The Story of Asdiwal Inverted – The Challenges of History, Concept and Consciousness

David Koester

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Presented at Claude Lévi-Strauss – Interdisciplinary Perspectives University of Durham, September 20-22


Lévi-Strauss’s essay, “The Story of Asdiwal” is sometimes considered the most powerful, concise illustration of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist method and its application to cultural historical questions.  Though there has been criticism of the details of the ethnographic data brought to bear in the essay, and of the specific ethnohistorical conclusions, the analysis of important features of the myth remain compelling.  Lévi-Strauss followed Boas in being in interested in the variations of the myths among groups inhabiting the Northwest Coast of Canada and in the extent to which these variations in the myths reflected differences in social organization.  At the same time, Lévi-Strauss continually held that mythic understanding was subject to its own logic and transformations of myths could take place according to mythic processes such as logical inversion and thematic replacement.  Lévi-Strauss argued that myth was an excellent focus for the study of the mind because in myth the mind was operating on objects of its own creation.  In this paper I present an example of a myth that appears to be a condensed inversion of the basic components of the Asdiwal story.  This myth/story was collected by Waldemar Jochelson in 1910 in Kamchatka, Russia as part of the Riaboushinsky Siberian expedition.  On the basis of the work done by Boas and others, there has been a general consensus that mythic tales, particularly about the raven were shared across the cultures of the North Pacific.  At the same time, however, if there was contact, direct or very indirect between the peoples of Kamchatka and peoples of the Northwest Coast of Canada it is likely to have occurred only a very long time ago.  There is, as yet, no known connection between them.  In the myth the inversion occurs along so many points that it seems that the stories must be related.  In the Tsimshian tale, female figures travel upstream and downstream to meet in the middle; in the Kamchatkan there are male figures.  The women embrace when they meet; the males fight, and so on.  The level of condensation in the Kamchatkan tale and the fullness of the inversion may reflect time depth or geographical distance either of which brought multiple links in a long chain of transmission that reached the specific storytellers. 

                        This myth confirms Lévi-Strauss’ general conceptions of mythic understanding and raises questions about the implications for our understandings of history and consciousness.  On the one hand, the concepts in the Kamchatkan myth are so basic that the myths only appear to be inversions of each other.  This would confirm Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the fundamental nature of mythic operators and the ability of the mind to apprehend and use them.  On the other hand, if the stories are historically linked, the consistency in the inversion process suggests the operation of the structural principles that Lévi-Strauss laid out.  The question remains:  do these principles reside in the basic structure of language, in human apprehension of fundamental social and environmental conditions or in categories of the human mind.