Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes

Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty

Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, N. Y., 1988; hardcover, 194 pages.

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's new book Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes is a study of myths from both the West and the East that deal with the mysterious other. According to O'Flaherty, in myths of this type the other is usually represented by strangers, animals, gods, and children. In addition to what these stories tell us about the function of myth in general and about the beliefs of other peoples, O'Flaherty says: "But we also learn things about ourselves by studying these stories. For, as we progress, we may find that we are among the others in other peoples' myths."

O'Flaherty wants to use these myths to shake us, her readers, out of any complacent views we might bold regarding our so-called classical texts of Western civilization. And she goes further, suggesting that these much touted but rarely read classics are actually the texts of a small elite, not the general population.

O'Flaherty is Mircea Eliade Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago and this book is, in part, a response to her colleague at the University of Chicago, Allan loom and his book The Closing of the American Mind. In that book, Bloom states his claim that we still have access to our classics, a point which O'Flaherty denies. She says: "We in the West tend to indulge in two different but related misconceptions about our own classics: we think that our classics are in a sense eternal-forever fixed, frozen in the amber of carefully preserved written documents-and that they provide a shared communal base for all educated members of our culture. But neither of these assumptions is true; our classics are not fixed and eternal, and all of us do not have access to them."

As a noted scholar of classical Indian texts (among her earlier books are The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology and Hindu Myths) Professor O'Flaherty is in a unique position to bring some new light to bear on the discussion of what exactly are the texts of Western civilization.

Along the way she offers challenging insights and tells some truly wonderful stories. For instance, she takes the reader into the intricate world of Indian myths about sacrifice (both animal and human) and uses these myths to bring out the incongruity of the practice of animal sacrifice in Hinduism, a religion which advocates vegetarianism. She uses an old Hassidic tale about the circuitous fulfillment of a rabbi's dream to make one of her main points which is that reading other peoples' classics and myths will help us "re-vision" our own classics and myths precisely because of their differences. In an earlier book, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, O'Flaherty showed herself to be an adept interpreter of the mythologies of many people by exploring some commonalities in the myths of the ancient Indians, Greeks, and Celts. In this book, she not only attempts to integrate an equally diverse group of myths but to put them into a meaningful context for thoughtful readers.

-Serenity Young