The Influence of Mythology on the Mind of Alexander the Great
History regularly describes Alexander the Great as a general who either imitated or communed with mythical gods and heroes throughout his campaigns and conquests. In fact, the mythological was often called upon as a form of guidance for Alexander the Great, illuminating his mysterious past and calling.
Alexander the Great, his Expanding Empire and the Mythical Past
Much like a tourist feels a sense of familiarity when informed of a location’s historical significance or its use in a film or book, Alexander the Great felt a sense of solidarity with an unacquainted space because it was associated with myths he knew so intimately. As he crossed over the Hellespont, the threshold into the Unknown, he hurled his spear on Trojan shores like Protesilaos before him.
When the inhabitants of Nysa near India approached him and explained that their archēgetis or city’s founder was Dionysos, Alexander was filled with joy knowing that he was on the verge of surpassing even the wanderings of a god.
A strange and distant land, the East was endurable because of the heroes that had gone before him. In fact, Alexander’s complete venture in Asia can be understood as one man’s quest to follow in the footsteps of the mythical past.
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While Greek heroes like Dionysos, Achilles, Perseus and Protesilaos, and Eastern ones like Semiramis, became a model for Alexander, it was Herakles who appears to parallel his life the most. This was to the point where the two existed in a hyperreality of myth and real life. For example, the famed hero visited Alexander in a dream allowing his attack on Tyre.
Although myths served as tools of comfort, guidance and diplomacy, they also provided a measuring point for Alexander’s ambitions. With a god status and having traversed beyond the bounds of the world known to myth, Alexander had crossed over from the world of man to the world of ideals, or into mythology itself.
Myths, then, for Alexander were his modus operandi; how he oriented the expansive Unknown and his role within it. Although a master strategist, diplomat and warrior, his mind was transfixed on the ideal and abstract, on gods and heroes who beckoned him to go further.
Herakles, the divine hero of Greek mythology, fighting with the Nemean lion. Alexander the Great claimed to be his descendant. (Public domain)
Not All Heroes Wear Capes: Alexander the Great and his Conquests
Long before Alexander the Great’s conquest, myths were paving his way to Babylon and beyond. The Macedonian royalty’s Hellenismos was bolstered by their purported Heraklean lineage. The Hellanodikai, or the official referees of the Olympic games, allowed Alexander I to compete in the stadion because he traced his lineage back to Herakles.
Later, Alexander the Great’s father, Philippos, who united all of Hellas, was beseeched by Isocrates’ in his speech to take it upon himself to reconcile Athens, Argos, Sparta and Thebes and focus their attention on a common Eastern foe, as Herakles had done before him. Herakles had seen Greece ravaged by wars, stasis (civil unrest) and beasts, managing to rid of all these ills and unite Hellas against the capture of Troy.
Likewise, Alexander the Great used his mythical lineage for political gain. As early as Alexander’s first political engagement, he managed to sway the Thessalians to concede to him Greece predicated on his kinship with Herakles which he inherited from his father. Like in Greece, in Mallos Alexander ended the stasis or civil strife and tribute they had to pay to Darius.
All these things he did based on the common origins of the city which was settled by Argive Herakleidai. Even at the far reaches of his campaign, his benevolence towards the city of Nysa near India was predicated on its apparent association with Dionysos. As Herakles and Dionysos were master diplomats as well as warriors, Alexander used myths as an alternative to military conquest. While myths were used for statecraft during his campaign, this is not the complete picture.
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Myths seem to have had an intimate or esoteric value for Alexander. In a type of heroic pilgrimage, it appears he drew comfort from inhabiting spaces great men and women had travelled, and by emulating their deeds. His passing through Troy has already been mentioned, he landed on the shores like Protesilaos and erected altars to Zeus Apobatērios (protector of disembarkers), Athena and Herakles. Likewise, he sacrificed to Priam’s tomb in an attempt to reconcile past differences with Troy, not wanting vengeful spirits looming over his campaign.
Alexander reportedly slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow. As a child it was said his tutor Lysimachos nicknamed him little Achilles, and as an adult he bemoaned there was no Homer to tell of his deeds, and he mourned Hephaistion like Achilles mourned Patroklos. In emulation of the same figure, he dragged Batis around Gaza with a chariot as Achilles did with Hector’s body.
Apart from Greek heroes, Alexander was inspired by the marvelous feats of Semiramis as told by Diodorus. A beautiful Assyrian queen, she was summoned by her then-husband Onnes to besiege Bactra. Under male guise she led an assault and capitulated the city, yielding its abundant bounty of gold and silver.
When Onnes committed suicide, Ninus, beguiled by the resourceful Semiramis, took her as his queen and together they ruled the Bactrian people. As a conqueror who also had exploits in the Far East, Alexander saw a profound role model in the Assyrian queen.
Alexander the Great reportedly dragged Batis around Gaza with a chariot to emulate the actions of Achilles, seen here dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. (Franz von Matsch / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Scheme a Little Dream of Me: Alexander the Great and his Conquest of Tyre
The extent of how intimate myths were for Alexander the Great can be realized in the next city. It is here that the value of myth is vividly presented; Herakles and Alexander inhabited a common reality. While in Tyre, after being apprehensive in attacking the city whose patron god was Herakles-Melqart, the hero visited the general in a dream beckoning him to besiege the city.
This was much of a turn of events for the inhabitants who had presented Alexander with a gold crown, offered a great store of provision for his army, and who promised to oblige every order the general would command of them. It all deteriorated when, Pausanias writes, Alexander requested to sacrifice on the island during the importune moment of the preparation of their annual festival of the Egersis (resurrection) of Merquat, the Tyrian Herakles.
Alexander’s motivation for his participation were twofold according to the Roman historian, Quintus Curtius in his History of Alexander. Firstly, as aforementioned, he was considered a descendant of Herakles and secondly, he was beseeched by an oracle to do so. Amitay contends it would be “highly auspicious” for Alexander to follow prophetic instructions. He continues that the unfortunate Tyrians were in a delicate situation. The festival required no foreigners to be permitted on the island in strict observance of their purity laws.
Moreover, a haughty general, high on his military success, who claimed to be the descendant of Herakles, and most likely did not know Tyrian ritual customs, may likely desecrate the festival and thus threaten Merquat’s favor. The Tyrians offered him an alternative: Alexander would be permitted to make his sacrifices on the mainland, outside the sacred island.
Alexander was fuming when he found out that the Tyrians had denied him entry to the island, even at the threat of their destruction. That night he dreamt that he attacked the city while Herakles stood at the city’s wall beckoning him with his right arm to go forth. When Alexander’s court prophet, Aristandros of Telmessos, interpreted that the city would fall with much pain and effort, Alexander advanced.
In the fray of the onslaught, Alexander had given orders to spare anyone who sought refuge in the shrine of Herakles. After everything had settled, Alexander showered Herakles’ temple with sacrifices along with organizing a procession of his troops, their participation in gymnastics and torch races in Herakles’ honor.
Although the reported story of the dream is most likely historical due to its multiple attestations, whether Alexander dreamt it is left for conjecture. Curtius is skeptical and contends Alexander fabricated the story to motivate his men. Nevertheless, this cynical use of a dream, according to Ory Amitay, in his 2010 book From Alexander to Jesus, would be highly incongruent with the abundant evidence of Alexander’s religiosity.
Furthermore, to doubt the authenticity of Alexander’s dream in Tyre is to bring all his sacrifices, omens, oracles and dreams throughout his career into question. His religious observance involved visiting some of the most respectable oracles in the Greek and Eastern world, hiring a plethora of professional seers and a slew of sacrificial victims, some of which were offered even during Alexander’s fatal illness.
This would be an overbearing lifelong act for even the most pathological of con artists, and what would the motivation be? What is more, one would have to further prove that this motivation, at least for the perpetrator, would be worth a life-long elaborate hoax. It is far more reasonable to conclude that Alexander believed in omens and therefore actually dreamt his Tyrian dream. If his dream is factual then it provides an example of how Herakles communed with Alexander in a type of hyperreality of myth and real life, guiding in moments of uncertainty.
Alexander the Great besieged Tyre in 332 BC in his campaign against the Persians. (Public domain)
Sightseer Syndrome: Creating Familiarity through Mythology
What may lie behind the personal significance of myths is the emotional response I call the sightseer syndrome. Upon glancing at a cottage in Lacock, England, it looks like every other cottage in the Cotswold that the tour bus had visited and there is no particular emotional response.
However, when the tour guide labels it as the setting of that Harry Potter scene, the mind immediately recollects the scene and the emotional response, that was once evoked by the scene, is instantly projected onto the cottage. Although never visited before, that cottage has now a newfound emotional resonance that forges an insurmountable bond with the tourist. This psychological response gives the new environment a significance previously non-existent.
Comparably, the locations, ethnicities and achievements in myth known to Alexander, may have conjured up a sense of familiarity with the places, people and objectives he was encountering in real life. When the Nysians identified their city as the workings of Dionysos, Arrian records that Alexander “hearing all these things, found them to his heart’s liking” and that they “were overjoyed to find ivy, sacred to Dionysos, growing on Mt. Meros” that confirmed his passing.
The joy Alexander and his men experienced may have been brought about by their familiarity with Dionysos and his myths. The emotions evoked by the scenes of the myths that feature Dionysos may have swelled up at the very mention of his name. This could have given Nysa significance, a locale otherwise devoid of any emotional relevance to the Macedonians.
It appears no surprise that Alexander later mustered up morale in his men through this very incident. Arrian attests that his war-stricken men did not want to march further into Hyphasis, in modern-day Pakistan. The general adulated his men by reminding them they had surpassed Dionysos in Nysa and taken the rock Aornos, which Heracles could not take.
Alexander knew this revelation would be a source of encouragement for his troops who were homesick and nostalgic for the Greek way of life. Like with the cottage, Alexander and his men may have forged an insurmountable bond with territories they were conquering by associating them with a familiar face like Dionysos.
Perhaps, Alexander’s trailblazing achievements are indebted to the solace found in mythical stories. Who knows, if it were not for myths or his commitment to them, Alexander’s campaign may not have had the incentive it needed to trek deeper into new frontiers.
Alexander the Great, seen here in a mosaic from Pompeii, famously imitated or communed with mythical heroes throughout his conquests. (Public domain)
The Verdict is in: Philippos… You Are Not the Father
New frontiers are often ventured when old bridges have been severed. Alexander’s visit to the oracle of Amon in Siwah, Egypt, hoped to put to rest a rumor that he had suspected from an early age: Philippos was not his real father. Following in the footsteps of Herakles and Perseus, Alexander had made the perilous journey to the oracle even at the risk of jeopardizing his entire campaign.
Alexander’s detour into the remote Egyptian wilderness despite its military insignificance suggests his visit was not politically motivated. Indeed, in his 1977 article entitled Alexander and Ammon, Bosworth claims that as a newly crowned Pharaoh and ex officio son of god in Egypt, Alexander had no political incentive gaining the oracle’s affirmation. Rather, it would seem his trip had a personal significance. It appears mythology had guided him to a place where he could find who his real father was.
A considerable shadow of doubt fell upon Alexander when his father married a Macedonian noblewoman just before his murder by the name of Kleopatra. During the marriage celebrations, the bride’s uncle (or brother) expressed, what he thought, was Philippos’ sound relief that Macedonia would finally be the recipient of a legitimate heir through the wedlock.
The sly comment had of course implied Alexander was a bastard. Clearly enraged, Alexander threw a cup at the slanderer which started a famous Macedonian brawl. Thanks to Philippos’ affinity for wine, he could not stand up straight to strike his estranged son and so the incident fizzled out as a comedy rather than a tragedy. As the night drew to a close, Alexander and his mother moved out of the royal court.
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This allegation was not purely pejorative as accounts from Olympias herself attest. According to Eratosthenes, Olympias revealed the true nature of his birth and urged his achievements to be worthy of his origin as Alexander was about to embark upon his conquest.
Justin’s account also corroborates the latter attestations. He writes that Olympias confessed to Philippos that his son was not his but begotten by a giant snake. In response, Philippos immediately repudiated Alexander. Whether these accounts are trustworthy are left for debate. Plutarch holds that an anonymous source claimed that Olympias rejected these claims as the works of Alexander himself.
Even if this tradition was fabricated by the general, this action in itself may evidence just how vehemently Alexander doubted (or despised) his origins. At the sacred site, he would receive the answer he intuited: he was the son of Zeus-Ammon.
What’s a King to a God?
Now that Alexander had confirmation that he was isotheos or equal to a god, he wanted to be treated as one. During a symposium dedicated to Kastor and Polydeukes, Alexander’s flatterers were esteeming his accomplishments higher than the Dioskuri’s. Kleitos denounced their claim in front of Alexander which led to a heated argument. By the end of the quarrel, Kleitos’ lifeless body was hanging from a sarissa impaled.
Much like Herakles, Alexander immediately was overcome with a torrent of remorse to the point where his bodyguards had to stop the general from taking his own life. For Arrian, Alexander’s redeemable quality was his instant regret after his destructive outbursts. Herakles had transgressed against many gods and mortals during his lifetime, but his sins were absolved through his labors, and he was accepted into Olympus. Alexander, an imitator of the hero, might have hoped for a similar fate. Curtius records Alexander was tormented by his actions long after the incident.
Obviously myths were tools of diplomacy for Alexander, but they were so much more. They were of immense ontological significance for a man embarking on a perilous path of conquest and self-discovery. Myths provided meaning to the expansive Unknown, they were guidance in culturally difficult situations, affirmed divine aspirations, and provided a measuring stick for Alexander’s ambitions.
Myths, as the embodiment of the ideal, are rarely lived up to, let alone exceeded. Alexander the Great had surpassed the accomplishments of myth, exceeding even humanity’s ideal. Having matched this ideal, he erected his own, the likes of which have been coveted for centuries since.
Top image: Alexander the Great. Source: Towseef / Adobe Stock
By Thanos Matanis
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Amitay, O. (2010) From Alexander to Jesus. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
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