Cadmus of Thebes

Cadmus of Tyre founded Thebes

Cadmus, Athena, and Dragon
Cadmus, Athena, and Dragon.

Cadmus Basics | Cadmus Details
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From before the time of Greece's written history comes the Greek hero Cadmus, legendary founder of Thebes. He was not a Greek by birth, but a Phoenician who brought a 16-letter alphabet, consisting of the letters α, β, γ δ, ε, ι, κ, λ, μ, ν, ο, π, ρ, σ, τ, and υ*, from Phoenicia to Boeotia (but see Palamedes). It was in Boeotia that Cadmus started the Theban royal family that is so familiar to us from Greek tragedy.

The Theban line includes a series of important names, all important in the ancient world, but some of them are less familiar to us today than others with modern connotations coming from the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud:

Cadmus' father was Agenor of Sidon, son of Poseidon [Apollodorus 3.1.1.] and father of Europa. Europa's mother may have been Anchinoe, daughter of the river god Nilus, or Telephassa, who was also Cadmus' mother. When Europa was carried off by the god Zeus in the form of a bull, Agenor sent off his sons, Cadmus, Phoenix and Cilix, in pursuit of their (half-)sister, with instructions not to return without her.

Cadmus and the Oracle

However, the quest was fruitless, so the sons made homes for themselves. Phoenix settled in and gave his name to Phoenicia, Cilix settled in and gave his name to Cilicia, and Cadmus and his mother went to Thrace.

When Telephassa died, Cadmus went to the oracle at Delphi to find out what to do. The oracle told him it was foolish to continue to hunt for his sister because the bull on which she had been carried off was no ordinary beast. Instead, Cadmus should follow a cow with a white, full moon-shaped spot on either flank.

Where the cow collapsed in exhaustion, Cadmus was to build a city.

Cadmus obeyed the words of the god, found and followed the cow to a spot in Boeotia (Cadmea) where it lay down. The name Boeotia is derived from the Greek for cow (bous).

While Cadmus prepared the cow as an offering to Athena, he sent some of his followers to draw water from the nearby spring of Ares. When they didn't return, he sent more men, and then more again, until he ran out of followers. Then, since Cadmus still needed water to purify the animal, he went himself. At Ares' spring he found a dragon -- sluggish from its unusually full meal. Enraged Cadmus (oblivious to the fact that it was the offspring of Ares) slew the dragon.

Cadmus and the Sown Men

Since Cadmus had lost all his men to the dragon, he needed more. Athena advised Cadmus to sow half the teeth of the dragon if he wanted companions. He planted half the teeth and gave the rest to the goddess. From the spot where Cadmus had planted each tooth a fully armed man sprang up, immediately. The new warriors posed a clear danger to Cadmus, so, on the further advice of Athena, he threw stones among the warriors. Each man who was hit thought one of the other sown men (sparti) had hit him, so they started killing one another.

Only five of the sparti survived, albeit wounded:

  • Echion
  • Udaeus
  • Chthonius
  • Hyperenor and
  • Pelorus.

The remaining teeth, which Cadmus had given to Athena, she saved for Jason.

Appeasing Ares

Since Ares was angry with Cadmus for killing his dragon, Cadmus had to atone for his crime. He served the martial god for a term of about 8 years. At the end of that time, Cadmus returned to Cadmea, the citadel of Thebes, and married the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, Harmonia, at a wedding attended by the gods. Even the Muses sang -- a rare treat for mortal ears. Europa, by now the mother of Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon, and the wife of Asterius of Deucalion's lineage, may have attended. All seemed good. Harmonia gave birth to four daughters

  • Autonoe
  • Ino
  • Semele
  • Agave
and a son, Polydorus.

Afterlife of Cadmus and Harmonia

When Cadmus and Harmonia grew old, Zeus turned them into serpents.

They spent their afterlife in the Elysian Fields.

Cadmus' Successors

From this point on, the house of Cadmus began to suffer tragedy. Although Ares should have been appeased by Cadmus' 8 mortal years of servitude, and the act of giving his daughter in marriage would seem to show reconciliation, it is thought that Ares caused the continuing trouble in Cadmus' family. However, it might have had nothing to do with Ares. It might have been Hera's doing -- in punishment for her husband's dalliance with Cadmus' sister Europa or his daughter Semele. It could even have been Artemis, the goddess who turned Cadmus' grandson Actaeon into a stag.

Naming of Thebes

There are two explanations for the name given to the city Cadmus founded. One is that Cadmus named it after a city his own father, Agenor, had founded in Egypt. The other explanation is that Cadmus named the city 'Cadmea' and that it was re-named 'Thebes' after Cadmus died by Amphion, the ruler responsible for construction of the 7 Gates of Thebes. The name 'Thebes' is then said to be based on Amphion's sister-in-law's name, 'Thebe'.
*according to A History of Greece: From the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, by Sir William Smith, George Washington Greene

From the Forum

"Students of the Semitic languages derive the name Kadmos from the root *kadm- which means "forward", "before", "east". The majority of scholars are unconvinced of this theory, but still cannot agree on the origin of Kadmos and his Phoinikes."
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Cadmus of Thebes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 24, 2016, Gill, N.S. (2016, August 24). Cadmus of Thebes. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Cadmus of Thebes." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 18, 2017).