Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 10 – Cadmus and the Dragon’s Teeth

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Cadmus Slays the Dragon (1573-1617), oil on canvas, 189 x 248 cm, Museet på Koldinghus (Deposit of the Statens Kunstsamlinger), København, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid concluded Book 2 of his Metamorphoses with the story of the abduction of Europa, up to the point where Jupiter, then a white bull, shot off over the sea with Europa on his back. Book 3 opens where that left off, but with something of a surprise.

The Story

If the reader has been expecting a detailed account of the arrival of Jupiter and Europa on Crete and her rape, they are disappointed. This is all Ovid has to tell us for now:
Now Jupiter had not revealed himself,
nor laid aside the semblance of a bull,
until they stood upon the plains of Crete.

He then uses Europa as a link to her brother Cadmus, who is sent on an unsuccessful mission to find her. Presumably unable to return home to report his failure, he consults the oracle at Delphi as to where he should settle. He is told to follow a cow which he meets in a lonely land, and where it settles, to found a city in Boeotia, in central Greece.

He does this, and kisses the ground in thanks for guidance to the site of his new city. Intending to make a ritual sacrifice to Jupiter, he sends his men off to find a spring to provide water for the purpose. Entering ancient forest, they find a cave with a spring, but it is occupied by a huge and fearsome draconian serpent, which starts killing the men.

Cadmus is puzzled by the delay in their return, so enters the forest to find them. He walks into their bodies, with the serpent towering proudly over them. Cadmus swears to avenge their deaths, and throws a huge rock at the serpent, which is not even grazed by the blow. Cadmus then throws his javelin at the monster, which impales it against the trunk of an old oak. Driving the javelin deeper into its throat, Cadmus kills the serpent.

As Cadmus stares at the dead serpent, a voice utters the prophecy that, one day, he too will be a serpent and will be stared at. Next, Minerva appears:
But lo, the hero’s watchful Deity,
Minerva, from the upper realms of air
appeared before him. She commanded him
to sow the dragon’s teeth in mellowed soil,
from which might spring another race of men.
And he obeyed: and as he plowed the land,
took care to scatter in the furrowed soil
the dragon’s teeth; a seed to raise up man.
‘Tis marvelous but true, when this was done
the clods began to move. A spear-point first
appeared above the furrows, followed next
by helmet-covered heads, nodding their cones;
their shoulders, breasts and arms weighted with spears;
and largely grew the shielded crop of men.—
so is it in the joyful theaters
when the gay curtains, rolling from the floor,
are upward drawn until the scene is shown,—
it seems as if the figures rise to view:
first we behold their faces, then we see
their bodies, and their forms by slow degrees
appear before us on the painted cloth.

The warriors transformed from the serpent’s teeth then fight one another in a miniature civil war, until just five are left, among them Echion. They and Cadmus then proceed to build that city in Boeotia, which became Thebes.

This forms the introduction to Ovid’s account of the Theban cycle.

The Paintings

Ovid’s vivid telling of this action-packed story has inspired several wonderful paintings, which together cover most of the events.

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638), Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (1588), oil on canvas on oak, 148.5 x 195.5 cm, The National Gallery (Presented by the Duke of Northumberland, 1838), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

Cornelis van Haarlem’s Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon from 1588 shows a very dragon-like monster killing and eating two of Cadmus’s men. Look carefully into the distance, though, and you will see the same beast being impaled by Cadmus with his javelin: it thus uses multiplex narrative to show two distinct moments of time in the same image. This technique was quite common before and during the Renaissance.

Francesco Zuccarelli (1702–1788), A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon (1765), oil on canvas, 126.4 x 157.2 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1985), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Francesco Zuccarelli’s A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon (1765) is a faithful depiction of the ancient woodland with its source of water, and Cadmus piercing the serpent’s throat against the trunk of the old oak. The artist spares us any mutilation of the bodies on the ground, and the otherwise glorious landscape is perhaps a little too dominant. When first exhibited, James Barry at least praised it as a landscape, not a narrative painting at all.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Cadmus Slays the Dragon (1573-1617), oil on canvas, 189 x 248 cm, Museet på Koldinghus (Deposit of the Statens Kunstsamlinger), København, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

That cannot be said of Hendrik Goltzius’ Cadmus Slays the Dragon (1573-1617), which is one of the best paintings I have seen of spirited dragon-slaying. While one of its three heads (a slight exaggeration from the text) gets on with eating one of Cadmus’s men, the hero is thrusting his spear deep into the throat of another head. There are some apocryphal arrows embedded in the monster’s body, but the overall account conveys Ovid’s text very effectively.

The last two paintings, showing Minerva and the little civil war between the warriors sprung from the “dragon’s teeth”, are clearly different versions of an identical motif. Given the uncertainty over their dates and painters, I suspect that the first may have been used as a sketch for the second.

Peter Paul Rubens (workshop of), Cadmus Sowing Dragon’s Teeth (1610-90), oil on panel, 27.7 x 43.3 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ workshop is credited with the excellent oil sketch of Cadmus Sowing Dragon’s Teeth between 1610-90. Cadmus stands at the left, Minerva directing him from the air. The warriors are shown in different states, some still emerging from the teeth, others killing one another. Behind Cadmus is the serpent, dead and visibly edentulous.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Cadmus and Minerva (date not known), oil on canvas, 181 × 300 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens’ finished painting of Cadmus and Minerva shows an identical scene, ready for patron or public to see.

For once, we’re spoiled for choice. I think I’d like to see all five hung together in that order, as they do justice to Ovid’s eloquent account.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.