A Mundurucú Myth - University of Essex

Week 16
Social Anthropology:
Birth and Sex and Death
Session 11:
Naturalising Differences: Between myth and reality.
Aims and objectives:
 To understand the nature of myths
 To learn how anthropologists interpret myths
 To analyse some myths
 To understand what myths can tell us about cultural ideology.
Lecture Outline:
 Introduction – a discussion of what myths are
 Lévi-Strauss and structuralist interpretations of myths.
 A Berti myth
 Genesis as myth
 Analysing a Mundurucú myth
What is a myth?
Edmund Leach, ‘If myths do not mean what they appear to mean, how do they come to mean
anything at all?’
Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, revolutionised the way anthropologists understood myths.
he borrowed his structural analysis from Saussurean linguistics. He looked at the elements of a
myth, not as the referred to reality but as they related to each other. The kind of binary oppositions
that Saussure sees as fundamental to human languages, Lévi-Strauss and others see as fundamental
to human thought. Thus human think in terms of opposition: nature/culture; male/female/
town/country; old/young. Can you think of any more? Life/death
The Berti
from Ladislav Holy (1985) ‘Fire Meat and Children: the Berti Myth, Male Dominance and Female
Power’ in Joanna Overing (ed) Reason and Morality London: Tavistock.
A long time ago, there were people called Farkh al Ganan who lived up on a hill. They
were all women and their children were all female. They were tall, big and strong, their bodies
covered in hair. They hunted wild animals in the plain below the hill by chasing them, and lived on
their meat which they ate raw as they had no fire.
One day they saw a strange light glittering in the plane below the hill. they were frightened
and ran up the hill to hide themselves. Next day, the light was there again. Farkh al Ganan were
curious about it and went to investigate it. They came upon a group of riders; they were all men
and their horses were all male.
The light which so frightened the Farkh al Ganan was a fire. The men were sitting around it
cooking their food on it. They gave Farkh al Ganan some to eat. It tasted better than the raw meat
and Farakh al Ganan asked the men for the fire so that they could use it too for cooking their food.
The men said that they would give Farkh al Ganan the fire if they would give them their daughters
for wives who would bear them children. Farkh al Ganan agreed and so they exchanged their
daughters for fire with the men.
What are the central elements in this myth? That is, look at the binary opposition presented.
What do the women exchange with the men?
What is it that the women have and the men want? Why do they want this?
Genesis as Myth
A Mundurucú Myth
Read this important Mudurucú myth.
1. What are the contrasts, what are the binary oppositions?
2. How is this myth similar to the Maasai myths, the Berti myth and the Genesis myth?
3. How is the world before and how is the world after?
4. What is feared in this myth?
5. What are the root causes of the subordination of women?
6. What is the role of hunting in this myth?
7. What foods do men produce and what foods to women produce (then and now) and how are
they different?
Melissa Llewellyn-Davies 1981 ‘Women, Warriors and Patriarchs’ 'in Ortner and Whitehead (eds) Sexual Meanings
Gillison, Gillian 1980 ‘Images of nature in Gimi thought’ in MacCormack, C. and Strathern, M. (eds.) Nature,
Culture and Gender *
Leslee Nadelson (1981) Pigs, women and the men's houses in Amazonia: an analysis of six Mundurucú myths 'in
Ortner and Whitehead (eds) Sexual Meanings
Joan Bamberger 1974 'The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men rule in Primitive Society' in Rosaldo and Lamphere (eds)
Women, Culture and Society
Ladislav Holy (1985) 'Fire, Meat and Children: the Berti Myth, Male Dominance and Female Power' in Joanna Overing
(ed) Reason and Morality ASA Monographs No. 24 Tavistock *
Anonymous The Bible Genesis I-III
Gewertz, Deborah Myths of Matriarchy Reconsidered
Edmund Leach Genesis as Myth XD 600
Yolanda Murphy and Robert Murphy 1974 Women of the Forest. Columbia University Press.
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