Alexander and the Myth of the Creator God

Alexander the Great of Macedon needs little introduction. A man of both history and legend, he began the Hellenistic Age, spreading Western culture to an extent rivaled only by the Romans and the Colonial Period.  Much is known and written regarding Alexander, but centuries of scholarly debate have shown that it is difficult to disentangle the man and the myth. It is the myth of Alexander the Great that I have set out to study. There is no doubt that Alexander was flesh and blood, and few if any sources attribute Godhood to him. However, within Western Culture Alexander’s role can be viewed mythically. What then is the mythic role of Alexander the Great in Western Culture? In order to analyze this role, Alexander’s status as a mythic figure must be ascertained, the mythic archetypes of 3rd Century B.C. Macedon must be discussed where-in Alexander’s placement in myth determined, before the role, implications, and revelations of his placement be determined. 

Accounts of Alexander’s life are largely from an era of Western Civilization where history was not as defined as a subject as the modern age. As a result, Alexander is depicted in many ways. In Keyne Cheshire’s study of Alexander the attributes of “pragmatic, philosophical; virtuous, murderous; stubborn, visionary; pious, patricidal; megalomaniacal, generous; diplomatic, vengeful; courageous, lucky” are levied upon this Macedonian man. Clearly, accounts differed. “These are some of the ways the ancients and moderns have represented him, and the varied and contradictory lists testifies to the impossibility of our pinning down the character of a legendary figure onto whom people have project such varying personas.”(Cheshire P.V) As a result, the accounts of Alexander blur the line between myth and history.  Even the birth of Alexander is called into question. Chesire asserts that “He pondered the possibility of his own divinity, and many while he lived through him a god on earth?” The origin of these ponderings likely revolved around the mythical elements in the accounts of his birth. In Plutarch’s writings on Alexander he provides that “There is complete agreement about Alexander’s lineage, that he was by his father a descendant of Heracles through Caranus and by his mother a descendant of Aecus.” Later providing that after their marriage and from what I interpret as the impregnation of Olympias Phillip shies away from his new wife after seeing her in bed with a snake. This is characterized in Plutarch’s writings as “A serpent, too, was once seen stretched out beside the body of Olympias, and it was this most of all, they say that dampened Phillip’s desire and affection for her, so he eased his frequent visits to her, either because he feared some magic or drug from his wife, or because he was keeping himself safe from intercourse with a woman who appeared to be enjoying a union with some greater power.(Cheshire 5)” Within this chapter of Plutarch we are told that Alexander is undeniably the son of Philip and Olympias, but after this impregnation, Phillip begins being suspicious that Olympias is having sexual relations with a God or deity, supported by a dream of Olmypias. 

“Then, before the night of the marriage’s consummation, the bride dreamed that amid peals of thunder a lightning bolt struck her belly. A great deal of fire was kindled from the bolt, then scattered, bursting into flames and spreading everywhere. Later, after the marriage, Phillip dreamed that he was placing a seal upon his wife’s belly, and that the relief on the seal contained the image of a lion. While the other seers were apprehensive at the vision and said that Philip’s marriage demanded more scrupulous attention, Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, for nothing empty is sealed,and that she was pregnant with a child quick-tempered and lion-like in nature.” (Cheshire 5)

Herakles is by far one of the greatest Greek mythic figures, and one of the greatest and most powerful warriors, and one of the justifications for Alexander’s greatness  in his age was no doubt his lineage having descended from both Achilles and Heracles which both had immortal parents. In this way, Alexander can be seen as more than a man and with his deeds be seen as a living God by his contemporaries. However, in the story of Herakles written by Euripides the idea that Herakles is both the son of Amphitryon and Zeus is one of the main ideas of the play. Amphitryon prides himself one the fact that he shared his wife with Zeus, opening the play with the line:

“What mortal has not heard of Amphitryon , the man who has shared his wife with Zeus? Amphitryon of Argos. Son of Alcaeus, grandson of Perseus, father of Herakles!” (Herakles, by Euripides)

Perhaps the divine impregnation of Alexander’s mother was nothing but homage to the mythic tradition of Herakles, showing that Alexander was destined to be great in the same way that Herakles was great. With Phillip being a great king similar to Amphitryon , and similarly sharing his impregnated wife with Zeus, it shows that Alexander was destined to be great even before his birth. Nonetheless, shared parentage with a god surrounded Alexander with a mythical shroud, allowing for the possibility that he was in some part divine. 

Whether his birth was of divine origin or not, his militaristic and government feats were of a magnitude and proportion unknown to the world in that age. Alexander toppled the Persian empire, and dominated peoples as far East as India. Alexander’s campaign drove the Greek world to corners previously only known to Greece in myth. The two deities that writers attribute to journeys of such as scale of Alexander’s Empire are Dionysus and Heracles

“They say that there was a city called nysa in the land Alexander reached between the Cophen and Indus rivers, and that Dionysus founded it when he subdued the Indians – whoever this Dionysus founded it when he subdued the Indians – whoever this Dionysus was, and whenever and from wherever he led this invasion against them. I myself cannot determine whether it was from Thebes or from Lydian tmolus that Dionysus set out with his army against the Indians because, while he attacked so many warlike people then unknown to the Greeks, he subdued none of the by force except the Indians.” (Cheshire 125)

Alexander was able to go farther than the deity Dionsys. 

“Alexander was pleased indeed to hear all these things. He wanted the tales about Dionysus’ wanderings and the found of Nysa to be true, because that would mean he himself had already come as far as Dionysus and would surely go father than he had. Furthermore, Alexander though the Macdonians would consider rivalry with the exploits of Dionysus a most attractive reason for labouring onward.” (Cheshire 126)

And in regard to Herakles the greatest of Greek Mythic Heroes, a man who achieved divinity, he was known to have reached as far as the Rock of Aornos. In Arrian’s account of Alexander’s eastern campaigns he notes the following about the Rock of Aornos:

“All the barbarians abandoned their cities en masse and fled to a place in that region called the Rock of Aornos. This rock is massive, and there is a common story that Heracles son of Zeus failed to capture it. Now, i am not able to believe without question that Heracles- The Theban one, the Tyrian one or the Egyptian one – ever reached the indians. I tend to think he did not, since people will magnify the difficulty of all that is arduous to the point of claiming that things would have been impossible even for Heracles.”

Alexander feats rivalled and in some cases exceeded the accomplishments of mythical divine figures. His accomplishments no doubt propel him to the level of a living God, regardless of the mythic controversy that was his birth.

With Alexander’s mythical status determined his place and  identity in the mythic landscape of Greece and Macedonia can be determined. Alexander was a conqueror and king, and so the possibility of Alexander as the mythic God-King it the most likely place where he fits. In his work The Complete World of Greek Mythology Buxtons provides an extensive and thorough survey of the mythology of the Greek World. Myth was very deeply tied to religion and was nearly inseparable from every part of the Greek Individual’s life. “Greeks first experienced mythology as children, through the stories told to them by their elders; mostly our sources identify the tellers as the children’s nurses, mothers or grandmothers.” Myth was part of the everyday life of the Greeks.  (Buxton 28) Mircae Eliade, a religious scholar, determines that myth and religion provide an axis mundi, world axis, by which individuals of society orient their lives. His theory of Sacred History and its importance to Religious man elaborates on the importance it would have held to the men of Alexander’s time be they Persian, Greek, Macedonian, or Barbarian.  

“Religious man experiences two kinds of time – profane and sacred. The one is an evanescent duration, the other a “succession of eternities.” periodically recoverable during the festivals that made up the sacred calendar. The liturgical time of the calendar flows in the closed circle; it is the cosmic time of the year, sanctified by the works of the gods. And since the most stupendous divin work was the creation of the world, commemoration of the cosmogony plays an important part in many religious.”(Eliade 34)

The most well known of greek creation myths was that of Hesiod’s Theogony. 

“As its name implies, the Theogony narrates the birth of the gods, tracing their origins back to the very beginnings of the universe; eventually, after a sequence of vicious struggles for succession, the Olympian divinities  establish their power, under the last unchallenged dispensation of Zeus. The works and days is a more varied and, if anything ever more fascinating composition. The ‘Works’ referred to in the titler are the labours which the peasant farmer must undertake if his crops are to survive and prosper: thee “Days constitute a king of informal calender of the times within the year and the month when various practices – from ploughing to counting one’s nails out to be carried out.” (Buxton 34)

And while Eliade considers the time experienced by Greeks as Sacred Buxton assets to a time before the sacred time of Eliade, that of transitional. 

“The titans inhabited a time which was bother ‘before’ and transitional – a time when the world’s physical framework was still being created. Thus when two Titans, Theia and Hyperion, lay together, their children were Helios (Sun)Selene (Moon), and Eos (Dawn; in her turn Eos gave birth to the winds and stars. Two other pairs of titans bring the hesiodic narrative to the brink of the Olmypian era. The offspring of Phoebe and Koisi is Leto, soon to bear Apollo and Artemis. More significant is the union of Rhea and Kronos, which healds the next stage in the cosmic dynastic struggle struggle for succession.” (Buxton 47)

The sacred time of Greek creation extends past the transitional time Buxton denotes into the time of the Olympian Gods, whose king was Zeus. 

“The remainder of the Theogony details the means by which Zeus definitely established his power. First he outwitted Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetos. Then with the formidable Hundred-Handers as his allies, Zeus led the Olmypians against the Titans in a battle of truly cosmic proportions: ‘the indescribable flame reached the holy sky, and the brilliant glare of the thunderbolt and the lightning dazzles the eyes of even the strongest’. (Buxton 45)

But while Zeus, a prospective father for Alexander, ruled the heavens there is perhaps evidence that Zeus was not the king of the Gods and rather that it was Dionysus.

“Renowned through Hesoid’s narrative was, it was by no means the only account of ‘first beginnings’ in circulation. A very different narrative, embracing anthropogony as well as cosmogony, was ascribed to the legendary poet Orpheous.

A new development took place in 1962 in the Macedonian town of Derveni, with the discover of a fragmentary papyrus containing part of a 4th century BC commentary on an Orphic theogony.  What is clear is that, already in the early Hellensitic period and probably long before that, a non-Hesiodic view of the development of the cosmos was being narrated. The orphic narrative of origins differs from the hesiodic in two major ways. First, it ascibes a fundamental role in creation to a divine figure who preceded not only Ouranos but even Night. This figure is referred to sometimes as Protogonos, sometimes as Phanes, and sometimes under other names.” (Buxton 52)

The Orphic Tradition is evidenced to be known in Macedonian in time of Alexander, which lends credence to the thought that it was a progression or development of the hesiodic Theogony that predates the Orphic tradition by three hundred years. Additionally, Alexander’s mother is written to have been aware of the orphic tradition as well as known to have been involved with Orphic rituals. 

“All the local women had been participants in the Orphic rites and the ritual orgies of Dionysus from very ancient times. They were called Klodones and Mimallones, and were often thought to behave like the Edonian or Thracian women around Mount Haemus, apparently the source for the word threskeunen, meaning to engage in intemperate and superstitious acts of worship. Ollympias herself was supposed to have achieved such ecstatic bouts of divine possession more zealously and barbarically than the rest. She would also provide the revellers with giant tamed serpents, and these would often slither out of the ivy or the mystic baskets and coil around the woman’s wants and garlands, to the horror of the men.” (Cheshire 10)

The Orphic tradition changes the position of Dionysus within the greek pantheon. 

“The second difference from the Hesiodic narrative is more radical. According to the Orphic theogony, Zeus’ rule was succeeded by that of his son Dionysos, the product of a union between zeus and his own daughter Persephone. Urged on by a jealous Hero, the Titans cooked and devoured the baby Dionyss; in return, Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt. At this point theogony become anthropogony, for it was from the soot of the incinerated Titans that humanity was formed. As for Dionyssy, he was destined to be born again, regenerated by Zeus thanks to the fact that the baby’s head had been preserved by the Titans.” (Buxton 52)

In Frazer’s Seminal work The Golden Bough, he elaborates on the nature of Dionysus as a God-King .

“Like other gods of vegetation Dionysys was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites. His tragic story is thus told by the poet Nonmus. Zeus in the for of a serpent visited Persephone, and she bore him Zagreus, that is Dionysus, a horned infant. Scarly was he born, when the babe mounted the throne of his father Zeus and mimicked the great god by brandishing the lightning in his tiny hand. But he did not occupy the throne for the treacherous Titans, their faces whitened with chalk, attacked him with knives while he was looking at himself fin a mirror.”(Frazer 418)

“Very Noteworthy is the legend, recorded both by Nonnus and Fermicus that in his infancy Dionysus occupied for a short time the throne of his father Zeus. So Proclus tells us that “Dionysus was the last king of the gods appointed by Zues. For his father set him on the kingly throne, and placed in his hand the sceptre and made him king of all gods of the world.” (Frazer 420)

To recapitulate the similarities between the myth of Alexander and Dionysus:  Alexander and Dionysus can both be seen as sons of Zeus. Alexander and Dionysus’ both travel eastward in order to rule people far from their native lands. And they were both kings, and they were both born mortal. If Alexander was mythically seen as Dionysus, his actions and life to go where and father than myth would show him as flesh and blood execution of Dionysus.  However, I would argue that this interpretation of evidence is not correct. Frazer’s Golden’s Bough was a discussion of Fertility Gods, and how the development of sympathetic magic lead to the creation of mythical personifications of sympathetic magic, fertility Gods, and “corn kings.” In his discussion of the myth of Dionysus he asserts that the key facet of Dionysus was not that he was a conqueror, nor that he was a king of the Gods, rather that his key role in myth was that of a dying and rising god, a symbol of the dying rising vegetation of fertility of agriculture. 

“According to one version, which represented Dionysus as a son of Zeus and Demeter, his mother pieced together his mangled limbs and made him young again. In other words, it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to Heaven; or that Zeus Raised him up as he lay mortally wounded; or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him adresh by Seme, who in the common legend figures as mother of Dionysus. Or again, the heart was pounded up and given in a position to Semele, who thereby conceived him.” 

The notion of Dionysus as a dying-rising corn god was no secret to the Greek World nor was it secret to the men who wrote of Alexander. 

“Where the resurrection formed part of the myth, it was also acted at the rites, and it even appears that a general doctrine of resurrection, or at least of immortality, was inculcated  on the worshippers; for Plutarch, writing to console his wife on the death of their infant daughter, comfort her with the thought of the immortality of the soul as taught by tradition and revealed in the mysteries of Dionysus. A different form of the myth of the death and resurrection of Dionysus is that he descended into Hades to bring up his mother Semele from the dead. The local argive tradition was that he went down through the Alcyonian lake; and he returned from the lower world in other words his resurrection, was annually celebrated on the spot by the Argives, who summoned him from the water by trumpet blasts while they threw a lamp into the lake as an offering to the warder of the dead.” (Frazer 420)

No part of the Alexander’s life connects him to the resurrecting-aspect of Dionysus. Nor, is he tied to the more ancient origin of Dionysus as a fertility God. Would Plutarch leave out such an association between Alexander and Dionysus if they were connected? Furthermore the accounts of Alexander show that he was quite disconnected from the sacred space of the greek and orphic traditions in which Dionysus was so critical of member, which it is of Orphic or Hesiodic origins. When Alexander sought out an oracle during sacred time he disregarded the sacred time and space completely. 

“Since Alexander wanted to consult the god about the invasion, he went to Delphi, but it happened to be an ill-omened period during which it was unlawful to deliver oracles. First he sent for the prophetess, but when she cited the law and refused, Alexander himself went up and began dragging her to the temple by force. Then, as if broken by his well, she said, “You are  indomitable, child!’ When he read that Alexander said he no longer needed the other oracle, since she had given him the response he wanted.”(Cheshire 40)

Furthermore, when Alexander conquers Bablyon he does not erect new temples to Dionysus, a logical assumption if he was in some way an avatar of God, he actually rebuilds the temples the Persians destroys and himself worships the Persian Gods. 

“Once Alexander entered Babylon, he commanded the Babylonians to rebuild all the temples that Xerxes had demolished, especially the temple to Bel, whom the Bablylonaisn houred most among the Gods.” (Chesire 85-86)

“Alexander actually met with the Chaldeaens at Bablylon as well and did everything they recommended regarding the temples there, including offering sacrifices himself to Bul under their direction.”(Cheshire 86)

Bel was seen as a fertility God to the Persians. How could the living embodiment, as the Greeks saw it, of one of their dying rising Gods so utterly discard the religious axis mundi for another Fertility God? Lastly, Alexander dies and does not resurrect. While the possibility of the flesh and blood man resurrecting is outsides the bounds on non-mythical thought there is no mention of succession, that the Godly aura of Alexander transferred to another successor, nor any myth that states that Alexander lived on as Dionysus had. The mythic and religious evidence does not show Alexander to be a fertility God nor a living incarnation of Dionysus. Rather I would say that Alexander is execution of a creator God, and that the myth that he executes is that of creation. 

  Eliade’s work The Sacred and the Profane is an in-depth study of creation myth and the relation of creation myths to the sacred religious space that early western society held so dear. 

“For in the view of archaic societies everything that is not “our world” is not yet a world. A territory can be made ours only by creating it anew, that is, by consecrating it. This religious behavior in respect to unknown lands continued, even in the West, down to the dawn of modern times.” (Eliade 32)

Although parallels between Alexander and the Orphic Tradition of Creation are compelling parallels that are more convincing can be found within the Hesiodic Tradition of Creation and that Alexander should rather be seen as a God King more analogous to Zeus. Although it was said that Zeus begat alexander, it does not fall within reason to assume that from this mythical perspective Alexander was given the powers of Zeus to create a new space as he had done before. Buxton attributed the Theogony to the place in myth in which “Zeus definitely established his power.” Within the Theogony it in Zeus’ struggle against the monstrous serpent Typhon that he cements his power slaying the serpent. “Typhoes too eventually succumbed to the thunderbolt, to be imprisoned in Tartarus.” The slaying of the “dragon” by the King/Creator God is critical in the formation of the sacred space a society needs. 

“This is the reason the Pharaoh was assimilated to the God Re, conqueror of the dragon Apohpis, while his enemies were assimilated to the mythical dragon. Darious regarded himself as a new Thratoano, the mythical Iranian hero who was said to have slain a three-headed dragon.  As we shall see later, the dragon is the paradigmatic fuge off the marine monster, of the primordial snake, symbol of the cosmic waters, of darkness, night, and death – in short of the amorphous and virtual of everything that has no yet acquired a form. The dragon must be conquered and cut to pieces by the god so that the cosmos may come to birth.” (Eliade 48)

The enemies of Alexander were those of Persia and of the East. Just as the enemies of the Pharaohs of Egypt were likened to the dragon Apophis, Persia, the empire that had nearly conquered Greece and Macedonian less than a century before Alexander’s time, was likely analogized to the mythical Typhon that Alexander slaid. It was this aspect of creation, the recreation of the cosmogony. Alexander was a conqueror. From the Perspective of Persia and other he conquered, he no doubt was seen as the terrible dragon. 

“Any destruction of a city is equivalent to the powers of chaos. Any destruction of a city is equivalent to a retrogression to chaos. Any victory over the attackers reiterate the paradigmatic victory of the god over the deragon.” (Eliade 48)

But from the Greek/Macedonian Perspective and from the perspective of Western Civilization he was consecrating new barbarian territoires for the greek world. “Consecration of a place = repetition of the cosmogony.”(Eliade 32)” With every new city Alexander claimed for Macedonia, for every civilization he brought under the control of Western Civilization, a recreation of sacred time occurred there. 

“We shall see that if every inhabited territory is a cosmos, this is precisely because it was consecrated, because in one way or another, it is the work of the gods of is in communication with the work of the gods.  The world (that is, our world) is a universe within which the sacred has already manifested itself, in which, consequently, the break-through from plane to plane has become possible and repeatable.” (Eliade 30)

To further this point, Alexander did more than expand culture. He built great cities throughout his new territories. The story of the birth of the Egyptian Alexandria is shrouded in the same sacred religious and time Alexander brought with him as consecrated barbarian lands for Macedonia. 

“They say that after he subdued Egypt Alexander wanted to leave behind a great and populous Greek city founded in his name. He had not yet begun measuring and walling the site recommended by his architects, but while asleep one night he saw a wondrous vision. A man with very grey hair and a majestic appearance stood beside him and said the following: An island lies in the wave-filled sea in front of Egypt, and they call it Pharos .He said that Homer, amazing in many ways, was certainly the and the order that they design the city’s plan to suit the site.” (Cheshire 65) 

Alexander’s worship or acceptance of barbarian Gods, in no way conflicts with his role as a creator God. The mythic rites of the dying risings Gods such as Osiris, Adonis, Tamuz, or Dionysus happens in a post Cosmogenic time, within the sacred space created by the dragon-slaying king God. Alexander rebuilding the temples of Persia rather than a fall away from the orphic tradition can be viewed as a reestablishment of sacred time and space for the conquered people. Rather than a complete annihilation of their way of life, it was a death that lead into rebirth. 

“This is as much to say that religious man periodically becomes the contemporary of the gods in the measure in which he reactualizes the primordial time in which the divine works were accomplished.” (Eliade 57)

The religious men of the now Hellensitic/Western world began sacred time anew by accepting Alexander as their ruler.  Lastly, Alexander’s mysterious death when viewed through the lense of his role of a creator God, does not differ from the traditional path whereas it diverges quite abruptly from the path of the dying risings Gods that were Dionysus or Osiris. 

“In short, it may be said of these gods that, after creating the cosmos, life, and man they feel a sort of fatigue, as if the immense enterprise of the Creation had exhausted their sources. So they withdraw into the sky, leaving a son or a demiurge on earth to finish or perfect the Creation. Gradually their place is taken by other divine figures – the mythical ancestor, the mother-goddesses, the fecundating gods, and the like. The god of the storm still preserves a celestial structure, but he is no longer a creating supreme being; he is only the foundation of earth” (Eliade 128)

Alexander’s death after the creation of an empire that would become the Hellenistic world was the execution of the post-creation withdrawal of the creator God. 

To recapitulate the Characteristics of Alexander as a Creator-God: Alexander conquers, bringing civilization and the rebirth of sacred time and space to areas. He slew the abyssal dragon that was Persia from the greek perspective in order to further this creation. For those who Alexander conquered, he revitalized the existing traditions and remade sacred space, adapting his nature to the different cultures he assimilated into the Hellenistic world he created. Lastly, his mysterious death can be seen as an analogy to the withdrawal of the creator deity after the creation of the world. 

What may be more striking than the framing of the mythical nature of Alexander the Great as a creator God is the implications that it had on Western Society. 

“Alexander’s legacy is greater than his conquests. He and his father before him had garnered Greek support for the invasion of Persia in part by casting the venture as a Panhellenic enterprise, a war of revenge by Greeks against barbarians. Alexander’s Successors – Antigonus, Selucus, Ptolemy and their descendants – likewise established their authoring by defining their kingdoms as Greek kingdoms. Alexander’s extensive conquest combined with this primacy given to Greek culture during and after thus gave birth to what has been termed the Hellensitic Age (323-30BC).”

While there was no moment in which Alexander was coronated as a diety though his assumption of the previously Persian title of “the Great” may be viewed as analogous, he paved the way for later conquerors to do so. The Hellenistic Age ended with the rise of Rome. The Roman Age of the Republic  was the next phase in the growth of Western Society, which lead to the age of the Roman Empire. Caesar’s life holds many strong parallels to those of Alexander. Both conquer. Both fulfill the same mythical archetype of the creator God, but whereas Alexander never was made into a true God to be worshiped, Caesar and the Roman Emperors who succeeded him were and so created a new age of Western Civilization. Later as Constatine conquered and Christianized the Roman World forming the Bysantize empire, he acted as a creator god in order to create the sacred space of the Christian Western World. This correlation implies that the ages of Western Society are intrinsically tied to the actions of great kings who act as creator gods in order to recreate the world so that the new age can begin and grow. Napoleon, though his new world was short-lived nonetheless ushered in the Napoleonic Era for Europe and Western Society. And it may be said that it Hitler was successful in his campaigns during the 1930s and World War Two that he may have succeeded in creating a new age of Western Civilization which was one of the Goals he laid out in Mien Kamph.  This pattern of reconquering and recreating Western Civilization in order to usher a new era began with Alexander, the flesh and blood execution of the myth of the creator-god. 


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