Dodona

Day with Macedonian Archaeology – Forms of Fatalist Beliefs in Ancient Macedonians

The most eminent mysteries of the ancient world took place on the island of Samothrace[1], located in the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, once regarded as the center of the mysterious cult of the Cabeiri venerated as protectors of sailors and ships, the meeting place of Philip and Olympias[2] amidst the celebration of the holiday of the Mighty Gods in the period from 365 to 361 BC, as recorded by Plutarch[3]. During the celebration, the ghosts of the dead were called upon and secretive rituals, orgies, purgation and purifications were held that only the immersed and initiated into the mysteries of the Cabeiri attended.The aim of the immersion into the Cabeiri mysteries was to relieve oneself of the past sins and protect oneself from future misfortune.[4] The influence of the Samothrace mysteries[5] and the respect that the Cabeiri enjoyed among the Macedonians of the ancient world is witnessed by the reliefs discovered on the territory of Macedonia. According to V. Bitrakova-Grozdanova, the Samothrace gods, the Cabeiri, were also known in western Paeonia by the name of Dioscuri and in compliance with the samples discovered in Macedonia, it is evident that this cult held a significant place in the religious beliefs of Macedonians in the ancient period.[6] IMG_1143

It is not known why Philip was on Samothrace, but it is known that Olympias was very religious and deeply mystical, having great respect for the orphic rituals and always participating in the holy dances dedicated to the gods of nature with great pleasure, as recorded by Plutarch.[7] She showed greater courage in handling the snakes than most women, a sight that “would make most men tremble with fear”[8] as A. Weigall would record.  It is assumed that her mysterious behavior and wild and untamable nature caught the attention of young Philip, who fell in love with her and married her five years later.

In the ancient period, beside the oracle of Delphi, the oracle of Dodona in Epirus was considered to be the most consulted one. It is the birthplace of Olympias, who is presumed to have been a frequent visitor of this place.The Oracle of Dodona was located in the immediate vicinity of the temple of Zeus, nestled between oak and beech woods whence the responses to prophecies were discerned through symbolic interpretation of the sounds of nature, the whisper of the tree leaves, the cooing of the doves, the babbling of the brooks and the songs of the brass vessels lulling to the wind.  A. Weigall discerns another type of prophesying used in the Oracle of Dodona. This involves a young man hitting a kind of gong with a whip with three chains, and thus the response of the deity corresponded to the nature and degree of the vibrations. [9] Due to simultaneous beginnings, similarity in the prophesying, as well as the choice of location in regards to oracles nestled in woods, the Oracle of Dodona is considered to be a twin-oracle to the Egyptian oracle of Siwa , known among the people as the Place of trees (Sekbet – iemy), located in the Egyptian desert, as recorded by Herodotus.[10]  Since the Oracle in Siwa was dedicated to Ammon, and Dodona dedicated to Zeus, the two Gods were equated into one, Zeus-Ammon and as such was worshipped amongst the peoples of the ancient world.  Philips visits to the Temple of Ammon in Thebes, Boeotia where the statue of this deity inscribed by Pindar was placed, as recorded by Pausanius,[11] as well as Philip’s offering of holy sacrifices at the famous Oracle in the Temple of Ammon in Macedonia, speak volumes of the cult of Ammon in Macedonia and the reverence he enjoyed among the ancient Macedonians.[12] In Donona, Zeus was worshipped under the name of Nayos, god of birth and the fertilizing moist of nature, whereas in Egypt Ammon was likened to Min, god of fertility.  The connection of Zeus from Dodona with Min-Ammon from Egypt is done through the use of a whip with three chains, the most characteristic symbol of Min in the prophesying ceremonies. Its use is also noted in the Oracle in Dodona during prophesying through hitting a gong with this kind of whip.    According to legend, after the arrangement of the wedding of Philip and Olympias, it is most likely that she directed all her prayers to Min-Ammon, god of fertility, whose power amongst the people was experienced through thunderbolts and the shooting stars in the sky. [13]

When weaving the legends of the birth and life of Alexander the Great, apart from the prophecies of oracles,a considerable role was also played by the beliefs in ancient forms of foretelling the future through different occurrences that were believed to be infallible signs or omens.   As the most common form of seeing into the future, prophetic dreams were considered to be the most enlightened and most significant form, followed by prophesying through the flight of the birds, odd signs as well as dream interpretation.    Predicting the future was in the hands of seers, prophets, druids, fortunetellers or astrologers. In the time of Philip and Alexander the great, Aristander was considered to be the most skilful seer.[14]

Legends that refer to the birth of the greatest leader and conqueror of all time, Alexander of Macedon, are most consistently described by Plutarch through the account of Olympias’ dream she dreamt a day before her wedding to Philip as well as Philip’s dream the next night, after the wedding ceremony.[15] The interpretation of Philip and Olymipias’ dreams was in the hands of Aristandar, the seer, who according to Plutarch: considering how unusual it was to seal up anything that was empty, so consluded that Olympias was with child of a boy, who would one day prove as stout and courageous as a lion.[16] The conception of Alexander of Macedon was followed by Olympias’ dream on the same night:  “The night when he was conceived, his mother dreamt that she had laid with a extraordinary serpent; and the dream was not a lie since, in her womb, she was carrying an offspring who was larger than human mortality.”[17] According to Egyptian legends, characteristically, Ammon would visits of the marital beds of mortal queens so as to infuse a certain divinity in the royal blood.  Thus, the legends that explore this dream imply a divine conception between Olypias and Ammon, incarnated as a serpent, as well as the people’s beliefs that she is to bring unto this world a child of Fate, son of Ammon in the role of Min-Ammon, the main god on the Egyptian oracle of Siwa. [18]

According to Plutarch, the weaving of legends about the estrangement between Philip and Olympias, and the dying out of his fiery passion for her are due to the constant presence of serpents in their marital chamber and bed. Olympias could not live without the serpents, but Philip in fear of poison, magic or the belief that she may be enamored by some divine creature, was ever after less fond of her company.   Thence Plutarch’s episode which describes Philip looking through the gap of the door before entering their marital chamber, so as to see whether there are serprents inside: “[he] presumed to peep through that chink of the door, when he saw the god, under the form of a serpent, in the company of his wife. [19]

The fear that Philip felt due to the constant presence of serpents in their bed chamber, as well as the belief he held in her divine conception, brought about an anxiety in him, and according to Plutarch:  Philip sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to Delphi, by whom an oracle was brought to him from Apollo, who bade him sacrifice to Ammon and hold that god in greatest reverence, but told him he was to lose that one of his eyes which he had applied to the chink in the door when he espied the god, in the form of a serpent, sharing the couch of his wife.…” [20]According to folk beliefs this would be his punishment for seeing something that no mortal was ever to see. [21]It is believed that this legend is connected to the later wounding of Philip’s right eye, which took place during the siege of Methone in 354 BC, and which the people interpreted as god’s punishment for the done deed.[22]His return to Pella with a patch on the eye further strengthened Olympia’s beliefs that Ammon did in fact visit her in the marital bed as a serpent and stirred up the precautions from the oracle in Delphi regarding Philip, which are now coming true.[23]

Many historiographers have noted down the legends that depict a series of peculiar omen prophecies which mark the birth of Alexander of Macedon. According to their scripts, the same night when Olympias gave birth, the ancient old temple of Ephesus, dedicated to Ephesian Artemis was engulfed in a fire and burnt to the ground. [24]Althought, Quintus Curtius Rufus gives a rational explanation as to the reason of the fire as an “act of profligate incendiary, who, being apprehended and put to the torture, admitted that despairing of fame by good actions, his view in perpetrating this impiety was to transmit his mane to after-ages by a stupendous crime”,[25] the fatalist belief in prophecies overcame reason among the Magiand the people, as stated by Plutarch: But all the Magi who were then at Ephesus, looking upon the temple’s disaster as a sign of further disaster, ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born.”[26]The Ephesus soothsayers interpreted this catastrophe as the onset of a great power fatal to the Orient, and according to their words “today there is a torch burning in one part of the world that one day is going to burn the East.”[27]Legends can be found that depict prophecies rooted in astronomical phenomenon which also indicated the future greatness and might of the newborn: “It was witnessed that Alexander’s birth was attended with lightning, thunder, and a local convulsions of the earth.” [28] Quintus Curtius Rufus records the legend of the two eagles sitting on the roof of the house where Olympias gave birth, interpreted by the diviners as a sign that the child born in that house would rule two kingdoms.[29] The legend of the three joyous messages Philip received after conquering the Athenian province of Potidaea, was interpreted as: “…and the seers raised his hopes still higher by declaring that the son whose birth coincided with three victories would never fail to be victorious.[30]

The belief in the divine origins of Philip and Olympias, their meeting of the island of Samothrace, and the influence of the religious beliefs, mysteries and prophecies gave rise to legends of the birth, life and death of their son Alexander III of Macedon, most probably to explain his life accomplishments. Although the story of Alexander of Macedon lives on more than two millennia, his legends in the Macedonian folklore have a national meaning and thence carry messages of the ethnogenesis of Macedonians and comprise the identity of the Macedonian people.

[1]Plutarch, 7, Translated from ancient Greek by Sarakinski, V., comments by Proeva, N. (2008) 183.

[2]Stoneman, R. (1997) 13.

[3]“And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias, he himself being still a youth and she an orphan child, fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas.” Plutarch, 7, 2,Translation by Sarakinski, V., comments by Proeva, N. (2008) 109.

[4]Weigall, A. (2006) 43

[5]Herodotus, II, 51, Translated from ancient Greek, preface and comments to text by Chadikovska, D. (1998) 135.

[6]A series of cult reliefs portraying the Dioscuri or Cabeiri ana a goddess among them have been discovered in western Paeonia in the villages of Zivojno, Krushevjani and Dunje, around Prilep, in addition samples have been discovered from Kavadarci (Sirkovo) to Stobi, from Negotino to Demir Kapija. Bitrakova-Grozdanova, V. (1999) 236 -238.

[7]“Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing-baskets,or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men.”Plutarch, 7, 2,Translation by Sarakinski, V., comments by Proeva, N. (2008) 109.

[8]Weigall A. (2006) 45.

[9]Loc. cit. 45.

[10]Herodotus,II, 54-58,  Translation, preface and comments to text by Chadikovska, D. (1998) 136-137.

[11] Paus., IX, 16,1.

[12]Plutarch, 7, Translated from ancient Greek by Sarakinski, V., comments by Proeva, N. (2008) 185.

[13]Weigall, A. (2006) 47-48. Macedonian traditional folklore beliefs that a new star is born on the sky with the birth of each child and said star dies away upon their death are maintained as rudiments from the oldest of times. Kovacehva, L. (2009) 53.

[14]Plutarch, 7, Translation from ancient Greek Sarakinski, V., comments Proeva, N. (2008) 184.

[15]“The night before the consummation of their marriage, she dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. And Philip, some time after he was married, dreamt that he sealed up his wife’s body with a seal, whose impression, as be fancied, was the figure of a lion.“ Ibidem 109, 184.

[16]Ibidem 109.

[17]Justin, History of Philip,Translation from Hellenic by Basotova, Lj. (2008) 67.

[18]Weigall, A. (2006) 50-51.

[19]Plutarch, 7,2, Translation from ancient Greek Sarakinski, V., comments Proeva, N. (2008) 110.

[20]Ibidem 109-110.

[21]Weigall, A. (2006) 49.

[22] Plutarch, 7, Translation from ancient Greek Sarakinski, V.,comments Proeva, N. (2008) 185.

[23]Weigall, A. (2006)  53.

[24]Alexander was born the sixth of Hecatombaeon, which month the Macedonians call Lous, the same day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burnt. Plutarch, 7,3 Translated by Sarakinski, V., comments by Proeva, N. (2008) 110; According to Quintus Curtius Rufus.: “The night when Olympias gave birth, the most famous temple on all of Asia, dedicated to Diana at Ephesus burnt.”  Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, Translation from Hellenic by Basotova, Lj. (2008) 33.

[25]Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, Translation from Hellenic by Basotova, Lj. (2008) 33.

[26]Plutarch, 7,3, Translation from ancient Greek Sarakinski, V., comments Proeva, N. (2008) 110.

[27]Waigall, A. (2006) 52.

[28]Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, Translation from Hellenic by Basotova, Lj. (2008) 34.

[29]It has been recorded, as another remarkable incident, that two eagles set, during the whole day, upon the house where the queen was delivered, a presage that Alexander should become master of the empires both of Asia and Europe.” Loc.cit. 34.

[30] Plutarch, 7,3, Translation from ancient Greek Sarakinski, V., comments Proeva, N. (2008) 110.

By Phd. Lidija Kovacheva