Mythème, a term in French coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908- ) on mythe (v. article MYTHE)+ suffixe -ème «the smallest analyzable element» derived from the linguistic term phonème, «smallest distinctive unit of articulated speech», from the Greek *ςοντμα, «sound of the voice», cf. morphème (1921) English lexeme (1940), monème (Martinet, 1941).
Claude Lévi-Strauss defines the mytheme as the smallest, most succinct element of signification in a myth. The mytheme grounds his structuralist approach to myth criticism, his structural analysis of myths.
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.
Lévi-Strauss coined the neologism by analogy to the phoneme (being the smallest unit of speech that can distinguish one statement from another statement, like the "d" versus the "b" in dog/bog). It's a faulty but useful analogy. It's faulty because a phoneme is itself meaningless, whereas a mytheme (understood as a sort of primary element of the mythic story) can be an event, for example, which is not meaningless in itself. It's useful because once the mythemes are identified, they can be aligned with other mythemes in particular kinds of arrangements (to other mythemes in time [[[diachronic]]] or to other mythemes in the same myth [[[synchronic]]], and so on). These arrangements are structures, hence the term "structuralism" to describe the overall process. Isolating the structures can reveal interesting things that have to do with many things from sociology to psychology.
- (cf. in particular «The Structural Study of Myth» (1955); Tristes tropiques (1955); Anthropologie structurale (1958); La pensée sauvage (1962); Les mythologiques, 4 vols. (1964-1971); and Anthropologie structurale deux (1973)).
- *Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1955. "The Structural study of myth" in Journal of American Folklore, 68 pp 428-444