Structuralism as a scientific method to understand American mythology looks at binary oppositions within the content of those stories, understanding that the unconscious mixes with the conscious and symbology is applied to nature, resulting on stories that become symbols of nature against culture, of life against death, at times even evolving into inverted stories to those originally transmitted. Those stories are influenced by nature of course, but also by geographical and meteorological conditions, most importantly by communities beliefs, internal sociopolitical structures and humans understanding and interpretation of the cosmos.
As an example we have the symbology around honey, a naturally made kind of processed food that is however fruit of nature, not of culture. Processed as other meals that humans culturally make. This sweet nectar, Claude Levi Strauss believes, is use as a symbol of “on the transition to culture”, a processed product, not culturally made but processed, as human cook to feed their families. According to Dr. Levi Strauss’s structuralism, nature is in opposition to culture, processed food is in opposition to raw food, raw food in oppositions to boiled, but the latter also in opposition to other forms of cooking. Raw food is in nature as boiled potatoes is in culture, just as animals such as other predators hunt to feed or humans grill to eat. Honey is found in nature, but it is naturally processed, which simbols according to human’s interpretation as being in a transit to culture, becoming a most precious food to humans.
It is important to mention that in the Amazon is found a type of honey which is really sweet, more than any other honey you find in Europe, which makes this refined for natives a most wanted food. There are all sort of rituals connected to honey which shows its importance in socio, politic and religious community live. However, in the Amazon is also found a poisonous honey, a most dangerous product that brigs death. So there is also this contradiction with this sweetener, which can turn from being a most exquisite food to a substance that can kill you if ingested.
A similar opposition is tobacco, another substance that is processed by humans, so on a transition from nature to culture. This symbol though is connected to death and resurrection. Shamans in South America use tobacco to connect with the otherworld, to connect with ancestors and the dead, so it is a product of culture, coming from a plant, extracted from nature, that connects this world with the underworld. The sun and the moon, two planets that are in opposition, one connected to day light, the other connected to darkness, one connected to life, the other connected to death but to fertility, to resurrection. Animals such as the jaguar, who according to Claude Levi Strauss is a symbol of the transition from nature to culture, an animal that hunts like humans, but also in contrast to them, eating raw food, not cooking their preys.
Citing just but few examples of these binary oppositions, these contradictions found in nature which humans saw as natural laws and used them to create these myths about the creation, about the rule in nature, the connection between this and the after world. All those stories are interpretations of the cosmos, of the micro and macro and its connections into a whole that is part of each particular. A world that we don’t understand and tend to explain by the usage of our imagination and mental interpretation of our perceptions. A world around us that brought human culture. The latter interpreted the cosmos differently in each community. Different groups chose to follow matriarchal or patriarchal systems of society, endogamy or exogamy. All of this affects how their unconscious influence myths’ contents, the role of their symbols, the symbology of each character, the animals and plants’ roles or their symbology within the stories.
Dr. Levi Strauss sees a continuum of transitional stories, originally created, or at least first explained, in North America and adapting, moving south to places as far as Tierra de Fuego. He sees connections on many of those stories. The South American myths as having come originally from the North and having developed into native myths, with similar symbology, using these binary oppositions, at times developing in tertiary, which is a reflection of myth structure. Myths in the North are much more complex, maybe due a much longer life and turned into many diversions and transformations. Myth in America has looked at meanings such as the naked man, who came to nature and turned himself in the paradigm of culture, using clothing, cooking food, creating weapons for hunting and various other utensils for storing.
Symbolism is also used on those myths to connect nature to the cosmos: the vanishing of Venus and its connection with the behaviour of animals and plants, the lunar cycle and its connection with women fertility, the need for water and its dangerous effect on human life, the observation of nature, its connection to life and death cycles.
The understanding of those cycles are needed by natives to survive in contexts, were logically interpreted observation make humans adaptable to their surroundings, fulfilling at the same time their needs. The subjects mentioned, the interpretations of these symbologies, the structural method of understanding and many other matters are discussed by Claude Levi Strauss master books in the Mythological series.
Pictures taken from:
pinterest.com/basiaillustra/brazil/ and www2.cnrs.fr/en/1424.htm