Alexander the Great was an incredibly religious man. How could he not be? After all, his father’s family claimed to have been descended from Heracles, son of Zeus, and his mother’s family similarly was said to trace their lineage back to the demigod Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis. Additionally, the mother of the famous king convinced herself and her son that Alexander was not fathered by a mortal, but by a god disguised as her husband. As Alexander believed (or wanted his subjects to believe) that the deities were not only gods, but also his family, it is unsurprising that Alexander the Great held countless sacrificial offerings during his campaigns and generally sought out temples of worship wherever he traveled.
One of the most powerful religious pilgrimages that Alexander the Great undertook was his trip to the Siwa Oasis around 332 or 331 BCE. This occurred around the time he founded the Egyptian city of Alexandria, although ancient sources did not agree on whether the pilgrimage took place before or after the founding of the city. In Siwa, there was a famous oracle of the Egyptian god, Amun, whom the Greeks believed to be another interpretation of Zeus. As a supposed descendant of Zeus, Alexander the Great was naturally drawn to the oracle.
Siwa truly was (and is) a fertile oasis surrounded by difficult and treacherous terrain. The Roman general and historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), used the accounts of Ptolemy (Alexander’s companion who became king of Egypt) and Aristobulus (a civilian friend of Alexander who was concerned with engineering and science) to piece together his own report on the Siwa expedition in his text, The Campaigns of Alexander. As Alexander’s contemporaries told it, the king and his companions marched into the desert, only to find themselves quickly lost. The shifting sands had erased any signs of a path to Siwa, leaving the pilgrims stranded in a deadly landscape with dwindling supplies. Yet, just as Alexander and his companions began to doubt their likelihood of survival, a miracle happened. According to both Ptolemy and Aristobulus, a pair of animals arrived to guide Alexander to Siwa. The two sources, however, disagreed on what type of animal came to the rescue of the famous king. In Ptolemy’s version of the story, two snakes slithered in front of Alexander’s party to show them the way to the oracle. Aristobulus, instead, reported that it was two crows that arrived to guide the stranded conqueror to his destination.
With the help of the animals, Alexander successfully reached Siwa and obtained his audience with the oracle. What the king was told there remains unknown, but perhaps the oracle confirmed the story of divine birth told by Alexander’s mother—after all, coins were later minted that showed Alexander wielding lighting. In any case, Alexander was reportedly a changed man after leaving the temple of Siwa. With his task complete, the king marched back into the desert and was apparently led once more to safety by his animal guides.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Flying Raven, by Édouard Manet (1832–1883), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.