The Voice of Memnon
“Long ago I had a voice that could lament, which wept for Memnon’s sorrows. Now my cries are inarticulate and unclear.”
—Part of a graffito poem carved into the left leg of the statue, written by Cæcilia Trebulla some time around 100AD. Translated and published in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p.10.
The English-language names for many places in Egypt are actually Greek, an oddity which requires some explanation. Classical Egyptian culture hasn’t left much of a mark on our own, but the Ancient Greeks were fascinated by them and our own culture has a foundation laid down by Aristotle, Plato, and their ilk. If a Greek writer needed to add some heft and history to his work, he’d often use Egypt as a screen—for example, the whole story of Atlantis comes to us from Plato, who wanted to outline his idea of a perfect society but felt it necessary to attribute the idea to to his uncle Critias, who supposedly got it from Solon the Lawgiver, who in turn heard it from an Egyptian priest.
This whole crossing of cultures got deeper after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and it came under the rule of his general Ptolemy I Soter. The last three hundred years of Egyptian Pharaohs were actually Greek, including the last, Cleopatra. Even the name Egypt itself is of Greek origin, though no-one knows exactly what it means; the Ancient Greeks had a folk etymology that it was a short form of Aigaiou huptiōs, “under the Aegean”, but this is almost certainly wrong. The Egyptians called their country Kemet.
A double barrel of Greco-Egyptian fusion can be found at Thebes and the Colossi of Memnon. “Thebes” is a pure borrowing from Greek—Egyptians called it Waset—taken from the city of Thebes on the Gulf of Corinth, but naming the statues for Memnon is a much more complicated story.
The Colossi are roughly eighteen meters tall (it’s hard to say exactly, as they’ve suffered some damage, and are partly buried around the base), and in the neighbourhood of 700 tons apiece. The gigantic sculptures are actually of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who lived most of a thousand years before the heyday of the Ancient Greeks. Memnon, on the other hand. was a figure in Greek mythology, half-human and half-god. His human side was his father’s, the Ethiopian Tithonus; his divine side was his mother Eos‘. How did the identification of the statue get transfered from pharaoh to demi-god? Eos was the Titan of dawn and, after Memnon was killed by Achilles during the Trojan War, Zeus returned him to life with one proviso: he would only truly be alive at the the moment the sun rose, so that he could greet his mother. For the rest of the day he would lapse into unconsciousness and wait for the next morning. So when the northernmost of the two statues of Amenhotep started making strange sounds when the sun’s rays struck it in the morning, the Greeks mapped it onto their own mythology and Amenhotep was forgotten.
The truly remarkable thing about this is that the cry of the statue is not a legend. The historical record is quite clear that the statue did, during 1st and 2nd century and not since, sometimes make an inexplicable noise at dawn.
It helps that the Vocal Memnon (the name used to distinguish it from its silent partner just to the south) was actually quite famous during Roman times. There are no less than 63 pieces of Roman-era Greek graffiti and 45 pieces of Latin carved into it, stating that the carver either did or didn’t hear the voice. Even though the preservation of Ancient books is quite spotty, between the graffiti and Latin literature one can follow the whole history of the “voice” through some two centuries, as the statue became a mystical tourist attraction and was remarked upon by Roman writers from Strabo to Pausanias to Pliny.
The statue became famous shortly after a major earthquake in 27 BC. Both the colossi were damaged, the northern one particularly so: its entire top half fell off, and the bottom part was cracked from top to bottom. Shortly thereafter (Strabo visited it just a few years later), the truncated pharaoh started making a loud noise several times a month, generally described as being like someone striking metal, or breaking a lyre string. Most times it would sound off once, but occasionally it would be heard twice or even three times.
The obvious skeptical explanation is that the sounds were man-made, by local priests who wanted something to draw tourists and their business. The circumstantial evidence for this is there—that time period was rife with oracles and mystic goings-on that look awfully suspicious to the modern mind (and even some of the more-generally accepting Romans at the time). Musicologist Susi Jeans theorized that the statue was used to conceal a water organ, a hydraulically driven musical instrument commonly used to duplicate birdsong in Ancient times. On the other hand, if there were charlatans behind it they weren’t very good at their job. As pointed out by multiple authors since the 19th century, several important Roman figures, most notably the Emperor Septimius Severus, visited the Vocal Memnon only to have it sit there mutely when the sun rose. Being human, and so ever-rationalizing, the Romans simply decided that the gods had reserved hearing Memnon for those they viewed with particular favour. This makes it even more unlikely that a human agency for the sound would have snubbed an emperor; in fact, one of the pieces of Roman graffiti describes how the Empress Sabina (wife of Hadrian) was vibratingly angry at not hearing the voice on her first visit.
A better explanation for the Vocal Memnon’s performance is that the crack in the bottom half of the statue was trapping cold air at night and then expelling it audibly when the sun’s warmth expanded the stone in the morning. Similar sounds have been reported down to the modern age at other decrepit sites throughout Egypt and around the world.
The most compelling evidence for this is what happened after Septimius Severus left without hearing the voice. Sometime afterwards, the Romans repaired the statue—sufficiently difficult and expensive work that the best theory for it is the emperor himself trying to curry favour with the gods who’d stayed silent on him. The collapsed upper portion was cleared from the area and is now lost, and five levels of stone blocks were piled up on top of the remaining lower half and then carved into a replacement torso and head.
There are several inscriptions on the base of the statue (one of which is quoted at the top of this article) which claim that before it was cracked the Vocal Memnon could actually speak instead of just making noise, and that it would speak again if restored. Instead, Severus’ reconstruction made it stop speaking altogether. The Romans were convinced of their mystical explanation for the metallic sounds and so never connected the reconstruction to Memnon’s retirement (or if they did, the suspicion didn’t survive to the present-day), but it seems too much of a coincidence to be otherwise: the extra weight of the replacement stone and repairs to the crack had changed the mechanics of the statue. There have been occasional reports of Memnon vocalizing again, but few and far between and generally only after the story had become famous and fashionable again in the 19th century—which suggests that this time listeners were engaging in some wishful thinking. Most, including the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, went away unimpressed.
What remains of the statue’s voice is its influence on the arts. Among many others, Tennyson worked the statue’s “song” into “The Palace of Art”, Franz Schubert wrote a lied called “Memnon” that focused on the hero’s death and strange half-afterlife, there’s a quick reference to Memnon’s music early in Thoreau’s Walden, Oscar Wilde specifically uses the statue for one stanza of “The Sphinx”, and Thomas Pynchon’s V mentions “the vocal Memnon of Thebes”. A little further afield, the successors of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in Egypt, the invading Arabs of the seventh century, picked up the idea of speaking monuments from their new conquest: in their stories you can find a singing pillar in what is now Ashkelon, Israel, and the Palace of Ghamdan in Sana’a, Yemen has lion statues that legendarily roared in the wind.