Thursday, April 24, 2008

Near Eastern Elements in the Cadmos Myth

The figure of Cadmos stands out in Greek mythology as one who has a clear Near Eastern heritage; I shall try to bring out some of the Near Eastern elements in the myth.

The Greeks unanimously believed that Cadmos was Phoenician. This claim in itself lends weight to the claim that the myth is perhaps influenced by Near Eastern sources; the Phoenecians were a Semitic people. There are striking parallels between the figure of Cadmos and some Ugaritic deities. The name 'Cadmos' is a virtual copy of the Ugaritic word 'qdm', which means 'East'. 'Qdm' is an epithet for the god Shr, 'Dawn', who was the brother of Slm, 'Dusk'. Cadmos is the brother of Europa, whose name was explained by Hesychius as 'land of darkness or of sunset'. Thus, it would seem on some level that Cadmos/Europa parallel Shr/Slm: both sets of deities are associated with dawn and dusk and, given that one of the epithets of Shr (qdm) was directly appropriated by the Greeks (qdm>Cadmos), it would seem that the Greek myth parallels that of Ugarit.

There are, however, more parallels to be found. There was another god, Ningishzida, who is very similar to Cadmos. He (Ninigshzida) was a serpent god, the personification of sunrise, was the victor in a battle with a dragon, and founded cities and temples. The Cadmos of Greek mythology is almost a direct copy: as we have seen he is associated with sunrise, he fought and killed a serpent, founded Thebes, and was changed into a snake along with his wife. [Anyone who doesn't know the myth of Cadmos should read Ovid's version in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses. It's fantastic]

Other stories associated with the Cadmos myth also have Near Eastern elements. Cadmos' daughter was Semele, mother of Dionysus. In one version of the myth when Dionysus was born he was torn to pieces by the Titans. His heart was saved and given to Semele in the form of a drink; she drinks it and becomes pregnant with Dionysus a second time. However, she is killed by Zeus and Dionysus is taken from Semele and sewn into his thigh. Compare this with the myth of the Ugaritic god Sml. She swallows the remains of the hero Aqht, who was torn to pieces by eagles. The gods Baal and Darel pursue her, Baal breaks her wings and Darel extorts the remains of Aqht from her. There seems to be some parallel here. First the names of the two goddesses are basically identical (Sml>Semele). Moreover, the function of the two goddesses in the myth is also similar (they both swallow the remains of their children, who were torn to bits) and both Dionysus and Aqht were removed from the mother's bodies after they had been killed/injured.

The Acteon myth also shows Near Eastern parallels. Acteon was Cadmos' grandson. He incurred the wrath of Artemis for having boasted that his hunting skills surpassed hers; he was then devoured by his own dogs. Now, the cause of the wrath against Aqht was basically the same: he refused to give the hunting goddess a bow; he deemed it an unsuitable instrument for women. Thus he was devoured by the eagles. In term of mythological function these two characters seem very similar. Moreover, their names are possibly linguistically related. Many Ugaritic names have extended forms with the suffix -n or -yn. It is quite possible, then, that the Greek 'Aktaion' is derived from the name Aqht +suffix -iyyon (*Aqht-iyyon).

To be fair, establishing influence can be a bit shifty. The character Aqht figures in two unrelated myths (Semele and Acteon) in the Greek side, yet they are somewhat connected in the Ugaritic stories. How the two Greek stories were separated from the single Ugaritic I suppose we can't really know; all we really can do is point out the similarities and postulate possible influence.

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