Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
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 remarkable for extending all the way down to Oedipus and his descendants. Cadmus himself loses all of his children, suggesting once again that the foundation of a city involves much personal suffering and sacrifice for the founder. To a certain extent, Cadmus is reincarnated in his descendant Oedipus, who likewise consults the oracle of Apollo, is driven to leave his city because of a divine curse, and is fated to lose his children to violent deaths.
The marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, daughter of Mars and Venus, is likewise an ill-starred affair: Harmonia is the product of an adulterous relationship (Venus is married to Vulcan) and, despite the fact that the wedding celebration is attended by all the Olympian gods, Vulcan’s gift of a beautiful necklace to the bride brings bad fortune with it, and the harmony that Cadmus and his wife enjoy is short-lived. The marriage recalls that of Menelaus and Helen, which set in motion the events of the Trojan war. Like Helen, Harmonia is beautiful, but her beauty holds the seeds of destruction for the hero who marries her. It might be argued, of course, that Harmonia is an essentially positive figure, devoted to her husband and prepared to stay with him throughout all his vicissitudes. Some have seen an analogy with the marriage of Dushyanta and Sakuntala in Hindu mythology. Others view Harmonia as a version of Pandora or Eve, the archetypal woman who brings trouble to man in patriarchal myths. The fact that Cadmus’s children are all girls and that they all die unpleasant deaths tends to strengthen a negative association with women that underlies this legend.
The story of Cadmus closes with the metamorphosis that transforms Cadmus and Harmonia into serpents. This represents a reconciliation with Mars as well as with the earth goddess from whom serpents spring. The serpent generally occupies a significant place in Theban mythology: Tiresias the seer is changed from a man into a woman and back again when he encounters two serpents in the forest, and Dionysus, the new god whom Pentheus tries to keep out of the city, is often associated with snakes. The fearsome dragon of the beginning of the founding myth is eventually transformed into a beneficial entity, for Cadmus and Harmonia do no harm to human beings. After their deaths, Jupiter carries both of them to the Elysian fields in recognition of their self-sacrifice and devotion to the gods.
The myth of Cadmus is a complex patchwork of several mythological archetypes and of Eastern and Western influences. It has enduring literary value in its presentation of a hero driven by forces beyond his control and victimized by hostile deities. The hero is also a man who must reap what he sows, yet his sufferings and sacrifices are ultimately beneficial and necessary for the growth of civilization, for Cadmus is responsible for the foundation of one of the greatest of all Greek cities.
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