Heroes | Classical Wisdom Weekly

Skip to Content

Category Archives: Heroes

[post_grid id="10042"]

Aeneas: Trojan Prince and Founder of Rome

by December 8, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is a towering figure of ancient myth.
He fought at Troy and appears in the Iliad. Yet he is remembered for something much greater. He was seen by the Romans as a paragon of virtue, and one of the founders of their city. One of the world’s most enduring and influential pieces of literature, the Aeneid, was written about him. But who was Aeneas?
The origins of Aeneas
The Greek version of Aeneas is related in two sources: the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the Iliad. According to legends, he was the son of Anchises, a Trojan royal prince. His mother was the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology). Aphrodite had made Zeus fall in love with a human woman; in retaliation, he made her fall in love with a human too, namely Anchises. Aeneas was then born on Mount Ida, and was at first raised by nymphs before being taken to his father in Troy.
In ancient Greek, he was known as Αἰνείας (Aineías). Aeneas is a Latin form of the Greek. It has been speculated that the Greek name Αἰνείας meant originally ‘terrible’ or agony. This could refer to his martial prowess, or relate to the fact that his mother predicted his life of struggle when he was born.
In the Iliad, Aeneas is a fairly minor figure, but he is still portrayed as a noble warrior who is notably pious. At first in the epic, he holds back from the fighting, because he is angry that he has not received recognition from Priam. Later, he leads a mission to retrieve the body of his brother-in-law Alcathous. He is shown as a commander of a group of Trojan allies. During his time in Troy, Aeneas is rescued twice by the gods because he is destined to have a great future…
Aeneas, the founder of Rome
The legend of Aeneas was later adopted by several Roman writers. The Trojan hero was popular with Romans because he embodied qualities that they valued such as ‘pietas’ or commitment to native land, family and duty. The best-known version of the myth of Aeneas is told in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, one of the greatest works in all of Classical literature.
Bust of Virgil
In Roman mythology, the focus is on Aeneas and his adventures after the destruction of Troy. During the fall of the city, Aeneas leads his family and a small group to safety. He then leads them on a mission to find a new home for the surviving Trojans. They attempted to find a new city several times, but each time they failed. Eventually, Aeneas’ father Anchises died in Sicily. Later, Juno sends a storm that drives the Trojans to the shores of Carthage.
There, Aeneas has a six-year affair with the Phoenician Queen Dido. Committed to his duty, he eventually leaves Dido to find a new home for his people. In despair, Dido commits suicide. After arranging funeral games in Sicily, Aeneas lands on the western shores of Italy with his small band. At this time, Aeneas journeys to the Underworld and meets Dido and his father, who predicts that he would establish a great city (Rome).
Aeneas and Dido
Aeneas and Dido
Aeneas and the Foundation of Rome
Returning from the Underworld, Aeneas continued his journeys. The King of the Latins welcomed the Trojans and allowed them to settle in his territory. Aeneas became engaged to the Latin King’s daughter, Lavinia. This leads to a war with Turnus, the Rutulian King and his allies. In this bloody war, Aeneas emerges victorious. The story makes clear that Aeneas won because his cause was right. At this point in the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas ends abruptly, possibly because of the death of Virgil. The story of Aeneas was completed by writers such as Livy and Ovid. After his victory over Turnus, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium, named after his wife Lavinia. The hero had many descendants. One of them became King of Alba Longa, and was the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. After his death, Venus had Jupiter make him immortal and he ascended into the heavens to live like a god.
Aeneas and Roman Culture
The myth of Aeneas was of great cultural significance in Roman civilization. In ancient societies, myths were used to tell the history of peoples and to explain their origin. The story of Aeneas and his adventures was used to explain the foundation of Rome and justify its imperialism. Similarly, the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas was used to explain the enmity between Carthage and Rome. Aeneas was seen as the embodiment of Roman virtues, especially his pietas. The story of the Trojan prince was used to promote social and cultural ideas that had come to be considered essential for Roman greatness. They were also instrumental in teaching and reinforcing Roman ideas on morality and also justifying its empire as something moral and noble.
Conclusion
The stories of Aeneas demonstrate the power of myths and how they can be adapted. The Trojan was a minor figure in the Trojan War. Yet, when the Romans adopted him, he became something of a ‘national hero.’ Aeneas and his adventures were a common subject in Roman literature and art, and the legends of the Trojan were used to explain the history of Rome.
References
Elliot, A., 2013. Aeneas. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 20(3), pp.1-8.
Stahl, H.P., 1981. Aeneas—An’Unheroic’Hero? Arethusa, 14(1), pp.157-177.

Herakles – What’s In A Name?

by November 20, 2021

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
He’s the greatest of the Greek heroes.
There’s probably no other Greek figure that has had more movies, TV shows, and other adaptations based on their tales. Although, in a lot of these cases, it’s not the character’s original Greek name, Herakles, that is used. Rather, we may know him better by his Latinized name of Hercules, as used by the Romans.
What’s in a name, though?
Quite a lot, actually.
In Greek mythology, a character’s name can have very resonant meanings. A brief example would be Antinous from the Odyssey, one of the leaders of the feckless and wasteful suitors. With Odysseus having left his home of Ithaca twenty years previously to fight at Troy, Antinous hopes to wed Odysseus’ wife Penelope in the Greek hero’s absence. His name is a compound of anti, meaning “opposed” (a meaning it still holds today), and nostos, the Greek word for homecoming.  Antinous’ name reflects the role he plays in the Odyssey – he opposes the homecoming of Odysseus. The French academic Nicole Loraux described such instances of Greek names as being ‘micro-narratives’.
Similarly, Herakles’ identity is encoded within his name. Herakles isn’t even his real name. He is born Alcaeus, and later took on the name Herakles himself. But why?
The name Herakles is a compound of the name of the goddesss Hera and the word kleos, an important concept in Greek society, meaning glory or fame. Herakles’ name, therefore, literally means “the glory of Hera”.
Yet this is deeply ironic. Hera is both Herakles’ stepmother and his aunt, but she is not loving towards her demigod relative. Rather, she is furiously antagonistic towards Herakles. Even as a child, she sent snakes to kill him, which he strangled in his cradle. This is because Herakles is one of many of Zeus’ illegitimate children, having been born of the mortal woman Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus. As a living symbol of Zeus’ infidelity, the Greek hero is an object of relentless scorn to Hera. The queen of the gods, therefore, dedicates many efforts to destroying Herakles.
Infant Herakles stopping a snake
Infant Herakles stopping a snake
Even before he was born, Hera sought to undermine him. Before the birth of Herakles, Zeus made a proclamation that the descendent of Perseus born the following day would become King of Mycenae. Hera then contrived to delay the birth of Herakles, so that her favoured figure, Eurystheus, could instead be born first, thus allowing him to become King, instead of Herakles. This established a dynamic which is invoked in the Iliad as a reflection of the distinctions between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles, like Herakles, is the figure of greater heroism, yet is socially inferior to the much less heroic figure of Agamemnon (or his counterpart, Eurystheus).
As an adult, it is Hera who caused madness to descend on Herakles, leading to him killing his children (and in some versions, his wife). This, in turn, led him to seek atonement by visiting the court of his cousin and champion of Hera, King Eurystheus, who then sends Herakles on his famous twelve labours.
It is on these labours that Herakles battles such enduring figures of myth as the Hydra, or Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades.  Yet, it is from these hardships that he gains his glory. Her attempts to destroy Herakles ultimately backfire, and inadvertently grant the hero greater and greater renown. Herakles, therefore, draws his glory (kleos) from Hera. Herakles chooses his name to reflect this.
Herakles and Cerberus
Herakles and Cerberus
The linguistics of the name Hera itself open up further layers. The name Hera is linguistically related to two other very relevant Greek words – the first of which is hōrā (plural hōrai), meaning ‘season’ or ‘the right time’. This is the word from which we get the modern word hour. The name Herakles, therefore, also carries this connotation within it. He is, in a sense, ‘the glory of the right time’. This again is ironic, as Herakles was born, seemingly, at the wrong time. Yet, just as Hera’s other attempts to destroy him backfired, so did this original attempt to undermine him. His late birth is ultimately what put on him on the path towards the glory gained in the twelve labours. Maybe he was born at the ‘right’ time after all.
These themes of time and ‘untimeliness’ with regards to the myths of Herakles are explored further in Euripides’ play Herakles, one of a number of Greek tragedies dealing with the demigod. It is somewhat similar to his play on Helen, in that it presents a notable departure from the more famous versions of the tale. Strangely, Herakles is presented as having returned from his labours before the frenzy of madness that causes him to kill his family takes place. Although this may seem unusual at first, it is part of a broader examination of the role of time and timing within the myths of Herakles.
Much like one of Euripides’ most famous plays Medea, Herakles deals with the horror of the violence of Homeric warfare entering the world of the oikos, or home. When Herakles is in the midst of his frenzy, he believes that he is fighting his enemy Eurystheus while committing these acts of violence. Within the Homeric code of Euripides’ own day, Herakles actions would be justified by being on a battlefield, yet they are, naturally, horrific when they occur within the home. According to the Homeric code, Herakles actions themselves weren’t wrong – the timing was simply wrong. Euripides, it seems, doesn’t find fault with Herakles himself, but with the prevailing moral code of his day, where the same actions can be rendered just or unjust by something as arbitrary as timing. This reinforces the irony of the hero’s name having the connotation of ‘the glory of the right time.’
Utimately, Euripides’ version of Herakles is granted a different sort of atonement, through the friendship of Theseus, and by implication, the city of Athens. To Euripides, it seems that it wasn’t violence on the battlefield or great deeds that made Herakles great, but rather his innermost character of nobility and decency, the qualities that ensure his friendship with Theseus.
Finally, Hera is also linguistically connected to the Greek word hērōs, meaning hero. This means that the name could be read as “the glory of the hero.” A fitting title, then, for the most enduring of Greek heroes.
It turns out, there’s a lot in a name!

Memnon: the Mythical King of the Ethiopians

by October 12, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.
Origin of Memnon
Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.
Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.
As a warrior, he was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Some stories claimed that he conquered great swathes of the east. He was considered to be a very handsome man and possessed all the masculine virtues. It appears that he maintained close ties with the home city of his father. At some point Memnon married a Trojan Queen, Troana Ilium.
Memnon and Achilles fighting
Memnon and Achilles fighting on 4th-century Greek vase
Little is known about the early life of the great hero because the epic poems based on his life have sadly been lost.
Memnon and the Trojan War
When Achilles killed Hector, it appeared that Troy, without its great champion was doomed. Priam, the King of Troy implored the Gods to help him and his people in their darkest hour. The Gods heard his pleas and told Memnon to leave Ethiopia to fight the Achaeans. According to a post-Homeric account of the Trojan War, the Ethiopian king traveled to Troy with a huge army. This included specialist units and soldiers that all had ‘a terrifying warlike appearance’. He and his men were so numerous that they had to camp outside the walls of the city because it could not accommodate them all.
Memnon and the Trojans attacked the Greeks and a brutal battle ensued. The Ethiopian king was described as riding in a chariot and killing many Greeks. Then in many accounts, Memnon dueled with Antilochus, the son of Nestor. After single combat Memnon killed Antilochus, who was considered to be one of the greatest warriors in all of Greece.
The walls of Troy
The walls of Troy
After the death of Antilochus, the Greek army panicked and was driven back almost to their ships; it seemed that they were on the verge of a complete defeat. Then along came mighty Achilles and he challenged Memnon to single combat. The two great heroes were evenly matched. While the two were both the favorites of the Gods, the Olympians agreed not to help one or the other.
In the fight, Achilles was simply too quick and strong for Memnon. He was able to thrust his spear through the shield of the Ethiopian King, pierce his side and then he finish him off with a thrust of his sword to the throat. With the death of their leader, the mighty Ethiopian army fled in terror. According to legend, some stayed with their king to bury him and they were turned into birds that would remove the dust from their dead lord’s tomb.
Bust of Memnon
Bust of Memnon
One story relates that the Gods collected all the spilled blood of the hero and turned it into a mighty river. On the anniversary of his death, it would turn red.
According to another tradition, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so moved by the tears of the goddess of the Dawn that he raised Memnon from the dead and he became become immortal.
The legend of Memnon
Both the Romans and the Greeks revered him. He was the subject of many works of art. Memnon’s image appeared on vases and there are many sculptures depicting the great Ethiopian. Tragically, a Greek epic poem on his death has been largely lost, and we only have fragments of the work.
There are many who believe that Memnon was possibly based on an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some academics argue that instead it was one of the Nubian kings from the Kushite Dynasty, that ruled Egypt for over a century. Others still think that he was based on the great Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep III.
Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon
When the Romans conquered Egypt, they believed that many of the statues of Pharaohs represented Memnon. The statues of Amenhotep III, of the 18th Dynasty, were called the Colossi of Memnon by the Romans. One of these statues was believed to have made sounds when struck by the light of dawn.
References:

Power and Fate: The Aristocrats in the Iliad

by December 3, 2019

By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

We are all familiar with Homer’s Iliad. We know about the Trojan War, the romance between Paris and Helen and the mighty Olympian gods. Most of all, we know the heroes. Whether it is Achilles, Odysseus or Ajax, they all possess outstanding characteristics such as bravery, physical skill, and virtue.

But we must also acknowledge that these Homeric heroes did not enjoy these attributes by mere chance. They, in fact, were conceived in this way as embodying another group of individuals, one which was to be portrayed as close to the gods.

In Homer’s Greek, Heroes meant lord, that is, the ruling class. In this way, the heroes were to some extent god-like, looking down on commoners, just as deities looked down on mortals.

Achilles Statue

Wellington Monument (Achilles)

The gods of the Iliad are also anthropomorphic, matching a rational and human notion of the divinity. Yet, unlike us humans, these gods are not tied to fate. In the Homeric notion of fate, all human beings have their “good” and “bad” experiences predestined by birth, as well as their limitations as mortals. In this way, fate is inevitable, and trying to go against it is but an insolence to the gods.

But what about heroes/aristocrats? Well, it is in their fate to excel, as they do in the Iliad, both in leading their troops and in combat. Nonetheless, they are also fated to death. The goddess Hera says to Achilles:

Atropos

Atropos

your fate still stays the same, to die in war,
killed by a mortal and a god.

To which he responds:

I know well enough I’m fated to die here,
far from my loving parents. No matter.
I will not stop till I have driven the Trojans
to the limit of what they can endure in war.

Achilles’ approach to facing his fate matches the death for which aristocrats wished. This was a manly, beautiful, and valiant death in battle: the so-called kalos kagathos. It is in their fate to achieve it. The nobles, after all, are inferior to the gods, who in turn, appear jealous of these mortals’ bravery.

Athena Statue

Athena Statue

At the same time, in the Iliad heroes can even succeed (although shortly) in transgressing their limitations as mortals. For instance, the Achaean hero Diomedes, with the help of the gods, goes as far as hurting Aphrodite and Ares. As something unthinkable for a mortal to do, Diomedes’ transgression of his fate implies him to have great power. As such, only a very few capable, powerful individuals can transgress their mortal limitations. Who? The heroes, that is, the aristocracy.

In this sense, “fate” in the Iliad is also present with another message: to keep in line those who dare against the ruling class. We are said that not everyone is equal. The composition of the Iliad coincided with a warrior noble class that controlled both the Greek land and wealth.

Homer Singing for the People

Homer Singing for the People

This was certainly a message they wanted to communicate not to us, but to their community. The Iliad, as well as the other parts of the “Epic Cycle”, came from an oral tradition. On the one hand, the poem’s structure is made to be read aloud and reach a wide and illiterate audience; on the other, these poems contain and communicate, above all, tradition. As such, the narrative seeks to show the story not as a past event, but as a mirror to the present world, the very same in which its listeners live.

In this way, the aristocratic presence in the Iliad is not a minor component. It underlies the very culture on which the poem was conceived and to which we must dive into to understand both the story and people who heard it.

Perseus: The Original Hero

by October 30, 2019

By Katherine Smyth, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Of divine conception, saved from certain death, and raised to manhood by his mother, Perseus’ life was never destined to be boring. But just who is the man behind the myth, and how did he achieve such legendary status? Keep reading and you’ll discover just who this hero really is.

The Name Behind the Man

Scholars have discussed the origin of Perseus’ name for years. Some assert that it is of Proto-Indo-European origin, others that it is closely linked to the name of the Goddess of Death, Persephone. But why should a young man carry such association? Well, his name is fitting if Robert Graves’ theory is correct, that πέρθειν (pérthein) means “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”. Meanwhile, Carl Darling Buck’s assertion that -eus is a suffix to create an agent noun, and thus Pers-eus becomes a sacker of cities…and Perseus definitely devastated the world around him as the classical world’s first recognizable warrior.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

A Divine Conception

So, how did he become this formidable warrior? Well, Perseus’ arrival into the world may sound a little familiar. As with many kings of his time, Acrisius, King of Argos, was fixated with having a male heir. Unfortunately for him, the Fates saw fit to give him only daughters. Danae, Perseus’ mother, was one of two daughters to the King of Argos and the only legitimate offspring.

Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi regarding his predicament and was told that the son of his daughter would one day kill him. Incensed at this news, he then imprisoned his virgin daughter Danae in the palace, inside a bronze chamber open only to the sky. However, Danae was a woman of extraordinary beauty and she had caught the eye of Zeus, who then came to her in a shower of gold. Thus, Perseus was conceived by divine means.

Rembrandt's Danaë, c. 1636.

Rembrandt’s Danaë, c. 1636.

In time, the boy-child was born and Acrisius began to panic. Fearful of offending the great god Zeus, he chose not to kill the child; instead he cast both mother and child into the sea in a wooden box and left their fate to Poseidon. Whilst the waves lapped at the sides of the box, Danae prayed to the gods to be spared and was shortly, thereafter, washed ashore on the island of Seriphos. Dictys, a local fisherman, rescued the stranded mother and child, gave them shelter and helped raise Perseus to manhood.

Destiny Awaits

Once Perseus was grown his life took a turn that only the Fates could foresee. Whilst Dictys was a trustworthy man who respected Danae, his brother, Polydectes the King of Seriphos, was less than honorable. Perseus, fearing for his mother’s safety, kept the king from her door. Angered and feeling slighted, Polydectes hatched a plan to rid himself of the youth and bed Danae.

Perseus and the Sea Nymphs

Perseus and the Sea Nymphs (The Arming of Perseus) by SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES (1833-1898)

Polydectes organized a great party and the invitation was more of a summons with an extravagant gift as a requirement. What was the price of attendance? Horses, something Polydectes knew Perseus did not have. He also knew the young man would not offend the king by refusing to attend. To avoid punishment for his inability to present the requisite gift, Perseus asked Polydectes to name a gift he would accept as a substitute. Polydectes’ trap was a success; he asked the impetuous youth to get him the head of the mortal Gorgon Medusa, the woman whose gaze turned mankind to stone on the instant.

The Legend Sets Forth

Luckily for our young hero, Athena gave Perseus information on how to locate the Hesperides; the nymphs who cared for Hera’s orchard and the keepers of the weapons he’d need to defeat Medusa. In order to secure these weapons, however, Perseus would have to extract their location from the Greae; sisters of the Gorgons who had only one eye and one tooth which they shared between them.

Perseus with the Sisters of the Gorgon

Perseus, being an agile young man, snatched the eye mid-air from the Graea and held it ransom for the location of the Hesperides. Once the information was gained, he handed the eye back the perpetual crones. The Hesperides gave Perseus a kibisis, or knapsack, to hold Medusa’s head once he’d killed her. Zeus armed his son with an adamantine sword, along with Hades’ helmet of darkness – which Zeus ‘borrowed’ – so that Perseus could sneak up on Medusa. Hermes and Athena also helped Perseus on his quest by loaning him winged sandals and a polished shield respectively. Thus armed, Perseus sought his quarry.

Into the darkness of the cave Perseus crept. There he discovered Medusa sleeping, viewing her slumbering form as a reflection in his shield. With a swift stroke Perseus severed Medusa’s head from her body and snatched the bundle of snake-hair into the kibisis before fleeing from the scene. The story of Pegasus and Chrysoar begin from this bloody-thirsty episode; both the winged-horse and golden-sworded son were born from the bleeding neck of the Gorgon.

Perseus and Medusa Vase, Attic Red figure, ca. 460 B.C

Now, with the head of Medusa safely in the bag, Perseus set off to return to the island of Seriphos. On the way he stopped at Aethiopia, where he met King Cephus and Queen Cassiopeia, a woman who was not burdened with humility, and their beautiful daughter, Andromeda.

The King and Queen had insulted Poseidon and his offspring due to boasting of their daughter’s great and unmatched beauty that was far superior to that of the nymphs. As such, their land was being flooded as punishment and the only way to appease the sea god was to kill Andromeda by feeding her to Cetus, Poseidon’s pet monster.

This is the predicament that met Perseus on his arrival, and being the hero that he was, he intercepted Cetus and killed the beast before taking Andromeda as his wife. Andromeda sailed happily away with Perseus to Tiryns in Argos, and eventually became the ancestress of the royal family who ruled the kingdom of Perseidae, through her son Perses.

Perseus and Andromeda

The Doom Fulfilled, 1888, Southampton City Art Gallery, part of a series of paintings revolving around Perseus, created by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones

Not forgetting his mother’s plight, Perseus then returned to Seriphos, and discovered that Polydectes advances had become violent. His mother was now forced to hide in mountain caves to escape the King. Perseus sought out Polydectes, and killed him on-sight by showing him the bounty of his quest: Medusa’s head. With Polydectes turned to stone, and his mother safe, Perseus made Dictys the new King with his mother as consort.

With his mother protected and happy, Perseus then returned his magical aides to their owners, and gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who then set it upon Zeus’ shield, which she was charged with keeping. It is perhaps this respect that Perseus showed Athena that ensured honor to Andromeda upon her death; she was placed in the heavens as a constellation, near her husband and mother.

Andromeda Galaxy

Prophecy Fulfilled

Perseus then returned with his wife to Argos. There are several variations of how Perseus fulfills the prophecy of slaying his grandfather. One is that upon hearing of his grandson’s return and approach, Acrisius exiled himself to Pelasgiotis (Thessaly). There, the King of Larissa, Teutamides, holds funeral games for his father and they are interrupted when Perseus accidentally kills Acrisius during the discus event.

Another version has it that Acrisius’ twin brother, Proetus, drove the King into exile after seizing the kingdom. Perseus turns his uncle to stone with the Gorgon’s head and restores his grandfather to the throne. However, Acrisius insults Perseus by stating that the hero lied, Perseus then shows the king the head and the prophecy is fulfilled.

The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The third version is that Perseus did not return to Argos, instead that he went to Larissa. There, at the funeral games, he displayed his newly invented game called ‘quoits’ and an errant ring flew loose striking King Acrisius; it killed him instantly and fulfilled the prophecy.

Now with Acrisius dead, Perseus was by default the next King. But, as he was also responsible for his death, he was unable to inherit due to manslaughter laws and a guilty conscious. Rather than go into exile himself and abandon his people, Perseus swapped his throne in Argos with his cousin’s throne in Tiryns. With both kingdoms then safe under the rule of the cousins, life settled down for Perseus, at least for a little while.

Sadly, Megapenthes, son of Proetus, could not forgive and forget the family rivalry over the kingdom of Argos. After many years of peace, Megapenthes sought out his cousin and avenged the death of his father Proetus. This act of aggression, unfortunately, catapulted the two families into several generations of disputes, battles and persecutions that would eventually leave the kingdom of Argos to a distant third family line.

Perseus Turning Phineus and his followers to Stone, by Luca Giordano

Perseus’ Legacy

As a legacy, Perseus was the great-grandfather of Heracles, by his son Electryon, and became the progenitor of the Persian peoples by his son Perses. He has been portrayed as a rider of the tamed Pegasus, where he replaced Bellephron since classical times, and of course, as the constellation that bears his name that still watches over us from the northern sky.

So, whilst the origin of his name may remain shrouded in mystery, the hero Perseus certainly left his mark on ancient Greece and western civilization at large. Son of the god of all gods Zeus, he protected his blessed mother and was a hero to his nation, and the progenitor of one of mythology’s greatest heroes. Perseus truly is the Original Hero.

Memnon: the Mythical King of the Ethiopians

by October 7, 2019

One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.

Memnon on an Attic Vase

Memnon on an Attic Vase 5th century BC

Origin of Memnon

Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.

Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.

As a warrior, he was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Some stories claimed that he conquered great swathes of the east. He was considered to be a very handsome man and possessed all the masculine virtues. It appears that he maintained close ties with the home city of his father. At some point Memnon married a Trojan Queen, Troana Ilium.

Memnon and Achilles fighting

Memnon and Achilles fighting on 4th-century Greek vase

Little is known about the early life of the great hero because the epic poems based on his life have sadly been lost.

Memnon and the Trojan War

When Achilles killed Hector, it appeared that Troy, without its great champion was doomed. Priam, the King of Troy implored the Gods to help him and his people in their darkest hour. The Gods heard his pleas and told Memnon to leave Ethiopia to fight the Achaeans. According to a post-Homeric account of the Trojan War, the Ethiopian king traveled to Troy with a huge army. This included specialist units and soldiers that all had ‘a terrifying warlike appearance’. He and his men were so numerous that they had to camp outside the walls of the city because it could not accommodate them all.

Memnon and the Trojans attacked the Greeks and a brutal battle ensued. The Ethiopian king was described as riding in a chariot and killing many Greeks. Then in many accounts, Memnon dueled with Antilochus, the son of Nestor. After single combat Memnon killed Antilochus, who was considered to be one of the greatest warriors in all of Greece.

The walls of Troy

The walls of Troy

After the death of Antilochus, the Greek army panicked and was driven back almost to their ships; it seemed that they were on the verge of a complete defeat. Then along came mighty Achilles and he challenged Memnon to single combat. The two great heroes were evenly matched. While the two were both the favorites of the Gods, the Olympians agreed not to help one or the other.

In the fight, Achilles was simply too quick and strong for Memnon. He was able to thrust his spear through the shield of the Ethiopian King, pierce his side and then he finish him off with a thrust of his sword to the throat. With the death of their leader, the mighty Ethiopian army fled in terror. According to legend, some stayed with their king to bury him and they were turned into birds that would remove the dust from their dead lord’s tomb.

Bust of Memnon

Bust of Memnon

One story relates that the Gods collected all the spilled blood of the hero and turned it into a mighty river. On the anniversary of his death, it would turn red.

According to another tradition, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so moved by the tears of the goddess of the Dawn that he raised Memnon from the dead and he became become immortal.

The legend of Memnon

Both the Romans and the Greeks revered him. He was the subject of many works of art. Memnon’s image appeared on vases and there are many sculptures depicting the great Ethiopian. Tragically, a Greek epic poem on his death has been largely lost, and we only have fragments of the work.

There are many who believe that Memnon was possibly based on an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some academics argue that instead it was one of the Nubian kings from the Kushite Dynasty, that ruled Egypt for over a century. Others still think that he was based on the great Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep III.

Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

When the Romans conquered Egypt, they believed that many of the statues of Pharaohs represented Memnon. The statues of Amenhotep III, of the 18th Dynasty, were called the Colossi of Memnon by the Romans. One of these statues was believed to have made sounds when struck by the light of dawn.

References:

Griffith, R. D. (1998). The origin of Memnon. Classical Antiquity, 17(2), 212-234.
Cline, E. H. (2013). The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction (Vol. 356). Oxford University Press.