CADMUS

CADMUS was Europa’s brother, a son of Agenor, king of Phoenicia. When Zeus, in the shape of a bull, had carried off Europa, Agenor sent Cadmus and his brothers in search of her, telling them not to come back until they had accomplished their quest. For a long time Cadmus wandered through the world in vain, unable to find her whom the wiles of Zeus had spirited away. He feared his father’s anger at his failure, and so—not wishing to return to his own country—he consulted the oracle of Phoebus Apollo and asked what land he should dwell in the rest of his life. And the sun-god replied: “In a lonely meadow you will find a heifer who has never borne the yoke. Follow her, and where she lies down to rest in the grass, in that place you shall build a city and call it Thebes.”

Scarcely had Cadmus left the Castalian Fountain, the site of Apollo’s oracle, when he came to a green pasture, and in it grazed a heifer whose neck bore no marks of the yoke. With a silent prayer to Phoebus, he slowly followed in the creature’s tracks. She waded the ford of Cephisus and had just crossed a wide tract of land when she stopped, pointed her horns at the sky, and filled the air with her lowing. Then she glanced back at Cadmus and his retinue and finally lay down in the thick-growing tender grass.

Full of gratitude, Cadmus prostrated himself and kissed the alien earth. Then he prepared to offer sacrifice to Zeus and sent his servants in search of a living spring to provide water for the libation. In that place, there was an age-old wood which had never been thinned by the axe. In the very heart of it rocks, joined with a network of bush and underbrush, formed a low vault over a gorge running with clear water. Hidden in this cavern was a wicked dragon. His scarlet crest shone from afar; his eyes flashed flame; his body was swollen with venom, and three tongues flickered from his mouth which was armed with a triple row of teeth. The Phoenicians had only just entered the grove and let their pitcher down into the water, when the dragon darted his azure head out of the cavern and uttered a fearful hiss. The urns slipped from their hands, and the blood froze in their veins. The dragon, meanwhile, had coiled himself into scaly folds, drew back for the thrust, and, reared to half his height, looked down upon the wood. Then he lunged forward at the Phoenicians, killed some with his fangs, strangled others in his coils, and destroyed the rest by his poisonous spittle or the mere fetid breath from his mouth.

Cadmus could not imagine what was keeping his servants. At last he went in search of them. His tunic was a pelt he had torn from a lion, his weapons were a lance and javelin and—stronger and better than these—his brave heart. Upon entering the grove he saw a mass of bodies, his lifeless servants, and triumphing above them the enemy, his body distended, his tongue lapping the blood of his victims.

“My poor friends,” cried Cadmus, “I shall either avenge you or share your death!” And he picked up a boulder and hurled it at the dragon. The block was so huge that walls and towers would have shaken at its impact, but the dragon remained unmoved. His thick black hide and stiff scales protected him like a coat of mail. Now Cadmus threw his javelin, and with this he fared better, for the iron point bit deep into the entrails of the monster. Raging with pain, he turned his head and crushed the shaft of the javelin, but the top stuck fast in his body. A sword-stroke goaded him to fury, his throat swelled out, and white foam gushed from his poisonous jaws. Straight as an arrow the monster rushed forth, and his breast struck against the trunks of the trees. Agenor’s son dodged the onslaught, drew his lion’s skin close about him, and let the dragon’s teeth spend their force on the point of his lance. At last the blood began to stream from the throat of the beast and stained the green grass around him. But the wound was light, and the dragon evaded every further thrust. Finally Cadmus buried his sword in his neck. It came out on the other side and pierced an oak tree so that the dragon was nailed to its trunk. The tree was bowed by the weight and meaned as it felt the tip of the monster’s tail lashing its bark.

For a long time Cadmus gazed at the slain dragon. When he took his eyes from it and looked around, he saw Pallas Athene, who had descended from heaven and now commanded him to turn up the earth and sow the dragon’s teeth, the seed for a future race. He obeyed the goddess, ploughed a broad and long furrow, and scattered the dragon’s teeth in the groove. Of a sudden there was a stir in the clods, and out came, first the point of a lance, then a helmet with a crest of variegated plumes, then shoulders, breast, limbs, and finally a warrior, fully armed, sprang from the earth. This happened in many places at once, so that a whole crop of armed men grew up before the very eyes of the Phoenician.

He was greatly alarmed and prepared to fight a fresh foe. But one of the earthborn men called out to him: “Do not lift your hand against us. Do not interfere in this war between brothers!” Even as he spoke he raised his sword against one of the other warriors and was, at the same instant, struck by a flying javelin. Its thrower, in turn, was wounded and gave up the breath of life he had only just received. And now the entire host fought one another in bitter battle, and soon almost all lay on the ground, writhing in the throes of death, while Mother Earth drank the blood of the sons she had borne for so brief a span. Only five were left. One of these—who later was called Echion—was the first to throw down his arms at Athene’s bidding, and offer peace. The others followed his example.

With these five earthborn warriors, Cadmus, the stranger from Phoenicia, built the city as Apollo had bidden, and—in accordance with the god’s command—he called it Thebes.

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