chapter
From primitive thought to mythical thought
Pages 10

In 1950 Lévi-Strauss was elected to a chair of Comparative Religions which led him to put kinship temporarily to one side in order to devote himself, and his structural method, to mythology and indigenous classifications. First of all, he deconstructed the concept of *totemism (Lévi-Strauss [1962] 1963). In the *evolutionary perspective that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, totemism had been considered as one of the first forms of primitive *religion, in which human groups identified themselves with animal or plant species. Several British anthropologists (†Fortes, †R.Firth, *Radcliffe-Brown and †Evans-Pritchard) had tried to reinterpret totemism in the light of their own ethnographic data, but had failed to reach the level of logical abstraction to which Lévi-Strauss raised the debate. For Lévi-Strauss, totemism is a system of classification of social groups based on the analogy with distinctions between species in the natural world. The relationship between the individual animal and the species as a whole provides a natural intellectual model for the relationship between a person and a broader social category; animals were not made totems because, as *Malinowski had claimed, they were ‘good to eat’, but because, in Lévi-Strauss’s phrase, they were ‘good to think’.