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Ch. 7: Cadmus and the Myrmidons

Jupiter, under the disguise of a bull, had carried away to the
island of Crete, Europa, the daughter of Agenor king of
Phoenicia. Agenor commanded his son Cadmus to go in search of
his sister, and not to return without her. Cadmus went and
sought long and far for his sister, but could not find her, and
not daring to return unsuccessful, consulted the oracle of Apollo
to know what country he should settle in. The oracle informed
him that he should find a cow in the field, and should follow her
wherever she might wander, and where she stopped, should build a
city and call it Thebes. Cadmus had hardly left the Castalian
cave, from which the oracle was delivered, when he saw a young
cow slowly walking before him. He followed her close, offering
at the same time his prayers to Phoebus. The cow went on till
she passed the shallow channel of Cephisus and came out into the
plain of Panope. There she stood still, and raising her broad
forehead to the sky, filled the air with her lowings. Cadmus
gave thanks, and stooping down kissed the foreign soil, then
lifting his eyes, greeted the surrounding mountains. Wishing to
offer a sacrifice to Jupiter, he sent his servants to seek pure
water for a libation. Nearby there stood an ancient grove which
had never been profaned by the axe, in the midst of which was a
cave, thick covered with the growth of bushes, its roof forming a
low arch, from beneath which burst forth a fountain of purest
water. In the cave lurked a horrid serpent with a crested head
and scales glittering like gold. His eyes shone like fire, his
body was swollen with venom, he vibrated a triple tongue, and
showed a triple row of teeth. No sooner had the Tyrians (Cadmus
and his companions came from Tyre, the chief city of Phoenicia)
dipped their pitchers in the fountain, and the ingushing waters
made a sound, than the glittering serpent raised his head out of
the cave and uttered a fearful hiss. The vessels fell from their
hands, the blood left their cheeks, they trembled in every limb.
The serpent, twisting his scaly body in a huge coil, raised his
head so as to overtop the tallest trees, and while the Tyrians
from terror could neither fight nor fly, slew some with his
fangs, others in his folds, and others with his poisonous breath.

Cadmus having waited for the return of his men till midday, went
in search of them. His covering was a lion's hide, and besides
his javelin he carried in his hand a lance, and in his breast a
bold heart, a surer reliance than either. When he entered the
wood and saw the lifeless bodies of his men, and the monster with
his bloody jaws, he exclaimed, "O faithful friends, I will avenge
you, or share your death." So saying he lifted a huge stone and
threw it with all his force at the serpent. Such a block would
have shaken the wall of a fortress, but it made no impression on
the monster. Cadmus next threw his javelin, which met with
better success, for it penetrated the serpent's scales, and
pierced through to his entrails. Fierce with pain the monster
turned back his head to view the wound, and attempted to draw out
the weapon with his mouth, but broke it off, leaving the iron
point rankling in his flesh. His neck swelled with rage, bloody
foam covered his jaws, and the breath of his nostrils poisoned
the air around. Now he twisted himself into a circle, then
stretched himself out on the ground like the trunk of a fallen
tree. As he moved onward, Cadmus retreated before him, holding
his spear opposite to the monster's opened jaws. The serpent
snapped at the weapon and attempted to bite its iron point. At
last Cadmus, watching his chance, thrust the spear at a moment
when the animal's thrown back came against the trunk of a tree,
and so succeeded in pinning him to its side. His weight bent the
tree as he struggled in the agonies of death.

While Cadmus stood over his conquered foe, contemplating its vast
size, a voice was heard (from whence he knew not, but he heard it
distinctly), commanding him to take the dragon's teeth and sow
them in the earth. He obeyed. He made a furrow in the ground,
and planted the teeth, destined to produce a crop of men. Scarce
had he done so when the clods began to move, and the points of
spears to appear above the surface. Next helmets, with their
nodding plumes, came up, and next, the shoulders and breasts and
limbs of men with weapons, and in time a harvest of armed
warriors. Cadmus, alarmed, prepared to encounter a new enemy,
but one of them said to him, "Meddle not with our civil war."
With that he who had spoken smote one of his earth-born brothers
with a sword, and he himself fell pierced with an arrow from
another. The latter fell victim to a fourth, and in like manner
the whole crowd dealt with each other till all fell slain with
mutual wounds except five survivors. One of these cast away his
weapons and said, "Brothers, let us live in peace!" These five
joined with Cadmus in building his city, to which they gave the
name of Thebes.

Cadmus obtained in marriage Harmonia, the daughter of Venus. The
gods left Olympus to honor the occasion with their presence, and
Vulcan presented the bride with a necklace of surpassing
brilliancy, his own workmanship. But a fatality hung over the
family of Cadmus in consequence of his killing the serpent sacred
to Mars. Semele and Ino, his daughters, and Actaeon and
Pentheius, his grandchildren, all perished unhappily; and Cadmus
and Harmonia quitted Thebes, now grown odious to them, and
emigrated to the country of the Enchelians, who received them
with honor and made Cadmus their king. But the misfortunes of
their children still weighed upon their minds; and one day Cadmus
exclaimed, "If a serpent's life is so dear to the gods, I would I
were myself a serpent." No sooner had he uttered the words than
he began to change his form. Harmonia beheld it, and prayed to
the gods to let her share his fate. Both became serpents. They
lie in the woods, but mindful of their origin they neither avoid
the presence of man nor do they ever injure any one.

There is a tradition that Cadmus introduced into Greece the
letters of the alphabet which were invented by the Phoenicians.
This is alluded to by Byron, where, addressing the modern Greeks,
he says:

"You have the letters Cadmus gave,
Think you he meant them for a slave?"

Milton, describing the serpent which tempted Eve, is reminded of
the serpents of the classical stories, and says,

"-----pleasing was his shape,
And lovely; never since of serpent kind
Lovelier; not those that in Illyria changed
Hermione and Cadmus, nor the god
in Epidaurus."

The "god in Epidaurus" was AEsculapius. Serpents were held
sacred to him.


The Myrmidons were the soldiers of Achilles in the Trojan war.
>From them all zealous and unscrupulous followers of a political
chief are called by that name down to this day. But the origin
of the Myrmidons would not give one the idea of a fierce and
bloody race, but rather of a laborious and peaceful one.

Cephalus, king of Athens, arrived in the island of AEgina to seek
assistance of his old friend and ally AEacus, the king, in his
wars with Minos, king of Crete. Cephalus was kindly received,
and the desired assistance readily promised. "I have people
enough," said AEacus, "to protect myself and spare you such a
force as you need." "I rejoice to see it," replied Cephalus,
"and my wonder has been raised, I confess, to find such a host of
youths as I see around me, all apparently of about the same age.
Yet there are many individuals whom I previously knew that I look
for now in vain. What has become of them?" AEacus groaned, and
replied with a voice of sadness, "I have been intending to tell
you, and will now do so without more delay, that you may see how
from the saddest beginning a happy result sometimes flows. Those
whom you formerly knew are now dust and ashes! A plague sent by
angry Juno devastated the land. She hated it because it bore the
name of one of her husband's female favorites. While the disease
appeared to spring from natural causes we resisted it as we best
might by natural remedies; but it soon appeared that the
pestilence was too powerful for our efforts, and we yielded. At
the beginning the sky seemed to settle down upon the earth, and
thick clouds shut in the heated air. For four months together a
deadly south wind prevailed. The disorder affected the wells and
springs; thousands of snakes crept over the land and shed their
poison in the fountains. The force of the disease was first
spent on the lower animals; dogs, cattle, sheep, and birds. The
luckless ploughman wondered to see his oxen fall in the midst of
their work, and lie helpless in the unfinished furrow. The wool
fell from the bleating sheep, and their bodies pined away. The
horse, once foremost in the race, contested the palm no more, but
groaned at his stall, and died an inglorious death. The wild
boar forgot his rage, the stag his swiftness, the bears no longer
attacked the herds. Everything languished; dead bodies lay in
the roads, the fields, and the woods; the air was poisoned by
them. I tell you what is hardly credible, but neither dogs nor
birds would touch them, nor starving wolves. Their decay spread
the infection. Next the disease attacked the country people, and
then the dwellers in the city. At first the cheek was flushed,
and the breath drawn with difficulty. The tongue grew rough and
swelled, and the dry mouth stood open with its veins enlarged and
gasped for the air. Men could not bear the heat of their clothes
or their beds, but preferred to lie on the bare ground; and the
ground did not cool them, but on the contrary, they heated the
spot where they lay. Nor could the physicians help, for the
disease attacked them also, and the contact of the sick gave them
infection, so that the most faithful were the first victims. At
last all hope of relief vanished and men learned to look upon
death as the only deliverer from disease. Then they gave way to
every inclination, and cared not to ask what was expedient, for
nothing was expedient. All restraint laid aside, they crowded
around the wells and fountains, and drank till they died, without
quenching thirst. Many had not strength to get away from the
water, but died in the midst of the stream, and others would
drink of it notwithstanding. Such was their weariness of their
sick-beds that some would creep forth, and if not strong enough
to stand, would die on the ground. They seemed to hate their
friends, and got away from their homes, as if, not knowing the
cause of their sickness, they charged it on the place of their
abode. Some were seen tottering along the road, as long as they
could stand, while others sank on the earth, and turned their
dying eyes around to take a last look, then closed them in death.

"What heart had I left me, during all this, or what ought I to
have had, except to hate life and wish to be with my dead
subjects? On all sides lay my people strewn like over-ripened
apples beneath the tree, or acorns under the storm-shaken oak.
You see yonder s temple on the height. It is sacred to Jupiter.
Oh, how many offered prayers there; husbands for wives, fathers
for sons, and died in the very act of supplication! How often,
while the priest made ready for sacrifice, the victim fell,
struck down by disease without waiting for the blow. At length
all reverence for sacred things was lost. Bodies were thrown out
unburied, wood was wanting for funeral piles, men fought with one
another for the possession of them. Finally there were none left
to mourn; sons and husbands, old men and youths, perished alike

"Standing before the altar I raised my eyes to heaven. 'Oh,
Jupiter,' I said, 'if thou art indeed my father, and art not
ashamed of thy offspring, give me back my people, or take me also
away!' At these words a clap of thunder was heard. 'I accept
the omen,' I cried; 'oh, may it be a sign of a favorable
disposition towards me!' By chance there grew by the place where
I stood an oak with wide-spreading branches, sacred to Jupiter.
I observed a troop of ants busy with their labor, carrying minute
grains in their mouths and following one another in a line up the
trunk of the tree. Observing their numbers with admiration, I
said, 'Give me, oh father, citizens as numerous as these, and
replenish my empty city.' The tree shook and gave a rustling
sound with its branches though no wind agitated them. I trembled
in every limb, yet I kissed the earth and the tree. I would not
confess to myself that I hoped, yet I did hope. Night came on
and sleep took possession of my frame oppressed with cares. The
tree stood before me in my dreams, with its numerous branches all
covered with living, moving creatures. It seemed to shake its
limbs and throw down over the ground a multitude of those
industrious grain-gathering animals, which appeared to gain in
size, and grow larger, and by-and-by to stand erect, lay aside
their superfluous legs and their black color, and finally to
assume the human form. Then I awoke, and my first impulse was to
chide the gods who had robbed me of a sweet vision and given me
no reality in its place. Being still in the temple my attention
was caught by the sound of many voices without; a sound of late
unusual to my ears. While I began to think I was yet dreaming,
Telamon, my son, throwing open the temple-gates, exclaimed,
'Father, approach, and behold things surpassing even your hopes!'
I went forth; I saw a multitude of men, such as I had seen in my
dream, and they were passing in procession in the same manner.
While I gazed with wonder and delight they approached, and
kneeling, hailed me as their king. I paid my vows to Jove, and
proceeded to allot the vacant city to the new-born race, and to
parcel out the fields among them. I called them Myrmidons from
the ant (myrmex), from which they sprang. You have seen these
persons; their dispositions resemble those which they had in
their former shape. They are a diligent and industrious race,
eager to gain, and tenacious of their gains. Among them you may
recruit your forces. They will follow you to the war, young in
years and bold in heart."

This description of the plague is copied by Ovid from the account
which Thucydides, the Greek historian, gives of the plague of
Athens. The historian drew from life, and all the poets and
writers of fiction since his day, when they have had occasion to
describe a similar scene, have borrowed their details from him.

Thomas Bulfinch

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