The Myth of Myths

Why do we continue to find myths so fascinating? The ascendancy of science and the triumphs of modern Western thought leave a large gap, an unsatisfied need, which we attempt to meet with beliefs of very different kinds and very different origins. The Hubble telescope has not killed astrology; antibiotics have to contend with herbal remedies and acupuncture; men and women are still carried off by mysterious creatures from other worlds (though nowadays in interplanetary flying machines rather than in fiery chariots) and return after undergoing experiences which ordinary language is powerless to convey. And the study of myth flourishes as never before. The word “Western,” of course, gives a clue. We enjoy the practical benefits of those triumphs, but we flinch from the triumphalism—rational, patriarchal, colonialist—that often accompanies them, and we hope that comfort and meaning can be found in the very different wisdom of other times and other places.

Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and a prolific writer on Indian mythology and on myth in general. She makes no secret of the general direction of her work in both these books, which is political, and on the left. “Winners,” she writes, “have, alas, usually been on the right (though not in the right),” and, of her work, “In pursuing the multivocal, multicultural agenda, we must face the implications of the fact that we use other peoples’ stories for our purposes….” There is a great deal of explicit feminism in her treatment of myths, and patriarchy, sexism, colonialism, and stereotyping all come in for some sharp criticism.

Splitting the Difference is a fascinating book, full of bizarre tales of men and women, gods and goddesses, being duplicated—two for the price of one—or divided into two parts, sometimes the heads of two people being transposed, sometimes a person being transformed from one sex into the other. It is charming to read that “the Tibetan Vinaya casually remarks that anyone who changes sex more than four times a month can’t become a monk.”

The Greek heroine Helen notoriously ran away from her husband with another man to Troy. That story, originally a divine tale of the abduction and recapture of a goddess of fertility, soon became troubling. Why all that fuss, and all those deaths, over a woman no better than she ought to be? And how come she continued to be respected, and indeed worshiped, in the classical period, back home in Sparta? Quite early we find the story that really she did not go at all: it was a double, made by the gods, which went: Helen herself was virtuous. Poets had great fun with that idea, from Euripides to Hofmannsthal.

In India, too, the wife of Rama, Sita, (in the Ramayana) was abducted by a demon and finally brought back, untouched. With time, her virtue, which looked a little fragile, was defended by the invention of a double, Sati, to whom …

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