A myth is the integration of many (sometimes religious) symbols into a narrative form. Myths not only provide a comprehensive view of the world, but they also provide the tools for deciphering the world. Symbols act as a rallying point for meaning and through it the mind links together several meanings.
Human being is considered to be a symbol making animal. In this sense a cultural system is basically the nexus between the various ways of symbolising. This makes it important for a sociologist to identify symbolic elements in human activities. In myths we see symbols as means of communicating something significant. The communicative role of symbol is very important for studying religion and at times through it, mythology.
Mythology is a complex study of symbolism and each myth when shorn off its fantastic elements and magical texts gives a meaning or a conclusion which is so real and at times factual. The symbolism is inherent in each myth and it is for the reader to decipher that.
To illustrate my point, I intend to analyse a lesser known myth of the Kayopo tribe of the Red Indians taken from Claude Levi Strauss’s collection of the Kayopo tribe of the Red Indians.
An Indian takes his younger brother-in-law to catch parrots up a cliff; they quarrel and the boy is left stranded in the forest. He is there for several days and is rescued by a jaguar who is walking past carrying a bow and arrow. (It is important to mention here that these tales are set in the period when man and animals lived together and some of the animals had both human and superhuman qualities). The jaguar takes him home for a ‘cooked-dinner’, for it was only the jaguar who had the gift of fire and cooking at this stage.
The jaguar’s human (!) wife does not like the boy and the boy is eventually forced to murder her with the bow and arrow; he then runs back to his village, taking with him a piece of cooked meat. There he shows the villagers the jaguar’s lair from where they capture an ember and thus learn about fire and the art of cooking, but the jaguar becomes man’s enemy for the betrayal.
Shorn of fiction, the story is full of symbolism. It is symbolic of mans move towards culture (from a raw existence) by the discovery of domestic fire and cooking, the jaguar’s (i.e. the animals) move away from culture and becomes the embodiment of raw nature. Extending this to the Greek myth of Prometheus’s stealing of fire for man, man there had to pay for the gift of fire by the loss of automatic agriculture, and here he pays for it by the hostility of animal life in the jungle. At this stage I would also hazard another symbolism. Doesn’t it symbolise man’s inherent nature of not being trustworthy? But I would resist from getting into ethical symbolism of myths, which by itself could be a subject of controversial debate!