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How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics
The Journal of the American Oriental Society. 117.2 (April-June 1997): p397+. From Literature Resource Center.
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For some thirty-five years now Calvert Watkins' published work has dealt extensively with philological and linguistic issues arising out of close readings of texts in a wide range of Indo-European languages, particularly those of the Anatolian, Celtic, Italic, and Hellenic subgroups. His oeuvre has focused increasingly on problems of lexicon (and associated cultural matrices) and poetics, with the evident goal of teasing out inherited Indo-European material in each of these areas. The book under review is at once an impressive summation of what has gone before and a bold step forward into new waters whose sources spring in no small measure from Indic, Iranian, Greek, and Germanic, with major contributions from Anatolian and Celtic. Watkins has a basic idea whose logic is ineluctable. If we accept the results of the comparative method, which tell us that two languages, A and B, are genetically related and therefore spring from a common proto-language O, then recognizing some subset A[prime] of A which represents that part of the lexicon of A implemented in "poetic language" and a corresponding subset B[prime] of B, it must follow that the forms of A[prime] and B[prime] that are found to be cognate presuppose a reconstruction within a language O[prime] that can be said to represent the underlying "poetic proto-language" of A and B. This reconstructed language by definition possesses a level of sound and a level of meaning. The implementation of sound in poetry results in phonetic figures. At higher levels of structure we find grammatical figures, diction (involving both syntax and lexicon), and formulas, which are for Watkins the vehicle of themes, which are in turn the verbal expression of culture. It should be noted that by "poetic language" Watkins does not mean only poetry as most of us would understand this term in opposition to a broad, undifferentiated category which we call "prose," but includes those instances of "prose" which show in general the same features of lexicon and stylistic tournures associated with poetry ("rhythmic prose"). Watkins does not limit himself to the reconstruction of merely the lexical items found in the poetic language of cognate traditions, but goes beneath these to reconstruct formulas and themes.

The book is divided into two nearly equal parts. The first, "Aspects of Indo-European Poetics" (pp. 1-291), provides a richly varied potpourri examining poetic structures in Indo-Iranian, Greek, Italic, and Celtic, with side glances at Anatolian. By identifying many aspects of "poetic grammar," Watkins here sets the stage for the central "case study" of his work: the Indo-European dragon-slaying motif (pp. 293-544). From such syntagms as Rigvedic ahann dhim (I.32.1, etc.) 'he slew the serpent', Young Avestan (yo) janat azim dahakam (Y. 9.8) '(who) slew Azi Dahaka,' Hittite MUSIlluy[(ankan)] kuenta (KUB 17.5 i 17) 'he slew the serpent', and Greek epephnen te Gorgona (Pindar Pyth. 10.46) 'he slew the Gorgon' (which was ophiodes [Pindar Ol. 13.63] 'having the form of a snake'), Watkins reconstructs an Indo-European formula (HERO) SLAY (*[g.sup.w]hen-) SERPENT (*[og.sup.w]hi-). This structure, to which peripheral instrumental arguments (with WEAPON) or (with COMPANION) may be appended, is termed by Watkins a "flexible formula," in that it is susceptible to semantic, grammatical (morphosyntactic) and lexical variation. Thus, in addition to SLAY one finds KILL, SMITE, OVERCOME, BEAT, etc., and the SERPENT (more generally, ADVERSARY) may surface as a WORM, MONSTER, BEAST, [HERO.sub.2], or ANTI-HERO, with attendant change in the lexical items represented (e.g., in addition to *[g.sup.w]hen-, both *wedh- and *[terh.sub.2]- are widely represented among verbs; and in addition to *[og.sup.w]hi-, one finds, inter alia, both *wrmi- and *[k.sup.w]rmi- for the ADVERSARY). On the level of morphosyntactic variation, WEAPON may be promoted to direct object (RV IV.27.9 jahi vadhar 'strike the weapon') or grammatical subject (RV X.96.3-4 so asya vajro harito ya ayasah . . . tudad ahim hari-sipro ya ayasah 'This is his golden cudgel, which is of bronze . . . The golden-lipped [weapon] of bronze struck the serpent'), the verb may be passivized (AV 2.32.4 hato raja krminam 'slain is the king of worms'), and the subject and direct object may switch roles (Bacchylides 9.12f ton . . . pephne . . . drakon 'him did the dragon slay'). Moreover, there may be derivational change of the lexical items of the formula (vrtra-ha 'slayer of the obstacle', phonos 'murder', hard- 'slain', Gmc. [Old Norse] orms [ein]bani 'the serpent's [single] bane' [bane from *[g.sup.w]hen-], etc.). Watkins shows how this "basic formula" lies at the foundation of a number of mythological episodes and is carried over from myth into both epic and charm. Perhaps most ingenious is his derivation of the story of Typhoeus, via language contact and bilingualism in the mid-second millennium B.C., from the Anatolian Illuyankas-myth. The detail singulier which Watkins takes as the key lifting this case out of the realm of mere typological similarity and setting it in the framework of transmission across a language boundary is the peculiar lashing motif associated with the binding of Typhoeus prior to his being cast into Tartarus by Zeus. The verbal expression of this act is the verb himassein 'to lash', cognate with the Hittite verb ishai-lishiya- 'bind, tie', which appears in the Hittite Illuyankas-myth, when the serpent was bound with a coat) (ISHIMANTA kaleliet). In the later Pindaric version of the myth, Typhon is not lashed but is bound (dedetai, Pyth. 1.27) with Aetna as the binding force (desmos, fr. 92). Watkins assumes that in the process of transmission of the tale Hittite ishimanta kaleliet (the Hittite instrumental is indifferent as to number) was borrowed into Greek as desen himanti/himasi (cf. Iliad 21.30 dese . . . himasi, Pindar Nem. 6.35 himanti detheis) in part because at the time of the borrowing the Anatolian form of Hittite ishiman- heard by the bilingual transmitter was sufficiently close in both sound and meaning to his version of himant- 'thong' that the latter form was used as a kind of phonetic echo in the Greek retelling. Watkins then produces a scenario in which an original desen himanti/himasi splits, via the figura etymologica, into desen desmoi/desmoisi 'bound with bond(s)' and himassen himanti/himasi '*corded with cord(s)' [greater than] 'lashed with a lash' with the attendant creation of a new and textually restricted denominative verb himassein whose meaning was inextricably linked to and obsequiously shifted with that of its base noun. All this is of course speculative but immensely alluring.

In its methodology, in its breadth, Watkins' book can only be termed a tour de force. While building on a rich foundation (the references alone take up thirty-two pages, and the breadth of reading thereby evidenced is astounding), he has integrated and extended, nay transformed that which his predecessors have accomplished to such a degree that one can only speak of an entire recreation of the field of Indo-European poetics. To employ a derivative of a root that comes into play in Watkins' discussion, we have here a new puthmen, a fundamentum which must henceforth serve as the starting point and inspiration for a discipline whose future is now secure.


Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Klein, Jared S. "How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics." The Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 117, no. 2, 1997, p. 397+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A19729012