September 10, 2021

The Sci Fi Adventures of Alexander the Great

         I know of Alexander the Great as a Macedonian king from the third century BCE, who spent his life on military campaigns, conquering enough people to amass one of the largest empires in history.  But apparently he was actually far more interesting than that.  Apparently he was involved in all manner of fantasy and science fiction exploits.  Alexander himself encouraged legends about his prowess, including the episode in Cilicia in which the sea itself drew back in respect and adoration of him.  After his death, ever more 
interesting episodes of his life were discovered and written in numerous versions of the Alexander Romance, which was wildly popular from the 3rd through 16th centuries CE, in the literature of Europe, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Persia, Ethiopia, and more.
        Among Alexander’s fantastical adventures are encounters with the usual giant wild men, beasts with 5 or 6 eyes and feet, headless men with their faces on their chests, dragons, three-horned beasts, a roc, and lobsters as big as ships.  He also discovered fish that cooked themselves in cold water, and birds that emitted fire when touched, among other wonders.  Pretty much everything he encountered, he battled, because that’s his thing.  However, he also participated in a couple of cool sci fi adventures that were very popular in the medieval era.
        After pursuing the giant lobster/crab, and discovering a number of magnificent pearls, Alexander decides to explore the depths of the ocean.  He has a large barrel made of glass, and in it he is lowered on chains to the ocean floor.  He takes with him an astrologer for guidance, lamps to see with, a cock to tell the time, and a cat to function (for some reason that no one can satisfactorily explain) as an air purifying device.  The bottom of the barrel has a hatch so that Alexander 
can collect any pearls or other 
treasures he might find on the sea bed.  In one version of the tale, the barrel is swallowed by a giant fish which then drags around the four ships at the tops of the chains until eventually it spits up the barrel on shore.  (In another version Alexander is shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to discover that big fish eat little fish, and thus the world is damned.  Never mind that he’s built his life on big men slaughtering little people.)  What makes this story sci fi, though, is that while the “scientific” solutions are utterly absurd, the author has, in fact, given some real though to what would be necessary for a deep-sea dive, including the idea that it would be dark, there would be no way to tell time, and the air in the barrel would need to be purified.
        In another adventure, Alexander decides to discover where the earth ends and the sky slopes down to meet the edge.  He orders his men to catch two (or in some versions, as many as 16!) griffins that were scavenging his army’s dead horses.  He makes a basket or structure large enough to ride in, yokes the griffins to it, and then holds meat on a long pole just out of the griffins’ reach above.  They fly up trying to catch the meat, which of course stays just beyond their reach, so they keep flying up and up, carrying Alexander in his basket with them.  He finds the upper air cold, and meets a winged man who tells him to return to earth, which is now so distant as to appear like a small disc encoiled by a snake, which is the ocean encircling the earth.  So Alexander points the meat-spear down toward the distant disc, and the griffins fly down after it, and he returns once again, exhausted but safe.
        Although simple diving bells were actually known in the ancient world, I never heard that griffin-powered flight had been attempted before Alexander.  As a man who just goes around battling everything he meets, he’s not of any interest to me, but as a man with an enquiring mind, a creative and adventuresome spirit, and the resources both mundane and magical to support his ideas, he becomes much more fun!


[Pictures: Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination of Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, fol.77v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Isfandiyar Slays a Dragon, illumination of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, c 1530 (image from The Met); 

Alexander fighting with dragons, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.21r, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Battle with a three-horned beast, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, fol.51v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander is Lowered into the Sea, illumination from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, 1597-98 (Image from The Met); 

Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination from Romance of Alexander, before 1400 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);

Alexander being lowered into the sea, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander carried aloft by griffins, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, p76v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander traveling in the air, relief from San Marco Basilica, Venice, probably 10th or 11th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Alexander being carried up by griffins, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library).]

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