In Greek mythology, Tithonus was the beautiful son of Laomedon and Strymo, daughter of the Scamander River. His brother was Priam, king of Troy. He was beloved by Eos, goddess of dawn. It was through her that Tithonus achieved immortality, but not eternal youth. Thus, he withered as he grew old and was eventually turned into a cicada, a loud chirping insect.
In his youth, Tithonus was so good-looking that he attracted the amorous attentions of Eos, goddess of dawn, and she carried him off to be her lover. He fathered two children by her—Memnon and Emathion. The abduction of mortals by deities for sexual purposes is a common theme in Greek mythology. Usually, the gods have their way with the humans and then abandon them immediately. Eos herself, for example, had other liaisons at various times with the humans Cleitos and Orion, and she attempted another with Cephalus, but these were no more than brief encounters. The goddess's love for Tithonus was more enduring than any of the others. It survived until Tithonus grew old and his hair turned white. At this point, Eos finally left him, but even then she let him remain in her palace. There he continued to feed on ambrosia (the food of the gods) and wear celestial clothing. At length, however, Tithonus lost the use of his limbs, and Eos then shut him up in his bedchamber, from which his feeble voice could still be heard from time to time.
If nature had been left to take its course, Tithonus would have died. While he was shut away, however, Eos had carried off another mortal, the beautiful boy Ganymede. Zeus wanted this youth for himself, to serve as cupbearer to the gods on Mount Olympus. Although Eos had to submit to the chief god's will, she was entitled to ask him to compensate her for the loss of Ganymede. Her request was that Tithonus be made immortal.
Zeus granted her wish to the letter, but unfortunately she had phrased it badly. Eos had demanded only that her lover be given eternal life; she had not said anything about eternal youth, or even about arresting the rate of his physical decay. Thus Tithonus was trapped forever in his disintegrating body. He became more and more decrepit and wizened until Eos finally took pity on him and turned him into a cicada. The insect endlessly croaked his one remaining desire—to be allowed to die.
This story is one of the oldest in Greek mythology—parts of it were recounted by poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE). The chirruping noise made by Tithonus after he was turned into a cicada is thought to have been the "unquenched voice" referred to in the "Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite," a poem from the sixth century BCE.
Memnon grew up to become king of the Ethiopians. He dwelled in Africa until the start of the Trojan War, when he promptly answered the call to assist his father's kinsmen. His uncle, King Priam, received him with great honors, and listened attentively as Memnon recounted a series of vivid stories about life in Ethiopia. Only a day after his arrival, however, Memnon grew tired of reminiscence, became impatient for action, and led his troops into the field. He slew Antilochus, son of Nestor, and the Greek forces broke up in disarray until their champion, Achilles, entered the fray and faced Memnon in single combat. The battle between the two men was long and hard, but eventually the Greek prevailed and Memnon was killed. The Trojans fled the scene. Eos, who had looked on helplessly from the heavens as her son was slain, then sent winds to carry his body to the banks of the Esepus River in Paphlagonia, an ancient region of northern Anatolia (part of modern Turkey). In the evening the goddess traveled there and mourned her son. In another version of the story, Memnon's body was wafted back to Ethiopia, where mourners raised his tomb in the grove of the nymphs near a stream. Zeus then turned the sparks and cinders of Memnon's funeral pyre into birds. The creatures divided into two flocks that fought each other for the pile of ashes until they fell into the flames and were burned as sacrificial victims. Every year thereafter, on the anniversary of Memnon's death, other flocks of birds returned to the scene and fought to their deaths.
Eos was inconsolable over the loss of her son. Her endless tears could be seen early in the morning in the form of dewdrops on the grass. At a certain location on the banks of the Nile River in Egypt stood a great statue of Memnon. According to legend, when the first rays of the rising sun fell on this effigy, it emitted a mournful sound like the snapping of a harp string.
Emathion, the other son of Tithonus and Eos, became king of Arabia. He was killed by Heracles during the hero's 11th labor, the recovery of the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. Emathion's offspring became rulers of Macedon, so he was thus one of the mythical ancestors of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE).
The story of Tithonus has inspired many artists and writers since classical antiquity. Of the ancient authors who covered the topic, the most famous was Roman poet Ovid (47 BCE–17 CE) in the Metamorphoses. One of the best-known quotations in English literature—"And after many a summer dies the swan"—comes from the poem "Tithonus" by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). In this work the eponymous hero laments his fate, saying sadly of himself: "Me only cruel immortality consumes."
See also: ACHILLES; EOS; GANYMEDE; HERACLES; LAOMEDON; MEMNON; PRIAM; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and A. D. Melville, trans.
- Tennyson, Alfred, and Christopher Ricks, ed. A Collection of Poems by Alfred Tennyson. Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1972.
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