How To Kill A Dragon * Calvert Watkins (1995)

This is something different! I have used the category “comparitive mythology”, but in fact this is “comparitive poetry”. The author uses the same texts as, let me say, Georges Dumézil, but where Dumézil compares what the texts say or imply, Watkins compares the texts themselves; the words, word-order, conjugations, etc. Watkins’ focus is the Indo-European realm and his aim is to show that Indo-European languages are comparable (and hence have a common source). Where investigators of myth and faerytale find “themes”, Watkins finds “formulas”; basic sentences that he finds in many different texts from many different parts of the world. One such formula is “HERO SLAY SERPENT”. Therefor Watkins compares dragon-slaying myths in many parts of his book.
The book is very technical and probably meant for fellow linguistics, so there are large parts that I just skipped through since I could not grasp what the author was talking about. More interesting to me are the many, many quotes from all kinds of Indo-European texts, expecially when the authors sets them side by side. Also interesting are the parts in which Watkins takes one ‘family’, such as German or Irish, and teaches his readers about that language by comparing it to others (especially the discussion of the Germanic word “bani” around page 420 and the “bone to bone, blood to blood, etc.” parts of the Mersebürger Zaubersprüche on page 523/4).
Quoting Eliot T. Bundy on page 116, Watkins summarizes his field of investigation:

‘What is required … is a thorough study of conventional themes, motives, and sequences … in short, a grammar of choral style … [reflecting] systems of shared symbols … ‘. these poems are ‘the products of poetic and rhetorical conventions whose meaning … is recoverable from comparitive study’. And in conclusion, ‘in this genre the choice involved in composition is mainly a choice of formulae, motives, themes, topics, and set sequences of these that have, by convention, meaning not always easily perceived from the surface denotations of the words themselves … we must … seek through carefull analysis of individual odes to the thematic and motivational grammar of choral compositions’.

Watkins is (fortunately for me) mostly interested in myth and ritual and quoting so many of them, he cannot always just focus on the words themselves, so here and there the book is more comparitive myth, like in the nice paragraph about apples that heal snakebites on page 427.

Something different indeed, but a field of investigation that might interest people who enjoy comparitive myth and similar fields. Watkins’ book makes a nice introduction.
1995 Oxford University Press, isbn 9780195144130

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