Cadmus the Phoenician
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Cadmus the Phoenician
Taught the Greeks the Phoenician Alphabet and Founded Thebes

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History and Myth

Phoenician founder of Thebes and brother of Europa taught the the Greeks the alphabet, which he had brought from Phoenicia. Cadmus, in search of his abducted sister Europa, settled in Boeotia, which some say he invaded with a Phoenician army, founding in this new land the city of Cadmea, later called Thebes. Cadmus is credited for having combined consonants with vowels, thus teaching the secrets of correct speech. These events took place approximately 00 years before the Trojan War.

Phoenician Alphabet Taught to the Greeks

The classical Greek alphabet, its order of letters, and their form, were borrowed from the Phoenician alphabet; alpha, beta, gamma, delta, are but Grecized sounds of the Phoenician language.[1]

In early times Greek was also written from right to left, like Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew.

Cadmus, the legendary hero who came to Greece from Phoenicia and founded Thebes in Boeotia, is credited with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet to the Greek language; in its Hellenized early form the alphabet is called Cadmeian. As Herodotus tells the story,

"The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus . . . introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters—as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them.[2]"

However, Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, preceded by several generations the Trojan War; on this the Greek tradition is unanimous. Tradition also has it that the Cadmeian alphabet originally consisted of sixteen letters and that four additional characters were introduced later, about the time of the Trojan War.[3]

The Theban cycle of legends deals with the time preceding the Trojan War. Thebes in Boeotia was outside of the Mycenaean dominion. No contingent from Thebes participated with the other Greek cities in the Trojan War for, according to tradition, Thebes as a city had been reduced shortly before the new war started. With the conventional date of the Trojan War in the beginning of the twelfth century, Cadmus needed to be placed in the fourteenth: his dynasty comprised several generations of rulers before the Epigoni conquered and ruined the Boeotian Thebes; some of the Epigoni later participated in the siege of Troy.

This order of events in the semi-historical, semi-legendary Greek past conflicts with the fact that the Cadmeian alphabet has not been found in Greece before about the middle of the eighth century. Furthermore, because of certain characteristics in their form, the earliest Cadmeian letters bear the best resemblance to the Phoenician letters.

Cadmus' Sister, Europa Kidnapped

When his sister, Europa was carried away by Zeus in the form of a bull, he went to the oracle at Delphi to ask about her and was told she was happy and well, and he need not search for her any longer. Instead, he should stay in Greece and found a new kingdom, he was told. A white cow would lead him to a good site for a walled city.

When Cadmus left Delphi, he soon ran into a white cow. He followed her a long way, over hill and mountain, through valleys and across rivers. Finally, the cow lay down on a knoll in the middle of a large plain-the perfect spot for a walled city. Then Cadmus sent one of his men to get water from a nearby spring. While he was gone, Cadmus sacrifice the cow to thank the gods. When the man he sent never returned, he sent two more men to see what had happened. They did not return either and he sent the rest of his men, a few at a time, after the others. Finally, he was left alone and went to see for himself what was keeping his men. When he reached the spring, he saw a dragon guarding the spring. At first, Cadmus was afraid it would eat him too, but the dragon was very sluggish and sleepy after eating so many men and Cadmus slew the dragon easily.

Unfortunately, now Cadmus had no men. He looked to the gods and since he had sacrificed the cow, Athena answered his plea. "Don't worry," said the goddess. "Just plow a field and sow the dragon's teeth in the furrows." Cadmus followed Athena's strange advice and as soon as the teeth were sown, fully grown warriors sprang up. They all ran at Cadmus and again he feared for his life, but again Athena stepped in. "Throw a rock among them!" she told Cadmus. Again, Cadmus did as the goddess said, and at once the warriors fought each other fiercely, accusing their neighbor of being the thrower of the rock. In the end, only five remained living, and those were wounded badly. Cadmus nursed them back to health and they helped Cadmus establish the city of Thebes.

Europa the Lost Phoenician Princess

When the princess Europa disappeared from the coasts of Phoenicia on the back of a bull her father Agenor, son of King Belus of Egypt and Anchinoe, the daughter of the river god Nilus, sent his sons in search of her, telling them not to return until they had found their sister.

However, nothing was ever found resembling the lost princess, except for the name of the land called Europa, which is that part of the inhabited world lying north of the Peloponnesus and beyond, for she, after having being conveyed through the sea by Zeus the bull, was set down by him, quite dry, upon the shore by Mount Dicte in Crete.

The Search

Her brother Phoenix gave up the search for Europa and settled in some part of Phoenicia, which was called after him, and so did Cilix, who became king in Cilicia, which is the southeasternmost coastal region of Asia Minor, and so did Thasus, who also gave up the search and settled in an large island off Thrace, in the northern section of the Aegean Sea, founding a city Thasos. Also other relatives, brothers or perhaps cousins, went away in search of Europa. Cepheus, son of Belus or of Phoenix and father of Andromeda, the wife of Perseus settled in Ethiopia; and Phineus.

When Cadmus of Tyros (Tyre), sailing northwards from Sidon in Phoenicia, put ashore at Calliste, the island north of Crete later called Thera (Santorini), he left on this island a group of settlers under the leadership of Membliarus, son of Poeciles. Calliste came to be called Thera because many generations later Theras, son of Autesion, son of Tisamenus, son of Thersander, son of Polynices, son of Oedipus, son of Laius, son of Labdacus, son of Polydorus, son of Cadmus, came to the island to claim his rights. On Theras' arrival to Calliste the descendants of Membliarus gave up the kingship to him of their own accord, for they considered that Theras' family went back to Cadmus himself. And so Theras, having become king, renamed the island and called it Thera after himself.

Having left Calliste then, Cadmus came, accompanied by his mother Telephassa, to Thrace, which is the region between the Black and Aegean seas, and settled there.

Some have said that Cadmus was taught initiatory rites by Iasion when he, in search of her sister Europa came to Samothrace, the island in the northern Aegean sea, and they suppose that it was here that Cadmus married Harmonia.

Cadmus Consults the Oracle in Delphi

After his mother's death Cadmus came to Delphi to inquire about Europa, but the oracle told him no to worry about his sister and instead, letting himself be guided by a cow, found a city in the place where the animal should stop to rest.

So Cadmus, obeying the oracle, journeyed through Phocis, which is the region bordering the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, and having met a cow, followed it behind until it fell down for weariness in that same spot in Boeotia where Cadmus founded the city of Cadmea, later called Thebes.

Kills the Dragon of Ares

When the place for the new city was, through such an amazing method, determined, Cadmus decided to sacrifice the cow to the goddess Athena, and with that purpose in mind he sent some of his men to draw water from the spring later called Dirce (some have said Castalia), belonging to Ares, which happened to be guarded by a dragon said to be the offspring of the god or sacred to him. This dragon, which had a golden crest, flashed fire from his eyes, had a triple tongue, teeth ranged in triple row and the body swollen with poison, devoured Cadmus' companions. But when he discovered that the beast was the reason why those who were sent after water never returned, he confronted it and killed it, sowing, by the advice of Athena, its teeth in the earth. But Cadmus, because of having slaughtered Ares' darling dragon, had to atone for it, being forced to serve the god for what was called an eternal year, which is equivalent to eight regular years.

Soon after he had sown the teeth there rose from the ground armed men who are called Sparti, brawling for nothing and killing each other, some say because of provocations staged by Cadmus himself, who flung stones at them inducing them to believe that they were being pelted by each other. Some of them, however, survived the massacre they had themselves produced, and it is said that in Cadmus' time the greatest power, next after his, was in the hands of the Sparti, who also helped him to build the new city.

Cadmus Takes a Bride and a Kingdom

After having paid this penalty Cadmus, with Athena's help, became king, receiving Harmonia, daughter of Ares & Aphrodite, as wife from Zeus. She received, as a wedding present, a couple of interesting items, known as the Robe & Necklace of Harmonia, which provoked, through the ambitions, betrayals and other nonsensical behaviours of many men and women, a number of murders, wars and other tragedies including the utter ruin of the city that Cadmus founded, and that of those who possessed them.

Cadmus was one of the greatest men of his time, and that is why his wedding was magnificent, many gods and goddesses attending, besides the parents of the bride. And in his wedding day, they say, Cadmus attained the highest honour and prosperity a mortal man can receive, for he, like later Achilles' father Peleus, was able to hear the MUSES sing.

Cadmus and Harmonia received a number of gifts from the gods: a jewelset throne from Hera, a lyre or perhaps a sceptre from Hermes, a crown from Hephaestus, a spear from Ares, the Robe & Necklace from Athena or perhaps Aphrodite or Hephaestus or even Europa, and sacred rites of the mother of the gods (Rhea) along with cymbals and kettledrums from Electra the Pleiad, who is said to have nursed Harmonia.

And being so closely acquainted with the gods Cadmus also taught some of their mysteries to men. For some have believed that the excellent soothsayer who understood the language of birds and worms named Melampus, son of Amythaon, son of Cretheus, son of Aeolus, taught the name of Dionysus and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession to all Greeks, having learned all these things, along with the prophetic art, from Cadmus.

But there are those who deny this, saying that Cadmus' daughter Semele was violated in Egyptian Thebes, where Cadmus lived, and that Cadmus, in order to avert slander from his outraged daughter, said that her son was the son of Zeus, and not, as he really was, the son of an unknown rapist. And they add that, as this son was then identified with Osiris, the Egyptian god, many generations later Orpheus found it convenient to say that Osiris was Dionysus, thus instituting new rites for the son of Zeus & Semele. They also say that mankind forgets its own achievements because of various kinds of catastrophes, as for example the Flood, and that consequently Cadmus cannot be considered to be the first to bring the letters to Greece, for the alphabet had existed before and had been forgotten.

And then again the Laconians used to say that Semele, after giving birth to Dionysus by Zeus, was discovered by Cadmus, who put her together with her child into a chest, which was washed up by the waves in Laconia. They said that Semele was already dead when they were found, but little Dionysus they brought up.

Some have said that Zeus gave Harmonia to Cadmus in recompense for having helped him to restore the harmony of the world, destroyed by Typhon's attack on heaven. For Pan, following Zeus' instructions, gave Cadmus a flute and disguised him as a shepherd, and Zeus asked Cadmus to bewitch Typhon's wits with a delusive tune. So when Cadmus tuned up, Typhon, attracted by the deceitful notes of the syrinx, appeared and Cadmus, through a stratagem, convinced him to bring the sinews of Zeus which Typhon had in his power, thus leading him to his doom. And when Zeus recovered his power, they say, he also informed Cadmus of his sister's fate.

However, the land where Cadmus founded his city was not empty when he arrived, for there a couple of nations, the Hyanteans and the Aonians, occupied Boeotia. Before them, it is said, the Ectenes, ruled by King Ogygus, lived in Boeotia, until they were decimated by pestilence and perished. Ogygus had two daughters, Aulis and Alalcomenia, after whom the Boeotian cities are called, and some say that Eleusinus, after whom the city of Eleusis in Attica is called, was his son. But according to others Eleusinus is the son of Hermes and Daira.

Now, on his arrival Cadmus, with the help of his Phoenician army, defeated both Hyanteans and Aonians, expelling the former nation and assimilating the latter, and some say that he also defeated the Temmicans, who were early inhabitants of Boeotia as well.

The Building of Thebes

The new city that Cadmus founded had, they say, many streets measured at right angles and was embellished with Phoenician art. It has been told that Cadmus planned the future seven gates of Thebes, said to correspond to the seven zones of heaven, but they were not built until the times of King Amphion.

The gates of Thebes were dedicated to the following celestial bodies: the first to the Moon, the second to Hermes (Mercury), the third to Aphrodite (Venus), the fourth, for being in the middle of the planets, to Helius (Sun), the fifth to Ares (Mars), the sixth to Zeus (Jupiter), and the seventh to Cronos (Saturn). For Cadmus considered the sun to be in the middle, whereas a couple of millennia after him some thought that not the sun but the earth was in the middle, and yet others coming after them thought again, as Cadmus did, that the sun is in the middle.

Some say that the city was called Cadmea after Cadmus, and that only afterwards, during the reign of Amphion, was called Thebes after Thebe, the wife of Amphion's brother Zethus. But others say that Cadmus himself called the city Thebes after Egyptian Thebes, which was founded by his father.

Cadmus ruled as a great king and the gods favoured him.


  1. Aleph means ox in Phoenician; beth means house etc. The corresponding letter names have no meaning in Greek.
  2. Herodotus, The Histories V. 58 (transl. by A. de Selincourt, 1954).
  3. [There were three traditions, each of which placed him at a different period -- three, six or nine generations before the Trojan War. See R. B. Edwards, Kadmos, the Phoenician (Amsterdam, 1979), pp. 165f. -- EMS]

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