Sean Gillen


Classical mythology and the ideologically motivated myths of contemporary society are seen as ways of explaining and adding meaning to the world for its social actors.  Semiotics; the study of ‘signs’ is applied to such cultural phenomena, under the premise that a sign is ‘anything can mean something, to somebody’.   Using semiotics, structuralist theorists have studied myth and mythology as a ‘symbolic language’, proposing that they reflect the human need for rationalisation and regularity.  Accordingly, tourism is also posited as of symbolic value, performing a similar ‘structuring’ or even mystical function.  Moreover, some commentators assert that this provides the opportunity for the perpetuation of ideological intentions, through the tourism product.  This paper discusses this structuralist approach and applies it to two local visitor attractions, leading to a critique of its epistemological position.  Whilst recognising the benefits of the approach, it is asserted that the researcher should consider his/her own experiences, knowledge and emotions, as well as those of the social actors under analysis, before making assumptions about the ‘meaning’ of the experience.

A ‘sign’ can be perceived as anything “that stands for something, to somebody…in some respect”  (Hawkes 1977:127). [get to references here] As Echtner (1999) posits, they are used to both create and convey meaning.  The study of signs, or ‘semiotics’ might therefore be understood as the examination of the “communication of meaning” (:47).  The application of semiotics by structuralist theorists, to the meanings of cultural phenomena is well represented in academic tradition. Notably, the analyses of classical ‘mythology’, and social or ideological ‘myth’, making use of the semiotic perspective, have produced seminal and highly influential works.  

For Claude Levi Strauss (1963) the study of classical mythology reveals the “extent to which [myths] prove actually formative as well as reflective of men’s minds” (Hawkes1977:41).  This concept is articulated by Levi Strauss through the analysis of the relationship between the ‘Shaman’ and his tribe.   The Shaman ‘heals’ the sick through the presentation of myths that invoke a spiritual ‘battle’.  In doing so the myths provide the tribes people with meaning to their lives; a belief system that explains and rationalises their world for them.  Essentially, Levi Strauss explains, it is the symbolic nature of the myth, its meaning to the believer rather than the actual language used that affects the ‘cure: “The myth form takes precedence over the content of the narrative” (1963: 204).

The role of myth for Roland Barthes (1972) might not seem entirely distinct, being concerned with “the complex system of images and beliefs which a society constructs in order to sustain and authenticate its sense of its own being” (:131).  However, Barthes’s Marxist concept of myth is predominantly concerned with the perpetuation of the ideologies of the ‘ruling class’; their myths penetrating social convention to make them appear ‘natural’.  Consequently, Barthes asserts “everything can be a myth, provided it is conveyed in a discourse” (1972:109). Nevertheless, both Barthes and Levi Strauss attempt to reveal the deeper meanings that operate beneath the surface of societies.

The aim of this paper is to apply these modes of thought to examples from the socio-cultural discourse of leisure and tourism. Through the application of elementary semiotic analysis, an attempt is made to reveal possible ‘hidden meanings’,  leading to an  assessment of the value of the structuralist approach.  

The ensuing literature review will discuss the nature of ‘mythology’ and ‘myth’, as well as the development and application of semiotics, from its linguistic basis, to its application to various forms of cultural ‘language’.  Significantly, the ontological similarities between the functions of myth, mythology and tourism is posited in an attempt to justify the application of semiotics to the latter.  In support of this, dominant theories within tourism will be discussed, along with influential semiotic analyses of tourism, illustrating the thought process and themes that guide this paper. Consequently specific questions regarding the tourist/destination relationship are raised, leading to the selection of an appropriate analytical framework.  The literature review therefore incorporates the methodology for the research that it precedes.

The research section consists of two separate essays, each comprising of a summary of an elementary semiotic analysis reflecting the influence of dominant themes raised in the literature review.  The first essay predominantly addresses the significance of classical mythology in tourism and society, by focussing on the presentation of Arthurian legend in Cornwall, UK.  The second, being more directly related to the concept of social or ideological ‘myth’, analyses the grounds and formal gardens of Mount Edgecumbe Country Park, near Plymouth. Following a concise summary of the research, a discursive critique of its process and its theoretical foundations is undertaken, based primarily on the actual research experience.  Central to this critique will be an appraisal of the epistemological position of the researcher, leading to the presentation of the concept of the ‘informed tourist’.

It is important to acknowledge that whilst many complex terms and theories are introduced, it is not practical to fully elaborate on them all.  For more detailed analyses it is suggested that the reader refers to the sources indicated in the reference section.  Moreover, in consideration of the title of this paper, it is not intended to differentiate whether the subject is a ‘tourist’ or visitor at ‘leisure’: this would constitute a lengthy debate in itself (see Cohen 1974).  Although ‘tourist’ is used most often throughout, it is suggested here that the terms overlap and are equally applicable in this paper’s context. 

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