Cadmus To Cadmium

It’s hard to deny that the ancient Greeks have given us a lot; today’s society is suffuse with their influence from philosophy and democracy to art and sport. Perhaps it is because their influence is so taken for granted that the weird and wonderful world of their mythology is now rarely referred to explicitly. Even Disney has barely scraped its surface; people feel comfortable with what they understand and can predict.

Greek myths so often seem entirely removed from life today that even certain traditions no longer practiced, are accepted as having been logical, if somewhat cruel. Take inheritance down the male line. Our own monarchs have historically risked war and excommunication for a son and an heir; but not King Agenor. According to Greek myth, so devastated was he when his beautiful daughter Europa was carried away by an infatuated Zeus, he sent his three sons after the King of the Gods with the firm order not to return without their sister. Perhaps predictably, these princes were no match for the Gods and were thus forced into exile. One son, Cadmus, gave up his quest for Europa on the orders of an oracle, who told him instead to follow a cow. Where the cow lay down, claimed the oracle, he should build a city, which would then become the future city of Thebes. But this was not the end of Cadmus’ trials. When his men went to fetch water, they encountered a giant serpent and were killed, leaving Cadmus with no men left to build his city. As revenge, he slew the serpent, and asked the Goddess Athena for guidance, who told Cadmus to sew the teeth of the serpent. Where the teeth fell, soldiers sprang up and fought to the death until only five remained. It was these five men who became the ancestors of all Thebans.

The instinct to change adversity to advantage is universal in human nature.

Jump forward several thousand years to Germany, 1817, where a chemist, Professor Stromeyer, was investigating zinc carbonate being sold by a pharmacy. Zinc oxide was commonly sold, whereas its precursor, zinc carbonate, was not. Stromeyer wanted to know why the pharmacy was offering zinc in the form of carbonate rather than the usual oxide. The pharmacist explained that on heating the carbonate to form an oxide, it turned yellow rather than forming the expected white. He could sell the zinc in carbonate form because it looked as the oxide should, playing on the fact that people trust what is familiar. Unfortunately, on further inspection, Stromeyer discovered that a previously undiscovered metal contaminated the compound. It was given the name cadmium from the Latin name for zinc carbonate: Cadmia. Cadmia, perhaps not surprisingly, was first found near the city of Thebes and named for its founder: Prince Cadmus.

We may no longer be living in a society where one’s daughter is at risk of kidnap by an infatuated God, but today, as ever, we live under the watchful eye of great powers with all the same flaws, greed, and petty whims of the Greek Gods. Business and industry are not renowned for their morality, and unfortunately for those buying Stromeyer’s zinc carbonate, the tainting cadmium is a heavy metal that, along with its compounds, is toxic to humans. That is not to say it does not have its uses. When Cadmus found himself alone, with nothing but the teeth of the monster that had killed his men, he used what he had to his advantage. The instinct to change adversity to advantage is universal in human nature, and this toxic heavy metal has become vital to us, found most commonly now in batteries and pigments.

With no Athena here to guide us, this may be our only method of turning adversity to advantage.

But alas, we may have tamed this toxin, but it is not defeated. Like Ares’ serpent, the creature lurks by water. Japan had first recorded incident of Itai-itai disease, which translates as “ouch-ouch” or “it hurts, it hurts”, the sinister name supposedly coming from the last words of the sufferers. The disease was the result of mass cadmium poisoning through the consumption of rice which had been supplied with water contaminated by a nearby mine. Genetic engineering is often referred to as “playing god” and with no Athena here to guide us, this may be our only method of turning adversity to advantage.

Here at the University of York, a student-lead undergraduate team are working on engineering E. coli bacteria to fight the battle with cadmium for us. The York team are this year’s entry to the annual international iGEM competition, held in Boston, Massachusetts, which aims to engineer E. coli bacteria to take up polluting sulphates from wastewater and to use the molecules to produce metal-chelating particles. These allow the toxic cadmium ions to be taken up by the bacteria and formed into harvestable ions for use in industry. Indeed, terms such as Franken-foods, which have now become commonplace, show that fear of the unknown still forms an inherent part of our humanity. People continue to fight the rise of the GMO despite there seemingly being no alternative to provide a sustainable food supply for a rapidly growing global population.

In 1588, Cornelis van Haarlem painted a gruesome image of Cadmus followers being devoured by the serpent. The grisly decapitated head encapsulates the idea that unless, like ancient Greek royalty, you are descended from the Gods, a fight with the fouls of nature will bring you to a ghastly end. Greek myths, though strange, are rich in the hopes and fears of those that told them, and it is within them that we find the very essence of humanity upon which we build our societies. It is easy to distance ourselves from the beast of van Haarlem’s painting, but not so from the flaws that define our race. Where we have torn down an assembly of petty, warring and very human gods, we have built up business and capitalism with the Godlike power to influence our everyday choices to their benefit.

The most difficult and desperately needed changes might be those of our own, fundamentally human, nature.

And what happened to the ancient Greeks, to the hub of civilisation, learning and invention? The essence of civilisation slowly fell apart as communities broke down and conflict grew, as is to be expected of the cyclical nature of human civilisation. So are we all headed, inexorably for decline? Perhaps. But despite the talk of oracles, the Greeks could not read the future. This is where we may have one up on the ancient Greeks. We are in a better position now than at any other point in history to predict the future due to ever increasing experience and scientific advantages, and the prognosis is not good. Climate change, antibacterial resistance and food shortages seem inevitable. It is time to change our tact. Amazing things are being done worldwide in science and technology, while “human”, is used to describe something essentially flawed. The most difficult and desperately needed changes might be those of our own, fundamentally human, nature.


Author: Ellie Davis
Artwork: Cornelis Van Haarlem