This painting, by the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (c. 1615-1673), shows a scene from the Greek mythological tales about Cadmus. He was introduced into ancient myth as a hero that was sent on a quest to rescue the mythical princess Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Cadmus failed in this original task, but he soon found renewed purpose and fame in a mission handed to him by the Oracle of Delphi. As ordered by the oracle, Cadmus was to follow a restless cow until the long-wandering beast finally slumped to the ground, and it was there that Cadmus was meant to build the city of Thebes. Yet, as can be seen in the painting, Cadmus would face some drama before construction on the new city could begin.
According to the myth, Cadmus and his followers had been lured by their guiding cow right into the hunting grounds of a ferocious dragon. Not long after their arrival in the region, Cadmus’ companions began disappearing. Noticing this, Cadmus donned his magical gear and went to investigate, leading to a showdown between hero and monster. Cadmus slew the dragon, and when he had completed this feat, the goddess Pallas Athena made an appearance. She came not with congratulations, but with odd instructions that she wanted Cadmus to carry out. The Roman poet Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE) described the scene:
“Look now! Gliding down through the ether, his patron goddess
Pallas appeared, with orders for him to turn the soil
and sow the teeth of the dragon as seeds of a race to come.
He did as she bade and after pressing a rut in the earth
with a plough, he scattered the teeth that were destined to grow into men.
At once—amazing to tell—the clods started to crumble;
out of the furrow a line of bristling spear-tips sprouted,
next an array of helmets nodding with colourful plumes,
then manly shoulders and breasts and arms accoutered with weapons
rose from the earth, a burgeoning crop of shielded warriors.
Madness got hold of them all. Their death was as quick as their birth,
from the wounds they dealt and received in their own unnatural warfare.
Those youths, allotted so brief a span of life, were already
beating the breast of their mother earth, till it bled with their fresh warm
blood. Five soldiers only remained, and one was Echíon.
He, at Minerva’s prompting, threw his arms to the ground
and sued for peace with his brothers, promising peace in return.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 3.101-128)
Such were the directions handed down by Athena (or Minerva) to Cadmus, resulting in the free-for-all battle between the Spartoi (the “Sown”). It is this scene that the painting above re-creates. The toothless dragon can be seen in the forefront of the artwork, lying dead near Cadmus and Athena, who converse together while the Spartoi brawl to the death around them. As the story goes, the five survivors of the deathmatch became the founders of noble families in the city of Thebes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley