This painting, by the French artist Jean-François de Troy (c. 1679 -1752), depicts an ancient Greek tale of a brawl between magical warriors who sprung from soil where dragon teeth were buried. Jean-François did not explicitly state which myth he was referring to in this scene, but context clues provided by the artwork’s scenery allow us to make a confident identification. There are two main ancient Greek mythological tales about warriors being born from dragon teeth sown in the earth; one is the story of Cadmus, who founded Thebes, and he populated his new city with survivors left over from one such earthborn brawl. The next myth involves Jason and the Argonauts. According to legend, Jason was a claimant to the Thessalian city of Iolcos, which was controlled by Jason’s uncle, Pelias. The power struggle between uncle and nephew resulted in Jason being sent off on a perilous journey into the Black Sea, tasked with obtaining a golden fleece from the lands of King Aeëtes, ruler of Colchis. Yet, King Aeëtes did not wish to part with the fleece, and he therefore put many trials and traps in front of Jason in an effort to drive the adventurer away empty-handed. One of the tricks up King Aeëtes’ sleeve was another crop of dragon-teeth warriors, but unfortunately for the king, his own daughter, Medea, told Jason how the earthborn could be defeated. Due to the painting being set in an already-founded city, as well as other clues such the inclusion of a fire-breathing bull (which Jason had to face) and a royal family sitting under an orange-colored awning, this artwork is more likely to be a re-creation of the Jason and the Argonauts story, as opposed to the Cadmus tale.
An account of Jason’s encounter with King Aeëtes’ earthborn army was written by the poet, Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 3rd century BCE). His poem, the Argonautica, covers most of Jason’s adventures and is one of the best ancient sources preserved about the myths of the Argonauts. Concerning the serpent-teeth earthborn, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote:
“Now in the god of slaughter’s garden sprang
an army nursed in earth—all rounded shields
and tufted spears and crested helmets bristling;
so rose the soldiers from the furrows, sparkling.
Jason obeyed the mandates of the maiden,
the clever one. He lifted from the field
a great round rock, the war god’s shot to toss,
a mass four strapping laborers would struggle
to budge in vain. Raising it without strain,
he spun round and around and cast it far
into their midst, then under his buckler crouched,
valiant, in hiding. The Colchians went wild,
roaring as hoarsely as the sea swell roars,
on jagged cliffs. Aeëtes stood there dumbstruck,
dreading what would come. The earthborn soldiers
like famished mongrels snapping for a morsel
mangled each other round the boulder, falling
to mother Earth beneath each other’s spears
[Jason] dashed on the earthborn ones with naked sword,
slashed here and there and harvested them all—
the seedlings grown as far as chest and back,
the waist-high, the knee-deep, those freshly afoot
and rushing to the fray—all fell beneath him.”
(Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, 3.1353-1385)
Such is the scene that is ongoing in Jean-François’ painting. Jason has emerged from under his shield, slaughtered the earthborn that were nearby, and now stands rather tauntingly in front of King Aeëtes. It is a gesture that says, I have survived another one of your schemes; what next? Ultimately, King Aeëtes would not be able to stop the adventurer. In the end, Jason would take the king’s golden fleece, as well as the king’s daughter.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.