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The Medieval Journeys of Alexander the Great

By Minjie Su

If you were the king of kings, where would you pick for your travel destination? How would you get there? Surely, it would be something extraordinary befitting your godlike status. If you ever run short of ideas, just look into the vast body of the Alexander of Great materials gathered from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Speaking of pompous travel, there is no doubt that Alexander the Great tops all – after all, how can you expect less from the conqueror of the world?

Even for someone as formidable as Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), he can only go as far as his travel equipment allows. But luckily, Alexander the Great has sufficient imagination, and resources, to get himself wherever he fancies. In turn, everything that he has and does only points to his destiny of becoming the conqueror of the world.

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A Man and His Horse

In both medieval literature and reality, the horse is ingrained in a knight’s identity, for what is a knight but a man with a horse? Legendary heroes are always paired with magic or otherworldly horses to foreground their extraordinariness. For instance, Sigurðr the dragon-slayer in Völsunga saga is given Grani, a descendant of Odin’s own eight- legged steed Sleipnir, while Sir Gawain has the golden-saddled Gringolet, the huge and strong steed just as battle-eager as the valiant knight himself.

But, again, Alexander tops them all. He enjoys a special bond with his horse Bucephalus, who is essentially a mirror image of his master. Born on the same day, the horse is more of a monster than a horse, just as the Prince of Macedonia is a lion among men.

Detail of a miniature of Bucephalus kneeling before Alexander, and Bucephalus with his cage. British Library MS Royal 19 D I f. 6

In Pseudo-Callithenes’s version, Bucephalus is said to be, ‘more beautiful and faster than Pegasus’, but there is one tiny problem: Bucephalus is a man-eater and can be tamed by none. For that reason, Bucephalus is put behind bars, feasting on criminals, until one day Alexander chances upon him. Bucephalus bows before him, ‘as if offering a prayer to his own ruler’. The horse’s submission signifies not only Alexander’s future greatness but also that he is now ready to embark on the journey to fulfil that destiny.

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Having fought together the battles against Nicolas, Darius, and Porus, Bucephalus dies in the final battle. The horse’s death is a turning point for Alexander; he is now moving towards his own end, though his journey and glory are extended a little further with the help of another miraculous horse. It is particularly noteworthy that, in Alexandre de Paris’s Roman d’Alexandre, Alexander trades his warhorse for a hack to complete his disguise as a poor man, so that he may spy on the enemy force. It is on the one hand, certainly comical to see Alexander on such a horse, and having trouble controlling it, but, on the other, considering that Alexander is soon to die an ignominious death, this scene is probably meant to foreshadow the humiliation lying ahead.

With Bucephalus, Alexander ventures into many untrodden parts of the world. But there are places that even a supernatural horse fails to reach. To get to those places, Alexander will have to look elsewhere.

Alexander’s Celestial Journey

One of the famous trips that Alexander the Great makes is his (attempted) journey to heaven. Since Bucephalus does not have wings, Alexander has to resort to some griffins that happen to live nearby. The birds are tied to a chariot with a piece of meat spitted on the top of a lance as bait (in the church of St. Peter and Paul in Remagen, Germany, he is depicted hoisting two puppies). While the unfortunate griffins think they are constantly flying towards the meat (or the puppies), they carry Alexander up, so that he may see for himself if that place, ‘where the sky touches the earth’, is really the end of the world. It is extremely cold up in the air, he describes in a letter to his mother Olympia; and as he approaches the heavens, he encounters a figure and, heeding his warning, he returns to earth and lands somewhere seven days’ journey from his camp. But the journey is not entirely wasted, since Alexander gains a glimpse of the entire world below.

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This scene, known as ‘Alexander the Great’s Celestial Journey’, is favoured by medieval craftsmen, as it can be found on facades and misericords of many churches in Europe. Although it is a consensus view that the scene is highly symbolic, opinions differ as to exactly what it signifies and why, among so many episodes from the Alexander materials, this one has been chosen as a popular church decoration. Although a positive interpretation should not be ruled out, many see this scene in an unfavourable light, since Alexander, though an exemplar of chivalry and a popular romance figure, is not looked upon fondly by the medieval clerical world. It is likely that the scene is used to convey a moralistic message against pride. Similar interpretations are found in some German recounts – such as Jans der Enikel’s Weltchronik – where Alexander is deterred by a voice, saying that no one can ascend to heaven other than by good deeds in life.

Alexander depicted at St. Peter and Paul, Remagen – photo by Gabriele Delhey / Wikimedia Commons

Under the Sea

Apart from travelling up to the sky, Alexander also journeys to the bottom of the ocean once. In order to explore the world below, he orders a colimpha to be built – a barrel-like device made of glass. Then he is lowered onto the seabed in the ‘submarine’ by chains (never mind the oxygen). According to the German Annolied (‘Song of Anno’, composed around the eleventh century), the conqueror brings a dog, a cat, and a hen with him down to the ocean. When he is trapped down there by the loosing of the chains, he kills the hen and lets out its blood, knowing that the sea will not tolerate the pollution. The trick works; Alexander is spit out and, therefore, saved.

Alexander lowered into the sea – British Library MS Royal 20 B XX f. 77v

In other German versions, it is Roxana, Alexander’s queen, who goes down and lets go of the chains in an attempt to murder him. One illustration in Weltchronik shows a stranded and perplexed Alexander looking towards the boat, where Roxana sits with her lover, while chin-scratching the cat.

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Alexander the Great under Water – image circa 1400 – 1410. – J. Paul Getty Museum MS. 33, fol. 220v

In the end, what did these sources from the medieval period and late antiquity tell us about how a king travels? For one, whether by mythical horse up to the heavens, or by glass barrel to the depths of the ocean, nothing is impossible. Secondly, Alexander the Great’s travels, while certainly not feasible for the average traveller, are great for one’s image in the afterlife, definitely something to aspire to, and fit for the conqueror of the world.

Click here to read more from Minjie Su

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: 15th century miniature of Alexander, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins. British Library MS Royal 20 B XX   f. 76v 

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