What is love?

Language, art, music and culture emerged in Africa over 100,000 years ago, culminating in a symbolic explosion! Echoes of this can still be heard in myths and cultural traditions from around the world. This tends to be the stance that many people take, within Anthropology as well as outside it. Using Anthropological methods of decoding myths I want to tackle the concept of looove. How do us kids internalize our views of love, through fairy tales?! What is love?

‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Anderson (1837) has always been my favourite, since I was a child, but of cause coming from 21st C England it was the Disney version that I grew up with. I’m going to decode this myth to see what messages it sends across to us and what ideas of love we are internalising dependent on the version of the story.

To begin with I will lay out for you a brief description of the story of ‘the Little Mermaid’ (Anderson, 1837):
It begins in a beautiful palace deep under the ocean where a widowed sea king lives with his mother and six daughters. The youngest is the prettiest of them all, delicate and quiet with deep blue eyes. She spends her time tending her red flowers in the shape of the sun. Next to this stands a white marble statue in the shape of a boy. On the sisters 15th birthday they are allowed to go above the sea line and the next part of the story describes what the sisters saw: green fragrant forests, the moon, dancing, singing, the setting sun, white veils, violet clouds, icebergs like pearls and dark clouds and lightning that shine a red glow onto them. The youngest daughter only watches the moon from under the sea until her birthday. She wears white pearl lilies and swims up to find the sun setting and a prince with coal black eyes who is enjoying fireworks that reflect on the calm clear sea. Then a storm comes and the ship turns over. She has to save the prince from under the sea. She returns him to the beach and back to health as the storm ceases and the red sun comes out, upon a landscape of white snow upon the blue mountains. Sad to return to her father and leave the boy she stops tending to her flowers. Everything becomes dark and gloomy. Even at the crystal ball, where there is blue fire, singing and dancing, she is sad. Her friend takes her to where the prince’s castle is and from then on she watch’s the white crystal palace most nights in the moonlight. Her Grandma tells her humans have immortal souls that live in the stars and mermaids can have them if a human boy was to fall in love with them. Alone, she hurriedly goes to the sea witch who is represented as an anthropomorphic creature, a human sea-serpent, and is surrounded by human skeletons. To get a human soul she makes a deal. She must go in the moonlight to the shore to drink a potion that was made for her in return for her voice. She will then grow legs, endure razor sharp pain constantly and will only have until the prince marries for him to fall in love with her and marry her instead, or, she will ‘become foam on the sea’. She takes the deal, lives with the prince and only comes back to see the sea at moonlight. However, due to her being voiceless, the prince believes that his ‘wife to be’ is the one that saved him in the sea that night and he falls in loves with her. On last night before the wedding they are dancing in the moonlight when the mermaid’s sisters come and give her a knife to kill the prince so that with his blood she can regain her tail instead of dying. They had made a deal with the sea-serpent in return for their hair. The young mermaid cannot do it, throws the knife into the water, creating a red splash, then throws herself in the water. As the sun rises she has not died but is surrounded by ethereal beings, red clouds and the white sails of the ship. They tell her that for her good deeds she can now have an immortal soul and float to heaven after spending 300 years of service with the daughters of the air.

I will approach this with firstly the method of structuralist Lévi-Strauss. I want to also decode the looove story using another form of analysis so we know we’re getting the right message: Chris Knight’s method.

So, let’s get decoding. Lévi-Strauss’ methods of decoding myths were first laid out in his book ‘Mythologiques’ (1971) in which he claimed that it is too easy to take myths literally and, although they may show human emotions, these feelings may need to be looked at universally due to the repetitions in myth across culture and time (apparently). He believed that, unlike poetry, myths are timeless and when using his certain technique in uncovering relations we can begin to uncover the processes of the universal and timeless human mind!!! He uses a certain technique of structural analysis to extract the ‘mythemes’ and the ‘relations’ between versions of myths. Lévi-Strauss argues we can devise a ‘third referent’ when studying a myth by looking at the contradictory properties within the ‘multi-dimensional frames of reference’. So basically he’s saying he reads between the lines. He uses an analogy to explain this further, how the synchronic and diachronic properties of language interact to give us meaning: as in an orchestra score, it can be read one way to give us the current meaning and another way to show the bundles of relations. He argues that a myth therefore consists of all its variations, because using this analysis reveals correlations which show logically ‘the structural law of the myth’. The structure of a myth, he argues, is a ‘slated’ structure coming to the surface through repetitions within mythology. When comparing these universal truths found within, it re-creates a myth as having the same structural properties as a crystal.

Using this method to decode ‘The Little Mermaid’ we first need to extract the ‘mythemes’. The ‘constituent units’ that seem to be related throughout the fairytale are the following: water, the ocean, the family, the moonlight, dark storms, sea-serpents, pain, the loss of one’s voice or hair and the colours blue and red vs fire, pearls, marble, coal black eyes, love, a calm sea and the colour white. These seem to be some of the key repetitions throughout the fairytale. Lévi-Strauss believed that mythic thought progresses out of the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution. He argues that this is usually followed by two equivalent terms alongside a mediator and this creates a pattern of mediating structure within mythology: a double process of opposition and correlation corresponding to the universal way of organizing daily experience. Referring back to one of Lévi-Strauss’ other theories (alliance theory) we may see that the main opposing ‘mythemes’ are: kinship vs marriage. Alliance theory is his belief that universal structures in kinship derive from male altruism, sharing womenfolk between bonded groups. He believes this theory is often shown in myths to reveal the universal mind. The first group of constituent units are relatable to the family, life and possibly coming of age vs. the second group of constituent units which seem to be related to love, the calm, and coming towards the end of your life. In other versions of ‘the Little Mermaid’ this would fit nicely with the end resolution where the mermaid and the prince marry. However, in this original version the resolution does not seem to be explained in this way. We could perhaps argue it is a more broad relation of the constituent units, such as the transition between life and death. I don’t think Levi-Strauss’ ideas of universal ways of thinking are quite right.

Let us now decode the myth using a method explained by Knight (1995). Knight argues that the myths ‘could hardly have been pure ‘collective memories’ of a cultural initial situation which had long since passed. To have survived the tales must have had a living point of reference in the present’. Knight describes Lévi-Strauss as anti-evolutionist, explaining that his views on ‘alliance theory’ is only subject to his particular culture. Knight believes that myths cannot be based on such a specific architecture of the human mind as that of Lévi-Strauss. From the point of view of a Marxist and from a behaviourists approach, he took a literal interpretation of myths and fairytales in his method of ‘time resistant syntax’, taking into account all ‘external’ factors. Knight argues that only ‘modern’ tales tend to be more patriarchal, although retaining ‘primitive’ totemic roots that they are characterised by the dualistic world of gender. When looking at ‘the Little Mermaid’ from this angle I needed to find out more about the culture in which it came. This particular version was written in Copenhagen in 1837. A western and religious culture whereby this particular ending probably represents the morals that are made by children so that they can go to heaven (having a good soul). In the Disney version where the couple get married and the sea-witch is far more prominent, this is more reflective of the patriarchy of the time and becoming a good wife after the troubles of coming of age.

Despite Knights belief that myths need to be decoded by looking at the external factors of the particular culture, he argues that there are recurrent patterns throughout time from all humans: like the fact that the stories told reflect the thinking of the time like a photograph of the mind. On a broader level, we can inadvertently learn from the stories told in certain societies, providing important insights into cultures. Using the ‘sex-strike’ model, Knight explains how in early human consciousness female menstruation in some symbolic sense ‘becomes’ the hunted game which men hope to be able to kill, due to the symbol of blood. Nature is therefore to myth as myth is to culture and therefore ritual also. Blood becomes economics. When we look at ‘the Little Mermaid’ in this way we can see the two worlds represented: water vs fire. The moonlight seems to be the major connector backing up that it is perhaps a story about female menstruation. Backing up Knights point further it has been noted that: “Female participation in or control of ritual and symbolism have been taken as the sound of the otherwise muted voices of women, as compensation for their marginal position in many societies, or as the means by which to organize female solidarity and resistance.” This provides an interesting point to explain the part when the mermaid’s voice is taken and she is no longer with her sisters. Perhaps a comment by Anderson on the current cultural patriarchy of the time.


When using Lévi-Strauss’ logic we seemed to get a similar result as that of Knight, however, as Knight has stated, examining myths internally and in terms of their mutual relationships is insufficient in working out their significance when you are applying your own subjective views culture onto the myth. Although it may be correct that ‘the Little Mermaid’ was a reflection of the kinship vs marriage complex, it does not seem to fit across all representations of the fairy tale and we do perhaps have to take external factors into account. Although could the same be said for Knights ‘invariant syntax’ of blood relations? Cross- analysis is key I guess.

But on the topic of love, what have we learnt? Perhaps it is that stories change dependent on who is writing them and who that person is (where they are from, what time they lived in, everything that makes that person different). So when a love story is well known at a particular time in a particular place we can see how the majority viewed love at that time. Love changes. Mermaids once saw kindness as love and then it was being a good wife. We all grow up with 325026082530883290 stories and sometimes this can get confusing, especially when you are trying to relate to another human being who may have interpreted a stories message differently. I guess that love is when two peoples views on love click. When what you both want is to be sky angels, or perhaps a mute wife and a handsome prince!

Published by Maisie Daisy Dawes

Comments (1)

Oct 23, 2016, 12:52:50 AM

Great !

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