"The Raw and the Cooked"

In anthropological terms the concept of "the raw" verses "the cooked" has long been associated with the dichotomy between the natural world and the world of human culture. In a broad-based empirical study of native mythologies, Claude Lévi-Strauss proposes a structural and thematic link between the opposition of the raw and the cooked in mythological thought and man's attempt to establish a balanced relationship between natural and cultural forces.

Lévi-Strauss postulates that the raw/cooked axis is characteristic of all human culture, with elements falling along the "raw" side of the axis being those of "natural" origin, and those on the "cooked" side being of "cultural" origin - i.e. products of human creation. Symbolically, cooking marks the transition from nature to culture, by means of which the human state can be defined in accordance with all its attributes. In mythological thought, the cooking of food is, in effect, a form of mediation between nature and society, between life and death, and between heaven and earth. The cook, in turn, can be viewed as a cultural agent whose function is to "mediate the conjunction of the raw product and the human consumer," the operation of which has the effect of "making sure the natural is at once cooked and socialized."

Two elements with somewhat problematic placement along the raw/cooked axis are "poison" and the image of the male "seducer." Poison may be considered a "natural" substance since it is usually "raw" - i.e. derived from herbs or plants that are not cultivated. However, it is used to effect a cultural act. When poison is administered to a human, a joint operation takes place in which it becomes impossible to distinguish the respective part played by each. Lévi-Strauss calls the phenomenon a "point of isomorphic coincidence between nature and culture."

Similarly the male "seducer" is a man who is in mythological thought considered to be devoid of social status with respect to his behavior. He is viewed as acting only in accordance with his natural properties - physical beauty and sexual potency - in order to subvert the social order of marriage. His actions, in effect, de-socialize (or un-cook) the woman he seduces. Thus, both "poison" and the "seducer" are natural elements with properties that allow for an "interpenetration" of nature and culture that is at once destabilizing and dangerous.

In the fourth day of the Decameron the reader is presented with two tragic love stories in which a young woman is presented with the heart of her dead lover - one heart is presented "raw" and the other "cooked" (IV, 1 and IV, 9). In the case of the "raw" heart, the woman performs an almost ritualistic act of mourning over the object, bathing it with her tears and a vial of poison from which she prepares herself a fatal draft. Her choice to utilize the poison to join her lover (a "seducer") in death can be viewed as a rejection of the cultural for the natural on her part. The poison becomes the medium which allows her to "un-cook" and "de-socialize" herself. In the story of the "cooked" heart, on the other hand, the woman is unaware of her lover's death. It is her husband who discovers his betrayal, kills the lover, and orders the man's heart to be cooked and served to his wife. The husband effectively "cooks" the seducer of his wife, thus neutralizing his "natural", socially subversive qualities. The wife, on the other hand, is able to "eat" her lover only because he has been "cooked", and therefore "socialized." And since eating cooked foods is a cultural act, she has unwittingly assimilated the social order, effectively eliminating any "point of isomorphic coincidence" between herself and her lover, or between nature and culture. Once her is transgression revealed, she loses her social status and now has no where left to turn. Her death, in relation to the "cooked" heart, represents the triumph of culture over nature.

(C. Si.) Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.

Eaten Heart Motif in Medieval Literature:

Further Considerations of the Motif: