Cadmus (also spelled Cadmos), a hero from ancient Greek mythology, was best known as the man who founded Thebes. This famous accomplishment, however, was not at all intended by Cadmus when he began his career of adventuring. Quite the opposite, he was originally sent out into the world to rescue his kidnapped sister, Europa—this retrieval mission was not Cadmus’ own choice, but was instead on the order of his father, King Agenor of Phoenicia. The quest of rescuing the damsel in distress was easier said than done, however, for the abductor of Europa was none other than the mightiest Greek god, Zeus. Humble Cadmus knew he was no match for Zeus, so he chose not to pick a fight with the ruler of Olympus. Not able to go back home empty handed to his father, King Agenor, Cadmus instead paid a visit to the Oracle at Delphi and was directed from there to travel to Boeotia. Arriving at the place that would one day be Thebes, Cadmus slew a giant serpent or dragon and recruited some supernaturally-born men who were created from dragon’s teeth he planted into the ground. Backed by these tooth-sprouted beings known as Spartoi (the “Sown”), Cadmus began his most famous deed of founding the city of Thebes. As the story goes, Cadmus’ new city-state was viewed positively by the Greek gods, with only Ares showing some reservations, as he had been fond of the serpent that Cadmus slew. Nevertheless, Zeus and Athena were able to patch things up to the extent that Cadmus was able to marry the goddess, Harmonia, a daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, and his divine in-laws gave their blessing to Cadmus’ newfound position as king of Thebes. Together, Cadmus and Harmonia settled down in their custom-built city-state and raised a large household of royal children. It was at this point, when Cadmus had slain a dragon, founded a city and started a royal household, that the hero made a most peculiar move—he abruptly retired from power, and after handing the throne of Thebes to his grandson Pentheus, Cadmus went off with his wife, Harmonia, on a new adventure into the Balkans.
Cadmus and Harmonia, according to the ancient storytellers of myth and legend, ventured into the midst of a great war that was being fought in the western Balkans between the Encheleans and the Illyrians. Of the two factions, the Encheleans were on the losing side of the war at the time when the pair of Theban ex-royals appeared on the scene. Despite the status of the conflict, Cadmus evidently favored the Enchelean side. In turn, the Encheleans, who were fighting desperately for their lives, eagerly reciprocated Cadmus’ affection, likely thinking that recruiting a famous dragon-slaying and god-beloved hero into their cause would be a great way to change the tide of the war. The gods, themselves, also evidently favored the partnership, for they sent an oracle to the Encheleans, instructing them that they would be victorious in their war if they accepted Cadmus as their ruler. The Encheleans followed the suggestion of the gods and put their manpower and their future into the hands of newly-arrived Cadmus.
Cadmus had not become rusty since his retirement from the throne of Thebes. Instead, as the myths and legends claimed, the new ruler led the Encheleans on a remarkable counter-attack in their war against the Illyrians. He was able to halt and reverse all of the progress that the Illyrians had been making before his arrival, and, after some military maneuvering and battles, it was the Encheleans who were beginning to overwhelm the Illyrian forces. Ultimately, the Illyrians either surrendered to Cadmus or were conquered, for Cadmus won the war and declared himself king of the Illyrian lands. This remarkable second half of the life of Cadmus was concisely summarized by an ancient mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c.1st-2nd centuries), who wrote, “Cadmos left Thebes with Harmonia and went to the land of the Encheleans. Now the Encheleans were being attacked by the Illyrians, and the god had revealed to them in an oracle that they would obtain victory over the Illyrians if they had Cadmos and Harmonia as their leaders. In obedience to the god, they engaged them as their leaders against the Illyrians, and gained the upper hand. Cadmos became the king of the Illyrians and had a son Illyrios” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.4). Cadmus and Harmonia lived out the rest of their earthly days within the realm they built in the land of the Illyrians, not leaving until they were eventually transported by the gods to the heavenly Elysian fields.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of The Battle Of The Soldiers Born Of The Serpent’s Teeth, Painted By Jean-François de Troy (c. 1679 -1752), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Paris Musées Collections).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.