Greek and Roman Mythology > The Myrmidons

The Myrmidons

The Myrmidons were the soldiers of Achilles in the Trojan war.
>From them all zealous and unscrupulous followers of a political
chief are called by that name down to this day. But the origin
of the Myrmidons would not give one the idea of a fierce and
bloody race, but rather of a laborious and peaceful one.

Cephalus, king of Athens, arrived in the island of AEgina to seek
assistance of his old friend and ally AEacus, the king, in his
wars with Minos, king of Crete. Cephalus was kindly received,
and the desired assistance readily promised. "I have people
enough," said AEacus, "to protect myself and spare you such a
force as you need." "I rejoice to see it," replied Cephalus,
"and my wonder has been raised, I confess, to find such a host of
youths as I see around me, all apparently of about the same age.
Yet there are many individuals whom I previously knew that I look
for now in vain. What has become of them?" AEacus groaned, and
replied with a voice of sadness, "I have been intending to tell
you, and will now do so without more delay, that you may see how
from the saddest beginning a happy result sometimes flows. Those
whom you formerly knew are now dust and ashes! A plague sent by
angry Juno devastated the land. She hated it because it bore the
name of one of her husband's female favorites. While the disease
appeared to spring from natural causes we resisted it as we best
might by natural remedies; but it soon appeared that the
pestilence was too powerful for our efforts, and we yielded. At
the beginning the sky seemed to settle down upon the earth, and
thick clouds shut in the heated air. For four months together a
deadly south wind prevailed. The disorder affected the wells and
springs; thousands of snakes crept over the land and shed their
poison in the fountains. The force of the disease was first
spent on the lower animals; dogs, cattle, sheep, and birds. The
luckless ploughman wondered to see his oxen fall in the midst of
their work, and lie helpless in the unfinished furrow. The wool
fell from the bleating sheep, and their bodies pined away. The
horse, once foremost in the race, contested the palm no more, but
groaned at his stall, and died an inglorious death. The wild
boar forgot his rage, the stag his swiftness, the bears no longer
attacked the herds. Everything languished; dead bodies lay in
the roads, the fields, and the woods; the air was poisoned by
them. I tell you what is hardly credible, but neither dogs nor
birds would touch them, nor starving wolves. Their decay spread
the infection. Next the disease attacked the country people, and
then the dwellers in the city. At first the cheek was flushed,
and the breath drawn with difficulty. The tongue grew rough and
swelled, and the dry mouth stood open with its veins enlarged and
gasped for the air. Men could not bear the heat of their clothes
or their beds, but preferred to lie on the bare ground; and the
ground did not cool them, but on the contrary, they heated the
spot where they lay. Nor could the physicians help, for the
disease attacked them also, and the contact of the sick gave them
infection, so that the most faithful were the first victims. At
last all hope of relief vanished and men learned to look upon
death as the only deliverer from disease. Then they gave way to
every inclination, and cared not to ask what was expedient, for
nothing was expedient. All restraint laid aside, they crowded
around the wells and fountains, and drank till they died, without
quenching thirst. Many had not strength to get away from the
water, but died in the midst of the stream, and others would
drink of it notwithstanding. Such was their weariness of their
sick-beds that some would creep forth, and if not strong enough
to stand, would die on the ground. They seemed to hate their
friends, and got away from their homes, as if, not knowing the
cause of their sickness, they charged it on the place of their
abode. Some were seen tottering along the road, as long as they
could stand, while others sank on the earth, and turned their
dying eyes around to take a last look, then closed them in death.

"What heart had I left me, during all this, or what ought I to
have had, except to hate life and wish to be with my dead
subjects? On all sides lay my people strewn like over-ripened
apples beneath the tree, or acorns under the storm-shaken oak.
You see yonder s temple on the height. It is sacred to Jupiter.
Oh, how many offered prayers there; husbands for wives, fathers
for sons, and died in the very act of supplication! How often,
while the priest made ready for sacrifice, the victim fell,
struck down by disease without waiting for the blow. At length
all reverence for sacred things was lost. Bodies were thrown out
unburied, wood was wanting for funeral piles, men fought with one
another for the possession of them. Finally there were none left
to mourn; sons and husbands, old men and youths, perished alike

"Standing before the altar I raised my eyes to heaven. 'Oh,
Jupiter,' I said, 'if thou art indeed my father, and art not
ashamed of thy offspring, give me back my people, or take me also
away!' At these words a clap of thunder was heard. 'I accept
the omen,' I cried; 'oh, may it be a sign of a favorable
disposition towards me!' By chance there grew by the place where
I stood an oak with wide-spreading branches, sacred to Jupiter.
I observed a troop of ants busy with their labor, carrying minute
grains in their mouths and following one another in a line up the
trunk of the tree. Observing their numbers with admiration, I
said, 'Give me, oh father, citizens as numerous as these, and
replenish my empty city.' The tree shook and gave a rustling
sound with its branches though no wind agitated them. I trembled
in every limb, yet I kissed the earth and the tree. I would not
confess to myself that I hoped, yet I did hope. Night came on
and sleep took possession of my frame oppressed with cares. The
tree stood before me in my dreams, with its numerous branches all
covered with living, moving creatures. It seemed to shake its
limbs and throw down over the ground a multitude of those
industrious grain-gathering animals, which appeared to gain in
size, and grow larger, and by-and-by to stand erect, lay aside
their superfluous legs and their black color, and finally to
assume the human form. Then I awoke, and my first impulse was to
chide the gods who had robbed me of a sweet vision and given me
no reality in its place. Being still in the temple my attention
was caught by the sound of many voices without; a sound of late
unusual to my ears. While I began to think I was yet dreaming,
Telamon, my son, throwing open the temple-gates, exclaimed,
'Father, approach, and behold things surpassing even your hopes!'
I went forth; I saw a multitude of men, such as I had seen in my
dream, and they were passing in procession in the same manner.
While I gazed with wonder and delight they approached, and
kneeling, hailed me as their king. I paid my vows to Jove, and
proceeded to allot the vacant city to the new-born race, and to
parcel out the fields among them. I called them Myrmidons from
the ant (myrmex), from which they sprang. You have seen these
persons; their dispositions resemble those which they had in
their former shape. They are a diligent and industrious race,
eager to gain, and tenacious of their gains. Among them you may
recruit your forces. They will follow you to the war, young in
years and bold in heart."

This description of the plague is copied by Ovid from the account
which Thucydides, the Greek historian, gives of the plague of
Athens. The historian drew from life, and all the poets and
writers of fiction since his day, when they have had occasion to
describe a similar scene, have borrowed their details from him.

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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