Words Crush Wednesday; M is for Memnon

Published April 15, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Since it’s M-day in the April A-to-Z blogging challenge, I wanted to write about Memnon, but it’s also Words Crush Wednesday, which made this a bit more difficult.  Because the best Memnon sources are lost.  (There was the epic poem Aithiopis, and both Aeschylos and Sophocles wrote plays about him, but those are lost, too.  There aren’t even very many fragments, and certainly none that are of any use.)  So I ended up turning to the Posthomerica of Quintus Smyrnaeus.  The translation is by Alan James.  (I skipped over some bits that were talking about Achilles and the Greeks with […], because this is supposed to be about Memnon.)

When over the lofty mountaintops the morning star
Rose shining into the sky’s expanse awaking to toil
From their sweet slumbers the binders of the sheaves,
The warrior son of Dawn, the goddess who brings us light,
For the last time freed from sleep and feeling his strength increase,
Was eager to engage the foe without delay.
Dawn, however, rose to the sky against her will.
The Trojans then arrayed themselves in their armor,
And likewise did the Aithiopians and all the hosts
Of allies who had gathered in support of Priam,
In fullest force.  At full speed form the walls they surged,
Just like the inky clouds that the son of Kronos
Gathers in the heavy air when a storm is rising.
Soon the plain was completely filled, as they streamed forward
Like a swarm of grain-devouring locusts that moves
Like a cloud or storm of rain across the face of the earth,
Their appetite bringing the horror of hunger to mortal men.
Just so that mighty multitude moved and all the earth
Was crowded as they went, dust rising from under their feet.
So brilliant was Peleus’ son as he moved among the Argives.
So too amid the Trojans went the warlike Memnon
With all the fury of the war god, while his forces
Eagerly kept pace behind their king.
No less on the other side the splendid son of Dawn
Was slaughtering the Argives like evil Fate itself,
Which brings to nations the horror of utter ruin.
First he brought down Pheron, struck in the chest
By his deadly spear, and next he killed the noble Ereuthos,
Both enthusiastic for the horrors of war.
From their home at Thryon beside the river Alpheus
They’d come under Nestor’s command to the holy city of Ilion.
After dispatching these he went for Neleus’ son Nestor,
Intent on killing him.  But godlike Antilochos
Then stepped in front and aimed his spear, just missing Memnon,
Who moved aside, but killing Memnon’s beloved companion
Aithops the son of Pyrrasos.  Enraged at his death,
Memnon leapt at Antilochos like a fearsome lion
At a boar, which also is able to face in combat
Both men and beasts alike; its charge is hard to resist.
As Memnon came charging in, Antilochos struck him
With a great rock but did not rob him of his life,
His solid helmet saving him from a painful death.
Memnon’s heart was roused to fury by the blow.
The ringing of his helmet maddened him yet more
Against Antilochos, and all his strength was boiling.
And so the son of Nestor, good fighter though he was,
Was struck above the breast.  The massive spear was driven
Into his heart, where death comes quickly to mortal men.

And, just a short while later, after Nestor has told his other son, Thrasymedes, what happened to Antilochos, he and another Pylian, Phereus, are determined to avenge Antilochos, but their spears missed Memnon.

He was now beside the body [of Antilochos]
Undoing its brazen armor with his unwearied hands,
Unconcerned by the strength of Thrasymedes and Phereus,
Knowing how far he was their better.  They were like jackals
Frightened by a lion that stands astride a stag,
Losing the will to make an advance.

That makes Antilochos, like Patroclos, one of the only Greeks to lose his armor to the enemies.  Usually, the Greeks are depicted as saving their fallen comrades’ armor.  (Though in Patroclos’ case, he lost the armor while he was still living.  Because Apollo cheats.)  But I love comparing Memnon, the Ethiopian, to a powerful and noble lion, while comparing the two Greeks to jackals.  It’s great to see him get such high praise, especially since by Quintus’ time, Ethiopia was a name affixed to a real place in Africa, whereas when the myths first started, it was a purely mythical land to the far west.  (Seriously.)

Of course, not everything Quintus said about Memnon was flattering (in fact, much of it wasn’t, and he didn’t even repeat the Homeric assertion that Memnon was the most handsome man anyone had ever seen) and, like Penthesileia, he had him killed in his very first battle by an Achilles who didn’t really seem to take him seriously.  That, of course, is why I would have preferred not to use Quintus for this.

I want to share something else from Quintus, though, while I’m at it.  The night before the battle in which Memnon is going to die, Zeus addresses the other gods:

“Know this, all you deities–grievous suffering approaches
In tomorrow’s battle.  Many a mighty horse
You will see slaughtered beside their chariots on either side
And warriors dying.  Whatever concern you feel for them,
You must stay where you are and not come falling at my knees
In supplication; the Fates are no less cruel to us.”

I thought that was intriguing for two reasons.  The first, and most obvious one, is the assertion that the gods, too, can die in battle, or at least that they can–and will!–die.  This may have been a Christian influence on Quintus, a slight nod that the Greek gods were not God, or at least a nod to his Christian readers.  (We know almost nothing about Quintus, only the few things he says about himself in the poem, but a Christian priest among those killed at the orders of the last pagan Emperor identified himself as the son of “Quintus the poet” and used the same dialect of Greek, and a similar vocabulary, so it’s usually assumed, for lack of more information, that the Quintus that priest referred to was the Quintus of Smyrna who wrote the Posthomerica.  And that makes it possible that Quintus, too, was Christian, and even if he wasn’t, it’s at least probable that he respected Christians and Christianity, given his (probable) son’s devotion to the religion.)

The other reason I find that passage interesting is because Zeus is forbidding something that earlier poets (and vase paintiners!) had happen.  During the lengthy duel between Achilles and Memnon, their divine mothers were both pleading with Zeus to let their son be the victor, and Zeus is supposed to have weighed their souls–as he did with Achilles and Hector in the Iliad–to see which one should/would win.  Aeschylos  devoted an entire play to the weighing of souls between Achilles and Memnon (the only play in which we know for a fact that Zeus was depicted on-stage) in response to the pleas of their mothers, so it’s surprising that Quintus here has Zeus forbidding that action from taking place.  I suspect that–just as in places where he skips over bits described in detail in the Odyssey–he did so specifically because earlier poets had dealt with the subject matter.  He didn’t want to try to repeat what already existed–and perhaps at least subconsciously acknowledged that his wouldn’t be as good?–so he left it out.  Unfortunately, the soul-weighing motif between Achilles and Memnon has since been lost (technically, we don’t actually know for sure that Aeschylos’ version still existed in Quintus’ day, but it seems possible, if not probable) so we’re left with very little on that score.


One comment on “Words Crush Wednesday; M is for Memnon

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