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Lighting-Up Time

Wendy Doniger, 6 March 1997

The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain 
by Ronald Hutton.
Oxford, 542 pp., £19.99, June 1996, 0 19 820570 8
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... 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 ...

Don’t do it!

Wendy Doniger: Dick Francis, 15 October 1998

Field of 13 
by Dick Francis.
Joseph, 273 pp., £16.99, September 1998, 0 7181 4351 5
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... 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 ...

Hang Santa

Wendy Doniger, 16 December 1993

Unwrapping Christmas 
edited by Daniel Miller.
Oxford, 239 pp., £25, November 1993, 0 19 827903 5
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... 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 ...

Diary

Wendy Doniger: Crazy about Horses, 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 ...

Once upon a Real Time

Wendy Doniger, 23 March 1995

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers 
by Marina Warner.
Chatto, 458 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 7011 3530 1
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... 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 ...

What did they name the dog?

Wendy Doniger: Twins, 19 March 1998

Twins: Genes, Environment and the Mystery of Identity 
by Lawrence Wright.
Weidenfeld, 128 pp., £14.99, November 1997, 0 297 81976 3
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... 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 ...

Four in a Bed

Wendy Doniger, 8 February 1996

Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life 
by Marjorie Garber.
Hamish Hamilton, 608 pp., £25, January 1996, 9780241134481
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... 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 ...

Mae West and the British Raj

Wendy Doniger: Dinosaur Icons, 18 February 1999

The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon 
by W.J.T. Mitchell.
Chicago, 321 pp., £25, November 1998, 0 226 53204 6
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... 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 ...

Lacan’s Ghost

Wendy Doniger: The mirror, 3 January 2002

The Mirror: A History 
by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, translated by Katharine Jewett.
Routledge, 308 pp., £16.99, January 2001, 0 415 92447 2
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... 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 meets her unknown identical twin, wearing an identical suit, in a powder room in which a series of mirrors is separated by a series of open spaces, and the two of them play the mirror scene until they realise they are twins ...

How to Escape the Curse

Wendy Doniger: The Mahabharata, 8 October 2009

The Mahabharata 
translated by John Smith.
Penguin, 834 pp., £16.99, May 2009, 978 0 14 044681 4
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... 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 contains about 75,000 verses – sometimes rounded off to 100,000 – or three million words, some 15 times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined; and a hundred times more interesting ...

Can you spot the source?

Wendy Doniger, 17 February 2000

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 
by J.K. Rowling.
Bloomsbury, 317 pp., £10.99, July 1999, 0 7475 4215 5
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... 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 ...

Calf and Other Loves

Wendy Doniger, 4 August 1994

Dearest Pet: On Bestiality 
by Midas Dekkers, translated by Paul Vincent.
Verso, 208 pp., £18.95, June 1994, 0 86091 462 3
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... 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 ...

Female Bandits? What next!

Wendy Doniger: The incarnations of Robin Hood, 22 July 2004

Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography 
by Stephen Knight.
Cornell, 247 pp., £14.50, May 2003, 0 8014 3885 3
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... 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 ...

The Land East of the Asterisk

Wendy Doniger: The Indo-Europeans, 10 April 2008

Indo-European Poetry and Myth 
by M.L. West.
Oxford, 525 pp., £80, May 2007, 978 0 19 928075 9
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... 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 ...

The One We’d Like to Meet

Margaret Anne Doody: Myth, 6 July 2000

Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India 
by Wendy Doniger.
Chicago, 376 pp., £43.95, June 1999, 0 226 15640 0
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The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth 
by Wendy Doniger.
Columbia, 212 pp., £11.50, October 1999, 0 231 11171 1
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... Sita, wife of Rama. Their stories (in multiple versions) are entertainingly retold and analysed by Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions and of South-East Asian languages and civilisations. As Doniger – who can read Sanskrit and Hindi as well as Greek, Latin and modern languages – tells us, in the ...

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