Research Ventures #2 – Cadmus, Melampus, and Dionysus


As I may have said before, I am venturing out a little in my research by getting outside of the text and looking at different types of sources rather than mere literary analysis.

I have been looking at Herodotus Book 2, which is the book about Egypt and its various customs and quirks. Herodotus has a lot of interesting, though often contradictory, information to provide about Egyptian religious customs, so I have been looking at that and chasing down other literary sources as well as some archaeological sources. I have no real thesis yet for a paper, but I have been gathering a lot of information. There are a LOT of rabbit trails to pursue if you really want to get lost in this subject.

The characters of Cadmus and Melampus have particularly caught my attention, as they appear in Herodotus. Herodotus attributes the Greek alphabet to Cadmus, who was of Phoenician origin and brought the Phoenician letters to the Greeks. I have discovered that there at least used to be very bitter debates about whether the alphabet actually  came from the Phoenicians and by extension the Canaanites (or perhaps even the Israelites). Before World War 2, much of this debate was spurred on by anti-Semitism, which is far less of a problem now than it once was. Many scholars now believe that Herodotus was right to identify the alphabet as being of Phoenicia origin, because the evidence for it is fairly compelling (see Martin Bernal, Cadmean Letters, 1990). The fascinating part about that is that  Herodotus attributes it to a mythological figure named Cadmus.

According to legend, Cadmus was the founder of Thebes who arrived in Greece because he was searching for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Upon arriving in Greece, Cadmus founded Thebes and wed Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Their daughter was named Semele, and Semele was the mother of Dionysus. The most common version of the story is that Zeus was the father of Dionysus by Semele.

Melampus shows up not too long after Herodotus mentions Cadmus, and Herodotus reports that Melampus was the one who established the worship of Dionysus in Greece, which he had learned while he was in Egypt. Herodotus also reports that Melampus learned it “para Kadmou te tou Turiou kai ton sun auto ek Phoinekes…” Hdt. 2.49.3. “Melampus learned it from Cadmus of Tyre, and from those who came from Phoenicia into the land now called Boeotia.”

In the mythology, Melampus was a healer with the ability to understand animals. There is one story from Herodotus Book 9 about how Melampus had cured some Argive women whom Dionysus drove mad because they refused to take part in his orgies.


If you have paid close attention to this, you might have realized that there appears to be a chronological discrepancy, or at least, some vital piece of information appears to be excluded. It is plausible that he could have learned it from the Phoenicians who apparently settled in Boeotia, which is in northwestern Greece. These people could have been several generations removed from Cadmus and Harmony, and remembered the origins of Dionysus from generations earlier. But why does Herodotus say Melampus learned it from Cadmus? If Herodotus believes the myth about Cadmus and Harmony, and Semele, then the chronology of this seems dubious. Cadmus would have to be a very old man, especially giving Dionysus time to grow up and for his religious cults to grow into their mature form. The other question is this: Melampus apparently brought worship of Dionysus from Egypt into Greece though he learned of it from the Egyptians; Herodotus does mention that the Egyptians had learned of Dionysus though for them he had a different name. Herodotus does not explain much further.

This is an irritating problem to have, since there is no clear chronology to make sense of how the two characters relate. Herodotus, unfortunately, is not always very accurate about this sort of thing. The connection between these two relatively obscure mythological figures is interesting, though. Both are connected to the god Dionysus, though they have different origins.

What about Dionysus’ real origins as a deity? Well, as far as I can tell, the word is actually derived from Linear B, di-wo-nu-so, which means “son of Zeus.” di-wo” means “Zeus,” and is a precursor to the Greek genitive form of Zeus’ name, which is “Dios.” This suggests that he existed in Minoan culture:

Further corroboration of the Minion connection is that Dionysus in several places is connected with bull imagery (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985, pp. 64, 132), which is one of the prominent motifs in Minoan art, as seen on the right. Perhaps the Greeks adopted the deity from the Minoans, and kept some of this bull imagery in some places, specifically Kyzikos, which is in Anatolia, so it is fairly far removed from our immediate area, though it is still a significant piece of information to keep in mind.MinoanBull

Dionysus could have actually come from early Greek or Minoan sources, or perhaps even Luvian sources earlier than that, depending on how far one would like to speculate. I have my own argument about how some of that cultural cross-contact could have happened, which is too long to detail here.

This suggests a Greek origin for Dionysus circa 1200 BC or before. Again, the argumentation for this is fairly complex, but the Greek of Linear B and some other surrounding factors in the ancient Aegean in the Middle to Late Minoan period point to a Greek invasion of Crete, and perhaps Greek introduction of an early form of Dionysus there. I am not sure enough yet to be able to settle this for myself, since I am still trying to find evidence, but these are my thoughts so far.

The question then becomes,  how Dionysus become so intimately connected with Cadmus and Melampus? Where did these characters come from? What can we learn about them from archaeology and other literary sources? More on that to come later.


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