Memnon (mythology)

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The departure of Memnon for Troy. Greek, circa 550-525 BC. Black-figure vase. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium.

In Greek mythology, Memnon[pronunciation?] (Greek: Mέμνων) was an Ethiopian king and son of Tithonus and Eos. As a warrior he was considered to be almost Achilles' equal in skill. During the Trojan War, he brought an army to Troy's defense. The death of Memnon echoes that of Hector, another defender of Troy whom Achilles also killed out of revenge for a fallen comrade, Patroclus. After Memnon's death, Zeus was moved by Eos' tears and granted him immortality. Memnon's death is related at length in the lost epic Aethiopis, composed after The Iliad circa the 7th century BC. Quintus of Smyrna records Memnon's death in Posthomerica. His death is also described in Philostratus' Imagines.

Memnon in Quintus of Smyrna's Posthomerica[edit]

Memnon arrives at Troy in the immediate aftermath of an argument between Polydamas, Helen, and Priam that centres on whether or not the Aethiopian King will show up at all. Memnon's army is described as being too big to be counted and his arrival starts a huge banquet in his honour. As per usual the two leaders (Memnon and, in this case, Priam) end the dinner by exchanging glorious war stories, and Memnon's tales lead Priam to declare that the Aethiopian King will be Troy's saviour. Despite this, Memnon is very humble and warns that his strength will, he hopes, be seen in battle, although he believes it is unwise to boast at dinner. Before the next day's battle, so great is the divine love towards Memnon that Zeus makes all the other Olympians promise not to interfere in the fighting. In battle, Memnon kills Nestor's son, Antilochos, after Antilochos has killed Memnon's dear comrade, Aesop. Seeking vengeance and despite his age, Nestor tries to fight Memnon but the Aethiopian warrior insists it would not be just to fight such an old man, and respects Nestor so much that he refuses to fight. In this way, Memnon is seen as very similar to Achilles – both of them have strong sets of values that are looked upon favourably by the warrior culture of the time. When Memnon reaches the Greek ships, Nestor begs Achilles to fight him and avenge Antilochos, leading to the two men clashing while both wearing divine armour made by Hephaestus, making another parallel between the two warriors. Zeus favours both of them and makes each man tireless and huge so that the whole battlefield can watch them clash as demigods. Eventually, Achilles stabs Memnon through the heart, causing his entire army to flee in terror. In honour of Memnon, the Gods collect all the drops of blood that fall from him and use them to form a huge river that on every anniversary of his death will bear the stench of human flesh.[1] The Aethiopians that stayed close to Memnon in order to bury their leader are turned into birds (which we now call Memnons) and they stay by his tomb so as to remove dust that gathers on it.[2]

Memnon in Africa[edit]

Memnon in an engraving by Bernard Picart (1673–1733)

Roman writers and later classical Greek writers such as Diodorus Siculus believed Memnon hailed from "Aethiopia", a geographical area in Africa, usually south of Egypt. Because the original historical work by Arctinus of Miletus only survives in fragments, most of what is known about Memnon comes from post-Homeric Greek and Roman writers. Homer only makes passing mention to Memnon in the Odyssey.[3] Herodotus called Susa "the city of Memnon,"[4] Herodotus describes two tall statues with Egyptian and Ethiopian dress that some, he says, identify as Memnon; he disagrees, having previously stated that he believes it to Sesostris.[5] One of the statues was on the road from Smyrna to Sardis.[6] A carved figure matching this description has been found near the old road from Smyrna to Sardis.[7]

Pausanias describes how he marveled at a colossal statue in Egypt, having been told that Memnon began his travels in Africa:

In Egyptian Thebes, on crossing the Nile to the so called Pipes, I saw a statue, still sitting, which gave out a sound. The many call it Memnon, who they say from Aethiopia overran Egypt and as far as Susa. The Thebans, however, say that it is a statue, not of Memnon, but of a native named Phamenoph, and I have heard some say that it is Sesostris. This statue was broken in two by Cambyses, and at the present day from head to middle it is thrown down; but the rest is seated, and every day at the rising of the sun it makes a noise, and the sound one could best liken to that of a harp or lyre when a string has been broken.[8]

Philostratus of Lemnos in his work Imagines, describes artwork of a scene which depicts Memnon:

Now such is the scene in Homer, but the events depicted by the painter are as follows: Memnon coming from Ethiopia slays Antilochus, who has thrown himself in front of this father, and he seems to strike terror among the Achaeans – for before Memnon's time black men were but a subject for story – and the Achaeans, gaining possession of the body, lament Antilochus, both the sons of Atreus and the Ithacan and the son of Tydeus and the two heroes of the same name.[9]

In Blacks in Antiquity, Frank Snowden examined the later Greek and Roman tradition tying Memnon to African "Ethiopia". Snowden notes that according to Greek tradition, Memnon was the progenitor of the Ethiopians, which in this context referred to African people. Through changing depictions of Memmnon on vase paintings and scenes of the Trojan War, Snowden shows that the Asiatic portrayal of Memnon was abandoned in favor of an African origin. Literary accounts of the Trojan war, as well as numerous Roman authors, consistently describe Memnon with African characteristics as an Ethiopian from Sudan and Egypt.[10]

In Snorri Sturluson[edit]

In the prologue to his Prose Edda, the Icelandic scribe Snorri Sturluson states that Memnon (whom he says is also known as Munon) was one of the kings present at Troy, who married Troana, the daughter of king Priam. He further relates that they gave birth to their son Tror, that is, Thor, born with hair "fairer than gold", who later becomes king of Thrace, and ancestor to all the Germanic kings.[11][12][13]


  1. ^ Quintus & James 2004, pp. 39, 556–60
  2. ^ Quintus & James 2004
  3. ^ The Odyessy
  4. ^ Herodotus, Histories 5.54, 7.151.
  5. ^ "Also, there are in Ionia two figures of this man carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesus to Phocaea, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna. In both places, the figure is over twenty feet high, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment proportional; for it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian; and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other a text is cut in the Egyptian sacred characters, saying: 'I myself won this land with the strength of my shoulders.' There is nothing here to show who he is and whence he comes, but it is shown elsewhere. Some of those who have seen these figures guess they are Memnon, but they are far indeed from the truth."
  6. ^ Herodotus 2003, p. 135
  7. ^ Herodotus 2003, p. 640
  8. ^ Pausanias (1918). Description of Greece. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Harvard University Press; William Heinmann Ltd. ISBN 9780674991040. 
  9. ^ Imagines. 
  10. ^ Snowden, Frank (1970). Blacks in antiquity; Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 150–153. ISBN 0-6740-7625-7. 
  11. ^ Kevin J. Wanner (2008). Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia. University of Toronto Press. p. 148. ISBN 9780802098016. 
  12. ^ Paul Acker, Carolyne Larrington (2002). The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology. Psychology Press. p. xii. ISBN 9780815316602. 
  13. ^ Snorri Sturluson, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (translator) (2012). The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology. Courier Corporation. p. 6. ISBN 9780486122328.