The Departure of Memnon for Troy. Greek, circa 550-525 B.C. Black-figure vase. Brussels, Museés royaux d’Art et d’Histoire.
Brazen-crested Memnon, a comely man according to Odysseus, is the King of the Ethiopians who came with a great force to help Troy against the Achaean invaders, and was killed by Achilles.
Son of the immortal old man
Tithonus 1, they say, was snatched away by Eos (Dawn) for love, brought by the goddess to that Ethiopia which is not in Africa but in the east, and there he founded the city of Susa. Tithonus 1 was made immortal when Eos asked Zeus that Tithonus 1 should be deathless and live eternally. However, she forgot to ask youth for him, and for that reason he suffers the full weight of Old Age, babbling endlessly and having no strength in his limbs. But before that, Tithonus 1 and Eos lived rapturously as lovers do, and they had children: Emathion 1 and Memnon.
His brother killed by Heracles 1
Emathion 1 became king of the Ethiopians, and is remembered for having attacked Heracles 1 when the latter, having slain Busiris 2 (the Egyptian king who used to sacrifice strangers), sailed up the river Nile.
Memnon in the East
But Memnon himself was, as Tithonus 1, related to the East, and he is said to have built a palace of many colored and shining white stones bound with gold in the city of Ecbatana. For Memnon, starting from Ethiopia, overrun Egypt and conquered the East as far as the city of Susa, which he surrounded by walls. So Memnon, although being king of the Ethiopians, came to Troy, not from what today is called Africa, but from Susa, not far away from the river Tigris, in the land that later became Persia. And when he made his march to the west, he subdued all the peoples that lived between Susa and Troy.
When Hector 1, the pillar of Troy, was killed by Achilles, there was not much hope left for the Trojans, except that provided by Memnon, who wearing an armour made by Hephaestus, arrived from the east with a huge host to help the city. Memnon is said to have killed the Pylians Ereuthus and Pheron, who followed Nestor to the Trojan War, and also Nestor‘s son Antilochus, who died for his father’s sake. For the horse kept Nestor‘s chariot from moving, since it had been wounded by Paris, when Memnon approached. Then Nestor shouted to his son Antilochus, who came to his rescue, and saved his father’s life at the price of his own. For, as some say, Memnon slew him, although there are those who say that Antilochus was killed by Hector 1.
Achilles kills Memnon
Nestor, who saw his son perish, asked Achilles to rescue his son’s body and armour. That is why Memnon and Achilles fought against each other in single combat, and although Memnon wounded Achilles in the arm, he himself lost his life when Achilles plunged his sword beneath his breast-bone. But some say that it was Achilles‘ spear that killed Memnon.
Soldiers turn into birds
In any case, some have told that when Memnon died, the whole Ethiopian army vanished with his king, the soldiers turning into birds. Now, some may feel tempted to reason that this is just a way of expressing the idea of the Ethiopian army escaping or being disbanded. And they may also feel that if the army was dispersed it would be better just to say so instead of making up capricious tales, which are most implausible. But, whatever they may feel, the Achaeans and Trojans were most amazed when they watched the Ethiopian army fly away. For current things amaze nobody, but extraordinary and impossible things do. And that was a great marvel, unlikely to happen in our time, as no one has ever since claimed to have witnessed anything of the sort.
Eos begs Zeus for her son
Anyway, the death of this magnificent king caused great grief to his mother, and because of her pain the colours of the morning skies grew dull, and the heavens were overcast with clouds. And Eos came to Zeus and asked him to grant Memnon special honours as consolation for his death. Accordingly, the smoke of Memnon’s funeral pyre turn into birds, some of which killed each other over the flames. These birds, which are called Memnonides, used to return on stated days every year to Memnon’s grave, in a hill above the outlet of the Aesepus River, which flows from the mountains of Ida in the Troad, and sprinkle it with the water of the river from their wet wings. But others say that Memnon was buried in Paltus, which is on the coast of Syria in front of the island of Cyprus. Eos herself never ceased to lament the death of her handsome son, who was also a magnificent king. For the dew, they say, is the tears shed by the goddess for the death of Memnon. And yet it has also been told that Zeus bestowed immortality upon Memnon at Eos‘ request.
Such is the story of Memnon. But others have said that this son of Eos neither went to Troy nor died there, but that he died in Ethiopia after ruling the country for five generations. That may seem a long time. However, the Ethiopians, being the longest lived men on earth, deplored his death as premature, mourning him as a youth. They also tell that a wonderful statue of a young and still unbearded Memnon had been made out of black stone, and turned towards the sunrise. The sitting figure was represented in the very act of rising up, with the lips as about to speak. They affirm that the lips spoke when the sun’s rays fell upon them at dawn, and that the eyes of the statue seemed to stand out and gleam against the light.
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