This intriguing book is a real feast for fantasising about gender bending and blending. Here we enter the exuberant worlds of mythology with stories about transposing heads, disjointed bodies, transforming genders, tales of sexual exploits, pleasures and occasional punishments, whether at the level of gods or humans. How extraordinarily rich is this world of myth and metaphor, full of human insight and divine delight.
Wendy Doniger has accomplished the prodigious feat of locating, translating and interpreting well-known but also rarely heard stories from ancient treasure houses of the human imagination.
Her intimate knowledge of Hindu myths enables her to trace surprisingly similar gender plots in the mythical narratives of both ancient India and Greece. She retells these through direct translation of ancient texts, but also skilfully discusses the modern reincarnations of these ancient plots in western poetry, film and fiction, adding her own reflections on gender differences and changes.
The book is based on the Jordan lectures in comparative religion, delivered during 1996-97 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The audience must have been greatly entertained by the colourful stories of sex and seduction between humans and immortals.
The author compares texts and people from two different cultures that share surprising resonances: stories about Sita and Helen, or Nala and Damayanti, Odysseus and Penelope, stories of androgynes or of transformations of females into males and vice-versa. The weaving together of these stories is shaped by an agenda that is double in several respects: it is concerned with the duality of two genders (male and female) of two kinds of creatures (mortal and immortal) in two different mythologies.
Doniger's years of research into the ancient worlds of myth have resulted in a book that belongs in a category of its own, for it is not a straightforward textual or comparative study but gains its strength from the sucessful blending of different methods and materials.
At the heart of the book are its highly entertaining stories - almost too many stories since several appear in a confusing profusion of variants drawn from an impressive range of sources and languages. Contemporary novel and film scriptwriters might well draw inspiration from this rich source. The stories are accompanied by detailed textual interpretations and historical comparisons, yet I miss a nuanced discussion of the difference between the early oral origins and later textual transformations of these ancient mythic materials. Nor does Doniger tackle theoretical gender issues directly, although her perceptive interpretations of complex plots with numerous subtle subtexts show clearly that implicitly, and often also explicitly, important issues about gender and power and the gendered asymmetry of social life are taken on board.
The stories abound with experiences of disassociation and denial, male gaze and projections, the sexual ambivalence assigned by men to women and the double standard in male sexual behaviour - all part of the conscious shape of this book. Intricate patterns of sexual exploits and deception show us the dominance of male voices in ancient texts. Yet at the same time they also make clear that they have coded in, but do not always bury, female voices that subvert, resist and give many a story an unexpected twist.
Doniger has managed to orchestrate multiple themes drawn from the deep well of cultural memories imprinted with the haunting spectacle of life and death, desire, sex and love, and dreams of immortality. Her book appeals to the imagination in its playful exuberance in celebrating multiple myths of transposing gender. Mary Douglas has likened them to a subversive romp, a carnival, and that is what these stories are, with masks on and off.
Students of ancient India and Greece, of mythology and gender, and of comparative literature will find much to challenge and argue with in this lively and entertaining storehouse of tales.
Ursula King is professor of theology and religious studies, University of Bristol.
Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India
Author - Wendy Doniger
ISBN - 0 226 15641 9 and 10 226 15641 9
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £43.95 and £15.95
Pages - 376