easily told in compact or elaborated form, and taking place markedly outside the context of everyday life, are evocative of everyday social relationships, conflicts, problems, values, and ideals. We’re not talking–of course–about the more common meaning of myth, as in a commonly-held misconception. As Rosman et al. (2009) point out, cultural anthropologists usually see folklore and myth as overlapping narrative genres.

Let’s consider the ritual-myth connection first, as that is an anthropological concern with a considerable intellectual history. I have always been as fascinated by the scholarly interest in myth and ritual as I have been struck by the diverse cross-cultural examples of myths and rituals themselves. This is because it’s a breathtaking claim that two very different cultural forms and genres of practice–ritual, as a particular kind of exaggerated, self-aware, intensified form of social practice … and myth, as a general kind of deceptively simple folk story that can be told in an enormous variety of ways, to a wide range of audiences–are so deeply intertwined and fundamental to human sociality and experience. And the thing is, breathtaking as the claim may strike you (although it’ll seem entirely obvious if you’re a cultural anthropologist), there’s both empirical evidence and sound theoretical logic to back it up.

In fact, once we start to consider familiar examples, the empirical foundation of the myth-ritual connection quickly sets. The Old Testament Exodus story is a mythical narrative from a sacred text. It defines and is given a stage by the Jewish Passover ritual. The later Christian tradition recursively transforms Passover into Easter–with the New Testament sacred text narratives incorporating the Passover setting, and then Good Friday and Easter rituals in many Christian communities and traditions enacting the bearing of the cross and the suffering of Jesus. Cultural anthropologists will be familiar with well-known ethnographic examples. These include Native American Hidatsa myths about the wolverine and its symbolic connection to ritualized eagle trapping (Lévi-Strauss 1962:); male initiation rituals and ritualized gift exchange thoroughly interconnected with origins stories among many communities in highland Papua New Guinea (Gell 1998; Mimica 1988; Strathern 1988); and ceremonial kiva construction and kiva rituals explicitly resembling or evoking the mythological place of autochthonous origins of the two siblings ancestral to Native American Pueblo peoples (e.g., Stirling 1942).

Yet, it is the theoretical argument about the symbolic structure of myth and its relationship to ritual that provides a solid scientific, methodological basis for investigating these (quite clearly) marked cultural phenomena. Although many of the ethnographically recorded observations about myth and ritual undoubtedly must be considered qualitative–as opposed to quantitatively, statistically representative–data, I suggest that my more quantitatively inclined colleagues often discount all too quickly the falsifiability of hypotheses about symbolic structure in myth and ritual (Sperber 1985; see also Gosselain 1999 for a discussion of hypothesis formation, evaluation and revision in working with qualitative data from informants and ethnographic texts). For the sake of hearing my argument, take a moment to take seriously the scientific investigation of symbolic structure in myths, rituals, and their larger cultural context. That is, accept the structural study of myth and ritual as proper, albeit qualitative-data-based, social science … and not strictly as hermeneutic interpretation of accounts of cultural expressions as texts. (In that rigorous evidence-based hermeneutic analysis can employ both inductive and deductive arguments, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a gulf between scientific and humanistic scholarship in how we assess and define proper knowledge [see, for example, Bayliss et al. 2007]. I find it hard to imagine the contextualization and production of scientific knowledge as existing without a proper hypothetico-deductive method. Falsifiability is really kind of really helpful for good epistemological quality control. But as we construct and evaluate our data–is it accurately and reproducibly rendered?–the symbolic dimensions of cultural phenomena make for great data, allowing us to construct reasonable, logical arguments about what constitutes relevant hypotheses and standards for accepting or rejecting alternative hypotheses). This somewhat philosophical digression about knowledge and evidence aside, it may be best to say that there’s been a lot of important development–development that can be considered solidly scientific, rather than ethereally philosophical or interpretive–in cultural anthropological theories about symbolism in myth and ritual. Whether any given cultural anthropologist accepts my assertion about cultural symbolic structures being amenable to scientific hypothesis testing–well, that is likely to vary and raises another tangential argument. So back to our main concern. What do I mean by theoretical arguments about symbolic structures?

Let’s start with an example–again, one that will be familiar to many non-anthropologists, since it involves a traditional mythic story available from Classical Greek times, preserved in a variety of textual forms. The story of Oedipus the King is the subject of a now-famous analysis by Lévi-Strauss (1963), in which the basic narrative is broken up into key component events, so that these–in turn–can be juxtaposed with one another and compared to the components of other myths. Note here that it is possible to test the replicability of classification of myths into essential component events, although this has not really been a theoretical concern of cultural anthropologists. But as you’ll see, it’s a pretty reasonable claim that Lévi-Strauss gets to the basis of the story:

(1) Oedipus descends from a line of kings going back a few generations somehow marked as being physically lame or having a weakness made prominent.

(2) Oedipus himself inherits this property of lameness, not from birth, but because he is left to die on the threshold of pure, marked wilderness … as King Laios and Queen Jocasta seek to avoid the prophecy of regicide.

(3) Oedipus survives–survival being mediated by a notably societally marginal figure of the shepherd–and Oedipus’s club foot notwithstanding, he has the strength and passion to kill his father when they fail to recognize each other.

(4) Oedipus is not only unusually and uncontrollably dangerous and destructive–possessing murderous rage but not meaning to leave the city-state of Thebes politically headless, let alone commit patricide. Oedipus is also unusually clever, and with his unique knowledge and wits, he frees the city from its supernatural siege by solving the Sphinx’s riddle.

(5) Oedipus–not having a proper royal upbringing and preparation for marriage, but possessing perhaps more powerful attributes of his royal lineage, including the contradictory traits of conspicuous weakness and extraordinary decisiveness, strength, and intelligence–gets to marry the Queen of Thebes. Leading to an improperly intimate marriage.

Lévi-Strauss uses this structural division of the narrative for comparison, with some or all of the components revealing metaphorical similarities between the Oedipus story itself–ostensibly about Fate as unavoidable–with those about Cadmus, Antigone, and other royal heroic figures who faced unusual ritual challenges to maintaining peaceful and prosperous rule. Indeed, elsewhere in his original essay “The Structural Study of Myth” (1963) and in his later (1992 [1985]) comparison between the Oedipus story and the medieval legend of Parsifal and the Grail, Lévi-Strauss adds some key events:

(6) Following their incestuous marriage, Oedipus and Iocasta face a scourge of pests in the fields, causing the people of Thebes to suffer deprivation and starvation. (In contrast, Lévi-Strauss points out, Parsifal’s indecisiveness, failing to answer the riddle of the Grail, is metaphorically reflected and metonymically linked to barrenness in the fields, a withering and cessation of reproduction and growth, rather than the destructive overabundance of reproduction and growth that occurs with Oedipus’s excessive decisiveness, cleverness, and familial intimacy.)

(7) Only auto-destruction of the lives linked in the too-intimate marriage ends the pestilence and suffering.

The simple subdivision of the narrative into briefly outlined events allows us to test hypotheses about symbolizing implied cultural values or beliefs. These hypotheses may–as noted above–be about the order in which the events are placed. They may be about how the order might be changed or the events substituted in other myths from the same community or tradition … or even from other communities well-separated in space and time. Values or beliefs that have been identified from extensive comparisons made in the decades since Lévi-Strauss developed his structuralist concepts and approach tend to deal with the very basis of existence–that is, they tend to constitute folk ontology–in its cosmological, life-cycle and kinship, political-order, material exchange dimensions … along with the interrelationship among these dimensions of how the universe may be in a state of order or disorder. Thus, we can make a strong comparative argument, considering the Oedipus story in relation to many many other culturally related and unreleated myths (including, as Lévi-Strauss points out, the traditional story of Cinderella), that it is not so much about the inevitability of fate as it is about the danger–for rulers, commoners, and the very fertility of their land–inherent in the supernatural wellspring of royal legitimacy, when combined with a failure of legitimate rulers to raise their successors properly and marry them off appropriately. In short, Oedipus is a cautionary tale–a genuine tragedy–about what can go wrong in a cosmological sphere in which kingship is part of the divine order, but in which proper care of offspring and arrangement of marriage alliances are paramount earthly responsibilities of the rulers. Lévi-Strauss (1963) offers the additional suggestion that the Oedipus myth evokes the theme of how human origins–which are autochthonous in ancient Greek stories–give way to a socio-political order based on culturally regulated marriage-alliance and kinship-alliance practices, marked by incest taboos? Although this is more of a speculative hypothesis, ethnographic examples from Highland New Guinea (Gell 1999; Mimica 1988; Strathern 1988) provide more substantial evidence for myth possibly incorporating a cultural account of human origins and the emergence of family formation, reproduction, and kinship as constituting the foundations of political order. Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation, then, would be consistent with the Oedipus story’s tragic aspect being metaphorically reinforced, through evocation of a failure of Oedipus to establish a proper kinship-based lineage following emergence or rebirth from the earth.

Of course, the version of the Oedipus story that we read or view most often today is the theatrical version by Sophocles. And that version was one of Sophocles’s prize-winning tragedies performed for the Spring Dionysia in Athens. The theatrical telling of the myth of Oedipus shaped a highly ritualized excursion from the everyday, filling it with a representation of an imagined, marked narrative about what can go wrong in the order of the world when monarchic rule fails.

And of the domains of biocultural/social practice that can mark our awareness of having embarked on an excursion from the everyday–the others being ritual and play–it is only myth that can go beyond a general metonymic contrast from everyday routines and concerns, evoking a coherent, detailed imagined narrative. Ritual may give us the sense that we are approaching and experiencing the effects of the sacred, but myth is essential for defining the sacred as a more specifically marked dimension of excursion from the everyday, one that is powerful enough to order or disrupt the universe, in part or in whole.


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Gell, A. (1999). The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. (E. Hirsch, Ed.). Athlone Press.

Gosselain, O. P. (1999). In Pots we Trust The Processing of Clay and Symbols In Sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Material Culture, 4(2), 205–230. doi:10.1177/135918359900400205

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). The Structural Study of Myth. In C. Jacobson & B. G. Schoepf (Trans.), Structural Anthropology (Vol. 1, pp. 206–231). New York: Basic Books.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1992). The View from Afar. University of Chicago Press.

Mimica, J. (1988). Intimations of Infinity: The Cultural Meanings of the Iqwaye Counting and Number Systems. Berg Publishers.

Rosman, A., Rubel, P. G., & Weisgrau, M. (2009). The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Rowman Altamira.

Sperber, D. (1985). On Anthropological Knowledge: Three Essays. Cambridge University Press.

Stirling, M. W. (1942). Origin Myth of Acoma, and Other Records. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Strathern, M. (1988). The Gender of the Gift: Problems With Women and Problems With Society in Melanesia. University of California Press.

Note: Updated Friday 23 August 2013 at 10:18 pm Eastern Daylight Time. References added and text clarified and edited.