Plutarch’s Women: Olympias of Epirus (Chapt. 1-3)

For the other posts in this series click here

A Quick Preliminary

Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not a history but a character study. For this series of posts I am going read Plutarch’s Life chapter by chapter to see what – if anything – he has to say about the character of the women Alexander met and knew.
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To keep the word count of each post at a reasonable (I hope) level I will discuss each appearance by a woman in the narrative individually, as and when I come to it.
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Finally, and just for the record, I am reading Plutarch’s life of Alexander in the revised edition of Penguin Books Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff.
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Olympias of Epirus

As is well known, women are the fairer sex. In past times they have also been called the weaker. But while this may be true in terms of out-and-out physical strength it certainly isn’t in terms of the intellect and/or will. Olympias’ life bears witness to the truth of this.
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Plutarch mentions Alexander’ mother on the very first page of his Life. He describes how Alexander’s father, Philip II, fell in love with Olympias during their initiation into the Mysteries of Samothrace. Olympias was an orphan so Philip had to obtain the consent of her brother, Arybbas, in order to marry her.
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The night before the newly-weds consummated their marriage, Olympias had a dream in which her womb was struck by a thunderbolt. A ‘blinding flash’ followed from which a sheet of flame emerged and spread out ‘far and wide’ before fading away. ‘Some time’ after the wedding, Philip had his own dream. In it, he sealed Olympias’ womb using a seal engraved with the figure of a lion.
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Most of Philip’s soothsayers thought that his dream was a warning to keep a close eye on his wife. Why? Plutarch doesn’t actually say but one doesn’t need to be Herr Freud to guess the answer. Only one said otherwise. Aristander, who would go on to have an illustrious career in Alexander’s court, said that it portended the birth of a powerful son.
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It looks like Philip sided with Aristander for Plutarch gives no indication that he took any action against his suspect wife. Sadly, however, his love for her did eventually cool down. According to Plutarch it happened after Philip found his wife in bed with a snake stretched out beside her. Plutarch says Philip feared that Olympias would cast an ‘evil spell’ on him or was the consort of some higher being’.
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What was going on? Well, in Plutarch’s words, Olympias was an initiate of the all female ‘Orphic religion’ which ‘engaged in the orgiastic rites of Dionysus’. At this point, you would do well to stop thinking that this religion involved lots of sex. Well, for all I know, it did, but it also involved initiates entering into a possessed Dionysiac state – something that Olympias did ‘with even wilder abandon’ than her fellow cult members and consorting with snakes. The sight of these snakes emerging from ivy wreaths or twining round the initiates’s (women’s) wands ‘terrified the male spectators’.
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Upon seeing his wife in bed with a snake Philip sent a messenger to Delphi to ask what the sight meant. The oracle replied that the snake was a god – Zeus-Ammon. Philip was told to sacrifice to this Greek-Egyptian deity and revere above all other gods.
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Before continuing, let’s pause for a moment to consider what we have and haven’t read. What we have read is, very likely, Argead propaganda designed to convince people of Alexander’s divine parentage. What we haven’t read is anything that tells us what Olympias herself was like. All we can surmise from the opening chapters of Plutarch’s narrative is that she was very religious and that’s it.
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Or is it? Plutarch continues,

According to Eratosthenes, Olympias when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’

The reason I mention this passage is that, apart from the fact that it confirms Olympias’ religiosity, it also – in my opinion, anyway – speaks to her humility. It tells me that Olympias was a woman who respected – no doubt, feared – the gods deeply and was concerned lest her son’s successes cause them to bring their wrath down on her.
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This post is not about rehabilitating Olympias’ character but if I can find anything that shows she was not, or rather more than the proud, ruthless schemer of Oliver Stone’s film then I am very happy to mention it. People are always more complex in real life than on the silver screen and we – I – definitely need to remember that.
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The third chapter ends with an account of Alexander’s birth, placing it on the same day as the destruction of Artemis’ temple at Ephesus (20th July 356 B.C.). Plutarch refers to a writer named Hegesias of Magnesia who said the temple burned down because Artemis had left it to attend Alexander’s birth. If nothing else, Hegesias wins plaudits for a fine show of sycophancy!
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Before finishing, I would like to go back to the matter of Olympias’ religion. Plutarch says that she followed the same ‘observances’ as the women who lived around Mount Haemus (in Thrace). Twenty years after his birth, Alexander would cross the Haemus on his way to subdue the Triballians and Getae – I wonder if he met any women who had danced with his mother all those years ago and what he thought of them.

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One thought on “Plutarch’s Women: Olympias of Epirus (Chapt. 1-3)

  1. Pingback: Hun er forbundet med trolldom, mystikk og sex. Nå kan Olympias’ grav være funnet | National Geographic Channel

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