At some time in school, you probably read the story of Cadmos (Cadmus). You probably read the part where he killed a dragon and sowed it's teeth in the ground like seeds, and from those teeth sprang up men in full armor. I remember reading it in school.
Lately, I read it again in a book called the Dionysiaca by Nonnos. It's the last great epic poem of the ancient world, and it recounts the story of Dionysus. Anyway, I had spent the day jumping around in the first two volumes of Mircea Eliade's History of Religious Ideas. With ancient mythology running through my head, I pulled down the Dionysiaca which had been taking up room on my bookshelf for years.
It starts with Zeus' abduction of the maiden Europa. Europa's father sends his sons to look for her. They never find her. Cadmos, one of the sons, is told by the oracle of Delphi to stop looking and found a city instead. He's given a cow and told that, wherever the cow falls, that's where he should found his city. So, Cadmos keep the cow walking until it falls in Egypt, and there he founds the Egyptian Thebes.
Before he can do that, though, he has to kill the dragon that inhabits the land, which he does. Then he takes its teeth and sows them in the ground. Up spring men in full armor from the teeth. Cadmos throws a rock among them, and they slaughter each other. A specific detail from the Dionysiaca is that the land is drenched in "rivers of blood." Five of the men survive and become followers of Cadmos. Cadmos then maps out the plan of the city using a plow. Another specific detail is that the city had seven gates for the seven planets, making it an image of the universe, a microcosm.
This is the story you read in school. At the time, you probably thought it was a weird fantasy story. I gaurantee that your teacher didn't really know what to make of it either. But for all of you who ever wondered what it meant, here's what it means:
The story's about the creation of the world. It has a lot of parallels in ancient mythology: Egyptian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Indian, and even the Old Testament. I'll describe two, the Babylonian and the Canaanite, since they have the strongest parallels.
The Babylonian story of creation contained in the Enuma Elish is the most similar to the Cadmos story. In it, the young god Marduk claims kingship of the gods. The mother of the gods, Tiamat, has different ideas and gives rulership to Kingu. Needless to say, there's a battle. Tiamat, in the form of a dragon, attacks Marduk. Marduk kills here and defeats Kingu and his followers. He carves up Tiamat's body and uses its parts to create the world. Next, he slays Kingu and uses his blood to create human beings. Finally, Marduk builds his palace (which is probably the god's principal temple). In other words, Marduk slays a dragon and uses parts of it in a creative act, creates people, has a blood sacrifice, and founds a palace/temple (temple's in the ancient were built to mirror the universe, making them microcosms, just like Cadmos' city).
All the main plot elements in the Cadmos story are present in the Marduk story with variations. Marduk is a god who creates the universe using the dragon, while humanity is created through the blood sacrifice of her son. In the Cadmos story, the parts of the dragon create human beings who then kill each other in a blood sacrifice. Both then create a microcosm in the form of a palace/temple/city. The actual form of the microcosm doesn't matter just so long as it's an image of the universe in miniature.
The other myth is the Canaanite myth of Baal (Ba'al). Baal, like Marduk, is a younger god who claims kingship of the gods. He deposes the high god El, the father of the gods. El names his son Yam as king (just like Tiamat named Kingu). Yam, in the form of a dragon, attacks Baal. Baal defeats him and is acknowledged king of the gods. There is a victory celebration afterward at his palace/temple. Baal's wife, Anat, locks the doors of the palace and slaughters the guards and guests so that the blood rises "to her knees."
Again, we have some of the same plot elements from the Cadmos story with variations. Baal kills a dragon, although he doesn't create anyting from its parts. El has already created the universe and people so it isn't necessary. Baal has a palace which is probably his primary temple and therefore a microcosm. And Baal's wife Anat inaugurates the blood sacrifice by killing the guests at the party.
Here are the basic elements of all these stories laid out:
The Claiming of Kingship--Both Marduk and Baal claim kingship, which leads to the attack by the dragon. Cadmos, by founding a city, will also become its first king, so he too is claiming kingship.
The Fight with the Dragon--All three heroes fight a dragon. The dragon represents the primal forces of the universe, of chaos. Any act of creation must draw on those forces, which are chaotic and therefore dangerous, and give them a useful form
The Creation of Human Beings--Both Marduk and Cadmos create people using either the dragon or the child of the dragon. The child of the dragon represents the same thing as the dragon--the forces of chaos. The Baal myth is lacking this since El already created humanity.
The Blood Sacrifice--Mircea Eliade links this to agricultural mythology were blood, which carries the life of the person, is given to the soil to ensure the success of the coming harvest. All three stories have some type of blood sacrifice. In the Cadmos story, the sacrifice is linked directly to the land since the land the city will be built on is drenched in blood.
The Microcosm--Cadmos lays out the plan of the city so it mirrors the universe. Marduk's palace/temple would be built according to a universal plan, as would Baal's. This was fairly common in the ancient world. Cities and temples were the microcosm, the universe in miniature. This ensured that the order that existed in the heavens was implemented on earth. "As above, so below" as the Hermetic axiom goes. All these stories are about the creation of order out of chaos. The creation of the microcosm is very important since it links the order of the universe with the order of human society.