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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In the study of mythology, a mytheme is the essential kernel of a myth, an irreducible, unchanging element, one that is always found shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways—"bundled" was Claude Lévi-Strauss's image— or linked in more complicated relationships, like a molecule in a compound. For example, the myths of Adonis and Osiris share several elements, leading some scholars to conclude that they share a source.

The structuralist analyzer of folk tales, Vladimir Propp, considered that the unit of analysis was the individual tale: the unitary mytheme by contrast is the equivalent in myth of the phonemes, morphemes and sememes into which structural linguistics 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 (the term itself first appears in Lévi-Strauss' 1958 French version of the work; before that he simply refers to it as the "gross constituent unit" of myth). 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.

Lev Manovich 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.

The term "mytheme" is analogous to, if not virtually the same in "signification" (a favorite term of Roland Barthes, another famous structuralist) as "meme", a word coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mytheme" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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