How to Kill a Dragon


I was recently looking for a little light reading, so I got a copy of Calvert Watkins‘s page turner (kidding!), subtitled Aspects of Indo-European Poetics.  If you don’t know it, it is a remarkable achievement displaying a level of scholarship that is truly humbling to someone like me whose attention span is usually measured in nanoseconds.  His knowledge of various Western (and some Eastern) languages derived from Indo-European is vast, and his ability to see connections among them most impressive.  I will admit that I did not read the book cover-to-cover.


A Giant of the Earth, by Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865). Musee Wiertz, Brussels.

As you may be able to tell from the title, after some opening chapters in which he delineates commonalities in the languages themselves, he concentrates on a basic theme that is common to the mythology of many of these cultures, from Irish to Indian; i.e. HERO SLAYS DRAGON.  He gives multiple examples of this theme from across cultures, and I’m sure we can all think of our own examples, such as Theseus and the Minotaur, and Odysseus and the Cyclops (even though he is not slain), Bilbo and Smaug. Later, Watkins expands this definition to include HERO SLAYS HERO and HERO SLAYS ANTI-HERO, specifically including the slaying of the suitors by Odysseus in this formulation.  “….an example of the second, where the anti-hero is assimilated into a monster, would be Odysseus and the suitors, or Orestes and Klutaimestra (sic).  In both the action is bidirectional, potentially reciprocal; either member may be the subject of the verb.”¹

But what I also found interesting is an analysis of the slayer myths in a chapter titled “Fergus mac Léti and the muirdris,” which concentrates on an Irish myth of that name.  I won’t reproduce it here, but I will quote his listing of “themes and ‘motifemes:'”

  1. abnormal or inverse social or sexual relations
  2. the abuse or violation of hospitality
  3. abnormal servitude
  4. an injunction
  5. violation of the injunction
  6. the temporary victory of the (monster) over the hero; as a result
  7. the hero’s disfigurement or mutilation, itself causing real or potential loss of status or power
  8. the abuse or violation of the responsibility of “hospitality” to an inferior…
  9. the underwater locale of the combat
  10. the final paean, in direct speech of the victory which reestablishes order over chaos, followed by the death of the hero.²

If you know the Odyssey at all, a number of these will jump out at you as common themes, perhaps especially in the second half where Odysseus returns to Ithaka.  If not, allow me to point out some of the more obvious:

  1. Odysseus sleeps with two goddesses, and while disguised as a beggar, demands the attention of Penelope, mistress of Ithaka.
  2. a number of these violations of xenia, including the encounter with the Cyclops
  3. Athena’s attention to Odysseus (a bit of a stretch, perhaps), and Odysseus himself playing the part of a beggar
  4. several of these also, most notably the command not to eat the cattle of the sun god Apollo
  5. violation of that injunction, (“They ate them.”), with its tragic effects of the crew being drowned and Odysseus alone surviving
  6. Poseidon (the uber-monster) temporarily wins, and Odysseus is cast adrift.  The theme recurs when he sails off from Calypso’s island and is washed ashore on Phaeakia
  7. when he first returns to Ithaka, he is transformed into a wretched beggar by Athena
  8. again the violation of hospitality, this time by the suitors to the disguised Odysseus
  9. the final combat does not take place underwater, but several of the previous battles are in the sea
  10. Athena speaks the final paean³, after which at some point in the future as predicted by Tireseias, Odysseus dies “(far) from the sea.”

So a pretty nice convergence of themes, which I doubt I’m the first to notice.  But of course my premise is that the Odyssey describes a spiritual quest, so how does this formulation relate to that?  Pretty well, I think, if we remember the allegorical aspect: a world of unity (light and life) interrupted by chaos (darkness and death) with the ultimate victory of unity.  The chaos is our everyday world, which we don’t recognize as “darkness and death,” and the state of unity is our true state, but one we have forgotten.  At times of course it seems that Poseidon and his agents will win the day, but always Odysseus has enough “good karma” in his relationship with Athena to overcome their traps.  (I’ll look at each of these elements of the quest in more detail in another post.)  In this case I think one can read the death of Odysseus as not like that of Achilles or the suitors, trudging down to the shadowy world of Hades, but as a permanent ascent into unity.

¹Watkins, Calvert, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics.  Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 471

²Watkins, op. cit., p. 443-4

³“Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, stay thy hand, and make the strife of equal war to cease, lest haply the son of Cronos be wroth with thee, even Zeus, whose voice is borne afar.”  Odyssey 24:543-4

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