The role Africans played in ancient mythologies has been largely downplayed or misrepresented by many historians and film makers. One such character is Memnon, king of ancient Aethiopia, a king from somewhere in Africa. Many of you might be surprised to know he featured prominently and contributed in no small measure to the legendary Trojan war, of Greek mythology. Being a nephew to the King of Troy he came to the defence of Troy with his great army when the Archaeans (Greeks) laid siege on the city.
Painting of Memnon
The story of Memnon has been pieced together by combining both the Homeric epics (the Illiad and the Odyssey) and the non-Homeric epics (the Epic cycle, a series of poems relating the story of the Trojan Wars in dactylic hexameter). The Epic cycle includes Aethiopis, the Cypria, the Little Illiad, the Illiupersis, the Nostoi and the Telegony. We gain understanding of the religious worldview of Homer from Hesoid’s works Theogony, Works and Days and the Shield of Heracles.
Memnon was the son of Tithonus and the goddess Eos. According to Greek mythology, Eos was one of the three children of the Titans Hyperion and Thia (also known as Euryphaessa). She was the goddess of Dawn, and she fell in love with Tithonus a prince of Troy. Tithonus was a Trojan prince; his father was King Laomedon of Troy.
Eos brought Tithonus to east Ethiopia where he established himself; they had two sons Memnon and Emathion. Memnon had many half-brothers from different fathers; some of them including Stilbon, Phaethon, Phainon, Euros, Vulturnus Anemoi Venti, Aquilon Anemoi Venti and about eight others.
Memnon is often depicted to have dark skin and curly hair. He became king of Ethiopia after his brother was killed by Heracles. Memnon was a great king and warrior; his armour is said to have been made by Hephaestus – the god of fire, forges, and masonry – at the request of his mother Eos. From Ethiopia, he conquered Egypt and the east as far as the ancient land of Susa which later came to be known as Persia. He married Troana and they had a son Tror popularly and more widely known as Thor.
In Egypt there is a huge 70 feet statue that is arguably said to be of him near Thebes. It was partly damaged by an earthquake in 27BC. This accidentally made the statue give out a musical note like a harp string every morning when it is touched by the rays of the rising sun. Some people with superstitious beliefs viewed this phenomenon as Memnon responding to the greeting of his mother Eos the goddess of dawn. However, the sounds were caused by the passage of air through the pores of the stone statue which is primarily caused by a change in temperature at sunrise. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus restored the statue which caused the sound to cease. His fight with Achilles has often been represented in paintings by many Greek artists.
Achilles and Memnon fighting, between Thetis and Eos, Attic black-figure amphora, c. 510 BC, from Vulci (source)
Bust of Memnon (source)
THE TROJAN WAR
There are so many accounts of the legendary Trojan War. However, there seems to be a basic storyline. Paris a prince of Troy and one of the many sons of king Priam of Troy, met and fell in love with Helen. Helen was adjudged to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world, unfortunately for Paris, she was married to King Menelaus of Sparta, although Helen and Paris were both in love with each other.
Depiction of Achilles struck in the heel by an arrow (source)
Paris took Helen and they both fled to Troy. This greatly provoked king Menelaus who was not only angered by the action of Paris but saw it as an embarrassment, disrespect, and insult to the whole of Greece by the Trojan.
Troy was a great and very powerful Kingdom at the time and was highly revered; there was no way Sparta alone could have successfully invaded Troy. In sympathy, all the kings of Greece joined forces with Menelaus and sailed for Troy in a war that would last for about ten years. They included: Agamemnon brother of Menelaus and king of Mycenae (or Argos), Achilles the greatest of the warriors and son of king Peleus of the Myrmidons, Odysseus king of Ithaca, Ajax king of Salamis, Nestor king of Pylos, Phoenix king of the Dolopians and many other mighty Greek warriors.
The odds were stacked against Troy despite their strength; although, they were protected behind the walls of the kingdom which the Greeks found impossible to breach. Several attempts were made to settle the rift between the Trojans and the Greeks like Paris and Menelaus confronting each other in single combat to end the war, but it did not put an end to the hostilities.
King Priam eventually sought the assistance of his powerful nephew Memnon when Hector his son, who was also his best warrior and general of his army was killed by Achilles. In the heat of battle Hector mistook the weaker Patroclus for Achilles, he fought and killed him thinking he was fighting Achilles. Patroclus was Achilles’ best friend and in retaliation Achilles easily killed Hector in single combat. Hector’s death demoralized the Trojan forces and caused panic and fear amongst the men, prompting King Priam to seek help.
MEMNON VS ACHILLES
Achilles was the mightiest warrior in all of Greece; he was the son of King Peleus of the Myrmidons. His mother was Thetis a nymph with divination powers. Greek mythology has it that when he was born, his mother in an attempt to make him immortal dipped him in the river Styx, he was left vulnerable at the heel where he was held while being dipped. He was powerful and has never been defeated in any battle.
Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1625; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) (source)
Memnon, a man of honour, arrived with his powerful army amidst doubt by Troy if he would actually show up. The arrival of Memnon boosted the men’s morale, he attacked and killed many of the Greeks. In the heat of battle and as the Greeks retreated as they were overwhelmed by Memnon’s army and the Trojan forces, Paris shot an arrow and wounded the horse of the chariot of Nestor making him immobile.
Nestor was the king of Pylos. He came to battle with his two sons Antilochus and Thrasymedes. Memnon eventually caught up with him but Nestor’s son Antilochus came to the defence of his father and was slain by Memnon, although there are some who say Memnon killed Antilochus as revenge for killing his dear friend Aesop. Having witnessed his son perish and grief-stricken, he challenged Memnon to single combat, but Memnon a man of honour refused to fight the aged king. Nestor, therefore, pleaded with Achilles to avenge his son’s death, since he was the only person considered the equal to Memnon in strength.
Despite the warning from Achilles’s mother Thesis who had a gift of divination to him not to kill Memnon, as his death will follow not long after Memnon is killed, Achilles proud and unable to resist the temptation of having to prove once and for all who was the greater warrior between himself and the great Memnon ignored the warning and still went ahead to fight him. After a prolonged battle between the two men and even though Memnon injured Achilles in the arm, Achilles pierced Memnon’s heart with his spear killing him.
Memnon’s death greatly demoralized the Trojans and his men. They made a hasty retreat back into the city where there was safety behind its walls with Achilles and his Greek countrymen in hot pursuit. In the confusion, Paris fired an arrow at Achilles from the top of the wall, according to Greek mythology the arrow was guided by Apollo the archer god and it directly struck Achilles piercing his heel, the only vulnerable spot on his body killing him, thus the phrase “Achilles heel.”
There is another less popular version of how Achilles died. It goes that Achilles saw and fell in love with Polyxena daughter of King Priam. He secretly went to seek her hand in marriage, but Paris and his brother Deiphobus ambushed and killed him.
After the death of Memnon his mother Eos mourned him and took his body away, she pleaded with Zeus to make him immortal and accord him honour. Zeus responded by turning the smoke of Memnon’s funeral pyre into birds. The birds are called Memnonides and it is said they return on slated days yearly to Memnon’s grave. As it is usually common with Greek mythologies, there are different versions to what happened to Memnon’s body after he died. Another story goes that Ethiopian warriors cremated his body and took his ashes to his father Tithonus. Some say his ashes were given to his sister Himera.
There are several places that are said to be the tomb of Memnon: in Syria on a hill near river Aesepus; near Paltou in Syria; and also, in Ethiopia.
This story of Memnon lays credence to the involvement of Africans in ancient legendary world events and contradicts the usual narrative of European history that underplays or gives the impression that no Africans played an important role in world history.