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Greater Phoenicia

4. Cadmus

Cadmus is said in Greek mythology to have taught the alphabet to the Greeks.  The myth states that he was a Phoenician who founded Thebes in the region of Boeotia in central Greece, not far from Athens.   He was the brother of Europa and is said to have come to Greece to search for his abducted sister.  One form of the legend states that he invaded with his army, and the city which he founded was called ‘Cadmea’ after Cadmus, and it was later called ‘Thebes’, with ‘Cadmea’ remaining an alternative name.  Cadmus is said to have combined the consonants of the Phoenician alphabet with vowels, as we find in the Greek alphabet, thus permitting the correct use of the alphabet to represent the language.  The date of these events is placed about many years before the Trojan War, whose historical date is in the 12th century BC.  The Greek tradition places Cadmus several generations before the Trojan War.   Traditionally, it is said that the alphabet of Cadmus originally had sixteen letters and that later, at the time of the Trojan War, four further characters were introduced.


The order of the letters and their form in the Greek alphabet are borrowed directly from the Phoenician alphabet, and indeed the names alpha, beta, gamma and delta are Greek forms of Phoenician words aleph, beth/bait, gimel/gamel and daleth/dal.  In its earliest form, Greek was written right to left, a direction derived from Phoenician and shared with Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic.   The story of Cadmus introducing the alphabet is related by the Greek historian Herodotos of Halicarnassus (c.484– c.425 BC) in his Histories Bk V, Ch. 58), who says that in the earliest form the Greeks call the alphabet ‘Phoenician’.


The period preceding the Trojan War is related in the legends in the Theban cycle.  Situated in Boeotia, Thebes was outside the area dominated by the Greeks.  Because Thebes had been reduced just before the Trojan War commenced, it was not in a position to send a contingent, and thus Thebes is not recorded to have taken part along with the other Greek cities.  With the traditional date of the Trojan War being at the beginning of the 12th century BC, Cadmus should be placed in the 14th century and there were several rulers of his dynasty before the conquest and destruction of Thebes by the Epigoni, the Greek heroes who fought and were killed in the Theban war.  Some of the Epigoni participated in the Trojan War.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Cadmus the Phoenician


The mythological date of the story may reflect contact between the region of Phoenicia and Thebes in the Mycenaean Period (c.1600 – c.1100 BC).  Indeed, Near Eastern cylinder seals have been found at Thebes, which proves direct contact with the Middle East, and the Mycenaean syllabary for Greek, called Linear B, was used extensively at Thebes, and such writing was inspired by the scripts of the Middle East, as a result of contact with the region.  Source: Nicholas Hardwick


Although we cannot be certain whether someone called Cadmus actually lived, such mythological stories often reflect an actual basis of fact, and in this case, it reflects the actual fact that the Phoenicians brought the alphabet to the Greek world in remote antiquity and that it was borrowed by the Greeks.  The Phoenician traders, who brought the alphabet, would very likely have been significant figures in Greek states, as Cadmus is portrayed to have been.  Furthermore, the earliest written form of the Greek alphabet in the 8th century BC has a system of vowels, which shows that the story of the addition of vowels at the time of the borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks has a foundation of truth.  His Phoenician sister Europa gave her name first to the area of Greece around Thebes, but the name has since been attributed to the whole of modern day Europe.   Source: Nicholas Hardwick