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The Legends Surrounding Alexander's Birth

Around 1285 AD the Flemish monk Jacob van Maerlant composed his 'Spiegel Historiael' - 'A Reflection on History'. Fragments of the work were published in a modern edition by Amsterdam University Press in 1994. Here is a brief synopsis of the birth of Alexander according to the Medieval tradition.

Seduction of Olympias

The Egyptian Pharaoh Nectanebo [Neptanabus] is a skilled souceror who defends his empire by the use of black magic. Whenever enemies approach, he retreats in his quarters and casts spells to sink their ships and destroy their troops. When the Persian king Ochus marches towards Egypt with a massive force, Nectanebo receives a warning from his gods that this time his magic arts are likely to fail. Nectanebo flees to Macedonia where he meets with Olympias while King Philip is on campaign.

Olympias is impressed by Nectanebo's knowledge of astrology. The Pharaoh predicts Olympias will soon conceive a child from a god: the god Ammon of Lybia. The cunning Nectanebo changes himself into a dragon and has intercourse with Olympias, who firmly believes she is making love to the god.

Afterwards Nectanebo manifests himself in a dream of Philip. Philip tells his soothsayers he dreamt a beautiful horned god with wild hair was making love to his wife. His soothsayers answer that his description matches the Lybian god Ammon. Philip returns home and tells Olympias he knows she conceived from a god. But in his heart he has no peace with it.

Birth of Alexander

During a party at the Macedonian court Nectanebo enters in the shape of a dragon, then transforms himself into an eagle and escapes. Philip remarks that if the dragon represents Ammon, the eagle must represent Jupiter (Zeus). His doubts have now vanished. Immediately after this incident a chicken lays an egg in Philip's lap. The egg hatches and a tiny dragon appears, which crawls around the egg, then dies as it apparently tries to get back in.

The soothsayers explain this sign: Olympias' son will conquer the world but will die before he is able to return to Macedonia.

Nectanebo assists Olympias as she goes into labour. Alexander is born during a raging thunderstorm. The earth trembles and two eagles stand guard on the roof of the palace. Alexander has golden, curling hair like a lion. His face is cheerful and his eyes are bright and lively. His left eye is grey, the right one brown.

Death of Nectanebo

At the age of twelve Alexander is already fond of weaponry and he spends a lot of time marching with the army. He invites Nectanebo to come with him, as he wants the Pharaoh to teach him more about astrology.

In his roguishness Alexander pushes Nectanebo into a ditch. The Pharaoh breaks his neck. Alexander says: "If you were really good at astrology, you would have foreseen this."

Nectanebo answers: "Nobody can deter fate. It was my fate that I would be killed by my own son." Alexander questions the dying Pharaoh who reveals the story about the seduction of Olympias. Alexander buries Nectanebo with full honours. Olympias publicly admits she had been deceived.