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Colossi of Memnon – talking statue

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Colossus of Memnon, or speaking statue
Colossi of Memnon - talking statue

Ancient tourists visiting Egypt were attracted by a pair of giant statues in Thebes, created in the fourteenth century BCE, near the Valley of the Kings: they were two figures sitting on the throne, each with a height of a six-story building.

The Greeks and Romans admired above all one of these statues, because he was distinguished by the fact that he spoke. He was considered the image of the mythical Memnon, son of the goddess Jutrzenka, who died at the hands of Achilles. Around 27 BCE the statue was damaged by an earthquake, the trunk was broken and the upper part fell to the ground. From that time on, every day at dawn there was a loud sound, reminiscent of crackling or cracking of the strings in the instrument, so it began to be thought that in this way Memnon was talking to his sad mother. This conviction was fueled by local guides, wanting to attract as many tourists as possible.

In fact, Memnon’s colossus portrays Pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the strange sound that came out each morning was probably due to a sudden rise in temperature at sunrise, it heated the air trapped in the holes of the cracked surface, causing it to expand and escape outside with the accompanying sound.

The Colossus of Memnon was visited in the 1st century BCE by the well-known geographer Strabo, who expressed doubts as to whether the statue was making a sound or someone from nearby people. In turn, Pausanias (II century CE) suspected that the statue does not represent Memnon, but a certain Famenof or Sezostris. Despite this kind of doubt, crowds of tourists came to Thebes to hear Memnon calling for his mother. The statue is covered with more than a hundred inscriptions, both Greek and Latin, which were put by ancient tourists to leave a trace there and to inform that they heard Memnon with their own ears.

In 130, Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian, also came there, who testified that she heard Memnon twice. The inscriptions left on the statue by ordinary people are usually laconic, they are limited to information that they heard Memnon at the first hour (i.e. at dawn), sometimes they expressed admiration for this phenomenon. However, there are also poems of self-proclaimed poets and sophists, which in a lofty manner show admiration for the voice of Memnon.

The inscriptions are most often dated to the 1st and 2nd century CE, ending in 205. It is suspected that then emperor Septimius Severus ordered the statue to be reconstructed and a part that once fell. So there was no cracked surface anymore and probably because of that Memnon lost speech , and thus the greatest asset attracting the curious.

Author: Aneta Liwerska
  • L. Casson, Podróże w starożytnym świecie, Wrocław 1981

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