File:Kadmos dragon Louvre N3157.jpg

Cadmus or Kadmos (Template:Lang-el), in Greek, Roman and Phoenician mythologies, was a Phoenician prince,[1] the son of king Agenor and queen Telephassa of Tyre and the brother of Phoenix, Cilix and Europa. He was originally sent by his royal parents to seek out and escort his sister Europa back to Tyre after she was abducted from the shores of Phoenicia by Zeus.[2] Cadmus founded the Greek city of Thebes, the acropolis of which was originally named Cadmeia in his honor.

Cadmus was credited by the ancient Greeks (Herodotus[3] is an example) with introducing the original Alphabet or Phoenician alphabet -- phoinikeia grammata, "Phoenician letters" -- to the Greeks, who adapted it to form their Greek alphabet. Herodotus estimates that Cadmus lived sixteen hundred years before his time, or around 2000 BC.[4]

Though later Greeks like Herodotus dated Cadmus's role in the founding myth of Thebes to well before the Trojan War (or, in modern terms, during the Aegean Bronze Age), this chronology conflicts with most of what is now known or thought to be known about the origins and spread of both the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. While a Phoenician origin for the Greek alphabet is certain, the earliest Greek inscriptions match Phoenician letter forms from the late 9th or 8th centuries BC -- and, in any case, the Phoenician alphabet properly speaking wasn't developed until around 1050 BC (or after the Bronze Age collapse). The Homeric picture of the Mycenaean age betrays extremely little awareness of writing, possibly reflecting the loss during the Dark Age of the earlier Linear B script. Indeed the only Homeric reference to writing [5] was in the phrase "γράμματα λυγρά", grámmata lygrá, literally "ominous etchings", when referring to the Bellerophontic letter. (According to Walter Burkert in The Orientalizing Revolution, literacy explodes within a few decades after 750 BC: "The earliest Greek letters recognized to date originate in Naxos, Ischia, Athens, and Euboea, and appear around or a little before 750".[6]) Linear B tablets have been found in abundance at Thebes, which might lead one to speculate that the legend of Cadmus as bringer of the alphabet could reflect earlier traditions about the origins of Linear B writing in Greece (as Fred Ahl speculated in 1967[7]). But such a suggestion, however attractive, is by no means a certain conclusion in light of currently available evidence. The connection between the name of Cadmus and the historical origins of either the Linear B script or the later Phoenician alphabet, if any, remains elusive. However, in modern day Lebanon, Cadmus is still revered and celebrated as the 'carrier of the letter' to the world.

According to Greek myth, Cadmus's descendants ruled at Thebes on and off for several generations, including the time of the Trojan War.


Cadmus' name is of uncertain etymology.[8] It has been connected to Semitic qdm "the east" and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) "to shine". Robert Beekes rejects these derivations and considers it "pre-Greek".[9]



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After his sister Europa had been carried off by Zeus from the shores of Phoenicia, Cadmus was sent out by his father to find her, and enjoined not to return without her. Unsuccessful in his search, he came to Samothrace, the island sacred to the "Great Gods"[10] and the Kabeiroi, whose mysteries would be celebrated also at Thebes. Cadmus did not journey alone to Samothrace; he appeared with his "far-shining" mother Telephassa[11] in the company of his brother, who gave his name to the island of Thasos nearby. An identically composed trio had other names at Samothrace, according to Diodorus Siculus:[12] Elektra and her two sons, Dardanos and Eetion or Iasion. There was a fourth figure, Elektra's daughter, Harmonia,[13] whom Cadmus took away as a bride, as Zeus had abducted Europa.[14] The wedding was the first celebrated on Earth to which the gods brought gifts, according to Diodorus[15] and dined with Cadmus and his bride.[16]

Founder of ThebesEdit

Cadmus came in the course of his wanderings to Delphi, where he consulted the oracle. He was ordered to give up his quest and follow a special cow, with a half moon on her flank, which would meet him, and to build a town on the spot where she should lie down exhausted.

The cow was given to Cadmus by Pelagon, King of Phocis, and it guided him to Boeotia, where he founded the city of Thebes. Robert Graves (The Greek Myths) suggested that the cow was actually turned loose within a moderately confined space, and that where she lay down, a temple to the moon-goddess (Selene) was erected: "A cow's strategic and commercial sensibilities are not well developed," Graves remarked.

Intending to sacrifice the cow to Athena, Cadmus sent some of his companions to the nearby Castalian Spring, for water. They were slain by the spring's guardian water-dragon (compare the Lernaean Hydra), which was in turn destroyed by Cadmus, the duty of a culture hero of the new order.

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By the instructions of Athena, he sowed the dragon's teeth in the ground, from which there sprang a race of fierce armed men, called the Spartoí ("sown"). By throwing a stone among them, Cadmus caused them to fall upon one another until only five survived, who assisted him to build the Cadmeia or citadel of Thebes, and became the founders of the noblest families of that city.

The dragon had been sacred to Ares, so the god made Cadmus do penance for eight years by serving him. According to Theban tellings, it was at the expiration of this period that the gods gave him Harmonia ("harmony", literally "well put together", or "well assembled") as wife. At Thebes, Cadmus and Harmonia began a dynasty with a son Polydorus, and four daughters, Agave, Autonoë, Ino and Semele.

At the wedding, whether celebrated at Samothrace or at Thebes, all the gods were present; Harmonia received as bridal gifts a peplos worked by Athena and a necklace made by Hephaestus. This necklace, commonly referred to as the Necklace of Harmonia, brought misfortune to all who possessed it. Notwithstanding the divinely ordained nature of his marriage and his kingdom, Cadmus lived to regret both: his family was overtaken by grievous misfortunes, and his city by civil unrest. Cadmus finally abdicated in favor of his grandson Pentheus, and went with Harmonia to Illyria, to fight on the side[17] of the Encheleans[18] later as king he founded the city of Lychnidos and Bouthoe.[19]

Nevertheless, Cadmus was deeply troubled by the ill-fortune which clung to him as a result of his having killed the sacred dragon, and one day he remarked that if the gods were so enamoured of the life of a serpent, he might as well wish that life for himself. Immediately he began to grow scales and change in form. Harmonia, seeing the transformation, thereupon begged the gods to share her husband's fate, which they granted (Hyginus).

In another telling of the story, the bodies of Cadmus and his wife were changed after their deaths; the serpents watched their tomb while their souls were translated to the fields. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Cadmus is given a prophecy by Dionysus whereby both he and his wife will be turned into snakes for a period before eventually being brought to live among the blest.

Native Boeotian heroEdit

In Phoenician, as well as Hebrew, the Semitic root qdm signifies "the east", the Levantine origin of "Kdm" himself, according to the Greek mythographers; the equation of Kadmos with the Semitic qdm was traced to a publication of 1646 by R. B. Edwards.[20] The name Kadmos has been thoroughly Hellenised. The fact that Hermes was worshipped in Samothrace under the name of Cadmus or Cadmilus seems to show that the Theban Cadmus was interpreted as an ancestral Theban hero corresponding to the Samothracian. Another Samothracian connection for Cadmus is offered via his wife Harmonia, who is said by Diodorus Siculus to be daughter of Zeus and Electra and of Samothracian birth.[21]

Some modern scholars argue that Cadmus was originally an autochthonous Boeotian hero and that only in later times, did the story of a Phoenician adventurer of that name become current, to whom was ascribed the introduction of the alphabet, the invention of agriculture and working in bronze and of civilization generally.[22][23] The "Wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia" is considered as a conceptual symbolic coupling of Eastern (Phoenician) learning with Western (Greek) love of beauty.


Cadmus was of ultimately divine ancestry, the grandson of the sea god Poseidon and Libya on his father's side, and of Nilus (the River Nile) on his mother's side; overall he was considered a member of the fifth generation of beings following the (mythological) creation of the world: Template:Argive genealogy in Greek mythology


With Harmonia, he was the father of Ino, Polydorus, Autonoe, Agave and Semele. Their youngest son was Illyrius.[24]

See alsoEdit


  1. Alden, John B. (1883) The Greek Anthology, pp. 160-162.
  2. A modern application of genealogy would make him the paternal grandfather of Dionysus, through his daughter by Harmonia, Semele, but no ancient Greek myth or cult was based on this connection.
  3. Herodotus, Histories, Book V, 58.
  4. Herodotus. Histories, Book II, 2.145.4.
  5. There are several examples of written letters, such as in Nestor's narrative concerning Bellerophon and the "Bellerophontic letter", another description of a letter presumably sent to Palamedes from Priam but in fact written by Odysseus (Hyginus. Fabulae, 105), as well as the letters described by Plutarch in Parallel Lives, Theseus, which were presented to Ariadne presumably sent from Theseus. Plutarch goes on to describe how Theseus erected a pillar on the Isthmus of Corinth, which bears an inscription of two lines.
  6. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution 1993:26, noting the inscribed Dipylon jug at Athens, the Ischia inscription on the "cup of Nestor", a geometric period shard from Naxos and some Euboean material.
  7. F.M. Ahl. "Cadmus and the Palm-Leaf Tablets." American Journal of Philology 88.2, Apr. 1967, pp. 188-94.
  8. LSJ entry Κάδμος
  9. Robert Beekes - Greek Etymological Dictionary
  10. The Megaloi theoi of the Mysteries of Samothrace.
  11. Or known by another lunar name, Argiope, "she of the white face" (Kerenyi 1959:27).
  12. Diodorus Siculus, 5.48; Clement of Alexandria, to wit Proreptikos 2.13.3.
  13. Harmonia at Thebes was accounted the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite; all these figures appeared in sculptures on the pediment of the Hellenistic main temple in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace, the Hieron; the ancient sources on this family grouping were assembled by N. Lewis, Samothrace. I: The Ancient Literary Sources (New York) 1958:24-36.
  14. Kerenyi (1959) notes that Cadmus in some sense found another Europa at Samothrace, according to an obscure scholium on Euripides' Rhesus 29.
  15. Diodorus, 5.49.1; when the gods attended the later wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the harmony was shattered by the Apple of Discord.
  16. The full range of references in Antiquity to this wedding is presented by Matia Rocchi, Kadmos e Harmonia: un matrimonio problemmatico (Rome: Bretschneider) 1989.
  17. Apollodorus. Library and Epitome, 3.5.4.
  18. Pierre Grimal, Pierre, Maxwell-Hyslop, A. R. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Blackwell, 1996, ISBN 0631201025, p. 83.
  19. Wilkes, J. J. The Illyrians. Blackwell Publishing, 1992, ISBN 0631198075, p. 99.
  20. Edwards, Kadmos the Phoenician: A Study in Greek Legends and the Mycenaean Age (Amsterdam 1979), noted by Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Bronze Age (Harvard University Press) 1992:2, and note), who remarks that the complementary connection of Europa with rb, "West" was an ancient one, made by Hesychius.
  21. Diodorus Siculus 5.48.2
  22. "There is little doubt that Cadmus was originally a Boeotian, that is, a Greek hero." Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911, s.v. "Cadmus"; Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution ("Introduction") was written in part to lay such notions to rest.
  23. The argument that nothing in the geography of Boeotia supports an Eastern influence was expressed, before the days of archaeology, by Template:Citation; Gomme finds the literary evidence for Cadmus' Phoenician origin first directly expressed by Pherecydes, Herodotus and in a scholium on Hellanicus, where in each case it is already assumed as well known.
  24. Pierre Grimal, Pierre, Maxwell-Hyslop, A. R. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Blackwell, 1996, ISBN 0631201025, p. 83, 230.


Classical sourcesEdit

Secondary materialEdit

Further readingEdit

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