Who Was the Father?
On the day of his birth, Artemis’ temple burned
in the far-famed city of Ionia’s Ephesus,
the goddess herself coming to assist
Olympias in her travails to bring forth
the future king, the god Dionysos in travel and conquest.
But who was the father of the child so favored?
Any god or hero worth the name is known
to have many named as father, among gods
and among the kings of the mortal race,
Alexander being no exception at all.
History says his father was Philip of Macedon,
the victor of many battles and games,
the one who would eventually conquer Greece
and be thought of as Greek ever after
though Macedon was its own great people.
Plutarch says Olympias had her womb struck
with the lightning of Zeus, from the clear sky,
and Philip dreamt of a lion sealing the door
into his favored wife’s womb–as if Herakles
himself stood guard over his half-brother.
Pseudo-Callisthenes instead insisted
that the father of the great conqueror
was the Egyptian Pharaoh in disguise,
Nectanebo dressed as a magician
who came and seduced Olympias unawares.
But Nectanebo himself would have insisted
that it was not himself–god incarnate
though he happened to be–who came
to Olympias, but instead great Ammon,
the silent god over all the Two Lands.
And as if Alexander knew both stories
and set out the program that would rule the world
for the next eight centuries,
he insisted after consulting the oracle at Siwa
that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon.
Though Olympias, if anyone had asked her
would have had a different answer:
the snake-handling woman knew well
that the serpent had passed through her breast
and given her the child of great Sabazios.
The Ptolemies would later come to worship
the god who came to Olympias as a serpent
in their god whose statue came from Sinope,
the great Serapis, the god at the fulcrum
of the Two Lands upon the Nile.
Alexander’s sister, Thessalonike, still lives
in the wine-dark waves of the Aegean,
who became a mermaid after her hair was washed
from the spring of immortality by her brother,
and she became impervious to drowning.
“Is the great king Alexander still alive?”
she still asks those who are passing,
and if they tell that he is dead or forgotten
they meet a fate worse than death
at the hands of Gorgon, Siren, Skylla, and Charybdis.
But if they should meet and give her the news
that Alexander still lives, still rules, still conquers
a great favor is bestowed on the answerer:
safety from death at sea, long life,
or a sure salvation from death by drowning.
Hadrian heard the maiden ask the question,
and said the answer which was her delight:
“Alexander the great still lives, his rule
is without end and without compare in all history;
he has conquered me, and I worship him.”
But Hadrian had no need for her gifts,
favored of the gods as he was–so instead
her gift went to the one Hadrian loved most,
like Thessalonike’s brother loved Hephaistion,
but could not make him a hero after death.
When the Nile, which one of Alexander’s fathers
had once commanded and ruled over for longer
than the great young Macedonian king had done,
took Antinous into its clutches, it made him
not a hero, but a god among the celestial company.
Thessalonike welcomed him on the far shore
of the Celestial Nile and dried his beautiful body,
and slowly took him, addled with the rush of death,
to meet her brother and his lover enthroned
upon the gilded chairs over the Two Lands.
Six fathers for Alexander: two of the mortal race,
Four who were gods, together or apart,
and only one known with certainty to the mother,
who never spoke; and likewise with Mantinoë,
the mother of Antinous, whose father is not known.