Mytheme

Mytheme

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In the study of mythology
Mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

, a mytheme is the essential kernel of a myth—an irreducible, unchanging element, a minimal unit that is always found shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways—"bundled" was Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer, the "father of modern anthropology"....

's image— or linked in more complicated relationships, like a molecule in a compound. For example, the myths of Adonis
Adonis
Adonis , in Greek mythology, the god of beauty and desire, is a figure with Northwest Semitic antecedents, where he is a central figure in various mystery religions. The Greek , Adōnis is a variation of the Semitic word Adonai, "lord", which is also one of the names used to refer to God in the Old...

 and Osiris
Osiris
Osiris is an Egyptian god, usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. He is classically depicted as a green-skinned man with a pharaoh's beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive crown with two large ostrich feathers at either side, and...

 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, 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."

The structuralist
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 analyzer of folk tales, Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Propp
Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp was a Russian and Soviet formalist scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements.- Biography :...

, considered that the unit of analysis was the individual tale. The unitary mytheme, by contrast, is the equivalent in myth of the phoneme
Phoneme
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

s, morpheme
Morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

s and sememe
Sememe
A sememe is a semantic language unit of meaning, correlative to a morpheme.A sememe is a proposed unit of transmitted or intended meaning; it is atomic or indivisible. A sememe can be the meaning expressed by a morpheme, such as the English pluralizing morpheme -s, which carries the sememic...

s into which structural linguistics
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 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
Roman Jakobson
Roman Osipovich Jakobson was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century...

, who takes the mytheme to be a concept
Concept
The word concept is used in ordinary language as well as in almost all academic disciplines. Particularly in philosophy, psychology and cognitive sciences the term is much used and much discussed. WordNet defines concept: "conception, construct ". However, the meaning of the term concept is much...

 or phoneme which is without significance in itself but whose significance might be shown by sociological
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 analysis.

The term "mytheme" is analogous to, if not virtually the same in "signification" (a favorite term of Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes
Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and...

, another famous structuralist) as "meme
Meme
A meme is "an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena...

", a word coined by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins
Clinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL , known as Richard Dawkins, is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author...

 in his book, The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene is a book on evolution by Richard Dawkins, published in 1976. It builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's first book Adaptation and Natural Selection. Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the...

(1976). Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett
Daniel Clement Dennett is an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the Co-director of...

 also use the term.

Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich is an author of new media books, professor of Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego, U.S. and European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches new media art and theory, software studies, and digital humanities...

 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.