Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology
Author: Bulfinch, Thomas

Chapter XII: Cadmus - The Myrmidons.

Jupiter, under the disguise of a bull, had carried away Europa, the
daughter of Agenor, king of Phoenicia. Agenor commanded his son Cadmus to go
in search of his sister, and not to return without her. Cadmus went and
sought long and far for his sister, but could not find her, and not daring to
return unsuccessful, consulted the oracle of Apollo to know what country he
should settle in. The oracle informed him that he should find a cow in the
field, and should follow her wherever she might wander and where she stopped,
should build a city and call it Thebes. Cadmus had hardly left the Castalian
cave, from which the oracle was delivered, when he saw a young cow slowly
walking before him. He followed her close, offering at the same time his
prayers to Phoebus. The cow went on till she passed the shallow channel of
Cephisus and came out into the plain of Panope. There she stood still, and
raising her broad forehead to the sky, filled the air with her lowings. Cadmus
gave thanks, and stooping down kissed the foreign soil, then lifting his eyes,
greeted the surrounding mountains. Wishing to offer a sacrifice to Jupiter,
he sent his servants to seek pure water for a libation. Near by there stood
an ancient grove which had never been profaned by the axe, in the midst of
which was a cave, thick covered with the growth of bushes, its roof forming a
low arch, from beneath which burst forth a fountain of purest water. In the
cave lurked a horrid serpent with a crested head and scales glittering like
gold. His eyes shone like fire, his body was swollen with venom, he vibrated
a triple tongue, and showed a triple row of teeth. No sooner had the Tyrians
dipped their pitchers in the fountain, and the ingushing waters made a sound,
than the glittering serpent raised his head out of the cave and uttered a
fearful hiss. The vessels fell from their hands, the blood left their cheeks,
they trembled in every limb. The serpent, twisting his scaly body in a huge
coil, raised his head so as to overtop the tallest trees, and while the
Tyrians from terror could neither fight nor fly, slew some with his fangs,
others in his folds, and others with his poisonous breath.

Cadmus having waited for the return of his men till midday, went in
search of them. His covering was a lion's hide, and besides his javelin he
carried in his hand a lance, and in his breast a bold heart, a surer reliance
than either. When he entered the wood, and saw the lifeless bodies of his
men, and the monster with his bloody jaws, he exclaimed, "O faithful friends,
I will avenge you, or share your death." So saying he lifted a huge stone and
threw it with all his force at the serpent. Such a block would have shaken
the wall of a fortress, but it made no impression on the monster. Cadmus next
threw his javelin, which met with better success, for it penetrated the
serpent's scales, and pierced through to his entrails. Fierce with pain the
monster turned back his head to view the wound, and attempted to draw out the
weapon with his mouth, but broke it off, leaving the iron point rankling in
his flesh. His neck swelled with rage, bloody foam covered his jaws, and the
breath of his nostrils poisoned the air around. Now he twisted himself into a
circle, then stretched himself out on the ground like the trunk of a fallen
tree. As he moved onward, Cadmus retreated before him, holding his spear
opposite to the monster's opened jaws. The serpent snapped at the weapon and
attempted to bite its iron point. At last Cadmus watching his chance thrust
the spear at a moment when the animal's head thrown back came against the
trunk of a tree, and so succeeded in pinning him to its side. His weight bent
the tree as he struggled in the agonies of death.

While Cadmus stood ovtr his conquered foe, contemplating its vast size, a
voice was heard (from whence he knew not, but he heard it distinctly)
commanding him to take the dragon's teeth and sow them in the earth. He
obeyed. He made a furrow in the ground, and planted the teeth, destined to
produce a crop of men. Scarce had he done so when the clods began to move,
and the points of spears to appear above the surface. Next helmets with their
nodding plumes came up, and next the shoulders and breasts and limbs of men
with weapons, and in time a harvest of armed warriors. Cadmus alarmed
prepared to encounter a new enemy, but one of them said to him, "Meddle not
with our civil war." With that he who had spoken smote one of his earth-born
brothers with a sword, and he himself fell pierced with an arrow from another.
The latter fell victim to a fourth, and in like manner the whole crowd dealt
with each other till all fell slain with mutual wounds, except five survivors.
One of these cast away his weapons and said, "Brothers, let us live in peace!"
These five joined with Cadmus in building his city, to which they gave the
name of Thebes.

Cadmus obtained in marriage Harmonia, the daughter of Venus. The gods
left Olympus to honor the occasion with their presence, and Vulcan presented
the bride with a necklace of surpassing brilliancy, his own workmanship. But
a fatality hung over the family of Cadmus in consequence of his killing the
serpent sacred to Mars. Semele and Ino, his daughters, and Actaeon and
Pentheus, his grandchildren, all perished unhappily, and Cadmus and Harmonia
quitted Thebes, now grown odious to them, and emigrated to the country of the
Enchelians, who received them with honor and made Cadmus their king. But the
misfortunes of their children still weighed upon their minds; and one day
Cadmus exclaimed, "If a serpent's life is so dear to the gods, I would I were
myself a serpent." No sooner had he uttered the words than he began to change
his form. Harmonia beheld it and prayed to the gods to let her share his
fate. Both became serpents. They live in the woods, but mindful of their
origin, they neither avoid the presence of man, nor do they ever injure any

There is a tradition that Cadmus introduced into Greece the letters of
the alphabet which were invented by the Phoenicians. This is alluded to by
Byron where addressing the modern Greeks, he says, -

"You have the letters Cadmus gave,
Think you he meant them for a slave?"

Milton, describing the serpent which tempted Eve, is reminded of the
serpents of the classical stories and says, -

" - pleasing was his shape,
And lovely: never since of serpent kind
Lovelier; not those that in Illyria changed
Hermione and Cadmus, nor the god
In Epidaurus."

For an explanation of the last allusion, see Epidaurus.

The Myrmidons.

The Myrmidons were the soldiers of Achilles, in the Trojan war. From
them all zealous and unscrupulous followers of a political chief are called by
that name, down to this day. But the origin of the Myrmidons would not give
one the idea of a fierce and bloody race, but rather of a laborious and
peaceful one.

Cephalus, king of Athens, arrived in the island of Aegina to seek
assistance of his old friend and ally Aeacus, the king, in his war with Minos,
king of Crete. Cephalus was most kindly received, and the desired assistance
readily promised. "I have people enough," said Aeacus, "to protect myself and
spare you such a force as you need." "I rejoice to see it," replied Cephalus,
"and my wonder has been raised, I confess, to find such a host of youths as I
see around me, all apparently of about the same age. Yet there are many
individuals whom I previously knew, that I look for now in vain. What has
become of them?" Aeacus groaned, and replied with a voice of sadness, "I have
been intending to tell you, and will now do so, without more delay, that you
may see how from the saddest beginning a happy result sometimes flows. Those
whom you formerly knew are now dust and ashes! A plague sent by angry Juno
devastated the land She hated it because it bore the name of one of her
husband's female favorites. While the disease appeared to spring from natural
causes we resisted it as we best might, by natural remedies; but it soon
appeared that the pestilence was too powerful for our efforts, and we yielded.
At the beginning the sky seemed to settle down upon the earth, and thick
clouds shut in the heated air. For four months together a deadly south wind
prevailed. The disorder affected the wells and springs; thousands of snakes
crept over the land and shed their poison in the fountains. The force of the
disease was first spent on the lower animals, dogs, cattle, sheep, and birds.
The luckless ploughman wondered to see his oxen fall in the midst of their
work, and lie helpless in the unfinished furrow. The wool fell from the
bleating sheep, and their bodies pined away. The horse once foremost in the
race contested the palm no more, but groaned at his stall and died an
inglorious death. The wild boar forgot his rage, the stag his swiftness, the
bears no longer attacked the herds. Every thing languished; dead bodies lay
in the roads, the fields, and the woods; the air was poisoned by them. I tell
you what is hardly credible, but neither dogs nor birds would touch them, nor
starving wolves. Their decay spread the infection. Next the disease attacked
the country people, and then the dwellers in the city. At first the cheek was
flushed, and the breath drawn with difficulty. The tongue grew rough and
swelled, and the dry mouth stood open with its veins enlarged and gasped for
the air. Men could not bear the heat of their clothes or their beds, but
preferred to lie on the bare ground; and the ground did not cool them, but on
the contrary, they heated the spot where they lay. Nor could the physicians
help, for the disease attacked them also, and the contact of the sick gave
them infection, so that the most faithful were the first victims. At last all
hope of relief vanished, and men learned to look upon death as the only
deliverer from disease. Then they gave way to every inclination, and cared
not to ask what was expedient, for nothing was expedient. All restraint laid
aside, they crowded around the wells and fountains and drank till they died,
without quenching thirst. Many had not strength to get away from the water,
but died in the midst of the stream, and others would drink of it
notwithstanding. Such was their weariness of their sick beds that some would
creep forth, and if not strong enough to stand, would die on the ground. They
seemed to hate their friends, and got away from their homes, as if, not
knowing the cause of their sickness, they charged it on the place of their
abode. Some were seen tottering along the road, as long as they could stand,
while others sank on the earth, and turned their dying eyes around to take a
last look, then closed them in death.

"What heart had I left me, during all this, or what ought I to have had,
except to hate life and wish to be with my dead subjects? On all sides lay my
people strewn like over-ripened apples beneath the tree, or acorns under the
storm-shaken oak. You see yonder a temple on the height. It is sacred to
Jupiter. O, how many offered prayers there, husbands for wives, fathers for
sons, and died in the very act of supplication! How often, while the priest
made ready for sacrifice, the victim fell, struck down by disease without
waiting for the blow At length all reverence for sacred things was lost.
Bodies were thrown out unburied, wood was wanting for funeral piles, men
fought with one another for the possession of them. Finally there were none
left to mourn; sons and husbands, old men and youths, perished alike

"Standing before the altar I raised my eyes to heaven. 'O Jupiter,' I
said, 'if thou art indeed my father, and art not ashamed of thy offspring,
give me back my people, or take me also away!' At these words a clap of
thunder was heard. 'I accept the omen,' I cried; 'O, may it be a sign of a
favorable disposition towards me!' By chance there grew by the place where I
stood an oak with wide-spreading branches, sacred to Jupiter. I observed a
troop of ants busy with their labor, carrying minute grains in their mouths
and following one another in a line up the trunk of the tree. Observing their
numbers with admiration I said, 'Give me, O father, citizens as numerous as
these, and replenish my empty city.' The tree shook and gave a rustling sound
with its branches though no wind agitated them. I trembled in every limb, yet
I kissed the earth and the tree. I would not confess to myself that I hoped,
yet I did hope. Night came on and sleep took possession of my frame oppressed
with cares. The tree stood before me in my dreams, with its numerous branches
all covered with living, moving creatures. It seemed to shake its limbs and
throw down over the ground a multitude of those industrious grain-gathering
animals, which appeared to gain in size, and grow larger and larger, and
by-and-by to stand erect, lay aside their superfluous legs and their black
color, and finally to assume the human form. Then I awoke, and my first
impulse was to chide the gods who had robbed me of a sweet vision and given me
no reality in its place. Being still in the temple my attention was caught by
the sound of many voices without; a sound of late unusual to my ears. While I
began to think I was yet dreaming, Telamon, my son, throwing open the
temple-gates, exclaimed, 'Father, approach, and behold things surpassing even
your hopes!' I went forth, I saw a multitude of men, such as I had seen in my
dream, and they were passing in procession in the same manner. While I gazed
with wonder and delight they approached, and kneeling hailed me as their king.
I paid my vows to Jove, and proceeded to allot the vacant city to the new-born
race, and to parcel out the fields among them. I called them Myrmidons from
the ant, (myrmex,) from which they sprang. You have seen these persons; their
dispositions resemble those which they had in their former shape. They are a
diligent and industrious race, eager to gain, and tenacious of their gains.
Among them you may recruit your forces. They will follow you to the war,
young in years and bold in heart."

This description of the plague is copied by Ovid from the account which
Thucydides, the Greek historian, gives of the plague of Athens. The historian
drew from life, and all the poets and writers of fiction since his day, when
they have had occasion to describe a similar scene, have borrowed their
details from him.