A Levi-Straussian Controversy Revisited: The Implicit Mythology of Rituals in a Mesoamerican Context

By Galinier, Jacques | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Levi-Straussian Controversy Revisited: The Implicit Mythology of Rituals in a Mesoamerican Context


Galinier, Jacques, Journal of the Southwest


During the last fifty years, French anthropology has been so greatly influenced by Claude Levi-Strauss that it is almost a truism to point this out again. Nevertheless, this influence has never been constant, despite an apparent surrounding consensus. This waxing and waning of influence is particularly evident in the field of kinship studies. After a period of fresh enthusiasm following the publication of The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1947), these ideas appeared to fall into a long dogmatic sleep. During recent decades, with the exception of a few scholars like Francoise Heritier, kinship studies (a traditional standard of French anthropology) seemed to have exhausted their object (Barry 2000, 10). A recent issue of L'Homme (June 2000) raises new open-ended questions which provoke a sudden greening of kinship theories in France along the lines of Levi-Strauss's ideas (Levi-Strauss 1947). The structural treatment of mythologies has not experienced the same reawakening. The tetralogy Introduction to a Science of Mythology must be considered as a unique chef d'oeuvre which has no equivalent so far. Paradoxically, if Levi-Strauss's overwhelming authority has discouraged younger generations from forging new approaches to myth, it has indirectly stimulated the theoreticians of ritual. Above all, his silence on the ritual issue offered an attractive space to express original sociological formulations. The vulgate of Levi-Strauss's doctrine on this topic is well known: It is almost entirely condensed in the conclusion of The Naked Man. In fact, this is a most problematic discussion of a problem which has gone through several perspectives in the history of anthropology. * Like many of my colleagues, I have been both fascinated and disappointed by the twists and turns of the Levi-Straussian magic, especially by how Levi-Strauss attempted to solve the ritual problem, by trying to detach a "mythologie implicite" embedded in routinized practical acts and articulate it to a people's grand mythology, and by how he considered ritual as a poor response to the ruling discourse of a people's verbal myths.

I do not pretend to enter a theoretical debate by drawing up a new set of concepts. My purpose is only to develop some underlying ideas readily available from my ethnographic experience in Mexico, especially in the Otomi area. These ideas will balance the Levi-Straussian approach to the myth/ritual dispute.

First, I must confess that my investigation of Otomi mythology was a byproduct of other kinds of inquiry, mostly on ritual. I do not repudiate out of hand the basic role of myth in shaping the mental world of peoples. Nor do I claim that myths are irrelevant for depicting a native Weltanschauung. On the contrary, myths stand for the most complex, metaphorically rich of all spoken art, whether they are executed by a shamanic expert or by common people. Nonetheless, among the Otomi, "traditional" myths--those that deal primarily with relationships between humans and the other world--are scarcely remembered and therefore are difficult to record. In fact, Otomi myths are very poorly documented even now. The core of the Otomi mythology seems to be strictly limited to genesis and eschatology; to the origins of Sun and Moon and of crops and fire; to a set of accounts concerning the Devil, as a Lord of Earth and Moon; and to sex and death. (1) In them it seems that a medieval European set of topics has been thoroughly embedded into a prehispanic cosmovision.

After years of intensive fieldwork, I realized that I was more acquainted with the major texts of Otomi mythology than were most of the Indian people of my generation (then between twenty and thirty years old) with whom I was in touch. Thus, my professional quest was not in keeping with the young people's interests. That was a painful surprise for the naive anthropologist that I was and still am. Thus my problem is, Why are the Otomi myths so seldom told if we consider them the keystone of the Otomi Weltanschauungen? …

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