The basic idea is that myths cannot be understood in isolation, but only as parts of an entire myth system. A structural analysis of a myth system involves elucidating the shared features of different myths and the transformations which link them. It is these relationships and transformations between myths that are important, rather than the details of individual myths; it is the systems of these that are significant in the context of the broader culture. Lévi-Strauss' hope is that this kind of structural approach will provide new insight into the study of mythology, and the The Raw and the Cooked is the first book in a series devoted to this end.
All this is not presented as abstract theory, but is demonstrated by application to almost two hundred myths of tropical South America (with some references to North American and European myths and customs). Lévi-Strauss' immense knowledge of mythology is apparent, and the result is very impressive.
While some of the connections Lévi-Strauss makes between myths seem a little implausible and some of his constructions a little contrived, it is hard to argue with the barrage of evidence he brings to support them. I suspect that some of his analyses are vulnerable to a "neutral model" of myth employing some kind of statistical analysis, but that such a theory would probably validate some of his ideas. (I also suspect that he would be very keen on seeing such a theory formulated.) At any rate, since his avowed goal was only to find a new and fruitful viewpoint from which to look at mythology, it is hard to see The Raw and the Cooked as anything other than an unqualified success.
Some of the book is fairly heavy going, but anyone really interested in mythology or anthropology will be well rewarded for the effort. I look forward to reading the other books in the Introduction to a Science of Mythology series.
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