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In the Iliad, the great Greek epic of ferocity, loyalty, and war, the Myrmidons were the most ferocious and loyal of all of the various Achaean warriors.  The myth of how the Myrmidons came into existence reveals the source of their bravery, strength, and discipline as infantry troops.   The story combines literature, invaders (for the Myrmidons were ever attacking), and…hymenopterans.

Creation of the Myrmidons (artist unknown)

Creation of the Myrmidons (artist unknown)

As with so many other Greek myths, the story starts with the philandering of Zeus, who fell in love with Aegina, who was the eponymous nymph/goddess of Aegina—an island which is located in the Saronic gulf between Attica and Argolis.  According to the writer Hesiod (and later Ovid) Zeus appeared to the nymph as an eagle and loved her.  From their union came the demi-god, Aeacus, born as king over the island.  Hera, jealous as ever, punished the inhabitants of the island for Zeus’ affairs by sending a plague (or possibly a dragon) to destroy them all except for the immortal Aeacus.  Devastated by the deaths of his subjects, the lonely Aecus prayed to Zeus to repopulate the island.  The king of the gods heard the prayer and responded by transforming a colony of ants in an oak tree into men and women.  These new people were tough, warlike, and hive-minded—just like the ants they originated from.  Aeacus eventually wearied of kingship and turned the throne over to his son Peleus (one of the heroes of the ill-fated Caledonian boar hunt) who eventually wed the sea-nymph Thetis.

The creation of the Myrmidons

The creation of the Myrmidons

There is another (possibly older) myth which is more troubling.  In this alternate story, Zeus transformed himself into an ant in order to seduce Eurymedusa, the daughter of a river god.  She bore a son, Myrmidon, and the antlike Myrmidons all descended from him. I think I prefer Ovid & Hesiod’s version of the story!

Myrmidons  (Tristan Schane, oil on illustration board)

Myrmidons (Tristan Schane, oil on illustration board)

Of course, in accordance with the universal law of disparity between intention and result, the Myrmidons (who enjoyed war more than the other Greek armies) ended up sitting out most of the battles mentioned in the Iliad due to the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon—but their ferocity was well-documented in Greek letters.  A passage from the end of the Iliad describes how excited the Myrmidons became when Achilles finally freed them to join the battle after holding them back while other men fought:

Meanwhile Achilles made his round of the huts and called all the Myrmidons to arms. They gathered like a pack of ravening wolves filled with indescribable fury, like mountain wolves that have brought down a stag with full antlers, and rend it with blood-stained jaws then go in a mass to drink, lapping the dark water with slender tongues, dripping blood and gore, the hearts in their chests beating strong and their bellies gorged. (Iliad, Book XVI, translated by A. S. Kline)

The popularity of the Iliad has meant that the Myrmidons were not forgotten: the word has become part of the English lexicon where it means a completely devoted warrior-minion.

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