Places Discussed

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*Phoenicia (fih-NEESH-ah). Homeland of the ancient Phoenicians, in the region along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea now occupied by Syria and Lebanon. Cadmus, whose Phoenician name means “man from the east,” was a son of Agenor, king of the Phoenician city of Tyre, and brother of Europa, who gave her name to Europe. When Europa is kidnapped by Zeus, Agenor sends all his sons, including Cadmus, out to retrieve her. They eventually give up the search and create permanent colonies around the Mediterranean. Like them, Cadmus and Europa represent geographical locations in human form, and their journey depicts patterns of Bronze Age migration and settlement. 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’ lineage and the probable derivation of his name from a Phoenician or Semitic word meaning “the one from the east.”


*Delphi (DEL-fi). Site of Apollo’s oracle in the Greek province of Boeotia that was known as the “navel,” or center of the Greek world. Delphi was the meeting place between the divine and human realms, where the Pythia conveyed the will of the gods to men. When Cadmus arrives at Delphi while still searching in vain for Europa, oracle tells him to give up his quest, then follow a cow—a symbol of female fecundity—and found a new city where it lies down to rest and call the city Thebes. These instructions from the most famous oracle in Greece serve to validate the status of Thebes as a sacred site, while the role of Cadmus may indicate that Phoenicians really did found a colony there in the Bronze Age.


*Thebes (theebz). Most important city in Boeotia, near Mount Cithaeron. After following the cow to this location, Cadmus kills a dragon guarding a nearby spring. From the dragon’s teeth spring warriors, who found Thebes’s first aristocratic families. This motif reflects Eastern notions of humans being born from the ground but also ensures that the city’s aristocratic families could claim to be genuinely Hellenic in origin. The city that Cadmus founds on this site has seven gates and famously high walls. An alternative story ascribes the foundation of Thebes to twins, Amphion and Zethus, who named the city after Thebe, Zethus’s wife. Thebans reconciled these different accounts by crediting Cadmus with founding the higher city on the acropolis, the Cadmeia, and making the twins responsible for walling the lower part of the city.

Thebes ultimately became one of the most mysterious locations in Greek mythology. A site of close encounters between gods and mortals and between East and West, it is the city where the Eastern god Dionysus chose to reveal himself to the Greeks. Although Cadmus enjoyed a happy marriage to Harmonia, the history of their descendants was jinxed by misfortunes; moreover, Cadmus and his wife left Thebes for Illyria in their old age. After they died, they were transported to the Elysian Fields in the underworld. The myth of Cadmus and Thebes suggests that the encounter between Greece and the East was fraught with conflict, and that the foundation of cities is accompanied by violent sacrifice. Thebes is a prime location in Greek mythology for such encounters.


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Calasso, Roberto. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Translated by Tim Parks. New York: Knopf, 1993. An imaginative exploration of the Greek myth cycles, ending with a discussion of the Cadmus story in chapter 12. Offers an interpretation of the complex and troubled relationship between gods and humans.


(This entire section contains 207 words.)

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Ruth B.Kadmos the Phoenician: A Study in Greek Legends and the Mycenaean Age. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1979. Discusses the origins of the Cadmus story and locates such myths in the context of the Mycenaean civilization.

Euripides. The Adorers of Dionysus (The Bakchai). Translated by James Morgan Pryse. Los Angeles: J. M. Pryse, 1925. This edition contains an interpretation of the myth of Cadmus that shows him as a man who devotes his soul to the quest for divine wisdom.

Fontenrose, Joseph. Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959. A useful study of the mythological context in which the Cadmus story exists; there are many similarities between Cadmus’ slaying of the dragon and Apollo’s killing of the Python and between the foundation myths of Thebes and Delphi.

Green, Roger L. The Tale of Thebes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Tells the Theban myths in a narrative, simplified format that is suitable for nonspecialists.


Critical Essays