This illustration, by the American artist Maxfield Parrish (c. 1870 – 1966), was inspired by a figure from ancient Greek mythology and an origin story for one of the major city-states of ancient Greece. As the title of the artwork gives away, the picture features the mythological hero Cadmus. Said to have been the son of King Agenor of Phoenicia, Cadmus’s days of adventuring originally began when he was sent out to rescue his kidnapped sister, Europa, who had been abducted by the god, Zeus. Humble Cadmus knew he was no match for Zeus, so he chose not to pick a fight with the ruler of Olympus. Yet, he also could not return home empty-handed, as the quest to fetch Europa had been a command directly from Cadmus’ father, King Agenor. In need of guidance on what to do next, Cadmus paid a visit to the Oracle at Delphi. There, Cadmus was instructed 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.
Cadmus completed his journey to the site of Thebes, but he soon discovered there was a problem that needed to be dealt with before the construction of the city could be underway. As the story goes, a giant serpent or dragon had its lair in the region—it was an immediate threat to Cadmus’ companions and his future settlement, meaning that Cadmus now had to play the part of the dragon-slayer. Indeed, the hero slew the monstrous creature, and when he had completed this impressive 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 accoutred 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)
As the story goes, the five survivors of the deathmatch (called the Spartoi, or the “Sown”) became the originators of the ancient noble families in the city of Thebes, and the sower of the seeds, Cadmus, went on to be Thebes’ first king and the ancestor of the city’s first royal line. It is this tale of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes that inspired Maxfield Parrish’s artwork, titled Cadmus Sowing The Dragon’s Teeth. Unlike most other artists who covered this particular myth, Maxfield Parrish left out the dragon and the Spartoi from his artwork, and instead chose to focus on Cadmus and the landscape.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.