Wednesday, 7 November 2012


The beginning of things is always a moment enshrined in history. The greater the thing, the greater the myth, especially for those few who founded entire civilisations, for whom myth and history can be so closely intertwined as to be nigh on indistinguishable. One such hero was Cadmus.

The Rape of Europa
Painting by Titian
Far past, in the distant mists of time, there ruled over the great city of Tyre the King Agenor and his Queen Telephassa. Under their happy and benevolent rule Tyre rose to great heights, and the the Tyrians were blessed with a formidable progeny. To the royal family were born three sons; Phoenix, Cilix and Cadmus, and a daughter, Europa. Tyre rejoiced in the splendour of each of her heirs, each magnificent to behold and strong of heart. As the four grew up, the future seemed radiant for the great city. But it was not only man and woman who admired the majesty of these four, for they, as all things, could not escape the gaze of the Olympians on high. No mere nymph, dryad or spirit, but Zeus himself, King of the all gods, became enamoured of the young princess Europa. One sun drenched day, Europa danced merrily by the ocean's edge, under the Thunderer's watchful gaze. Transfixed by her beauty, Zeus came down to the Earth as a mighty white bull, of gleaming horns and glistening coat. Europa looked up, entranced at the majestic sight before her. Laying a fair hand upon the Bull's shining mane, in a bewitching trance she dared to mount its back. Gently, the Bull turned toward the surf, and sauntered into the waves. Triumphant, Zeus spirited her beyond the horizon, glorying in his prize, as the maiden held on, taken up in the thrill of adventure, as the land fell away behind her. Never again was she to be seen again on Tyrian shores.

When word reached King Agenor's ears of his daughter's flight, he was stricken with anguish. Summoning his three sons before him, he bade each search every coast far and wide, across the world, in search of Europa, unbeknownst to him that a god's hand was at work. With ready abandon did each brother set forth in search of his sister, three directions did they depart, and in three ways did they journey, and for an endless age did they go. To the South and West did Phoenix go, after time giving his name to the land of Phoenicia. To the North did Cilix go, after time giving his name to the land of Cilicia. To the West did young Cadmus go, landing soon upon Grecian shores. Time passed and the maiden could not be found, for what mortal can pursue the Thunder god himself? Weary from ageless toil, Cadmus decided to seek out the Oracle, and know her counsel. High upon the Delphic road he thus trod, with kindred Tyrians in tow, coming to the Pythian Halls. Intoxicated by the mists of prophecy, the Oracle thus did cry:

                      " Behold among the fields a lonely cow,
                        Unworn with yokes, unbroken to the plow;
                        Mark well the place where first she lays her down,
                        There measure out thy walls, and build thy town,
                        And from thy guide Boeotia call the land,
                        In which the destin'd walls and town shall stand... "      
                             - THE ORACLE SPEAKS TO CADMUS

The Prince of Tyre was taken aback by the command of Heaven. To find his sister was to be a destiny not his, it seemed, but as the founder of a nation. No sooner had he departed the towering sanctum, pondering deep his divine mission, than he spied in the fields that sacred cow, unshackled by rope or chain, unfitted with plow. The cow raised her head and saw the Prince of Tyre. Both looked into the eyes of the other for a brief moment, before the beast turned and trod. At a distance Cadmus stalked, in silence, praying to the god whose path he followed now. Through mountain high and plain wide Prince and beast continued their strange dance, crossing the silvery rapids of the river Cephisus, when all of a sudden, the cow raised her head to on high, bellowing thrice, before turning back to gaze at he, and laying in the grass. Cadmus saw the sign, and gave thanks to on high, thanks for his destiny, thanks for the nameless place, pastures and mountains which would be the land of his progeny. Turning to his kin, he bade them seek water with all haste from living streams, so as to prepare a sacrifice to Zeus the father of men and gods. So, over the wide plain his comrades trod, for their lay in a dark vale beyond a shady wood, its boughs hanging heavy over unlit grass, pathless and thick with brambles in the scrub.

Cadmus and the Dragon
Painting by Hendrick Goltzius
Yet Death incarnate lay in the darkness of the trees. For deep in the dank forest, sacred to Ares, lord of War, a powerful dragon lay, "bloated with poison to a monstrous size; fire broke in flashes when he glanc'd his eyes: his tow'ring crest was glorious to behold, his shoulders and his sides were scal'd with gold...". The Tyrians searched wide for water in the eerie glade, and with their vessels upturned, they gathered from the stream. From side to side their urns bounded, the ripples echoing deep into the infernal pond. Upon the the wyrms's crest they crashed, rousing the beast from evil slumber. Evil stirs, and with a hiss that shrivels the skin of the very sky, the dragon rose from the stagnant pool, his many tongues flickering, his many eyes darting to and fro. The Tyrians gave a shout of fear, their urns lying, shattered, discarded, upon the soil, now their grave. The dragon, towering high into the sky, then saw trembling men in his glade, and fell upon them in a rage. To their arms some Tyrians look, but in vain, to flight from the evil glade others. But no man there would breath the fresh air again, no man live to see the destiny of their prince. Some lie broken underfoot, others devoured by the monstrous creature, their final screams masked by the roar of the wyrm's ghastly breath.

The Sun began to rise into the warm, midday sky, and Cadmus began to wonder where his comrades had got to. Impatient to commence the rites the Olympians themselves had ordained him to do, the Prince of Tyre at once set forth to search for them, casting his eyes upon the fell glade in the distance, a place where the rays of the Sun never shone. The hide of a lion he wore around his muscled form, a raised spear in his hand, but a heart of valour was his greatest arm by far. Not long did he tread in the forest's eaves before the  broken bodies of his kin his eyes did spy, the monstrous beast in their midst, feasting upon his friends, gore spattering his jaw. In a shout of rage and grief, Cadmus heaved a mighty boulder, no ten men today could lift it, weak as men are now, and hurled it at the creature. The mightiest rock flung by the mightiest engine of war never had cast so mighty a payload at a towering wall, yet harmlessly did the stone deflect from the iron scales. His slumber disturbed a second time, the dragon seared with fury, and bore down upon the Prince of Tyre with thundering haste. Undaunted, the young Prince took up his spear, taking careful aim. The strength of the greatest of men, and beyond, he put into the throw, casting the dart into creature's spine. More success this time, as the iron tip burrowed between the scales, punching into the vile flesh. A screeching hiss the serpent wailed, sending eerie chill down Cadmus' spine. The powerful body writhed and turned, and monstrous teeth closed around the shaft of wood, splintering Tyrian spear. Pain feeding his building rage, the wyrm's eyes clouded a hideous red, hate pounding in every vein, as from his mouth a putrid gale blew, spraying a lethal foam about the clearing. Plant, flower and tree all wither under its hail, but not the Prince of Tyre. Uncoiling now, the monster lunges, a torrent of power. Desperate now, Cadmus seized the ruined spear, as the serpent's jaws clamped upon the point, mixing blood and venom raw. Not a moment to spare, the Prince dived behind a tree, as the mighty trunk deflects his foe's strike. Seizing his chance, Cadmus took the shattered point and thrust it will all his might and will to live, deep into the creature's throat. Labouring hard for breath, the accursed wyrm writhed in a final agony, crashing to the dust, lifeless as stone.

Cadmus sows the Dragon's Teeth
Painting by Maxfield Parrish
Not a moment did young Cadmus have to relish his triumph before a terrible voice roared throughout the dale, the voice of a god. "Why dost thou thus with secret pleasure see, insulting man! What thou thy self shalt be?" With horror chill did the Prince of Tyre realise, the voice of Ares, god of war himself, thundered all around, in anger at the slaying of his sacred beast. It was then that Athena, lady of wisdom, soared down from the Olympian heights, favouring the innocent Prince. Quickly, she bade him act, plow the field and scatter the teeth of the dragon as though the seed of a crop, for from them shall arise the people of his new city. Confused, but piously obedient, Cadmus obeyed. Plowing the field, and readying the seed, the Prince bent low over the wyrm's lethal teeth, wrenching them from the scaly cadaver:

       " He sows the teeth at Pallas' command,
         And flings the future people from his hand.
         The clods grow warm, and crumble where he sows;
         And now the pointed spears advance in rows;
         Now nodding plumes appear, and shining crests,
         Now the broad shoulders and the rising breasts;
         O'er all the field the breathing harvest swarms,
         A growing host, a crop of men and arms "

To his utter amazement, the furrowed ground churned, and from the teeth of the dragon, fully armed and fierce men sprang. As the warlike men began to seek out their creator, Cadmus, wary of their bloodlust, cast a stone in their midst. It struck one of the men, who immediately rounded on his comrade to his rear, believing him to be the culprit, and struck him cold dead to the floor. Consternation broke out in the battalion of the Teeth, as brother turned against brother, and blood ran in torrents, the evil glad awash with gore anew.  Soon, all but five had been slain, and in that moment, Pallas Athena stayed their hands, and at her command, their arms to the ground did fall, as they embraced the way of peace. Before them now did the Prince of Tyre appear, and call each man his brother, and at last he set about the business of raising his great city. Thebes, the city would be called, and Cadmus her King, and the five men the fathers of the great noble families. Raising a high cliff in the city's heart, they named it for their founder, the Cadmeia (which you can visit today if you go to ancient Thebes), and thus began the days of Thebes, and the Royal House of Cadmus.

Long did Cadmus reign in peace, and to him the gods gave a wife, Harmonia, a symbol of new concordance between men and gods. Yet there was one in their midst who reeled with spite, proud Ares, his anger great still at the desecration of his sacred beast. Upon Cadmus and his progeny he placed a terrible curse. Ever after the Royal House of Thebes was plagued by misfortune. The grandson of Cadmus, Actaeon (whose own downfall you can read about here), and many generations later, his descendant Laius (whose fate you can read of here), father of Oedipus, would feel the curse's wrath. Many long years later, Cadmus ripe with age lamented the ill omens that plagued his family, raising his head to the Heavens. If the gods troubled so over the life of a serpent, he would rather be one himself than a mortal man. Upon him pity fell, and granted was his wish. Before his very eyes his skin was as scales, his teeth as fangs, his legs a whipping tail. His beloved Harmonia upon him gazed, imploring the gods to spare her pain of separation from him. To her too the gods gave their gift, and in a flash she too slithered upon the ground, freed from the evils of man and their ways forever...

What happened to Europa, you might ask? Zeus the Thunderer spirited her away to the island of Crete, and upon those radiant shores he revealed his true form. To the stars he flung his Bull like form, and the constellation Taurus was thus born. Upon Europa's head the crown of Crete the god did place, but greater still was to be her legacy. For even today the Continent of Europe bears her name...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

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