Other Peoples’ Myths is an examination of myths, classics, and rituals and the various ways they are related to each other and to life. It is also a meditation on the other and the reflection that one sees when gazing upon the other. In an age where we are trapped within language and the horizons of our own culture, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty reminds us of the power of myth, perhaps, to fly beneath the radars of the physical and social sciences (166). “Myths or narratives are not merely the medium through which knowledge about others is transmitted. Myths themselves are objects to be known; the medium of myths is in one sense the message” (1). In other words, storytelling is one of the few truly universal human bonds. Myth itself is an encounter with the other in which we learn about other people and cultures, but also about ourselves. It is through this methodological struggle with myths then that we can raise certain basic questions about human meaning. In this way, story is the method of Other Peoples’ Myths. The stories that comprise the book are not arguments, rather they are the metaphors that make the arguments real to us. Stories, to O’Flaherty, are a better way of thinking than the development of step-by-step argumentation (2). The other that these stories reveal can be cultural others, strangers, children, animals, or—the final others—the gods. From questions and recurring narratival themes, O’Flaherty weaves a tapestry of myths within which the questions are set in a traditional narrative context. It is quixotic to define a myth. Better is to view a myth in action, to ask what it does not what it is. In this way, we can say that a myth is true without being factual. A myth says something that can only be said in a story. It is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it—it is a story composed in either the past or future that continues to have meaning in the present. Myth as story is important, because only a story can enlarge our sense of what is possible (27-28). Myths are religious or sacred in that they ask the same kinds of questions that religions ask: the very questions of meaning. One cannot understand a myth by telling it, but only by interpreting it. Myths also facilitate the restructuring of the world, much like ambiguity, they enable people to project a new view of reality over the world. Great works of art that express myths are the form of religious discourse that is most likely to survive the perilous journey from one culture to another (43).
*O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion. Each week, I pick what I find to be the most interesting book of the current section and post a short summary of it.