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.