These days, we want a quick read. We are not willing to take the journey that authors have undertaken to arrive at their arguments and hypotheses. We want to know the conclusion prior to understanding the circumstances and the context. But myths and stories, by their nature, involve a close and repeated reading. Only then, like the first snowdrop after the frost, do the concepts underpinning these tales emerge. Wendy Doniger’s book, The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry, compels us to follow this method of reading. This means you ought not to read the book in one sitting. Read a chapter, dwell on it, and return to it again. Expect to be a bit puzzled initially by a disparate medley of stories about rings and their connection to themes such as identity, love, memory and power. But persevere, and you will be rewarded with a rich trove of stories, concepts, questions and arguments that emerge as you plough through Indian, Greek, Welsh, Norse and other myths, stories, fact and musicals.
The subject of Doniger’s investigation is the ring. Not the ‘one-ring-rules-them-all’ that’s the object of Sauron’s desire in Tolkien’s saga. The rings she deals with are those that appear in tales of adultery and marriage, courtship and betrayal, love and loss, forgetfulness and memory, identity and masquerade. Her reach is breathtakingly phenomenal—the lore of the Vikings, the fables from Mesopotamia, the tales of Jains, Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Old and the New Testaments, tales by Richard Wagner, more modern ones in films and music, and so on.
Chapter three onwards the focus is on particular cultures or clusters of cultures to see how stories change in response to new needs arising from changing historical circumstances. In Shakuntala and the Ring of Memory, Doniger focuses on rings in ancient India. Signet rings appeared in Indian texts from third-century BCE in the wake of Alexander’s aborted invasion. Sita, in the Ramayana, wears her jewellery into the forest, and jewels play a key role in the plot. Sita sees a bejewelled deer (an ogre sent by Ravana) and insists that Rama capture it. While Rama is away, Ravana kidnaps her. Sita’s jewelled anklet and her pearl necklace fall, as do other pieces that she deliberately throws down to mark a trail for her husband.
Two motifs clash, notes Doniger: the tradition that a good woman must not wear jewellery in her husband’s absence, and the tradition that a great lady can always be identified by her jewellery.
In Shakuntala, the tension between royal jewellery and an innocent girl in the forest, joined through the motif of the ring in the fish, is at the heart of the tale. In Kalidasa’s story, the ring functions as the ring of identity, the ring that is lost and found in a fish, and the magic ring that bewitches memory and forgetfulness, well known in Europe, but not attested in India before Kalidasa.
Doniger integrates explanations from psychology (Freud’s analysis of Oedipus and the repression of memories that re-emerge in dreams) with tales of the ring retrieved by a fish, and the loss of memory. A striking aspect is: if something is lost, it will, one day, be retrieved. “For”, as Doniger points out, “of all the things that we lose, memory is the most precious; it is also the most recoverable, if one knows how to go about it, and is lucky.”
The subsequent chapters examine the way rings display memory and power in stories from Shakespeare, the Arthurian legends and the Norse sagas (Siegfried’s and Wagner’s rings). The ring plays a key role in letting Siegfried off the hook for mistreating Brunnhilde, and the German hero regains moral purity. In Wagner’s cycle, the ring plays its conventional role as the key to recognition, where it wakes up the forgotten wife when she sees it on the hand of another woman. In another Wagnerian ring saga, the tale of Wieland the Smith, light is shed on the sexual connotations of the ring.
Doniger poses some interesting questions: why are there so many stories about men who forget their women and relatively few about women who forget their men? While biology and culture are touted by scholars to explain the gender imbalance, the stories can’t settle this question.
Gender aside, what is the connection between amnesia and fidelity? She points out that in Sanskrit, one of the words for love (and for the god of love) is smara—memory—which is an intrinsic part of love.
The sixth chapter focuses on how despite the gender imbalance, women can, and do, use rings as counter-subterfuges. In these stories, children are the key. In The Clever Wife, a husband challenges his wife to get a child fathered by him, though he will never sleep with her. She succeeds by masquerading as another woman and tricking him. She has to get his ring, and thereby prove her subterfuge. Here again, Doniger draws the deeper essence out of this genre. Two different virtues are at stake—the subversive virtue of actively resisting and fighting for what you want, and the noble passive virtue of being free of sin. In the above tale, the wife defends her marital fidelity with subversive intelligence, thus proving that she is sinless and clever.
In the final three chapters, other jewellery, particularly necklaces, feature as centrepieces of tales from modern Europe and America. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace is about a real-life hoax perpetrated on Cardinal de Rohan. Queen Marie Antoinette wished to purchase a fabulous diamond necklace. The Cardinal bought it and delivered it to a man he believed to be the queen’s valet. It disappeared. The queen, when asked, said she knew nothing about it. The king imprisoned the Cardinal in the Bastille and the truth came out at the trial. But it was there that the queen’s virtue was outraged. Doniger traces the fictional and the factual waves emanating from this affair, including Alexander Dumas’s story, The Queen’s Necklace. The transformation in the 19th and 20th centuries of the traditional assumption that the fake is inferior to the real is captured through the stories, films and advertising campaigns of the modern era. By the early 20th century, rings, with or without diamonds, became common symbols of engagement. In 1939, Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers hired NW Ayer advertising agency to boost diamond sales. His idea was to turn diamonds into an essential middle-class accessory. The key to the Ayer campaign was the phrase: ‘A diamond is forever’.
In the conclusion, Doniger highlights why the same stories about jewellery are told in different cultures and why people swallow such myths and allow themselves to be fooled. Myths endure, she says, precisely because people keep changing them into something that serves their present needs. Myths are recognition narratives, where the ultimate revelation is of the identity of someone who has been in disguise for much of the story. What is experienced by the characters inside a recognition story is also experienced by the reader outside the story’s frame. Repetition, not originality, produces the immortality of a good myth. Above all, the ring story survives because it also fulfills more positive functions, namely salvaging the sense of a moral world. The mythic ring straddles the line between reason and rationality.
Doniger’s impressive credentials (a double PhD in Sanskrit and Indian studies) allow her to weave Indian, African, Asian and western tales into a cohesive and interesting tapestry. Each set of stories is connected to these geographies, with the conceptual threads of what the ring symbolises. This book is definitely shelf-worthy, and in each re-reading promises us new ideas and understandings surrounding the lore of the ring.
Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi