Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She is the author of, among other books, Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India and The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was.

How to Escape the Curse: The Mahabharata

Wendy Doniger, 8 October 2009

Many people in India believe that, because the Mahabharata – the ancient epic poem, in Sanskrit, about a disastrous fratricidal war – is such a tragic, violent book, it is dangerous to keep the whole text in your house; most people who have it stow one part of it somewhere else, just to be on the safe side. The Mahabharata, in any case, takes up quite a lot of shelf space: it...

Nineteenth-century German and British linguists, building on some 18th-century hunches, uncovered the connections between members of a large (and rather dysfunctional) family of languages that included ancient Greek, Latin, Hittite (in ancient Anatolia), Vedic Sanskrit (in ancient India), Avestan (in ancient Iran), the Celtic and Norse-Germanic languages and, ultimately, French, German, Italian, Spanish, English and all their friends and relations.

In the 1964 film Robin and the Seven Hoods, when someone compares ‘Robbo’ (Frank Sinatra) to Robin Hood, one of the gangsters asks: ‘Who’s Robin Hood?’ And another replies: ‘Well, he was a hood, some Englishman who lived long ago and had an operation going for him in the forest. And I guess the "robin” means he stole birds.’ Robin is more likely...

Lacan’s Ghost: The mirror

Wendy Doniger, 3 January 2002

In Duck Soup, Harpo dresses up in exactly the same way as Groucho is dressed (moustache, glasses, nightshirt and nightcap) and, posing on different sides of the frame of a giant mirror which Harpo has shattered, each elaborately mimics the other’s gestures – until Chico, wearing the same outfit, breaks the scene up. This scene is mirrored in Big Business (1988), when Bette Midler...

Can you spot the source?

Wendy Doniger, 17 February 2000

Young Harry Potter’s parents are dead. So far, so good: many of the heroes and heroines of the classics of children’s literature are orphans, while others have invisible, unmentionable or irrelevant parents. The sorrow of grieving, not to mention the terror of helplessness, is quickly glossed over in favour of the joy of a fantasised freedom. (A particularly sharp 13-year-old patiently explained to me that if Harry’s parents weren’t dead, there would be no point in writing the book: it wouldn’t be interesting, no matter how many creative details there were.) The problem, for Harry Potter as for most orphans in children’s books, is not the absence of parents but the presence of step-parents. From infancy Harry has been raised by his horrid Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley, who hate him and dote on their own cruel and stupid son, Dudley Dursley; they starve Harry and, when he’s forced to spend summer holidays with them, they intercept his letters from his school friends, his only link with the world of people who care for him.

Mae West and the British Raj: Dinosaur Icons

Wendy Doniger, 18 February 1999

One of the best of the many puns in this book is the gloss of ‘dinosaurus’ as ‘Dinos’R’Us’, a take-off on the ‘Toys’R’Us’ logo that sends a double message through its form (we are talking about advertising, more specifically about advertising aimed at children) and content (the dinosaur is a ‘cultural icon’ that somehow holds the key to ‘us’, to our national identity, or political unconscious, or economic agenda, or Freudian unconscious, or all of the above). This is a heavy burden to lay even on such a big animal, and requires some massive scholarly leverage; W.J.T. Mitchell invokes the secular trinity of Darwin, Marx and Freud. He traces the historical origin and development of our ideas about dinosaurs, through evolutionary theory and palaeontology (primarily Darwin and Cuvier), 19th and 20th-century history of science, political history, fiction (the ‘lost worlds’ of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle), film, advertising, depth psychology and art (paintings in art museums and museums of science, cartoons and comics).‘

Don’t do it! Dick Francis

Wendy Doniger, 15 October 1998

Any Dick Francis novel about horses and crime satisfies my definition of a myth: like a myth, it is one of a corpus of interrelated stories (most, though not all, about horses, and many about an ex-jockey named Sid Halley) held sacred by a group (Dick Francis fans, or Franciscans of a sort, Francisfans, who recognise one another, like ((Star)) Trekkies, across several continents, without benefit of secret handshake or decoder ring) over a period of time punctuated by ritual events: once a year since 1962, when, after a long career as a champion National Hunt jockey, he published his first novel, Dead Cert, we have celebrated the new Francis novel.

What did they name the dog? Twins

Wendy Doniger, 19 March 1998

Once upon a time, two identical twins were separated at birth; neither knew she had a twin. Years later, they chanced to be in the same place at the same time, and each was mistaken for the other, until they were finally brought together, all misunderstandings were explained, and everyone lived happily ever after. This is what I would call a myth: a story which people continue to believe is true in the face of sometimes massive evidence that it is not; a story that is told again and again because it poses a question that can never be answered. In this case: what is it that makes each human being unique?

Lighting-Up Time

Wendy Doniger, 6 March 1997

By what witchcraft did I receive this book about so-called pagan festivals on the same day that the Times ran an article on an organisation that calls itself the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust? The article, alluding to ‘Neolithic practices still followed by some today’, spoke of ‘priestesses, witches and druids’ who ‘regard themselves as the oldest religious group in the British Isles’. One such priestess, Anne Wildwood, who ‘hopes to return as a wild horse’, deplored ‘the usual “Witch eats baby under oak tree at full moon” type of thing’, and insisted that ‘the Christian Church took over all the major pagan feast days,’ and that ‘the choice of a date to mark Christ’s birthday at Christmas … was influenced by the ancient Roman celebration of the birth of the sun on December 21.’

Four in a Bed

Wendy Doniger, 8 February 1996

Bisexuality frequently falls between two beds, not (as one might expect) male and female but hetero and homo: the concept is rejected both by heterosexuals (unwilling to accept the possibility that they may not be as straight as they think they are) and by homosexuals (outraged by the easy option offered to make them straighter). The very term is semantically ambiguous, vacillating between the original botanical meaning – ‘of two sexes’ or ‘having both sexes in the same individual’ – and the mythological meaning: ‘sexually attracted to members of both sexes’. When applied not to plants or gods but to people, the botanical definition, conceived in terms of the subject of desire, evokes the fantasy of unity, foreclosing desire because both sexes are already present; while the mythological definition validates multiple sexual objects of desire for one person. At stake in the argument between these two definitions is the larger question, in Marjorie Garber’s words, ‘of whether any sexuality has reference to subject or object’, whether gender entails not merely an identification with one sex but the desire for someone of the other sex.’

Once upon a Real Time

Wendy Doniger, 23 March 1995

If women are the ones who tell fairy tales, why do fairy tales paint such ugly pictures of women? Or, as Marina Warner puts it, ‘If and when women are narrating, why are the female characters so cruel? … Why have women continued to speak at all within this body of story which defames them so profoundly?’ Or again, what sort of woman would tell that sort of story about that sort of woman? The traditional proto-feminist answer to this question has been: ‘Not a woman at all, a man, that’s who, buster.’ And indeed, most of our ancient texts (Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit), and even dominant modern tellings (Perrault, the Grimms, Disney), have been transmitted by men in one way or another. But Warner demonstrates beyond doubt that the proto-feminist answer is no longer valid, that the old wives’ tale about old wives is true, that women often were the tellers of the tales. And if the storyteller in the story speaks as a mother, what sort of a mother is she?…

Calf and Other Loves

Wendy Doniger, 4 August 1994

Animal lovers who read this book – and no one else will, or should, read it – will not be able to put it down, but they will come away from it feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The subject itself would tend to make the book one long dirty joke; but the issues it raises are deadly serious, touching the tender spots of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and, indeed, the nature of sexual otherness.

Hang Santa

Wendy Doniger, 16 December 1993

The authors of this collection of essays are social anthropologists who follow the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, literally – an essay by him comes first, after Daniel Miller’s introduction – and, in varying degrees, intellectually. What they discover when they unwrap Christmas present – Christmas now, throughout the world – are the human structures of the cover-up, disguising, beneath a number of hilarious cultural transformations, a tragic opposition between the glittery surface and the dark heart of Christmas. They unwrap the big lie of Christmas.’’

Diary: Crazy about Horses

Wendy Doniger, 23 September 1993

Sadistic attacks on horses, often involving sexual mutilation, have been reported with alarming frequency in southern England since the mid-Eighties; several dozen mares, stallions and geldings have been savaged. Stallions have been slashed or castrated, and broom handles thrust inside mares. Special police action has been taken to counter this ‘horse-ripping’, as it is evocatively called, and horse-owners have formed vigilante Horse-watch movements. But since the perpetrators have not yet been identified, imagination runs amok: what sort of a person would want to do such a thing?

Third Natures: The Kāmasūtra

Christopher Minkowski, 21 June 2018

The​ Kāmasūtra occupies an unusual place in the popular imagination. Since the first private publication in 1883 of an English translation – a project fronted by the Orientalising...

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Masquerade: self-impersonation

Gillian Bennett, 3 November 2005

In a show earlier this year on Channel 4, a downtrodden-looking woman was exhibited to members of the public who were asked to guess her age. When, as invariably they did, they overestimated it,...

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The One We’d Like to Meet: myth

Margaret Anne Doody, 6 July 2000

Do real queens or goddesses get raped? Can beauty become vile? Such problems are raised by Helen of Troy, wife of King Menelaus, and by Sita, wife of Rama. Their stories (in multiple versions)...

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Zoë Heller, 7 March 1996

If anyone knows about the allure of hair it’s little girls. Between the ages of seven and twelve, girls groom their Barbies and each other with an intensity bordering on the freakish. At...

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