Regular readers will remember Ashley Cowie, the Scottish television personality and occasional Ancient Aliens pundit who now writes milquetoast articles on ancient history for dubious outlets like Ancient Origins. In one of his recent articles for Ancient Origins, Cowie had such a howler that I can’t help but pause to make note of how he displays a truly surprising ignorance of the subject he claims to write knowledgeably about. His topic is an odd one: dragon’s teeth. But it also happens to be one I wrote about extensively in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, so I am extremely familiar with the primary sources and the scholarly literature that Cowie appears never to have read.
I’ll start by stipulating that the majority of Cowie’s article is perfectly fine, if little more than a summary of commonly known material about the Chinese traditional medicine trade and the wholesale looting of paleontological sites its demand for fossil teeth produces. It’s in Cowie’s comparison to Greek mythology that he spins himself well outside his area of competence:
In Western mythology, when planted, dragons’ teeth became weapons of mass destruction and from them grew armies infused with the spirits of dead warriors. […] In Greek mythology, dragon’s teeth were ‘planted’ in the stories of Cadmus and Jason and the Argonauts. The former hero was the bringer of literacy and civilization, who collected the teeth after killing a “sacred dragon”. Having been advised by the goddess Athena to sow the teeth, a group of ferocious warriors called the spartoi grew from them. Jason’s legendary quest for the Golden Fleece was also hindered when planted dragons’ teeth grew into fully armed skeletal-zombie-warriors.
Wow. Where to start?
I guess I’ll take the claims from the top.
First, dragon’s teeth don’t occur in “Western” mythology. They are a feature of Greek mythology. The crack about “weapons of mass destruction” is an odd one since the dragon’s teeth generated warriors who attacked exactly two humans, Cadmus and Jason. The spartoi (literally: “the scattered”) were earth-born men, a wholly original race born from the Earth and which later became the founding population of Thebes. Apollodorus (Library 3.4.1) says that the Spartoi never attacked anyone but themselves, until only five survived. According to Hellanicus (4F1), there were only five Spartoi in total and they never fought anyone. The men who sprang up from the teeth were not infused with the spirit of dead warriors, since the transmigration of souls was not something conceived of in traditional Greek spirituality. The belief in reincarnation first arose with the Orphics, around the sixth century BCE, around the same time that Pherecydes of Syros allegedly taught the doctrine of reincarnation, though the latter claim is uncertain (Suda, s.v. “Pherecydes” with Porphyry, Cave of the Nymphs 36 and Cicero, Tuscan Disputations 1.16). At any rate, the spartoi are of older stock, part of a myth cycle already old when Homer alluded to Cadmus and Jason centuries before.
Cowie’s description of Cadmus as a “bringer of literacy and civilization” who killed a “sacred dragon” struck me as an odd note, and there is a good reason for that. The wording is almost verbatim identical to the Wikipedia article on “Dragon’s Teeth,” which I strongly suspect lies behind the Cowie’s paragraph: “Cadmus, the bringer of literacy and civilization, killed the sacred dragon that guarded the spring of Ares.” Oddly enough, this is not the only borrowed phrasing in Cowie’s article. He introduces a quotation this way: “The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable described how the myth of the Spartoi entered everyday English.” Wouldn’t you know it. Those are my words, which I used to introduce the same quotation on the webpage for the Spartoi on my old Jason and the Argonauts website: “The following entries from the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describe how the myth of the Spartoi entered everyday English.”
But now we get to the most unforgiveable literary sin in Cowie’s bastardization of Greek mythology, his claim that Jason battled fully-armed skeleton zombie warriors. It probably goes without saying that Cowie’s knowledge of the Argonauts myth does not extend beyond the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts movie in which the skeleton warriors appear in Ray Harryhausen’s justly famous four-minute stop-motion sequence. But even here Cowie has misremembered the movie and seems to have conflated it with later homages, like the skeleton warriors in Army of Darkness. The skeletons in the 1963 film were not “fully armed” but carried a sword and shield, though what Cowie means by “fully armed” is debatable. The movie skeletons were not born of dragon’s teeth but those of the Hydra, imported from the Hercules myth. And there were only seven of them, one for each of Hydra’s heads.
The skeleton warriors do not appear in Greek mythology. In Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and medieval sources, they are earth-born humans, distinguished only by being fully armed upon their eruption from the Earth (e.g. Apollodorus 1.9.23, Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.1320-1398, etc.). (Diodorus claims they were normal soldiers from Taurica, and not magic at all.) According to no less an authority than stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen himself, the idea to make them into skeletons arose from a misunderstanding. Harryhausen wrongly thought that “in the legend it is rotting corpses,” and he worried that depicting them as undead zombies would prevent children from seeing the movie, thus cutting into the box office. Even the name by which the myth is known today, and which Cowie uses—Jason and the Argonauts—was a marketing creation, chosen by the studio’s marketing team because they discovered that the original movie title, Jason and the Golden Fleece, had already been used in Italy. Believe it or not, with only accidental exception, the name “Jason and the Argonauts” wasn’t used before 1963.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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