This artwork, from the German-Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (c. 1558 – 1617), re-creates a tale from the life of the ancient Greek mythical hero, Cadmus. Following his unsuccessful first mission to rescue the kidnapped princess, Europa, from the clutches of the mighty god Zeus, Cadmus found new purpose in an expedition 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, there was a problem—unbeknownst to Cadmus and his followers, the cow had led them to the lair of a monstrous serpent or dragon. Cadmus’ companions learned of this too late, for when they left camp to fetch water, they were gobbled up by this killer beast. Noticing their absence, Cadmus went to check on his ill-fated friends. Following the tracks of his missing comrades, he made his way into the den of the dragon, setting up the scene that is depicted in Hendrick Goltzius’ illustration. Cadmus’ clash with the serpent was vividly described by the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17CE):
“Wondering what had delayed his companions, the hero Cadmus
decided to track them down. To shield his body, he donned
the skin of a lion. For weapons he took his iron-tipped spear,
his javelin and, more important than all, the courage to wield them.
Striding into the wood, he encountered a welter of corpses,
above them the huge-backed monster gloating in grisly triumph,
At last our hero was able to thrust it into his gullet;
then moving in close, he pressed on it hard, until his retreating
prey backed into an oak and his neck was nailed to the trunk.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.51-92).
It is this scene of Cadmus fighting the dragon that Hendrick Goltzius captured in his artwork. Cadmus, as Ovid described, can be seen in the act of stabbing the dragon in the throat with a spear, pushing the beast back from the nearby bodies of its victims. After Cadmus slew the dragon, the goddess Athena appeared and told him to take the beast’s teeth and sow them into the earth. This resulted in the birth of beings called the Spartoi (the “Sown”), who began fighting among themselves. As the story goes, the five survivors of the deathmatch became the founders of noble families in the city of Thebes that Cadmus founded.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.