The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

By Wendy Doniger | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
The Double Amnesia
of Siegfried and Brünnhilde

And the best and the worst of this is
That neither is most to blame,
If you have forgotten my kisses
And I have forgotten your name
.

Algernon Swinburne, “An Interlude” (1866)

IN STORIES OF marital self-imitation, sometimes the mind of the man is obscured, so he forgets and/or fails to recognize his own wife; this happens to King Udayana in Harsha’s Ratnavali. But sometimes the woman is the one who is fooled, when her husband pretends to be someone else (pretending to be him); this happens to Queen Vasavadatta in Priyadarshika. If we combine the two themes, we have a husband who pretends to be someone else (pretending to be him) in order to trick his wife but is also cursed to forget her. And if this encounter takes place in bed, both partners are bedtricked: while she unknowingly (because of the trick) commits adultery with her own husband, he unknowingly (because of the curse) is tricked into committing adultery with his own wife.1

Such a case of double amnesia torments Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the most famous of the many versions of their story, Richard Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung:2 Siegfried, drugged, masquerades as Gunther to win Brünnhilde, to whom he has already pledged his love; Brünnhilde does not recognize Siegfried because he is magically transformed into someone else, and Siegfried does not recognize Brünnhilde because he is drugged. In effect, Siegfried is wearing a two-sided

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