Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

The Birth of Alexander the Great

Introduction: Within Alexander’s own lifetime, it was widely believed that Olympias, Alexander’s mother, had conceived him through the agency of one of the Gods, namely Zeus. Not the ordinary Zeus of the Greek homeland, however, but the exotic Zeus-Ammon, whose world-famous shrine was in faraway Siwa, Cyrene, deep in the Sahara. Writing some four hundred years after his death, Plutarch records the generally accepted account concerning Alexander’s true divine origin, but he also included the skeptical minority viewpoint.


Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alexander 2.1–3.2

Alexander was a descendant of Herakles, on his father’s side, through Karanos; on his mother’s side he was descended from Aikos through Neoptolemos; this is universally believed. It is said that Philip (Alexander’s father) was initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias (Alexander’s mother). He was still a youth and she was an orphan. He fell in love with her and conjoined a marriage, with the consent of her brother, Arumbas.

The bride, before the night in which they were to join in the bridechamber, had a vision. There was a peal of thunder, and a lightning bolt fell upon her womb. A great fire was kindled from the strike, then it broke into flames which flashed everywhere, then they extinguished. At a later time, after the marriage, Philip saw a vision: he was placing a seal on his wife’s womb; the engraving on the seal was, as he thought, in the image of a lion. The men charged with interpreting oracles were made suspicious by this vision and told Philip to keep a closer watch on his marital affairs. But Aristander of Telmessus said (the vision meant that) her husband had impregnated her, for nothing is sealed if it is empty, and that she was pregnant with a child whose nature would be courageous and lion-like.

On another occasion, a great snake appeared, while Olympias was asleep, and wound itself around her body. This especially, they say, weakened Philip’s desire and tenderness toward her, so that he did not come often to sleep with her, either because he was afraid she would cast spells and enchantments upon him, or because he considered himself discharged from the obligation of intercourse with her because she had become the partner of a higher being.

After the vision (concerning the snake), Philip sent Chanon of Megalopolis to Delphi (to learn its meaning). He brought an oracle to Philip from Apollo: Philip was henceforth to sacrifice to Zeus-Ammon and worship that God especially. Furthermore, he was to put out the eye which spied on the

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