Who is Cadmus? Complete Guide to the Ancient Greek Hero

Cadmus

Cadmus myths and facts | Cadmus – the Greek hero and founder of the city of Thebes

The ancient Greek mythical character Cadmus (also known as Kadmos) as believed to be the founder and first king of the Greek city of Thebes. He ranks as one of the first heroes in Greek mythology, along with the likes of Perseus and Bellerophon.

Depiction and Abilities

Cadmus was believed to be a young handsome man skilled with a spear; he was generally considered a warrior of high standard. He was also a very good and well-educated leader. One of his numerous feats of achievements came when he introduced the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks. Legend has it that Cadmus brought it from Phoenicia.

Family

Cadmus’ story begins in the ancient Phoenician civilization as young prince born to King Agenor and Queen Telephassa of Tyre. His name, which many historians claim have Arabic roots, translates to “east” or “to come”.  His name has also been associated with the Greek Kekasmai, which means “to shine”. Cadmus had two brothers – Cilix and Phoenix- and a sister named Europa.

How Zeus abducted Europa, Cadmus’ sister

The womanizing and devious King of the Gods travelled all the way to Phoenicia in order to woe Europa, Cadmus’ sister. Intoxicated with love, Zeus is believed to have seduced Europa by shape shifting into a white bull. Shortly after Zeus, king of the gods, kidnapped Europa and took her to the City of Crete.

Shocked by the sudden disappearance of Europa, King Agenor tasked his sons, including Cadmus, to find Europa. Because the Agenor forbade the Cadmus and his brothers from returning home without their sister Europa, the brothers stayed in exile after they were unable to find Europa. Cadmus’ two brothers proceeded to establish their own cities.

Cadmus at the Oracle of Delphi

Cadmus consulting the oracle of Delphi to inquire about the whereabouts of his sister, Europa | Image: Hendrick Goltzius

On the other hand, Cadmus continued searching for Europa. He proceeded to seek counsel from the Oracle of Delphi. The priests asked him to follow the path of a white cow with a full moon shape on its back. Cadmus followed the cow until it settled at the place called Boeotia (Cow Land). It was at this place Cadmus founded the city of Thebes.

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Cadmus and the dragon

Greek hero Cadmus

Cadmus and the dragon, black-figured amphora from Euboea, 560–50 BC, Louvre

In order to sanctify the city, Cadmus sacrificed the cow in honor of the goddess Athena. However, before he could do so, he needed water to clean the cow. Cadmus sent his followers to fetch water from a nearby spring. While his men were carrying out their task, a large serpent/dragon rose from the spring and devoured the men. After several trials, none of his men returned. Cadmus went in search of his men and came face to face with the serpent. He quickly slew the maleficent serpent to avenge his men.

Founding of the city of Thebes

Cadmus

Cadmus depicted sowing the dragon’s teeth. Image: Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

After sacrificing the cow, Athena instructed Cadmus to plant the slain dragon’s teeth in the ground. The teeth grew into a group of armed and fierce warriors, the Spartoi, who later fought among themselves until there were only five warriors left. With the remaining warriors, Cadmus was able to build the city of Thebes. In honor of the city’s founder, the acropolis was named Cadmeia

Cadmus and Ares

Unbeknownst to Cadmus, the slain dragon was actually a close associate of Ares, the Greek god of war. To atone for his transgression, Cadmus became an indentured servant for Ares for about eight years. After his release, Cadmus was given Harmonia’s (Ares’ daughter) hand in marriage.

Cadmus and Harmonia

Cadmus and Harmonia’s wedding was graced by a number of important gods and goddesses including the likes of Athena and Hephaestus. The couple was also showered with several gifts from the gods, including a necklace from Hephaestus.

Why Cadmus turned into a snake

Cadmus and Harmonia gave birth to five children: Ino, Semele, Autonoe, Polydorus and Agave. Owing to the immense misfortunes suffered by Cadmus’ family, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia pleaded with the gods to be transformed into black serpents. Zeus later intervened and whisked the couple to the Elysian Fields (Island of the Blessed), where they spent eternity in a blissful afterlife.

Other interesting myths about Cadmus

  • It was believed that Cadmus’ family’s suffering stemmed from the necklace his wife Harmonia received from Hephaestus, the god of fire and forges. Known as the Necklace of Harmonia, the jewel brought untold suffering to the wearer and his/her family.
  • In another account, Cadmus’ unrelenting suffering was attributed to his killing of the sacred serpent that belonged to Ares.
  • The union of Cadmus and Harmonia can be inferred to mean the marriage of two cultures – Eastern (Phoenician) and the Western (Greek).
  • It was believed that Cadmus’ paternal grandfather was Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. His maternal grandfather on the other hand was Nilus, the god of the River Nile in Egypt.
  • Cadmus named the city that he established after another Egyptian city with the same name – Thebes.
  • The modern-day Syrian city of Al-Qadmus derives its name in honor of Cadmus’ Eastern heritage.
  • After giving up the search for Europa, Cadmus’ brothers, Cilix and Thassos, founded cities in Asia Minor and Aegea respectively.
  • Cadmus’ daughter Semele went on to become the mother of the Greek god of wine and pleasure Dionysus.
  • Queen Telephassa accompanied her three sons in their journey to find Europa. After years on the road, and grief struck over the disappearance of Europa, Telephassa died at a place called Thrace.
  • Cadmus has sometimes been called a Tyrian owing to his mother’s roots (Telephassa of Tyre).
  • Although she was abducted by Zeus, Cadmus’ sister Europa had quite a fulfilling life. She had several children and went on to become the first queen of Crete.
  • As one of the earliest Greek heroes, Cadmus is believed to be about five generations away from the creation of the world.

    Cadmus

    Cadmus myths and facts

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