Alexander: Living The Myth by Operative 413
Few bridged the gap between man and god like Alexander the Great.
Caesar’s very name was a title of lordship for centuries, but he “became a god” after he died. Alexander was thought of as a god even while alive. Unlike in the case of crazed despots like Caligula, even some of Alexander’s closest companions thought it might be true.
F.S. Naiden’s “Soldier, Priest and God” is a religious biography of the conqueror. It reveals a lesson we can use today – you can live your own Myth. You become legend by becoming aware that you are already in one. Whether you actually believe in “gods” or spirits is largely irrelevant. However, a Cult, männerbund, a ritualized order that binds your best people together, can bind your tribe together and lead you to victory.
Of course, Alexander’s world was very different than ours. “Atheism” was basically unknown. Moreover, as king, it was his job not just to rule, but to offer sacrifice and serve as intermediary between his people and the gods. “We may think of him as the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the head of the Church of England, all in one,” says Naiden.
“When Alexander used religion astutely, he and his army prospered… when Alexander neglected or mismanaged religion, he and his army suffered,” he notes, essentially summarizing the whole book. Significantly, he writes, “The farther he got from the Mediterranean, where he knew some of the gods and had a feel for others, the less skill he displayed, the more men he killed or lost.” Adopting a foreign or unknown tradition is inauthentic; you can’t immerse yourself in the Myth.
Macedonia was a backwater compared to mighty Greek city-states like Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. The Macedonians, to some horrified Greeks, appeared like Homeric characters that the civilized city-states had left behind. But the urbanites submitted all the same.
What allowed Alexander’s father, Philip II, to turn Macedonia into a great power? “He gave them a cult,” said Naiden. The king’s “Companions,” a quasi-official title designating membership in the cult, “worshipped together, hunted together, and fought together.” “Their leader, the king,” he writes, “was priest, master of the hunt, and commander.” Membership was irrevocable, for life, and bound by the “most sacred oath” to Zeus, the “patron” of the cult. Each Companion, before joining, had to “kill a boar without a net.”
Philip II didn’t invent this institution, but transformed it. At first, it had just been a kind of status symbol for courtiers, presumably not taken very seriously. Philip II turned it into a “sort of religious guild for officers,” increasing the number by hundreds. Companions that fought and hunted together would battle ferociously to save a wounded fellow member, regarding their own lives as secondary. They would compete in bravery and to prove loyalty. Instead of the king simply giving orders, he would, as one of the Companions, seek consensus with his officers. Though there was an idea of an afterlife, it was not “Zeus’s business”; victory and valor in this life was the point.
Later, as he grew in power, Philip II expanded the idea, extending membership to the leaders of the low-born infantry commanders as “foot companions.” He also expanded this honor to members of other local tribes that acknowledged his kingship after alliance or conquest. He had created a revolutionary new army where commoners and nobles were bound together by sacred commitment.
When Philip II was assassinated, Alexander legitimized his claim to the throne by leading the Companions in sacrifice and ritual. His war against the Persian Empire wasn’t just revenge, or a quest for glory, but something of a Crusade. Zeus was thought to rule Asia and Africa. Alexander would win by killing the emperor Darius or forcing him to supplicate, thus making Alexander King of Asia. Individual victory by the spear wasn’t “might makes right,” it conferred divine legitimacy.
The first thing Alexander did upon crossing into Asia was thrust his spear into the Earth. “The Zeus of the Macedonians let the king keep any land he conquered, provided that he plunged his spear into land to be invaded and then captured it,” Namian writes. Other cultures had similar practices. In Germanic mythology, the first war in history began when Óðinn threw his spear into the ranks of the enemy. Later Germanic armies would begin battle by throwing a spear at the enemy and crying, “Odin owns you all” symbolically sacrificing the enemies to their god, but also justifying the slaughter to come. Livy chronicles an elaborate method the ancient Romans used to declare war. They explained to the gods why their actions were just and then plunged a javelin tipped with steel or blood into enemy soil. This done, the gods presumably justified the war.
Once in Asia, Alexander didn’t immediately pursue a military objective. Instead, he made a pilgrimage to the ruins of Troy and offered sacrifice. Alexander thought he was descended from Hercules but also from Achilles, and so he felt he must appease the spirit of King Priam, Achilles’s enemy. He vowed to build a new shrine. Before he first confronted the Persian Army, Alexander waited to make sure his actions were in alignment with the “sacred calendar.” He also prayed in a way Namian calls a “legal brief,” justifying his actions. Instead of bringing gods along, the way a modern army brings chaplains, the Macedonians appeased the spirits already there. The world was sacred, and each place had its gods. More importantly, Zeus was still present.
In the Battle of the Grancius, Alexander led his Companion cavalry from the front. After the victory, he built statues to the fallen Companions at Troy (as well as one of himself). He also portrayed this victory, which gave him half of Asia Minor, as a victory for “the Greeks,” even though more Greeks fought against him (as mercenaries) then for him. Alexander didn’t just consider himself a champion of divine justice on a religious pilgrimage, but the legitimate leader of an entire people, the Greek nation. When his army moved through the newly conquered territory, Alexander rebuilt shrines, spoke to priests, and participated in local rituals—occasionally reshaping them to his own ends, like when he cut the famous Gordian Knot.
Sometimes, though they recognized the gods, his Macedonians viewed lordship differently than Middle Eastern kings who had ruled before. One inscription from Nebuchadnezzar brags Marduk (whom the Greeks associated with Zeus) gave him people to rule that he let “lie in safe pastures.” “The Macedonians would not have understood this image of a human flock,” Naiden writes. “Sheep were offerings, not human beings.” Still, what allowed the Macedonians to conquer and rule was that they associated local deities as simply different forms of their own gods. Even in far away places, psychologically, their gods were with them.
The second great victory of Alexander over the Persians was at Issus. After the battle, as was customary, the king presided over cremating the dead. Then, he ordered funeral games held to honor them. Finally, he built altars to Zeus, Athena, and Hercules at the place where he had sacrificed before the battle. They endured for centuries; Cicero visited about 200 years later.
Entire military operations centered on what we might think of as religious technicalities. The siege of Tyre took place because the city’s rulers refused to let Alexander sacrifice at a temple to Melkart, whom Alexander identified with Hercules. They knew that if he did that at a certain time, Alexander would become king. It seems crazy to modern people, but Alexander’s war in Asia was a war about securing religious legitimacy. Similarly, in Egypt, Alexander became Pharaoh. He identified Amon with Zeus.
Was this all just cynical nonsense? It’s true that Alexander would offer priests financial help and they, in turn, might tell them what he wanted to hear.
Yet then it’s hard to explain the dangerous pilgrimage to Siwah, an isolated shrine. Alexander and some of his top generals traveled there, almost getting killed in the process. They got lost and almost starved until, according to court historians, snakes or crows intervened and led them to safety. From a modern perspective, Alexander’s actions make no sense. They were counter-productive militarily. Today, they might seem completely insane.
But they make sense from the perspective of a man who thought he was on a religious mission. His officers evidently thought it was important enough for them to join too. Alexander heard at Siwah what he wanted—he was the son of Zeus. While in Egypt, he also built the great city of Alexandria—and a cult for himself as founder.
Alexander’s greatest victory was at Gaugamela. Before this battle he sacrificed to the god Panic, asking him to visit the enemy. Panic evidently did. After the victory, Alexander moved to Babylon, legitimizing his rule by becoming king and aligning himself with the local priests. Yet the farther away he moved from home, the harder it became for him to reconcile all these idiosyncratic religious traditions. He was paying homage to gods that sometimes warred with each other.
He also couldn’t simultaneously be the warrior king of the Macedonians and head of the Companions while adopting Persian trappings. Tensions rose even within the Companions after a brutal military campaign against Central Asian steppe tribes, a form of a war the Macedonians weren’t accustomed to. This unrest culminated when a drunken Alexander, enraged by the taunts of one of his closest friends, Clitus, stabbed him to death. Ultimately, the only way the army and officers reconciled themselves to going on was by blaming the entire incident on Dionysus.
The problems got worse when the army pushed into India, where Alexander desperately tried to relate local gods to ones the Macedonians knew, usually unsuccessfully. He even initiated a defeated Indian king into the Companions.
Eventually, Alexander’s army eventually refused to go further. Like Achilles, Alexander sulked in his tent, to no avail. He took omens three times—the maximum allowed—and every time they were bad. Had they been good, he might well have ordered the army onward. The fighting wasn’t over; Alexander was almost killed in a battle over an Indian city. Thinking their king was dead, his men wept and strained to touch him when they learned he was alive. His person had become sacred.
After a difficult march back east, Alexander organized a huge sacrifice and himself imitated Dionysus. This delighted his men; “they had recovered their king.” Later, when he was again faced with unrest with from within the Macedonian camp, Alexander used his usual tactic of withdrawing from the men. He later emerged to shame his men, declaring he had shared all their sacrifices and paid their debts. He also didn’t refer to Zeus-Amon as his father, but Philip. Mortified, his men begged forgiveness.
The idea that Alexander dreamed of “uniting all the races of the world in a Universal Empire” is not true; he was building a Macedonian/Persian ruling class, and even this was proving difficult because of cultural and religious barriers. The Macedonians wanted a Homeric hero as their war chief, not an Eastern potentate. Naiden judges that near the end, “Alexander had forsaken the cult that helped the king and his companions share risk and rewards.”
We will never know if Alexander could have successfully solved the contradictions of his governing his polyglot empire. He died at age 32 after days of drinking in the Macedonian fashion, and his death was proceeded by bad omens and warnings from priests. His last act was to rise from his sickbed and make sacrifice in Babylon. After death, even many of those who doubted his divinity embraced his godhood. Even his body became something of a relic—Ptolemy essentially stole it during its funeral procession and housed it in a sarcophagus in Alexandria, legitimizing his own dynasty, which would endure until Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Augustus.
The dead Alexander was given homage by great men for centuries afterward, including Augustus. His empire fragmented; the wars of the Diadochi lasted for centuries, with everyone claiming Alexander’s legacy. “The cult of the Companions,” Namian writes, “was broken.” The Romans would eventually claim most of Alexander’s empire. Ultimately, he faced the same problem of any effective conqueror or religious leader; the very qualities that make an empire or religion able to spread are undermined once it spreads too far. Had Alexander not died when he did, he likely would have faced rebellions for the rest of his reign, probably (maybe even especially) in Greece. It’s ironic today he is celebrated as a Greek hero, because many Greek cities at the time thought him a tyrant.
What lessons can we learn from this man who conquered the known world while barely an adult? The key to his victories was not just the professional army he inherited from his father and his own innate genius. There was also the institution of the Companions, the cult that drove the army forward, mitigated disputes, and created a culture of fanatic devotion between officers and the “foot companions” of the infantry. Most importantly, Alexander was conscious of himself as participating in sacred events. The Homeric heroes were not of scholarly interest; they were his ancestors, people to emulate, people he could emulate and maybe even surpass. At his best, he acted in unison with his gods, his cult, and his army.
The greatest lesson Alexander the Great teaches is to Live The Myth. Act in such a way that you are aligned with your spirituality, your true will, and what you see as the heroes of your culture. Live in such a way that your life is a work of art—or a saga.
What separates “living the myth” from simply LARPing? The answer is danger. A LARPer can walk away from whatever story he’s telling himself and go back into modernity. One who Lives The Myth lets it define him. The tribes and orders springing up across the Hollow Empire are real, because those who have joined them believe in them and will fight for them.
Sadly, it’s no longer possible to join with a few hundred of your best friends and conquer the known world. Or is it?
Achieving great deeds, testing yourself daily, building a tribe (or joining one), and creating something that can endure against this shit world of concrete and lies—these are all things that can be done today. The world does not have to be this way—and if the life of Alexander shows anything, it’s the impact one man can have.
Create your own saga with your own Companions. Plant your spear into the Earth. It is yours by right of conquest—if you have the courage to do what is necessary.