Egyptian wisdom: King Nektanebos the astrologer and diviner in the Alexander Romance (fourth century CE and earlier)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: King Nektanebos the astrologer and diviner in the Alexander Romance (fourth century CE and earlier),' Last modified October 31, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10338.

Authors: Pseudo-Kallisthenes (anonymous authors), Alexander Romance, 1.1-13 – Greek recension A / α (link to Greek text; link to full translation).

Comments: We have plenty of examples of Greek philosophers or elite intellectuals characterizing this or that foreign people as a source of wisdom, particularly in the case of Babylonians (Chaldeans), Persians (Magians), Egyptians, and Indians (see category 4 to your right). However, the more novelistic Alexander Romance (attributed to Kallisthenes or Callisthenes and reflecting materials that came to be written down in the period from 140-340 CE, if not before in some cases) provides us with access into more widely circulating notions. These tales seem to capture – in a variety of different forms and recensions – orally circulating stories about Alexander of Macedon (“the Great”) and his origins. Among the stories that ended up in this group is the story of the ultimate Egyptian wise man, prophet and diviner, Nektanebos. Nektanebos II was the final king of the Egyptians (reigning ca. 358–340 BCE) – defeated by the Persian king Artaxerxes – before the conquest of Alexander. Legends grew up around him including these ones that picture him as the ultimate wise man and expert in interpreting the communications of the gods.

The story has Nektanebos employing his “Magian skills” to interpret signs sent by the god in water in a dish (lekanomancy) and in the stars (astrology), and using his skills of some sort in concocting a plan to impregnate the wife of Philip II, soon to be “father” of Alexander.  So much so that he helps Olympias ensure that Alexander is born at a time when the alignment of the constellations will ensure Alexander’s success in conquering the world. In this legend, the Egyptian king Nektanabos (rather than Philip II) is in fact the real father of Alexander. Egyptian wisdom ends up responsible for the most extensive conquest ever (including conquest of Egypt itself). And Alexander ends up being an Egyptian conqueror of the world in some important respects.

Source of the translation: Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, Pseudo-Callisthenes: The Life of Alexander of Macedon (New York: Longmans, Green, 1955), public domain in Canada (Haight passed away in 1964), adapted by Harland.

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Book 1 (of recension A / α)

[Contributions of wise Egyptians and the example of king Nektanebos as a wise man and diviner]

(1) The very wise Egyptians, descendants of the gods, measured the earth, calmed the waves of the sea, marked out the course of the river Nile, determined the places of the constellations in the sky, then handed over to the inhabited earth the power, the might of reason, the discovery of Magian power. For they say that Nektanebos (II, reigning ca. 360-342 BCE], the last king of Egypt, after whom Egypt lost its great glory, surpassed all men in the use of Magian power. For through reason he subjugated all the cosmic elements to himself. If a cloud of war suddenly appeared, he did not prepare an expedition, or assemble arms or iron weapons, or the machines of warfare, but he went into the palace, selected a bronze dish, filled it with rain-water, fashioned little boats of wax and sailors, threw them into the dish, and chanted an incantation, holding an ebony rod. He called upon the Messengers and Ammon, god of Libya.

[Threat of barbarian armies]

So when by such dish-divination (lekanomanteia) he observed the boats in the dish. . . [text missing in manuscript] when the enemy came they perished and he reigned supreme. And he used the same control over enemies who came by land. (2) So in this way, by his experience, the king stayed on the throne. But after some time from the so-called explorers among the Romans and the Greeks a spy presented himself and addressed the king: “Most revered Nektanebos, dismiss your belief that the world is at peace because a great cloud of thousands of enemies is rising. For there are Scythians, Arabians, Oxydrakians, Iberians, Serians, Kaukonians, Dapatians, Bosporians, Agroians, Zalbians, Chaldeans, Mesopotamians, Agriophagians, Euonymitians – all of them great peoples (ethnē) of the East, an innumerable host of thousands who are rushing to seize your Egypt.” When the informer made this report, Nektanebos smiled and answered: “You are performing carefully and well the duty entrusted to you. But I will not act as a coward or a warrior. For power lies not in numbers, but in reason. One mind drives away many men, overwhelming the multitudes with the right arm.” With these words he dismissed the fellow.

[Nektanebos escapes to Macedonia]

(3) Nektanebos himself returned to the palace and ordered all to leave his presence. Then when alone, he set the dish out and filled it with water. And first throwing into it the little wax boats and taking the rod in his hand, he pronounced the potent words. Then, gazing into the dish, he saw that the gods of the Egyptians were piloting the boats of the barbarian enemies. Therefore, realizing that the king of the Egyptians had been betrayed by the Blessed Ones, he shaved his head and beard to disguise himself. Putting in his robe as much gold as he could conceal, he fled from Egypt through Pelousion [port city in the eastern Delta]. And after travelling among many peoples, he came to Pella in Macedonia. There he clad himself in a linen garment like an Egyptian prophet and astrologer and took a seat in the public square to give advice to any who approached him. That was the situation.

[Egyptian oracle regarding Nektanebos’ future return]

In Egypt, when Nektanebos had disappeared, the Egyptians decided to consult the ancestor of their gods, Hephaistos, as to what had happened to the king of Egypt. He sent them an oracle bidding them to stand beside the Invisible One of Sinopeion [temple of Sarapis]. He gave this oracle: “The king who has fled from Egypt, the mighty, the strong, aged ruler, after a time will return to the plain of Egypt a young man, having thrown off signs of old age. After travelling over the whole world, he will give you victory over your enemies.” When this oracle was uttered, they did not understand its meaning, so they wrote down on the pedestal of the statue of Nektanebos the verses for a record when some time, somewhere, the oracle should be fulfilled.

[Nektanebos’ areas of knowledge and the encounter with Olympias, wife of Philip]

(4) Now in Macedonia it became clear to all that Nektanebos was highly respected. His reputation, indeed, was so great that Olympias [wife of Philip] wished to interview him and summoned him while Philip [II, reigning ca. 382-336 BCE] happened to be away at a war. When Nektanebos went to the palace, he saw that her beauty was brighter than the moon. He had been indifferent to women, restraining his mind from erotic desire. Now, stretching out his hand, he greeted her, saying: “A blessing on you, Queen of the Macedonians!” He did not consider it appropriate to address her as “Lady,” remembering that he too once was a king. Olympias replied: “A blessing on you, most noble scholar. Come and sit beside me.” And when they were seated, Olympias said: “Are you really an Egyptian?” Nektanebos answered: “So those who have examined me say.” She continued: “What form of inquiry do you use in giving true oracles?” He answered: “You appear wise, O Queen. The analysis of the inquiry is complex. For there are dream-interpreters, sign-translators, bird-examiners, diviners (manteis) of different types, readers of horoscopes, Magians (magoi), and astrologers. Now I have studied diligently all these forms of inquiry, for I am a distinguished Egyptian prophet, and I am a Magian and an astrologer.” After these words, he gave her a piercing look. And she, believing the look an omen, asked: “What are you thinking, learned prophet, when you look at me so earnestly?” Nektanebos replied: “I am recalling an oracle, Queen. For once I heard from my own gods, ‘You must prophesy for a queen and the words you utter will be found true.’”

[Astrological and horoscope reading]

After these words, he brought forth a tablet, very elegant and regal, which language cannot describe. It was made of ivory, ebony, gold, and silver. The symbols on it were in three zones: on the first circle the thirty-six decans, on the second the twelve signs of the zodiac, in the center the sun and the moon. He placed it on a stool. Then he opened carefully a small ivory case and emptied out the seven stars and the horoscope of eight different stones, revealing the great heaven in a small circle. The sun was of crystal, the moon of adamant, Ares of a blood-red jewel, Hermes of emerald, Zeus of a caerulean stone, Aphrodite of sapphires, Kronos of serpentine, the horoscope of white marble. Then he said: “Tell me, Queen, the year, the month, the day, and the hour of your birth.” And when she told him, Nektanebos compared his own horoscope with hers to see if the stars agreed. Then, seeing that there was harmony, he said: “What do you wish to hear, Queen?” She answered: “I wish to learn the news about Philip. For rumour says that after the war he will forsake me and marry another.” Nektanebos replied: “The rumour about immediate separation is false, Queen. After a time, this will actually occur. Then I, as an Egyptian prophet and Magian, can be of great aid to you when there is need of such work. For fate has decreed, according to the hour of your birth which you gave me, that you should meet an earth-born god, and be embraced by him and conceive a son, your own child, an avenger of the sins of Philip.” She said: “And who is this god with whom you say I will lie?” And he said: “The god of Libya, the horned, wealth-bringing Ammon.” She asked: “What is his age: is he young, or middle-aged? What is his personality?” He replied: “He is middle-aged. His hair is grey. He has ram’s horns above his temples. Therefore, prepare yourself as woman and queen for the marriage. You will see a vision and the god with you.” Olympias said: “When?” He said: “After a short time – tomorrow. Therefore, I urge you to be yourself, putting aside your royal rank. For tonight in dreams, you will be embraced.” She said: “If I see this, I will revere you not as a prophet, or a Magian, but as a god.”

[Preparation for a dream vision]

(5) After this conversation, Nektanebos left the palace. Without delay, he rushed to the desert and gathered the herbs which have the power of producing visions, through which he would use Magian skills to produce in Olympias’ sleep an image of the act which she desired [i.e. sleeping with a god]. So actually in her sleep she saw Ammon meeting Olympias and embracing her and, after he arose, saying: “Woman, in your womb you carry your avenger.”

[Request to sleep with the god in the daytime]

(6) When she arose from her sleep, Olympias marvelled at the fulfillment of the prophecy. She sent for the one skilled in calculations [mathematikos; i.e. Nektanebos] and said: “I saw the god of whom you spoke to me. He came to me in person, laying aside his godhead. Now, therefore, I wish to lie with him when I am awake and it is day. Will you arrange this? I’m amazed that this escapes you.” He merely said: “Nothing escapes me. Since now you acknowledge that you wish to meet him when you are awake, there must be some preparation for it. A dream is one thing, reality is another. I believe that I must occupy the little room near your bed that, when the god approaches you, you may not be terrified since I will be near to help you with my incantations. For this god on his coming to you will at first arrive as a serpent creeping over the earth with a hissing sound, then he will be transformed into the horned Ammon, then into mighty Herakles, then into Dionysos bearing the sacred wand (thrysos). Finally, arriving a god in human form, he will appear to resemble myself.” Olympias said: “Noble is your prophesy. Take the bedroom. And when awake I see him and know that I have received the semen of a god, I as a queen will honour you, and I will boast that you are the father of the child.” Nektanebos said: “I foretold to you the hissing of the serpent that you may not frighten the creature, but rather be kind to him and without fear.”

(7) Now when all the events described had occurred, the queen had no fear, but courageously endured the transformation of the god. And he, when he arose from her, struck her belly and said: “O child, remain forever unconquered, supreme!” With these words, he went away to his own time of waiting. And the future took its course: she rejoiced because she had been embraced by a serpent, Ammon, Herakles, Dionysos, all divine.

[Pregnancy, cover-up, and aftermath]

And when her belly grew large, she summoned Nektanebos and said: “Prophet, what am I going to do if Philip on his return finds me pregnant?” And he said: “Fear nothing, Queen. In this time, you will be aided by the tri-formed god, Ammon, who will show a sign to Philip, so that you will not be reproached by him.” So Olympias strayed, for she met a human adulterer as a god, not the Egyptian king. (8) Then he procured a sea falcon and using Magian skill made it a messenger of a dream to Philip. For he saw a god, handsome, hoary, horned, the image of Ammon, lying with Olympias. And when he arose from her bed, he said: “In your womb you bear my child, who will be the avenger of you and of his father, Philip.” Now it appeared that the man drew her [Olympias’] image on a papyrus from the Nile and sealed it with a golden seal having on the stone a symbol with the head of a lion, the might and darting brightness of the sun. Then it seemed that a falcon with its wings woke him from sleep.

After seeing these things, Philip arose, sent for an interpreter and told him the oracle. He said: “King, as you thought, Olympias is pregnant, but by a god. For the fact that some one sealed up her image demands credence. For no one puts a seal on an empty vessel, but on a full one. And since her image was depicted on papyrus, the seed is Egyptian. For papyrus grows only in Egypt. And her fortune, far from being humble, is brilliant and glorious and marked for fame by the seal-ring of gold. For what is brighter than gold by which even gods are honoured? And the sun on the seal, head of lion and spear, means something like this. From the rising of his sun to its setting, he will be a leader and he will make the cities subject to his spear. The fact that the god wears ram’s horns and is grey-haired shows that Ammon, the god of Libya, is the sower of the seed.” When the inter preter of dreams had made this explanation, Philip was reconciled because Olympias had been made pregnant by a god.

(9) Now, having won the war against Macedonia, he made the journey home. And when he came to the palace, Olympias welcomed him with some fear. And Philip glancing at her said: “By whom were you betrayed, Olympias?. . . For having failed, you did not fail. For a god did violence to you so that, impregnated by a god, you should announce that he is Philip’s son. For I have learned your story through dreams. Therefore you are above reproach. For we royal rulers who conquer all men have no power against the gods.” His words set Olympias’ mind at rest. (10) Such was the situation in the palace.

Now Nektanebos, by spying, heard Philip say to Olympias: “You have deceived me, Lady. For you have not conceived by a god, but by a human being.” So, when there was a great banquet, Nektanebos changed himself by Magian skill into a serpent much larger than the first one and came through the middle of the dining-room with a strange and terrible hissing sound so that fear and confusion fell on everyone reclining on the couches. But Olympias, seeing her own lover, sat up and stretched out her right hand from her couch. He, rearing up, placed his chin in her hand, and coiled his whole body in her bosom. Then, darting out his cloven tongue, he kissed her, giving a proof of friendship and love to the spectators and to Philip himself. And having produced this evidence, he disappeared. Philip, after witnessing this said: “I saw this serpent, when I waged the war against the wicked, making the horde of them flee by his hissing.” So afterwards, on account of this, Philip thought himself fortunate because he was to be called the father of a god.

(11) Not many days later, Philip was sitting in a certain garden of the palace where all sorts of birds lived and were fed by him. While he was reading at his leisure some works of literature, a tame young bird landing on his chest, laid an egg there, which rolled down to the earth and was broken. And out of it came a tiny serpent. It coiled around the egg from which it had issued, wishing to enter it, but before it put its head inside, it perished. Philip was greatly alarmed by this occurrence and summoned Antiphon, his famous interpreter of omens, and told him what had happened. He spoke to this effect: “You will have a son who will be king and will travel around the whole world, subduing all to his rule. But when, after a little, he turns back to his own land, he will die. For the serpent is a royal creature, and the egg from which the serpent comes is like the cosmos. And when he encircles the egg and wishes to enter it, before he sets his eyes upon his native land, he has died outside of it.” After interpreting the omen, he was rewarded and departed.

[Nektanebos’ astrological expertise and the birth of Alexander]

(12) Now, once her time of pregnancy was completed, Olympias sat down upon the seat of safety for childbirth and her pains began. Nektanebos stood beside her and, having observed the course of the stars in heaven in relation to the movement of the cycle of the zodiac, said: “Arise from the chair for a little and walk around, because the Scorpion is in the ascendant and the shining Sun of the four horse chariot, beholding the heavenly bodies revolving backwards, turns one born at this hour altogether away from the heavens. Mighty be the reverence for yourself under this star. For Karkinos controls the horoscope, and Kronos who was plotted against by his own two sons cut off his genitals to the root, and bearing in mind Poseidon, ruler of the sea, and Ploutos of the lower world, took the throne of Zeus in heaven. At this time you would give birth to somoene doomed to be a eunuch. Let the brief space of this hour pass. For the moon, the horned, with the yoke of bulls left behind, was the last to descend on earth, and she embraced a fair boy, the cowherd Endymion. Because of the meeting, burned by fire, he perished. So he who is born under such conditions dies in flames.”

“Different is the fate of the happy son of heaven. For Aphrodite, goddess of marriage, mother of Eros the bowman, will destroy Adonis the hunter. The one born in this hour, when he sees the light, arouses the wailing of the women of Byblos for himself, and he has the soul of Ares, the lion-hearted. For he is a horseman and a warrior, and now, unarmed, naked, he was revealed by the Sun on the bed of lust. So the one born in this hour will die despised.”

“Await now this star of Hermes, Queen, beside the One of Ill Name of the goat horns. So you will bear a famous warrior of a different mind, your own son. In this hour, you give birth to a marvel. Be seated now comfortably on the chair that gives easy childbirth and endure the more severe and cutting pangs of delivery. For Zeus, the lover of young women, brought to light Dionysos, the raver, who was nursed in his thigh, Zeus the divine god of heaven. He became the ram Ammon, born under Aquarius and the Fish, and he established an Egyptian man, a king, ruler of the world. In this hour, give birth to your child.”

At this word, the infant fell on the ground. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, earth shook, so that all the universe was in commotion. (13) When these events occurred, Philip said: “I planned not to rear the child, Lady, because he is not my son. But now, since I see clearly that his origin is the seed of a god, and the babe is someone marked by the cosmic elements, let him be reared and in memory of my son by my former wife, my son who perished, let him be called Alexander.” When he said these words, the child received the proper care.

Throughout all of Pella, Thrace, and Macedonia the people celebrated the event, wearing crowns of flowers. Now the boy grew up and he did not look like Philip or Olympias. For he had his own type, a leonine mane of hair, eyes of different colours, one white, one black. And he had sharp teeth like fangs, and the passionate nature of a wild lion.

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