The Myrmidons (Greek: Μυρμιδόνες Myrmidones) were a legendary people of Greek mythology, native to the region of Thessaly. During the Trojan War, they were commanded by Achilles, as described in Homer's Iliad. According to Greek legend, they were created by Zeus from a colony of ants and therefore took their name from the Greek word for ant, myrmex.
An etiological myth of the Myrmidons was first mentioned by Ovid, in Metamorphoses. In Ovid's telling, a terrible plague wipes out the population of the island Aegina. Hera is responsible for the devastating plague, jealous that her husband Zeus named the island after his lover, the nymph Aegina. King Aeacus of Aegina prays to Zeus to repopulate the island, and Zeus responds with a flash of lightning, which Aeacus understands to be an affirmation from the gods. Aeacus then sees a colony of ants covering a tree, so he asks for as many people as there are ants. Overnight, Aeacus has a dream that these ants fall to the ground and are transformed into people. When he wakes the next morning, he finds that his island has been repopulated and that his prayers have been answered. He names the people Myrmidons after the Greek word myrmex (Greek: μύρμηξ), meaning ant.
Hesiod's Catalogue of Women gives a similar myth of the origin of the Myrmidons. In Hesiod's version, Aeacus, the son of Zeus and the nymph Aegina, grows up on the island of Aegina all alone. Aeacus prays to Zeus for company, and as in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Zeus changes ants into men and women for his son to rule over.
The pseudo-Apollodoran Bibliotheca (a collection of myths), gives a different account of their origins: The eponymous ancestor of the Myrmidons was Myrmidon, a king of Thessalian Phthia, who was the son of Zeus and Eurymedousa, a princess of Phthia. Eurymedousa became pregnant with Myrmidon when she was seduced by Zeus in the physical form of an ant, hence their son's name.
In the Iliad
According to Greek legend, the Myrmidons left their native island of Aegina and moved to Thessaly. From there, Aeacus' grandson, Achilles, led the Myrmidons to battle in the Trojan War as an ally of the Achaeans. Homer's Iliad gives an account of a portion of the Trojan War, with a focus on the role of Achilles. When King Agamemnon of the Achaeans disrespects Achilles, he abandons the Greek forces and takes his army of Myrmidons with him. The Achaeans begin to suffer tremendous losses, and Patroclus pleads to Achilles to rejoin the battle. Achilles refuses to fight, still bitter about the wrongs committed against him, but he allows Patroclus to borrow his armor and his army of Myrmidons. Patroclus commands the Myrmidons in battle, they push the Trojan forces back. Patroclus, however, is killed by Hector in battle, and Achilles rejoins the Trojan War to seek revenge.
In Manichaeism, the name myrmidons is used to refer to a certain class of demonic soldiers that fight for darkness against light. This has been found by archaeologists in papyri known as Coptic Manichaean Psalm-books. These papyri were found in Medinet Maadi, Egypt.
The Myrmidons of Greek myth were known for their skill in battle and loyalty to their leaders. In pre-industrial Europe the word myrmidon carried many of the same connotations that minion does today. Myrmidon later came to mean "hired ruffian" (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) or "loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity – unquestioning followers" (Dictionary.com).
Myrmidons was also the title of the first of a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, collectively known as the Achilleis. This play draws on the interactions between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad; however, only fragments of the play have survived.
- Homer's Iliad
- Ovid's Metamorphoses
- Troilus and Cressida, a William Shakespeare play in which the Myrmidons appear
- Achilles himself is "the great Myrmidon / Who broils in loud applause" in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
- "Myrmidon | Greek mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
- "Myrmidons". Myths Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
- "Achilles (Aeschylus)". www.mlahanas.de. Retrieved 2015-11-18.