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In the study of mythology, a mytheme is the essential kernel of a myth—an irreducible, unchanging element,[1] a minimal unit that is always found shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways—"bundled" was Claude Lévi-Strauss's image—[2] or linked in more complicated relationships, like a molecule in a compound. For example, the myths of Adonis and Osiris share several elements, leading some scholars to conclude that they share a source, i.e., images passed down in cultures or from one to another, being ascribed new interpretations of the action depicted as well as new names in various readings of icons. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who gave the term wide circulation,[3] wrote, "If one wants to establish a parallel between structural linguistics and the structural analysis of myths, the correspondence is established, not between mytheme and word but between mytheme and phoneme."[4]

The structuralist analyzer of folk tales, Vladimir Propp, considered that the unit of analysis was the individual tale: the unitary mytheme by contrast is the equivalent in myth of the phonemes, morphemes and sememes into which structural linguistics divides language: the smallest possible units of meaning within a language system.

In the 1950s Claude Lévi-Strauss first adapted this technique of language analysis to analytic myth criticism. In his work on the myth systems of primitive tribes, working from the analogy of language structure, he adopted the term mythème, with the assertion that the system of meaning within mythic utterances parallels closely that of a language system. This idea is somewhat disputed by Roman Jakobson, who takes the mytheme to be a concept or phoneme which is without significance in itself but whose significance might be shown by sociological analysis.

Lev Manovich also uses the terms seme and mytheme in his book, The Language of New Media to describe aspects of culture that computer images enter into dialog with.

The term "mytheme" is analogous to, if not virtually the same in "signification" (a favorite term of Roland Barthes, another famous structuralist) as "meme", a word coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett also use the term.


  1. ^ Similarly, in linguistics a morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit that has semantic meaning and in a language or dialect, a phoneme (from the Greek: φώνημα, phōnēma, "a sound uttered") is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances.
  2. ^ Lévi-Strauss: "the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations" (Lévi-Strauss 1963:211.
  3. ^ First described, as a "gross constituent unit", in Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1955). "The Structural study of myth". Journal of American Folklore 68: 428–444. OCLC 1782260. ISSN 0021-8715.   reprinted as "The structural study of myth", Structural Anthropology, 1963:206-31; the term mytheme first appears in Lévi-Strauss' 1958 French version of the work.
  4. ^ Lévi-Strauss, La poetière jalouse, Paris, 1985 (The Jealous Potter, Chicago, 1988) pp 144-46.




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