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Painful Truth: Words from dragon’s teeth

Myth made a hero out of the bringers of the alphabet
The Delphi is an ancient sanctuary in southern Greece. (Richard Okrent)

There is a painting called Cadmus Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth by the 20th century painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish. It depicts a young man with an improbable whirl of cloth flying around him as he casts sharp teeth from a bowl into the field.

It’s a reference to the most famous story in the life of Cadmus, a hero of Greek mythology. Cadmus killed a giant serpent and sowed its teeth like seeds. They sprouted into armed men who warred with one another until only a handful were left; the survivors helped Cadmus found the city of Thebes.

The other thing the ancient Greeks remembered him for was for giving them the written word, and that part of the myth is true, or it has a grain of truth in it.

In the myth Cadmus is a prince of Phoenicia, a cluster of city states more or less where Lebanon is today. A culture of sailors and merchants, the Phoenicians brought their alphabet to Greece, where it became the basis of the ancient Greek alphabet, which was in turn borrowed by the Romans, evolving into the letters and words you’re reading right now.

Of course, the transmission of language didn’t take place exactly the way the myth depicts. Cadmus was supposedly searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by the god Zeus (a serious risk back in ancient mythic Greece) and got waylaid into the usual series of adventures, including one involving a magic cow.

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In real life, we don’t know much about who first passed along the alphabet, the first link in that chain from Phoenicia to Greece to Rome to us.

Most likely it was a merchant, or maybe a merchant’s scribe. Around about 800 BCE, a ship would have drawn in its oars and reefed its sails in a little cove in Greece, and the locals would have come down to trade.

Perhaps some of those locals would have heard stories from their great-grandparents about knowledge that was transmitted via scratches on stone or clay or vellum. They might have even seen such symbols – the original Greek alphabet, now known as Linear B – on some ancient building. But they were now unreadable.

The Greeks had lost their original written record during a dark age, sparked by a catastrophe that engulfed much of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1100s BCE. For more than 200 years, there was no written word in Greece.

So when these strangers arrived with a way to freeze knowledge, carry it around, preserve it outside the life and memory of a person, that must have been pretty impressive.

The original folks who brought the knowledge may have been adventurous, but they were perfectly ordinary humans, not demi-god monster slayers.

But the memory of those trade encounters was folded into local myth. Because who but a hero could have brought the written word?

From a merchant looking for a decent profit, the bringer of the alphabet evolved into the figure Parrish painted, a serpent-slaying hero sowing dragon’s teeth.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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