Cadmus – The First Greek Hero

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Known as the first Greek hero, Cadmus, together with Perseus and Bellerophon, was one of the greatest heroes and slayer of monsters before the time of Heracles. Known for his adventures and for slaying a terrible dragon, Cadmus was also the founder and king of Thebes. Before this, however, he was a Phoenician prince.

As a young man, Cadmus was sent by his parents, King Agenor and Queen Telephassa of Tyre, to find and bring back his kidnapped sister, Europa, taken from their homeland by the Greek god Zeus.

It’s believed that Cadmus’ began a dynasty in which his descendants were the rulers of Thebes for many generations.

Who is Cadmus?

Cadmus was of divine parentage. On his father’s side, he was the grandson of the god of the sea, Poseidon, and the Egyptian princess, Libya. Meanwhile, on his mother’s side he was thought to be a descendant of Nilus, the Potamoi (god) of the river Nile. Cadmus was a member of the fifth generation of beings following the Greek mythological creation of the world.

His story begins when he was sent by his father to find his sister Europa and told not to return without her. As things turned out, Cadmus would never return home.

In his search, Cadmus eventually came to Samothrace, an island sacred to the Cabeiri—a group of deities associated with the earth and underworld. With him was his mother, Telephassa, and his brother Thasus. After being initiated into the mysteries, which were the various religious rites and traditions, of Samothrace, Cadmus saw Harmonia, the goddess of harmony and concord, and daughter of Aphrodite.

In some accounts, he carries her off with him with the help of the goddess Athena. This is quite an ironic turn of events in Cadmus’ story, mimicking the abduction of his own sister, Europa. However, in others, he marries her later on.

The Adventures of Cadmus

Cadmus and Athena
Cadmus consults the Oracle at Delphi

During his search for his sister, Cadmus came to Delphi where he consulted the oracle. After consulting with the gods, the oracle told him to give up trying to find his sister. He was then instructed to instead follow a special cow.

  • Cadmus and the Cow

Cadmus was supposed to follow the cow until she lay down, exhausted, and to then build a town on that spot. The half-moon marked cow was given to Cadmus by the King of Phocis, Pelagon. Cadmus obeyed the oracle and followed the cow, who took him to Boeotia—the land on which he would found the city of Thebes.

Cadmus wanted to sacrifice the cow to Athena, so he sent some of his travelling companions to a nearby spring for water. His companions were subsequently killed by the water dragon guarding the spring.

  • Cadmus and the Dragon
Cadmus kills the dragon
Cadmus kills the Dragon

Cadmus went and killed the dragon to avenge his fallen companions. Athena then appeared to him and told him to bury the dragon’s teeth in the ground. Cadmus did as she bid and from the teeth grew a race of warriors called the Spartoi. Cadmus threw a stone at them and the warriors fought each other until only the strongest five remained. Those five were then tasked with helping Cadmus build the citadel of Thebes and later became the founders of the noblest families of Thebes.

  • Cadmus Works for Eight Years

Unfortunately for Cadmus, the dragon he killed was sacred to Ares, god of war. As recompense, Ares made Cadmus do penance for eight years by serving him. It was only after this period, that Cadmus was given Harmonia as a wife. For the rest of his life, Cadmus was plagued by misfortune as a result of having killed the sacred dragon.

  • The Children and Consort of Cadmus

The wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia was the first ever celebrated on Earth. At the wedding, all of the gods were present, and Harmonia received many bridal gifts—most notably a peplos (a body-length garment that was considered typical Greek women’s attire) created by Athena and a necklace forged by Hephaestus.

The necklace is known simply as the Necklace of Harmonia, it granted the person wearing it the ability to remain eternally young and beautiful at the cost of bringing terrible misfortune to all who possessed it. It supposedly brought misfortune to both Cadmus and Harmonia and played a role in the story of Oedipus and Jacosta as well as many others.

Cadmus and Harmonia began a dynasty with their sons Polydorus and Illyrius and their four daughters, Agave, Autonoë, Ino, and Semele.

The union of Cadmus and Harmonia symbolizes the merging of Eastern learning, represented by Cadmus of Phoenicia, with the Western love of beauty, symbolized by Harmonia of Greece. Additionally, Cadmus is also thought to have brought the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks, who then used it as the foundation for their own Greek alphabet.  

  • Cadmus Becomes a Serpent

Frustrated with his life, Cadmus commented that if the gods were so endeared by the serpent he had killed, he wished he could be one himself. Instantly, he began to change, and scales emerged from his skin. Harmonia, upon seeing her husband’s transformation, begged the gods to also change her into a serpent to match his form. The gods granted her wish and they were both transformed into serpents.

Cadmus in Modern Times

Cadmus’ name is often used in fiction as a shorthand for nobility or divine descent or creation. In the DC Comic Universe, Project Cadmus, is a fictional genetic engineering project that creates the powerful superheroes: Golden Guardian, Auron, Superboy, and Dubbilex.

Similarly, in the game Warhammer 40K, the House Cadmus is an Imperial Knight House known for their fighting ability and for their long-standing conflict with the terrifying beasts of the land.

Lessons from Cadmus’ Story

  • Impossible Task – The impossible task is usually given as a way to start off a main character’s story, its value coming from the fact that it serves as a jumping-off point for development rather than its actual completion. In Cadmus’ case, he is given the impossible task of finding his sister, Europa, and eventually even ordered by the gods themselves to abandon his quest.
  • Be Careful What You Say – Immediately upon making the comment that if being a snake is so good, he would like to become one—Cadmus is transformed into a serpent. This is a lesson in being mindful of what you say. Or in other words: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it all.
  • Cursed Item – The Necklace of Harmonia was fated to curse all those who came to possess it. Many of Cadmus’ descendants fell victim to the misfortune brought on by the necklace, killed because they were unable to look past their vanity and turn down the promise of eternal youth. This is similar to many other cursed jewels in history, such as the Hope Diamond, also believed to be cursed.

Cadmus Facts

1- What is Cadmus known for?

Cadmus is the founder of Thebes and the first Greek hero.

2- Is Cadmus a god?

Cadmus was a mortal, the son of the king of Phoenicia. He was later turned into a serpent.

3- Who are Cadmus’ siblings?

Cadmus’ siblings include Europa, Cilix and Phoenix.

4- Does Cadmus rescue Europa and bring her back to Phoenicia?

Cadmus is advised by the gods to give up the quest for Europa and instead marries Harmonia and founds Thebes.

5- Who is Cadmus’ consort?

Cadmus marries Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite.

6- Who are Cadmus’ children?

Cadmus has five children – Semele, Polydorus, Autonoe, Ino and Agave.

7- Why is Cadmus turned into a serpent?

Cadmus is frustrated with the many misfortunes of his life and wished that he could become a serpent to live more freely.

Wrapping Up

Cadmus was the father to several generations of Thebes’ kings and queens. Ultimately, he almost single-handedly founded one of the great Greek cities while also spawning a dynasty of rulers. While Cadmus’ story is lesser known than some of his contemporaries, echoes of it can still be found in modern day fiction.