Myrmidons: The Fiercely Loyal and Unstoppable ‘Antmen’ Army of Achilles

The Myrmidons were allegedly fierce warriors from Thessaly that fought during the Trojan War with Achilles as their leader. The Myrmidons were considered the among the best warriors in Greece. They also were known for wearing black armor, according to some accounts.

The term Myrmidon comes from a Greek expression that essentially means “ant people.” It ultimately derives from the Greek myrmex, which simply means “ant.” The origin of the legend of the Myrmidons is a mixture of myth and history which reflects stereotypes that the Greeks and many other cultures have about ants.

Mythical origins of the Myrmidons

In one account, the Myrmidons are said to have originally been humble worker ants from the island of Aegina that were transformed into humans. After Zeus seduced Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus, the island of Aegina was named after her. In a jealous rage, Hera sent a plague to wipe out the inhabitants of the island.

Aegina Visited by Jupiter’ (1767-1769) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. ( Public Domain )

After the plague, the only inhabitants of the island were Aeacus, the king of Aegina, and his sons Peleus and Telamon. Aeacus prayed to Zeus that the island would be repopulated so that he could have people to govern. That night, after Aeacus made his prayer to Zeus, he dreamed that he saw a line of ants on a tree and the ants were transformed into human beings.

The next morning, Aeacus and his sons were greeted by a group of people who claimed that Aeacus was their ruler. These people are said to have been industrious, thrifty, and tenacious, unwilling to give up easily on a task. Aeacus called his new subjects Myrmidons, referencing their myrmecological origins.

Myrmidons; People from ants for King Aeacus. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VII, 622-642. ( Public Domain )

An Alternate Origin of the Myrmidons

In another version of the myth, the Myrmidons were not ants that were transformed into humans, but descendants of a man named Myrmidon. Myrmidon is said to have been conceived when Zeus seduced his mother, Eurymedusa, in the form of an ant. Because of the manner of her seduction, her son was called “ant-man,” or Myrmidon.

The Myrmidons in the Trojan War

Eventually, King Aeacus banished his sons from Aegina and some of the Myrmidons went with them. Peleus took some Myrmidons to settle Thessaly. While ruling the Myrmidons in Thessaly, Peleus ended up marrying a nymph, Thetis, and they had a son, the famous Achilles.

When the Trojan war started, the Greeks sought out the greatest warrior in all the known world. In response, Achilles led a company of Myrmidons off to war across the Aegean. The Myrmidons are said to have been able warriors that wore black armor. They aided Achilles as he conquered 12 cities and won battle after battle for the first nine years of the war.

A Possible Historical Basis for the Myrmidons

Archaeologists have determined that the island of Aegina has been inhabited by humans at least since the Neolithic period . The earliest Neolithic inhabitants were probably settlers from Anatolia, based on the name.

During the Greek Bronze Age, Aegina was incorporated into the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations . Between 1700 and 1500 BC, it appears to have been the location of a significant gold treasury and may have been a stronghold to protect the wealth of local kings or chieftains. During this time, there is evidence of Minoan styles of pottery, suggesting influence from the south.

Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina near Athens, Greece. (Runner1928/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Later in the Bronze Age, Aegina came under the influence, and likely the dominance, of the Mycenaeans. The highest mountain on the island appears to have been a center for the Mycenaean cult of the god that was later called Zeus Hellanios. After the Bronze Age collapse, the island appears to have been depopulated before it was re-settled by people from Epiduaros. A port city was also established.

This port city was apparently the center of a large trade network reaching all the way to Spain at the time. The maritime predominance of Aegina appears to have lasted into Classical Antiquity. The Athenians made laws against grain trade, which may have targeted the island.

Interestingly, the founder of the port city established after the island was resettled is said to have been named Aeacus. It is possible that the later story of the origin of the Myrmidons could be a cultural memory of the population collapse and resettlement of Aegina after the end of the Bronze Age.

The association of the island with ant people could be related to warriors from that island wearing black armor, which could have made them appear ant-like. This is all speculation of course, but it does make sense in light of the historical, literary, and archaeological evidence.

This vase may portray the common departure scene of two warriors in full armor leaving home for war, or it may represent a famous scene from “The Iliad” in which Priam, king of Troy, comes to claim and pay ransom for the body of his son Hector. Achilles, who killed Hector in single combat, greets the elderly king. Witnessing this scene are a second warrior, who stands next to Achilles, and another man, standing behind. ( Public Domain )

Connection Between Myrmidons, Warriors, Farmers, and Ants

In ancient literature, including Greek stories and the Bible, ants are often portrayed as being industrious and hard workers. In the Greek story of the Myrmidons, there seems to also be a connection between ants and warriors.

Ancient cultures seemed to have always suspected that ants were human-like in some way. For example, ancient people probably noticed that ants also lived in communities. Additionally, the ancients probably noticed that ants spent their day gathering food and carrying it to a place of storage, reminiscent of human agricultural laborers and more sedentary hunter-gatherers. This is probably one reason why there is another Greek myth in which a maiden by the name of Myrmex is turned into an ant.

In the story, Myrmex was a maiden of whom Athena was very fond, but Myrmex made the mistake of claiming that she was the inventor the plow – when it was in fact Athena. Athena, in anger, transformed her into an ant. It is possible that this myth was made by the ancient Greeks to explain some of the more human-like behaviors of ants.

Athena. ( Геннадий Кучин /Adobe Stock)

Since the rise of the modern scientific study of ants, myrmecology, entomologists have learned that ants are even more human-like than even the ancients probably noticed. We now know that ants farm fungus and milk aphids like humans milk cattle . Ants are also known for engaging in wars.

Ants even enslave other ants. A species literally referred to as slave-making ants are known to drive other ants out of their nests and then capture the nest’s brood and make them into slaves when they mature.

Reasons for Parallels Between Human Societies and Ant Societies

One reason that ant and human societies have so many parallels is that they are both able to develop populations that can number in the millions. When a population of any animal species gets large enough, the need for higher levels of organization becomes necessary. As a result, large ant societies, like large human societies, have features such as a division of labor, means of sanitation, and, particularly relevant for a discussion of the Myrmidons, full-scale war.

Sufficiently large ant societies, like sufficiently large human societies, have big enough populations that not everyone has to spend all their time gathering or producing food. This allows for disposable labor that can be used for other purposes. In human societies, this means having extra labor to engage in war but also in art, science, and religious or spiritual pursuits. In social insect societies, on the other hand, it usually just means having extra labor for waging war.

Despite these striking similarities between human societies and ant and other social insect societies, there is a crucial difference. The institutions and structures governing large human societies are based on intelligent thought and cultural traditions which have been passed down through education from generation to generation.

Ant societies on the other hand, have developed mainly due to genetic inheritance and natural selection. Ants are known for being very cooperative and creating complex societies capable of war, agriculture, and constructing immense structures that make up their nests.

All these activities are performed largely through genetically programmed behaviors. Ants perform these cooperative behaviors automatically based on instinct and not voluntarily through intelligent deliberation for the most part, though ants may have a limited ability to learn and remember. As a result, social insect societies are rigid and unchanging over the span of the time in which we have observed them.

Ants are known for being very cooperative and creating complex societies capable of war, agriculture, and constructing immense structures that make up their nests. ( CC0)

Furthermore, complex human societies rely on social behaviors and systems that have been passed down culturally over thousands of years at the most. Complex ant societies rely on social behaviors and systems which have been passed down genetically and modified by natural selection for about 140-170 million years. The first ants evolved during the time of the dinosaurs.

Ants may not have culture or pass down their traditions through habitual learning, but the longevity of their society is impressive. Ants were farming, engaging in warfare, and living in densely populated metropolises, nests, for millions of years before humans began doing the same 12 millennia ago.

Ant Armies—The Real Myrmidons

It is unclear if the ancient Greeks knew much about ant warfare, but their association of ants with warriors, such as the Myrmidons, is an eerie coincidence. Ants are in fact one of the only animals other than humans that wage full-scale wars.

War can be defined as a focused conflict between groups in which both sides face significant risks and losses, even annihilation. Most animal societies do not get large enough to wage full-scale wars. For example, chimpanzee and human societies at the level of a few hundred individuals will conduct small raids where they might kill a handful of individuals in another group, but that will usually be it.

Typically, only one side will really suffer significant losses. Below a certain population threshold, conflicts tend to be small and the fighting is more symbolic and “for show.” This is true both in human societies and in non-human primates and social insects. Both sides will try to keep the number of casualties, on their side, as low as possible. This has been seen in small ant societies consisting of a few hundred to a few thousand individuals.

Human and ant societies above the level of about 10,000 individuals, however, will engage in war in the true, technical sense of the word. In this case, both sides will suffer massive numbers of casualties but will keep fighting nonetheless until one side yields or is wiped out.

The myth of the Myrmidons is prescient in that ants are among the only animals, besides humans, to engage in conflicts of this scale. When ants of one colony encounter ants of another colony that is competing for the same territory, the two ant colonies may engage in large scale combat where there will be many casualties.

Argentine ants, for example, are an invasive species that has spread to many parts of the world. There is an Argentine ant super-colony stretching across thousands of kilometers in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, for example. Another location where they are gaining ground is in parts of southern California, including areas near San Diego .

Argentine ants Argentine ants (Linepithema humile). feeding on food scraps. Schamann. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Gran Canaria. Canary Islands. Spain. ( Víctor /Adobe Stock)

Argentine ants have colonies consisting of multiple nests and their colonies can stretch over thousands of miles with millions of nests. At the fringes of the Argentine ant super-colony near San Diego, Argentine ant armies are engaging every day in battles with ants from nests of other colonies. Millions of individual ants are dying each week at the front lines.

Ants do not have bombs or firearms, or even spears and bows-and-arrows. As a result, ants rely on sheer numbers and physical strength to overwhelm their opponents. Ant soldiers will surround their enemies and pull them apart—literally.

Some ant armies even have suicide bombers whose bodies will explode when they encounter a conflict. In other ant species, the ants even recover their wounded from the battlefield. One ant species common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, during their raids on termite mounds, will pick up wounded ants on their way back to the nest.

The wounded ant releases a chemical which causes her sister ants to find her and carry her to safety. The ant attacks on termites are more akin to hunting, but it is not inconceivable that this could also happen on the battlefield in wars with other ant colonies.

Not only do ants wage wars but they also are able to conquer empires, as is demonstrated by the existence of super-colonies. Ants from different nests, but the same colony, cannot tell the difference between each other genetically, so they will not fight. One notable difference between these ant “empires” and human empires is that human empires tend to absorb conquered populations and assimilate them.

Human populations conquered by other humans are often allowed to continue to live in their native land as imperial subjects. Ants, on the other hand, simply wipe out any ant population that is not part of their colony and challenging them for territory. All ant super-colonies are, you might say, racially homogeneous.

Myth Mirroring (Some) Fact

The ancient Greeks may not have ever noticed the ant battles occurring at their feet. Nonetheless, the fact that the fiercest warriors of the heroic age in ancient Greece were believed to be descended from ants transformed into humans is appropriate. It affirms what we know of those warlike social insects.

Top Image: Myrmidons were the mythical ‘Ant Army’ of Achilles. Source: Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock