The story of Cadmus follows a typical pattern of the Greek hero myth: The young man is sent on a quest (in this case to find his lost sister), receives instructions from a god to found a new city, proves himself by killing a dragon, and endures the hostility of a god, who kills all of his children. The Cadmus myth is somewhat unusual in its combination of elements from both Eastern and Western mythological traditions. This is reflected in the Phoenician connections of Cadmus’s lineage and the probable derivation of his name from a Phoenician or Semitic word meaning “the one from the east.”
Cadmus’s search for his missing sister is reminiscent of other famous mythological quests, such as that of Jason for the Golden Fleece and Odysseus’s attempt to return to his home and family. The success of the hero in these cases represents the return of order to a disordered home, city, and, by extension, world. The monsters and obstacles that have to be overcome in the process indicate the difficulties of restoring order.
The story of the building of Thebes is reminiscent of the stories of other cities, for example the founding of Rome by the Trojan exile Aeneas and the closely related tale of Ilus and his cow and the founding of Troy. In these two cases, the cow, a symbol of female fecundity, seems to represent the earth goddess. In all of these stories, the hero must subdue the local inhabitants and make the land safe for the new city. The foundation of a city is accompanied by violence and death, out of which new life arises: In the case of Thebes, Cadmus must first kill the dragon that guards a spring of clear water. The dragon, sacred to the god of war, Mars, also represents the primeval forces of the earth goddess. When Cadmus kills the creature and from its teeth harvests warriors, with whom he founds Thebes, this indicates that the earth has been tamed and is prepared to cooperate with the hero in the creation of a new city.
Mars’s curse on Cadmus for killing the dragon is another stock element in mythology, similar to the curse on the house of Atreus. The persistence of the Theban curse is...
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