In Greek mythology, Cadmus was a son of Agenor, himself a son of Poseidon. Agenor also had two other sons, Phoenix and Cilix, and a daughter, Europa. Horny old Zeus had the hots for Europa and disguised himself as a beautiful white bull; he met Europa at the seashore and, feigning tameness, coaxed her onto his back, whereupon he swam away across the sea to Crete. Europa bore Zeus three sons, and received from him three gifts: a bronze man who guarded her; a dog which could catch any quarry, and a javelin which never missed its mark. Later she married the king of Crete, after Zeus' eye wandered, I guess. But I digress...

Agenor was pretty pissed off that his daughter had been abducted - for that's what it was, Zeus or no - and sent his three sons off to find her, prohibiting them from returning until she was found. Well, it was a hopeless quest, and they were basically exiles from their home; Phoenix founded Phoenicia, Cilix Cilicia, and Cadmus Thebes. (Why not Cadmia? I don't know.) He didn't just found it, though; he consulted the oracle at Delphi and received a typically gnomic utterance, the gist of which was that he should follow a cow that he would soon see, and where it lay down, he should found a city. So he and his men followed a cow until it lay down, and when it did, he ordered his men to bring water so that he could offer a sacrifice to Athena, as I suppose was the custom, but unfortunately they encountered a dragon or serpent which was sacred to Ares, and were all killed. Cadmus went looking for his comrades and found them slain; he engaged in a fearful battle of his own, eventually slaying the serpent. He then heard a mysterious prophesy that he himself would one day become a serpent.

No doubt he was disturbed by this news, but he had other matters to attend to first, like that city he was supposed to found, but with no manpower now, all his men being dead. Athena, perhaps feeling a little guilty over having been the cause of all this slaughter, advised Cadmus to sow the serpent's teeth in the earth, which he did, and armed men sprang up from the planted teeth. Unfortunately they were a quarrelsome lot, and immediately fell to fighting; in the end only five remained, and these became the ancestors of the aristocratic families of Thebes. Poor Cadmus, though, had to spend eight years in servitude to Ares because he'd killed his precious serpent. Vengeful lot, those Greek gods.

After his indenture was up, he got to be ruler of Thebes and married Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite; they had four daughters and a son. When Cadmus and Harmonia grew old they moved to Illyria, where they were transformed into serpents, just as the voice had foretold so long before.

Besides his adventures with serpents and gods, Cadmus introduced into Greece the sixteen simple Cadmean letters of the Greek alphabet.

Thanks to the Encyclopedia Mythica (


A hero in the Theban cycle whose legend, like that of Heracles, spread throughout most of the world of the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Illyria and Libya in Africa. He was the son of Agenor and Telephassa or, as another tradition maintains, of Argiope (Table 3); he was the brother of Cilix, Phoenix and Europa, though sometimes Phoenix is said to have been the father of Cadmus and Europa. A Boeotian tradition, which is later than the preceding ones, claims that Cadmus was the son of the Theban autochthon Ogygus.

After Europa was abducted, Agenor sent his sons to find her, ordering them not to reappear without her. Their mother, Telephassa, accompanied them and they left the country of Tyre which was ruled over by Agenor. The young men soon realized that their quest was a vain one, however, and while the brothers settled in various countries, Cadmus and Telephassa went to Thrace, where they were kindly received by the inhabitants. When his mother died Cadmus went to consult the Delphic oracle which told him to give up his search for Europa and to found a town; in order to choose its site he would have to follow a cow until it collapsed with fatigue. Cadmus set out to obey the oracle, and as he was crossing Phocis he saw a cow among the herds belonging to Pelagon, the son of Amphidamas, bearing on each flank the sign of the moon, that is, a white circle, which recalled the full moon. He followed the cow, and it led him across Boeotia; finally it stopped at the place which later became Thebes.

Cadmus at that moment saw that the oracle had been fulfilled and he wanted to offer the cow as a sacrifice to Athena. He sent some of his companions to look for water from a nearby spring, called the Spring of Ares, but a dragon, which in some accounts is said to be a descendant of Ares himself, was guarding the spring and killed most of the men sent by Cadmus. The latter came to the rescue of his companions and killed the dragon. Athena then appeared and advised him to sow its teeth. Cadmus did so, and at once, armed men sprang out of the ground; these became known as the Spartoi. The miraculous men were menacing and Cadmus had the idea of throwing stones into their midst; the Spartoi, who did not know who was throwing the stones, first accused and then slaughtered each other. Only five survived, namely Echion (who subsequently married Agave, one of Cadmus's daughters), Oudaeus, Chthonius, Hyperenor and Pelorus.

The killing of the dragon had still to be atoned for by Cadmus as he served as Ares's slave for eight years, but when his sentence ended he became king of Thebes, through the protection of Athena, and Zeus gave him as a wife the goddess Harmonia, a daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Their wedding was celebrated with great banquets in which all of the gods took part and where the Muses sang. The gods came down from heaven and made their way to the Cadmea, the citadel of Thebes, bearing presents with them: the principal gifts, a wonderful robe, woven by the Graces, and a golden necklace, fashioned by Hephaestus the smith-god, were for Harmonia. According to some accounts, this necklace was given to Cadmus by the god himself, but others say that it was a present from Europa to her brother and Europa herself had been given it by Zeus. The same necklace and robe would later play a large part in the episode of the expedition of the Seven against Thebes (see AMPHIARAUS). Cadmus had several children by Harmonia: four daughters, Autonoe, Ino (who took the name of Leucothea after her deification), Agave and Semele, and one son, Polydorus.

Towards the end of their lives Cadmus and Harmonia left Thebes under mysterious circumstances, leaving the throne to their grandson Pentheus, the son of Agave and Echion. They went to Illyria, to live among the Encheleans who had been attacked by the Illyrians. The Encheleans had been promised victory by an oracle if Cadmus and Harmonia would lead them and as this condition was fulfilled, they were indeed victorious. Cadmus then ruled over the Illyrians and he had another son, name Illyrius. But later Cadmus and Harmonia were turned into serpents and reached the Elysian Fields. Their tomb was to be seen in Illyria.

A legend recorded by Nonnus of Panopolis, which may be no more than an invention of a late poet, tells how Cadmus followed the tracks of the bull which had carried off Europa and was enlisted by Zeus in the expedition against the Giant Typhon. He put on the clothing of a shepherd, which had been given to him by his companion, the god Pan, and after Typhon removed the sinews of Zeus, Cadmus bewitched him by playing the lyre and retrieved zeus' sinews on the pretext of making some strings for his lyre out of them. Cadmus returned them to Zeus, thus enabling him to win the struggle. Cadmus in return received Harmonia as a wife. It was commonly said at Thera, Rhodes, Samothrace, Crete and many other places that Cadmus founded these cities during his search for Europa.


Table of Sources
- Hesiod, Theog. 935ff.
- Hom. Od. 5, 333ff.
- schol. on Hom. Il. 2, 494
- Hdt. 4, 147
- Diod. Sic. 4, 2, 1ff.; 5, 47ff.; 5, 59, 2ff.
- Theognis 15ff.
- Hyg. Fab. 6; 178f
- Pind. Pyth. 3, 86ff. (152ff.); Ol. 2, 22ff. (38ff.)
- Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4, 516ff.
- schol. on Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 3, 1186
- Euripides, Phoen. 930ff.; 822ff.; Bacch. 1330ff.
- schol. on Euripides, Phoen. 638
- schol. on Aeschylus, Sept. 469; 486
- Apollod. Bibl. 3, 1, 1; 3, 4, 1; 3, 5, 2; 3, 5, 4ff.
- Ovid, Met. 3, 6ff.; 4, 563ff.
- Paus. 3, 1, 8; 3, 15, 8; 3, 24, 3; 4, 7, 8; 7, 2, 5; 9, 5, 1ff.; 9, 10, 1; 9, 12, 1ff.; 9, 16, 3ff.; 9, 26, 3f; 10, 17, 4; 10, 35, 5
- Strabo 1, 2, 39, p. 46; 7, 7, 8, p. 326
- Athenaeus 11, 426b
- Tzetzes, Chil. 4, 393ff.
- Nonnus, Dion. 1, 140ff.; 350ff.; etc.
- Steph. Byz. s.v. Βουφοη.

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