Lilian E. Doherty, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth. London: Duckworth, 2001. Pp. 192. ISBN 0-7156-3042-3. UK£9.99.
Betine Van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
This book is part of the series Classical Inter/Faces that aims to offer new perspectives on classical culture. Lilian Doherty reviews some of the most important theories about the interpretation of classical myths in the light of insights derived from feminism and gender studies. Her further aim is to synthesize this work and link it to 'issues in the culture at large' (p. 13). In keeping with her intention to reach non-specialist readers, her style is direct and unpretentious. Some may find the device of a fictitious eighteen-year-old American student, Sara, tracking the tale of Demeter and Persephone, unnecessarily folksy.
The first chapter, 'Myth and Gender Systems' (pp. 15- 45), rehearses in miniature what is to follow in more detail in the body of the work. Whereas each of the later chapters is devoted to a specific approach to the interpretation of myths, the first chapter presents different versions of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The versions range from an episode in a television series through reference works on mythology, popular retellings of Greek myth, graphic novels, children's books, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Book 5 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Thus Doherty incorporates popular culture into her research and also illustrates the freedom of poets and artists to reinterpret classical myth. However, she makes the point that most ancient interpreters of myth were men and discusses the possibility that the Homeric Hymn to Demeter may be 'female-authored'. This leads to a survey of the relationship between myths and systems of gender relationships in both the ancient and modern world illustrated with reference to the various versions of the story of Demeter and Persephone. Doherty is explicit about her goal 'to improve the lot of women' (p. 38), but also calls for a dual approach, both celebratory and critical. She maintains that we should celebrate the variety of perspectives uncovered by an investigation of the working of the gender system, but criticize its oppressive aspects.
The last part of the first chapter details some modern interpretations of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. It is here that the different theoretical approaches, scholarly as well as popular, are introduced. The contribution of feminist scholarship to interdisciplinary studies is highlighted in the process.
Chapter 2 (pp. 46-76) deals with psychological approaches to the meaning of myth, especially those of Freud and Jung. Doherty has many problems with Freudian theory but still maintains that it must be taken seriously as an analytic tool as it investigates the origins of gendered identity and also asserts a continuity between the dreams of the individual and myths. Corrections to Freud's theories by feminist psychologists are discussed as well as the contributions by others influenced by Freud, such as Richard Caldwell, Otto Rank and Philip Slater. In her description of the Jungian approach Doherty also introduces the work of some of his followers (Joseph Campbell, Erich Neumann and Jean Shinoda Bohen, for example). Doherty maintains that despite misrepresentation of classical sources in the latter's popular self-help books such as Goddesses in Everywoman (San Francisco 1984), classicists should take notice of these as they often introduce students to classical mythology and 'have the merit of treating the myths as something we might still be able to "think with"' (p.74 ).
The third chapter, titled 'Myth and Ritual' (pp. 77- 99), deals with the theoretical approaches of Jane Harrison and the Cambridge school, the work of Burkert and Girard and some feminist anthropologists. In the final section, 'Myths and rituals of women's initiation', she critically reviews Ken Dowden's contribution in this field and puts forward her own views as well as those of other feminist scholars.
Chapter 4 (pp. 100-26) examines myth as 'charter'. Doherty starts with definitions of scholarship and myth and argues that there is a kind of continuum between the two. She briefly analyses the work of Malinowski and Mircea Eliade and then discusses the importance of the feminist spirituality movement and the two kinds of evidence used to support it: archaeological and mythological. This is followed by an overview and critique of Indo-European comparative mythology and the work of Georges Dumézil. The chapter concludes with a consideration of myth and history. Doherty singles out Bruce Lincoln's model of the dynamics of myth as a promising development.
Structuralist and post-structuralist approaches are examined in Chapter 5 (pp. 127-51). Lévi-Strauss's theory and his reading of the Oedipus myth are briefly set out. The contribution of his French and American followers, especially Vernant and duBois is considered. Next the theory of Post-structuralism is explained and its application by Alison Keith to the work of Sulpicia is reviewed. Doherty examines Keith's investigation into Sulpicia's rewriting of Dido and persuasively argues that this kind of re- reading (based on post-structuralist theory) brings a new dimension to even the best known works of literature.
The last chapter is devoted to 'Myth, Folklore and Popular Culture' (pp. 152-69). It opens with three tales: the first recounts the birth of Dionysos, the second is that of Cupid and Psyche and the third, Beauty and the Beast. Thus Doherty illustrates that, in spite of the traditional rift between the study of classical myth and the study of folklore, they have much in common as both deal with traditional narratives. She makes a strong case that there is a fruitful field for new forms of research in Classics 'that would compare popular and elite texts, both ancient and modern, while respecting their historical and cultural specificity' (p. 157).
Doherty is a declared feminist but her discussions and analyses eschew dogma. They remain open-ended and contain much food for thought. They force the reader to reconsider familiar myths as well as assumptions about the interpretation of myths. She is aware that her own view too, may be judged subjective: 'Yet it is naive to assume that scholarship can ever be completely objective, uninfluenced by the norms of the culture that produces it' (p. 114). Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth proves that it is worthwhile to strive for objectivity with all scholarly means at one's disposal.
Lilian E. Doherty covers a wide range in this book. In addition to introducing various approaches to the interpretation of myth and linking them to insights from gender studies, she analyses and refers to numerous classical myths. However, she also brings in popular culture. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker and Xena, Warrior Princess, are mentioned alongside Apollo, Hercules and Demeter. This is in keeping with her conclusion: 'the future of classical mythology and its interpretation belongs to all of us' (p. 169). This book will appeal to a wide audience and should be a good choice as a textbook for an undergraduate course on the interpretation of classical myths. It will also make a useful contribution to gender and cultural studies. Although there is only a short list (pp. 187f.) of 'Further Reading' of general books on mythology, detailed references in the endnotes ensure that readers will be able to pursue any point of interest.