Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 156

Death of Achilles.—A new ally of the Trojans now appeared on the field in the person of Memnon, the Æthiopian, a son of Eos and Tithonus, who brought with him a powerful reinforcement of negroes. Memnon was the first opponent who had yet encountered Achilles on an equal footing; for like the great hero himself he was the son of a goddess, and possessed also, like Achilles, a suit of armour made for him by Hephæstus.

Before the heroes encountered each other in single combat, the two goddesses, Thetis and Eos, hastened to Olympus to intercede with its mighty ruler for the life of their sons. Resolved even in this instance not to act in opposition to the Moiræ, Zeus seized the golden scales [298]in which he weighed the lot of mortals, and placed in it the respective fates of the two heroes, whereupon that of Memnon weighed down the balance, thus portending his death.

Eos abandoned Olympus in despair. Arrived on the battlefield she beheld the lifeless body of her son, who, after a long and brave defence, had at length succumbed to the all-conquering arm of Achilles. At her command her children, the Winds, flew down to the plain, and seizing the body of the slain hero conveyed it through the air safe from the desecration of the enemy.

The triumph of Achilles was not of long duration. Intoxicated with success he attempted, at the head of the Greek army, to storm the city of Troy, when Paris, by the aid of Phœbus-Apollo, aimed a well-directed dart at the hero, which pierced his vulnerable heel, and he fell to the ground fatally wounded before the Scæan gate. But though face to face with death, the intrepid hero, raising himself from the ground, still performed prodigies of valour, and not until his tottering limbs refused their office was the enemy aware that the wound was mortal.

By the combined efforts of Ajax and Odysseus the body of Achilles was wrested from the enemy after a long and terrible fight, and conveyed to the Greek camp. Weeping bitterly over the untimely fate of her gallant son, Thetis came to embrace him for the last time, and mingled her regrets and lamentations with those of the whole Greek army. The funeral pyre was then lighted, and the voices of the Muses were heard chanting his funeral dirge. When, according to the custom of the ancients, the body had been burned on the pyre, the bones of the hero were collected, inclosed in a golden urn, and deposited beside the remains of his beloved friend Patroclus.

In the funereal games celebrated in honour of the fallen hero, the property of her son was offered by Thetis as the prize of victory. But it was unanimously agreed that the beautiful suit of armour made by Hephæstus should be awarded to him who had contributed the most to the [299]rescue of the body from the hands of the enemy. Popular opinion unanimously decided in favour of Odysseus, which verdict was confirmed by the Trojan prisoners who were present at the engagement. Unable to endure the slight, the unfortunate Ajax lost his reason, and in this condition put an end to his existence.

Final Measures.—Thus were the Greeks deprived at one and the same time of their bravest and most powerful leader, and of him also who approached the nearest to this distinction. For a time operations were at a standstill, until Odysseus at length, contrived by means of a cleverly-arranged ambush to capture Helenus, the son of Priam. Like his sister Cassandra, Helenus possessed the gift of prophecy, and the unfortunate youth was now coerced by Odysseus into using this gift against the welfare of his native city.

The Greeks learned from the Trojan prince that three conditions were indispensable to the conquest of Troy:—In the first place the son of Achilles must fight in their ranks; secondly, the arrows of Heracles must be used against the enemy; and thirdly, they must obtain possession of the wooden image of Pallas-Athene, the famous Palladium of Troy.