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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 (Greek: μύρμηξ).
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Ovid mentions an etiological myth of the Myrmidons in Metamorphoses, Book 7 (8 CE). In Ovid's telling, Hera, jealous because her husband Zeus has named the island of Aegina after his lover, the nymph Aegina, causes a devastating plague which wipes out the population of the island. King Aeacus of Aegina prays to Zeus to repopulate the island, and Zeus responds with a flash of lightning, which Aeacus takes as 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 in which 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. (Compare the similar Greek word μυρμηδών (myrmedon), meaning "ant-nest", and the Greek-derived patronymic suffix -id.)
The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (c. 8th or 7th century BCE) gives a similar myth of the origin of the Myrmidons. In this 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 of the first or second century CE), gives a different account of Myrmidonian origins, identifying the eponymous ancestor of the Myrmidons as Myrmidon, a king of Thessalian Phthia, who was the son of Zeus and of Eurymedousa, a princess of Phthia. Zeus took the physical form of an ant and seduced Eurymedousa, 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 for a while the cause of the Greek forces and keeps his army of Myrmidons away from the battle as well. 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 armour and lead the army of Myrmidons in battle. Patroclus commands the Myrmidons in battle, and they push the Trojan forces back. Patroclus, however, is killed by Hector in battle, and Achilles, wild with grief, rejoins the Trojan War to seek revenge.
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.
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).
- 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". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
"Myrmidons". Myths Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
When Aeacus awoke the next morning, he found that the vision in his dream had come true. He named the new people Myrmidons from the Greek name of the ant from which they came, myrmex.
- Harper, Douglas. "-id". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- "Homer, The Iliad, Scroll 1, line 160". data.perseus.org. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
- "Homer, The Iliad, Scroll 16, line 1". data.perseus.org. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
- "Homer, The Iliad, Scroll 18, line 1". data.perseus.org. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
- "Achilles (Aeschylus)". www.mlahanas.de. Retrieved 2015-11-18.