Ethiopia in Western Culture

King Memnon

In the Odyssey of Homer, the main protagonist Ulysses speaks about the valiant and beautiful prince Eurypylus, and says (11,522):

κεῖνον δὴ κάλλιστον ἴδον μετὰ Μέμνονα δῖον.

kèinon de kàlliston ìdon metà Mèmnona dìon.

He was the most beautiful man I saw, next to the divine Memnon

In Odyssey 4,188 Homers makes another reference to him, calling him “the splendid son of the bright Eos“. The greek goddess Eos, that will be known among Romas as “Aurora”, is the personification of the Dawn, son of Hyperyon the sun deity.

Memnon, whose supreme beauty was confessed by his enemy in war, Ulysses, was so mentioned in the “Theogony” of Hesiod (984-985):

Τιθωνῷ δ᾽ Ἠὼς τέκε Μέμνονα χαλκοκορυστήν,
Αἰθιόπων βασιλῆα,

Tithonò d’Eos tèke Mèmnona xalkokorustèn,
Aithiòpon basilea

And Eos bore to Tithonus bronze-crested Memnon, king of the Ethiopians“.

As we have already seen, according to Greek mythological tradition the Ethiopians were the first to be visited by the sun in its course, as they lived next to its abode, therefore the “son of the Dawn” was the King of Ethiopia, place of the dawn of history and human life.

It is said that Memnon went to Troy with his own soldiers to defend the city from the Greek invaders. When he reached the battlefield, he stood out as the most powerful warrior on the side of Troy: he killed many Greek warriors and greatly raised the morale of Trojan army. He also killed Anthiocus, dear friend of Achilles, and provoked his desire for revenge. The duel between Achilles and Memnon represents a crucial point in the war, and it is told that even Zeus was personally there to witness. Memnon had divine weapons forged by the god Hephaestus, and was the only one able to make the invincible Achilles bleed. But Achilles was immortal, and finally managed to slay Memnon. Nevertheless, because of his killing a so noble man, he was cursed, and soon after was shot by Paris on his heel, the only vulnerable part of his body, and died.

The intervention of Memnon in the Trojan war is the central theme of the “Aithiopis” Αἰθιοπίς , another book traditionally attributed to Homer, that shows the mythological preminence of Ethiopia in Greek culture. This important work of old is lost, we know its content only indirectly and only few verses are known today.

The latin writer Ovidius, in his “Metamorphoses” (13, 576) dedicated a whole section to the death of Memnon, that terribly afflicted His mother Aurora and covered the sky with clouds of sadness on that day. The morning dew is explained there as the tears that Aurora still sheds everyday and everywhere for the death of Memnon the Ethiopian.


Ethiopia in Western Culture

Homer – The Iliad – 1

The divine glory of Ethiopia is clearly expressed in the “Iliad” of the greatest greek poet, Homer.
In Iliad Book 1 verses 423-425 Tethis speaks with Achilles her son, and suggests him to not join the war, and to wait few days the return of Zeus, that was not available at that time and could not help him:
Ζεὺς γὰρ ἐς Ὠκεανὸν μετ᾽ἀμύμονας Αἰθιοπῆας
χθιζὸς ἔβη κατὰ δαῖτα, θεοὶ δ᾽ἅμα πάντες ἕποντο
δωδεκάτῃ δέ τοι αὖτις ἐλεύσεται Οὔλυμπον δέ
“Zeus went yesterday to Oceanus, to the blameless Ethiopians for a feast, and all the gods followed with him; but on the twelfth day he will come back again to Olympus”.
Zeus, the head of all the greek gods, had the habit to spend his holydays in Ethiopia, to join Ethiopian banquets and feasts and cut off the rest of the world business for 12 days.
The coming down of Zeus in Ethiopia is an image of incarnation and coming of Christ.
Oceanus was also a Greek Divinity, he was traditionally represented with dark complexion and recognized as an Ethiopian (attached picture), and in the same Iliad (XIV, 201), Homer said about him:
Ὠκεανόν τε θεῶν γένεσιν / Okeanòn te Teòn Gènesin
“Oceanus the Genesis of the Gods”. Therefore, Ethiopia was declared as the original motherland of life.
The Ethiopians were “blameless”, and the Gods especially loved their sacrifices, their celebrations, their company. Therefore, they were declared by Homer as Chosen People of holiness.
That’s why the goddess Iris, again in the Iliad (XXIII, 205-207), is invited to join a greek feast, but she prefers the Ethiopians:
ἣ δ᾽αὖθ᾽ ἕζεσθαι μὲν ἀνήνατο, εἶπε δὲ μῦθον:
οὐχ ἕδος: εἶμι γὰρ αὖτις ἐπ᾽ Ὠκεανοῖο ῥέεθρα
Αἰθιόπων ἐς γαῖαν, ὅθι ῥέζουσ᾽ ἑκατόμβας
ἀθανάτοις, ἵνα δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ μεταδαίσομαι ἱρῶν.
“But she refused to sit, and spake saying: ‘I may not sit, for I must go back unto the streams of Oceanus, unto the land of the Ethiopians, where they are sacrificing hecatombs to the immortals, that I too may share in the sacred feast.’ “