As the story goes there once was a Greek prince named Cadmus. Effectively banished from his homeland by his father (in the marvelous logic only reasonable in ancient mythology) Cadmus took to exploring the world.
Which lead him to the sacred cow.
The oracle at Delphi instructed him to follow it. Athena was pleased when he sacrificed it to her. And the city he built upon it’s final resting place, Thebes, has captivated archaeologists and philosophers for centuries since.
Thus far everything seemed to be going well. And yet there was one little ripple along the way… The serpent that guarded the water of the sacred spring of Ares near the site of the future city of Thebes.
When Cadmus’ friends did not return with the water from the spring for the cow’s sacrifice, Cadmus soon discovered the slithering reason. In vengeance he destroyed the god of war’s Ismenian Dragon.
And in so doing built Thebes and gained the respect of Athena (for sacrificing the cow).
And in so doing earned the retribution of Ares.
That retribution took the form of eight years of penance enforced by the wrathful god of war. After the time of Cadmus’ápunishment was up, however, Ares (againáin the sublime logic of Greek Mythology) gave him the goddess Harmonia to wife.
Now on their wedding day Harmonia was given a present by (of all the entities) Athena: a certain cursed necklace which brought misfortune to any who possessed it. And so, even in reward, Cadmus’ life was plagued by disaster.
In addition to everything else, notwithstanding the forgiveness of Ares for slaying the serpent, the charms of the Ismenian Dragon were apparently so strong that fate continued still to attack Cadmus for its demise.
Cadmus was ultimately driven to abdicating his rule and leaving Thebes. In a fit of rage he remarked that if the death of the Ismenian Dragon was so important to the gods, Cadmus himself might as well take its place.
And so his skin suddenly covered with scales, and he changed into the form of an immortal snake. Harmonia pleaded with the gods to share her husbands’ fate and was also changed into a serpent.
Despite their punishment Zeus took pity on Cadmus and Harmonia and transported their charmed forms to the Elysian Fields, the resting place of the virtuous, to at least give them honor in their eternal curse.
And thus literature has given us a most compelling phrase, the “Cadmean Victory,” which is to say a victory that— though at first a triumph— ultimately leads to the victor’s own ruin.
Both the phrase as well as the story are largely forgotten today, which is understandable due to the obscurity of the original tale. Notwithstanding that obscurity, however, there are some surprisingly relevant concepts to be taken from the story.
The Ismenian Dragon is a most interesting idea. For Cadmus, it was at first the embodiment of evil— the murderer of his compatriots, a block in the way of constructing Thebes. And yet after it’s demise he was punished as though he had murdered a saint. Indeed, the definition of a “Cadmean victory” relies almost exclusively on the nature of the Ismenian Dragon.
This same nature is what gives the Ismenian Dragon poignancy to our present day, for it can easily become a symbol. A concept applicable to a wide range of situations.
So how would one apply this concept? And to what? To whom?
Perhaps one of the purest embodiments of an Ismenian Dragon is murder. Murder is a victory— yes, unpleasant enough to say, but wholly true— in which the perpetrator has successfully forced their physical dominance over another person.
But the success of killing has it’s costs. No matter how sure the murderer may be they will elude capture, they are almost always caught. Life imprisonment, or death usually is the result… Far from the (arguably) honorable ruin of Cadmus!
Murder is but one very pure— and very extreme— example. The principle can continue to many other specific applications as well. The businessman suddenly faced with the opportunity to take credit for another’s work— and in so doing gain reputation, advancement, even tangible money— could clearly be facing a hidden, Ismenian Dragon.
Of course, there is always the possibility of ‘getting away with’ the crime. Murderers do occasionally go free; embezzlers and plagiarizers do sometimes make good. In a peculiar sense, then, the Ismenian Dragon can only ultimately be defined by looking back in retrospect. And hence comes the uncertainty: only by retrospection can you realize if, where, and when you met your proverbial serpent in the spring.
In mystery literature and film— especially in the noir genre— Ismenian Dragons are often what drive the movement of the plot. We are customarily given fallen heroins or broken heroes who are led through a set of circumstances to a lurking Ismenian Dragon-choice, or who are driven by the consequences of a prior Cadmean victory. In fact the Noir genre customarily uses the repercussions of past Cadmean victories to drive characters developments and actions: the ‘good man’ with a ‘bad past.’
Ismenian Dragons are often used to develop and built suspense and plot movement as well. An example is easily seen in the film The Devil Wears Prada, in which Anne Hathaway’s character is ultimately presented with an Ismenian Dragon in the choice of furthering her career at the clearly hinted cost of losing the fullness of her personal life. In the end, most of the drama and suspense in the entire film comes from the build-up and her reactions to the clear Cadmean quailty of accepting the advancement.
And in addition to this the speculative nature of the Ismenian Dragon is also always present: had Andy accepted Miranda Priestly’s offer of advancement there is no guarantee that Andy’s life would have suffered. Just as there’s no tangible proof that the capture of the murderer in Vera Caspary’s 1942 novel Lauraáwas due to any ill fate more significant than the villain’s own hubris and cocksure risk taking.
The Ismenian Dragon can be both a very effective, and often dark, mechanism for drama, then. Rife with contradictions, opportunity for speculation, and avenues for exploitation. When you know what to look for, it seems that often the full power of a story is only unleashed when a pivotal character makes their choice at their proverbial spring of Ares.
The nextátime you watch Casablanca, Laura, D. O. A., or read the next Agatha Christie or Gaston Leroux (Eric the Opera Ghost is a fascinating model of the consequences of past wrongs) or any other title of mystery, thrill, or noir-crime, see if you can’t spot where the Ismenian Dragons are hidden, with whom the culpability of their deaths reside, and who may be still suffering their penance from a Cadmean victory.
Then let me know in the comments below, or at our Facebook or Twitter page… I want to hear from you!