Mediaeval adultery: quiz answer

Here, I bombarded readers with disturbing mediaeval book illustrations, of which the last one was a quiz.

The queen is being caressed by a dragon while the king watches the scene from behind the door. What is going on there?

This is the Conception of Alexander the Great, from the Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus, produced in Bruges ca. 1468-1475.

It represents, perhaps, one of the most complicated cover-up stories for adultery in history.

According to the ancient myth, Alexander was the product of a liaison between his mother, Olympias, and Ammon, a relatively obscure Asian god.

Under normal circumstances, Ammon appeared as a handsome man with bull horns.


He turned into a serpent to seduce Olympias.

My first reaction was like, “A serpent?! Wait a minute. What was wrong with the horny man avatar?”

I can only assume Ammon always changed appearances, when aroused (like most men) or realised his horns were making Olympias’ favourite love-making positions awkward or even dangerous. Recently, a theory was proposed that the horns might disagree with Olympias’ habit of wearing crown in bed. The academic community, citing the case of Edward VIII, dismissed the suggestion as a liberal fantasy: a crown is known to have been tossed aside at passionate moments by queens and kings alike.

Alexander’s father, Philip, couldn’t interfere in this affair because Christianity, the only religion that allowed humans to crucify God now and pay later, had not been invented yet. Greek gods didn’t grace their people with eternal love and afterlife.  Their relationship was mainly about vanity, envy, and inventive ways of immediate retribution. It went both ways, with the Ancient Greeks often beating their gods at this game.

This also explains why the Modern Greeks don’t have much respect for the German God of Euro, the French God of Austerity, or the Brussels God of Proper Administration. They believe they can show them all the middle finger, and keep the finger, reenacting the famous moment when English archers mocked their French enemies with the V sign. The archers were advertising their ability to aim and shoot arrows despite the French earlier promise to cut off their fingers. The only difference between then and now is that the archers, unlike the Modern Greeks, did have their long-bows and arrows to back up the threat.

Back to Philip now. He had to watch in awe how a Loch Ness monster was having sex with his wife who was having great time with Ammon, who must have immensely enjoyed himself both physically and spiritually, foreseeing that his son would pepper all the lands he would conquer with shrines to Ammon his father.

Is the now forgotten trick of informing your son he was fathered by a god the right career start for a power maniac? Discuss.

Even the Ancient Greeks, famous for their ability to spin tales found it difficult to believe this fantasy.

They said, nay, it couldn’t be Ammon. I totally agree: gods that sound like “Come on” uttered by someone with a digested nose can’t be historically important.

It must have been Nectanebo, they said, formerly a sorcerer, a skilled astrologist, and the ruler of Egypt, who arrived to Macedonia as a political refugee a few years before Alexander was born.

First, he foretold Olympias would have a son conceived by the god Ammon who would appear as a serpent, then he changed into a serpent, and had unprotected sex with her.

You know, that’s plausible. It’s what the Americans want Assange for: he did something similar to a Swedish girl. She testified she had been convinced she was having sex with the god of the freedom of expression, that is until she boasted of the escapade to a friend.

Years later Nectanebo’s secret was revealed, and Olympias had to admit she had been tricked into having extramatiral sex with a dragon, or a serpent, or even a large eagle. She couldn’t point out the exact species, but recalled that the size was impressive. I wonder if she smiled inwardly at remembering the experience.

A thought-provoking story, isn’t it? Alas, it is almost forgotten. Alexander’s hollywood biopic does not feature this episode (a PG rating would hurt revenues), serious history books bypass its absurdity, and even telling the story to students is rarely possible. They are underage when they study this period at school, and are likely to file a harassment suit against their professor at uni.

Just imagine what could transpire if Tolkien preferred the subtlety of Southern myths to the brutality of their Northern varieties! We could end up with a much more adventurous story of Bilbo Baggins.

But now you know it, and thanks to a mediaeval publisher, you’ve just witnessed its climax.


  1. I agree the story is hilarious but it begs a few questions.First of all, with the ancient Greeks’ vivid imagination and ability to tell exaggerated yarns, why is it difficult to believe that the dragon could be the Asian god Ammon?And if it wasn’t Ammon,what exactly did Olympias think she was doing and with whom? Also, everywhere I’ve looked they mention Philip as Alexander’s father.I understand the more common places referring to this version but in the other places there should be at least some hint of the adultery. And the last question is,who do you mean when you say ‘fathered by a God’? Was Nectanebo a god?

    1. No, Nectanebo was not a god, but he pretended to be a god. The official version was that Alex was fathered by Ammon, a god. The unofficial appointed Nectanebo his father )

      1. I know. But the official versions practically ignore even a little hint of adultery in the story. Most other myths at least mention the presence of an alternate version.

  2. I’m still a bit confused by it all. Philip doesn’t seem all that upset about his wife being ravished by the dragon. The dragon knows he’s is being watched and is not about to stop, and what queen would wear her tira to bed?

    1. You are away fighting other Greek tribes most of the time. When you come back home, exhausted from fighting and shagging captive women, you can’t perform in a way your wife would be satisfied. Naturally, she walks out on you. You need to cut her head off, but you still love her, and there’s that feeling of guilt inside that sends you thinking of a justification. And then, aha moment – she has been seduced by a god! It’s a priviledge now, not adultery or treason))

      1. I can see why Philip wouldn’t want to tangle with a god. Of course the product of the situation is Alexander the Great, but, how far does this privilege go?

  3. Philip was no slouch or silly little cuckold. He conquered almost all of Greece and took on the Persians, too, not to mention seven wives. In my opinion, the dragon is Philip’s avatar. They are eye to eye, nothing furtive. Identified. Alexander must be sired by a god, for posterity.

    1. Philip convinced himself his wife was walking out on him with a god, while he was away on his numerous military missions. This is why he is so calm, and, perhaps, even proud. This part of the myth represents an amazing human ability to find justification for almost anything )

  4. I love it! The great Greek myths retold in medieval symbolism. No wonder it seemed so tantalizingly familiar!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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