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Thread: Cosmological and Mythological Themes in Alexanders Saga

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    Post Cosmological and Mythological Themes in Alexanders Saga

    By David Ashurst, Birkbeck College, London

    Download full .pdf here

    First a look at evidence for the shape of the world as it was imagined by audiences of Alexanders saga, the mid-thirteenth-century account of Alexander the Great which is a translation of Walter of Châtillon’s Latin epic, the Alexandreis.

    Simek (1990, 102-103) has listed a small number of texts which indicate that Old Norse audiences of the thirteenth century, at least in ecclesiastical and courtly circles, were familiar with the belief that the earth is spherical. This idea had been an integral part of scholarly learning in Europe since the Carolingian renaissance of the eighth century, and from the twelfth century it was being taught to most clerics; by the thirteenth century it had found its way into popular literature (Simek 1996, 25).

    Evidence for the familiarity of this belief at the very start of the thirteenth century in Iceland can be found in a passage from Elucidarius, where the teacher explains to his pupil that the head of Man was given a rounded shape in the likeness of the world: Hofofl hans vas bollot ígliking heimballar (Simek 1990, 401, transcribed from MS AM 674a, 4to, dated ca.1200). Being so brief, the explanation could not have made sense unless the idea of a spherical world was taken for granted.

    In mid-thirteenthcentury Norway, by contrast, the writer of Konungs skuggsjá makes his wiseking take the trouble to discuss the shape of the earth at some length, and to clinch his argument with the famous image of an apple hanging next to a candle, where the apple represents the earth and the candle is the sun. The use of this image is rather confused, but the conclusion is perfectly clear: Nu skal aa flui marka at bollottur er iardar hrijngur (Kon. sk. 1945, 11).

    To these references may be added a passage in Alexanders saga, not mentioned by Simek, in which the Persian King Darius sends an insulting letter to the youthful Alexander who has already, at this point, made extensive conquests in Persian territory. Darius’ envoys present Alexander with a ball which his letter says is to be understood as a plaything more suitable toAlexander’s age than are shields and swords.

    Alexander replies that he puts a different interpretation on the gift, for the shape of the ball represents the world which he will conquer: Bollrenn markar me› vexte sinom heim flenna er ec man undir mec leggia (Alexanders saga 1925, 1932-33).1 This is a close
    paraphrase of the corresponding lines in the Alexandreis (Walter 1978, II.38-39):

    Forma rotunda pilae speram speciemque rotundi,
    Quem michi subiciam, pulchre determinat orbis.

    The story of Alexander’s riposte was certainly well-known in thirteenth-century Europe, not only through the Alexandreis, which was hugely successful and became a school text, but because it also occurs at paragraph I.38 in sundry versions of the Alexander Romance.2 Even if the Old Norse audience of Alexanders saga did not already know the story, however, it is clear that they were expected to understand its point without difficulty; for it is the translator’s abit to explain matters which he thinks might cause difficulty, but here he renders the account pithily and without any comment of his own.

    Vestiges of mythological thinking in which the earth seems to be imagined as a flat disk, however, may be found in a passage where the clash of the opposing armies at Gaugamela is said to shake the ground and to make Atlas stagger: Athals stakra›e vi› er einn er af fleim er vpp hallda heimenom. sva at hann fek varla sta›et vndir byr›e sinne (Al. Saga 1925, 6525-27). Here heimr means ‘sky’, in contrast with the earth on which the titan is standing. The explanation of Atlas as ‘one of those who hold up the sky’, implying that there are others, is an addition to the Latin text (see Walter 1978, IV.293-296).

    It would have been comprehensible even to an audience unfamiliar with classical literature because it takes the Graeco-Roman myth of Atlas, the sole supporter of the heavens, and brings it into line with the Old Norse myth as told by Snorri (1988, 12) in Gylfaginning, where it is said that four dwarfs support the sky.

    The sky itself is conceived, in Snorri’s text, as the dome of a giant’s skull set up over what is, by implication, a flat earth. By alluding to this idea, the translator of Alexanders saga encourages his audience, like that of Gylfaginning, to imagine the world as something like a plate with a basin inverted on top of it; and the brevity of the allusion shows that the audience was ready to substitute this image for that of the spherical earth when prompted by a mythological context. It should be mentioned, however, that at least one medieval reader of
    the saga in the Arna-Magnæan manuscript 519a (see f. 16v) felt called upon to note that the world is not really covered by a bowl-like sky held up by Atlas et al., for at this point he has written in the margin the words fabulosum est, ‘this is mythical’.

    The themes of the spherical earth and the bowl-shaped sky undergo an interesting development and combination in a passage which paraphrases Walter (1978) VII.393-403. It describes Darius’ tomb with its glittering columns and the spectacular dome which displays a map of the world on its inner surface (Al. Saga 1925, 11212-20):

    Vppi yvir stolpunum var hvalf sva gagnsétt sem gler. flvilict vaxet sem himinn til at sia.
    áflvi hvalve var scrifa›r heimrenn allr greindr isina flri›iunga. oc sva hver lond liggia
    ihveriom flri›iunge [...] oc sva eyiar flér er i hafino liggia. flar var oc markat hversu
    vthafet ger›er vm oll londin.

    Here the expression heimrinn allr does not mean the globe but the world in the sense of the three continents inhabited by mankind; it corresponds to Walter’s phrase tripertitus orbis (1978, VII.397), where orbis means ‘a rounded surface, disk’, or more specifically ‘the circle of the world’ or simply ‘world’ (Lewis and Short 1879). It certainly cannot mean ‘globe’, for no-one ever suggested that the globe was entirely covered by the three known continents. The map omits the possible fourth continent which is mentioned by Isidore (1911), for
    example, in Etymologiae XIV.5.17, and which is occasionally included in world maps from the twelfth century onwards, labelled terra australis incognita (Simek 1996, 51). Are Walter and his translator therefore imagining a nonspherical world in this passage, one which has no southern hemisphere?

    Probably the answer is ‘no’ because the surface on which the map is drawn is itself hemispherical, as we see from the phrase vaxit sem himinn, ‘shaped like the sky’, which corresponds to Walter’s statement (1978, VII.395-396) that the dome is caelique uolubilis instar, Concaua testudo, ‘an image of the turning sky, a concave shell’. What we seem to have here, then, is a representation of the northern hemisphere drawn inside a hemispherical vault. But in that case we also have here a text in which the northern half of the globe is referred to quite definitely as heimrinn allr.

    This representation of the world needs to be borne in mind when reading the closing pages of the saga, where Alexander attains the summit of power after reaching the farthest limit of Asia and returning to Babylon via the outer Ocean, conquering any islands in his way. Nu er aptr at snua til sogunnar, says the translator after reporting Walter’s moralisations on the state of affairs, oc fra flvi at segia a›r en Alexander latiz. at hamingian oc freg›en gerir hann einvallz hof›engia yfir heiminvm (Al. saga 1925, 14932-1501). All the nations which
    remain unconquered are astounded by the news of Alexander’s success, and they decide now to surrender rather than to face certain defeat; accordingly they send their emissaries to Babylon, offering tribute and allegiance.

    To the modern reader this sudden development may seem almost comical, but it needs to be taken quite seriously for we can see that it fulfils the promise which God, in the likeness of the Jewish High Priest and not fully recognised by Alexander, gave to the young king while he was still in Macedonia: Far›u abraut af fostr lande flino Alexander. flviat ec man allt folk undir flic leggia (Al. saga 1925, 1717-18, corresponding to Walter 1978, I.532-533).3

    In Babylon Alexander takes on his role as world ruler with due solemnity: pious pagan that he is and remains, he thanks the divine powers for the new turn of events, and then assures the emissaries that the peoples who have surrendered to him will be treated with no less mercy than he has already shown to those whom he conquered (Al. saga 15025-1513; Walter X.283-298). Once the emissaries have been dismissed, however, he must face up once and for all to a problem which he has already foreseen. Now that he has gained possession of the whole world - that is to say, the northern hemisphere as it was depicted on the dome of Darius’ tomb - what will he do with himself and his army? Speaking to his knights, he gives a typically heroic answer (Al. saga 15113-17):

    flviat nu er ner ecke vi› at briotaz iflessvm heiminum. flat er vaR frami mege vaxa vi›. en
    oss hevir eigi at vaR hvatleicr dofne af atfer›arleyse. fla gerum sva vel oc leitum fleira er
    byggva annan heimenn. at var freg› oc kraptr late engis úfreistat fless er til frem›ar se. oc
    ver megem allan alldr lifa íloflegri frasognn fleira. er var storvirki vilia ritat hava.

    It is important to note how closely this paraphrases Walter (1978) X.312-317:

    Nunc quia nil mundo peragendum restat in isto,
    Ne tamen assuetus armorum langueat usus,
    Eia, queramus alio sub sole iacentes
    Antipodum populos ne gloria nostra relinquat
    Vel uirtus quid inexpertum quo crescere possit
    Vel quo perpetui mereatur carminis odas.4

    In the text from Alexanders saga, the phrase flessi heimrinn clearly means the northern world which Alexander has already conquered, in contrast with the southern hemisphere, which is here signified by annarr heimrinn. There appears to be no other passage in Old Norse literature which uses the term annarr heimrinn in this way, but it is evident that those who dwell in the other heimr and whom Alexander means to seek, are the peoples of the Antipodes.

    According to widespread medieval views, such people may or may not actually exist beyond the equatorial Torrid Zone, in the southern temperate region of the globe. Being on the other side of the earth, their feet would be planted opposite those of people in the north - hence the Latin name antipodes, for which the Old Norse equivalent, andfoetingar, is recorded in a very few texts.

    There is evidence that the existence of the andfoetingar was believed in quite seriously in Iceland, for a twelfth-century homily makes a brief reference to them in order to illustrate the principle that some people are bound to lack a thing while others enjoy it (Íslensk Hómilíubók 1993, 180): Á sólina koma flestir nytjum, og eru fló rændir a›rir andfætingar hennar ljósi, flá er a›rir hafa. And a diagram of the world in an Icelandic manuscript from the early fourteenth century shows the southern temperate zone and labels it synnri byg›, implying that it is habitable and possibly inhabited (Simek 1990, 320, 406 and 409).

    The early-fourteenth-century Norwegian writer of the first part of Stjórn, on the other hand, is quite certain that there can be no human beings in the southern hemisphere, but at the same time he asserts the reality of the fourth, Antipodean, continent; and in stating his theological reasons for denying the existence of andfoetingar he has left us a neat summary of the whole topic (Stjórn 1862, 99-100):

    Vmframm flessar .iii. fyrr sagdar haalfur heimsins. sem fyrr nefndir synir Noa ok fleirra
    ættmenn ok afkemi skiptu medr ser. liggr hinn fiordi heimsins partr ok haalfa til sudrs
    odrum megin hins meira uthafsins. huerr er sakir yfiruættiss solar hita oss er medr *llu
    ukunnighr. i huerri er heidnir menn sogdu. ok flo medr falsi ok hegoma. at flar bygdi
    andfætingar. Hinn heilagi ok hinn mikli Augustinus segir ok sannar sua me›r fulluligri
    skynsemd i fleirri bok er hann hefir g*rt. ok heitir Augustinus de ciuitate dei. at engin
    iar›neskr madr ma flagat komaz or uarri byggiligri uerolldu sakir solar hita ok margrar
    annarrar umattuligrar ufæru.

    Alexander himself, in his saga and in its Latin source, is not absolutely certain that he will find any Antipodeans; but he insists that there are good authorities - much the same authorities, no doubt, as those so firmly repudiated
    by the author of Stjórn - who tell of other worlds to be conquered: flat hofum ver leset i fornum bocum. at fleiri se heimar en einn. oc vist uni ec flvi illa er ec
    scal enn eigi hafa sigrat einn til fullz (Al. saga 1925, 15120-22; corresponding to Walter 1978, X.320-321).

    Alexander’s final reservation, in this remark, turns out to be occasioned by a rebellion which has now been launched by the Romans, who had previously surrendered. He tells his men that they can easily put down this revolt before setting off south (Al. saga, 15125-28; Walter X.326-328): flviat ec vil at fullgort se flat er auke y›ra freg›. fla scal nu flessu nest hallda til Rumaborgar. oc briota hana ni›r. en heria si›an íannan heim.

    At this point, however, he is struck down by a poisoner and so must embark on a journey, one might say, to ‘another world’ different in kind from the one which he meant. It will already have occurred to the reader that Alexander’s declaration about seeking the people of the other world was ill-omened; for the term annarr heimr in Old Norse has another meaning which is well exemplified by the words of Bishop fiorlákr Rúnolfsson in Sturlunga saga (1946, I, 40): fiér mun í ö›rum heimi goldit flat, sem nú gerir flú fyrir gu›s sakir ok Jóns baptista.

    This is a fairly common usage which can be found, as would be expected, in religious writings such as Stjórn (1862, 153) and the Gamal Norsk Homiliebok (1931, 70), but which also occurs a few times in the family sagas, for example in Fóstbroe›ra saga (Vestfir›inga sƒgur 1943, 124-125): Meir hug›u fleir jafnan at frem› flessa heims lífs en at d‡r› annars heims fagna›ar.5 In these texts it properly signifies ‘the next world, the life to come’ in opposition to ‘this present world’ and depends upon the formula ‘in this world and the next’ which
    occurs in the Vulgate in Eph.1:21, where it is said that Christ is set above all powers, non solum in hoc saeculo sed et in futuro, and in Matt.12:32, where it is said that one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, neque in hoc saeculo neque in futuro (Biblia sacra 1969).

    The ‘next world’ to which Christian sinners and all pagans were destined to go, of course, was conceived mythologically as a more-or-less physical space located beneath the surface of the earth, irrespective of whether the context of thought was Norse (quasi-)heathen, classical pagan or strictly Christian.6

    This idea can be well illustrated from Alexanders saga, in fact, since there is a passage which describes graphically a descent into Hell: in thoroughly epic mythological fashion, the goddess Natura leaves off her work of moulding raw matter oc leggr lei› sina til helvitis [...] oc nu by›r hon at ior›en scyle opnaz íeinhveriom sta›. oc flar gengr hon ni›r eptir fleim stíg er liggr til myrkra hera›s (Al. saga 1925, 14428-14510; Walter 1978, X. 15-30). Alexander himself, however, is not referring to this place when he speaks of making war on those who dwell in the other world.

    This is shown above all by the geographical considerations of the context, but also by the reference to the Antipodes in the Latin version and by Alexander’s apparent expectation of his own actual mortality which is implied by his remark that he and his men will live forever in the accounts of those who write of his deeds - a comment which could hardly be appropriate if he meant to conquer the realm of death itself.

    Nevertheless, the connotations of the phrase annarr heimrinn as ‘the land of the dead’ must have been very strong for the Old Norse audiences of Alexanders saga, to the extent that they probably perceived a double meaning in the text: on the one hand Alexander is actually saying that he will lead an expedition against the southern hemisphere; but on the other hand his words, taken out of context, could suggest an assault on Hell, in which case Alexander would be trying to usurp the role of Christ.

    The double meaning involved in the phrase annarr heimrinn is at its clearest in the passage from Alexanders saga which has just been discussed; but Alexander had in fact already used the term at an earlier point in the saga and in a way which occasions a long mythological episode leading directly to his death.

    At the end of Book IX of the original epic, Alexander is poised to complete his conquest of Asia and hence of ‘this world’. He begins to consider what his subsequent moves should be: first he will subdue the peoples of the Ocean, and then vill hann eptir leita hvar oen Nil sprettr vpp. er hei›nir menn gatv margs til. en øngir vissv (Al. saga 1925, 14231-32; Walter 1978, IX. 507).

    Although Alexander does not actually say so, the Old Norse audience would probably understand that the army’s arrival at the source of the Nile might well lead to an assault on Paradise, since the Nile is one of the four rivers which flow from there.7

    The Macedonians are dismayed to learn that their king will go on risking his life and their own, even after mastering all known lands; but Alexander soon renews their nerve and enthusiasm with a speech which anticipates his later address to them in Babylon, quoted above. His words are an extraordinary blend of piety, pride, insatiable will to power, and intrepid curiosity (Al. saga 1443-10; Walter IX. 562-570):

    Ver hofum sigrat Asiam oc ervm nu nalega komnir til heimsenda. Giarna villda ec at gu›en reiddiz mer eigi. flott ec mela flat er mer byr íscapi. heimr flesse er allz of flrongr. oc oflitill einom lavar›e. oc flat er upp at kve›a er ec hefe ra›et fire mer. at íannan heiminn scal heria fla er ec hefi flenna undir mec lagt allan. oc langar mec til at ver megem sia naturv fless heimsens.

    This is the first time that the expression annarr heimrinn is used in the saga. As in the case of the later speech, the Latin text makes it clear that the other world which Alexander longs to view is in fact the southern hemisphere, for the Antipodes are named in the lines which correspond to the last part of the quotation (Walter IX. 569-570):

    Antipodum penetrare sinus aliamque uidere
    Naturam accelero.

    It is, however, not so immediately obvious from the Old Norse text alone, without reference to the Latin, that Alexander means for certain to attack the southern world rather than the underworld. In this speech, unlike the later one, the audience is not given the cue of any remarks about people who live in the other heimr or of Alexander’s eternal life in men’s songs; but there is, of course, the same context of geographical thought in which ‘the other world’ contrasts with ‘this world’ of the conquered northern continents, and this is the decisive factor in determining Alexander’s meaning. Nevertheless the connotations of the phrase annarr heimrinn as ‘the land of the dead’ are stronger in this passage than in the later one, and they colour what follows.

    In deciding to organise an expedition against the Antipodes, Alexander is embarking on a course of action which is beyond the power of any human being, according to Augustine as cited by the writer of Stjórn quoted earlier, for no living man can cross the equatorial zone on account of the tremendous heat of the sun; but it turns out that Alexander is facing more trouble than just that of a quest doomed to failure. Despite Alexander’s pious hopes to the contrary, the goddess Natura takes offence at his words; and in fact it is her indignation over this matter which causes her to descend into the infernal regions beneath the earth, as previously mentioned (Al. saga 14421-29; Walter X. 6-15):

    íannan sta› er fra flvi at segia. at natturan minniz áflat er henne fliccir Alexander hava svivirt sec oc heimenn fla er hann let at hann vere of flrongr oc oflitill einom herra ivir at vera. oc flvi er hann etla›e at rannsaka fla lute er hon vill leynda vera lata. oc flviat henne liggr ímiclv rvme. flesse vanvir›ing er Alexander hefir gort til hennar. fla gefr hon vpp alla fla scepno er hon haf›e a›r til teket at semia. oc leggr lei› sina til helvitis.

    The sudden arrival of this deity in a saga narrative comes as something of a shock for the modern reader, and it is scarcely less of one in the context of the epic Alexandreis, which has mostly dealt in historical or quasi-historical fact up to this point; but the saga writer seems to think that Natura needs no special introduction to his audience and no explanations of the sort which were given when he mentioned Bacchus and Venus (Al. saga 77-8) or Jupiter (Al. saga 2127-28). His precise and discriminating choice of words (skepna, semja) shows that he was alive to the School-of-Chartres Neoplatonist doctrine of Natura as the shaper of raw matter in the world, rather than as a creatrix ex nihilo;8 but he

    8 See, for example, the following lines from Anticlaudianus by Walter’s contemporary and rival, Alan of Lille (1955, II.72-73): diuinum creat ex nichilo, Natura caduca | procreat ex aliquo. In

    avoids taxing his audience with Walter’s difficult terminology with its reference to hyle (X.11). He was alive also to the sexual innuendo in Walter’s remark, in line X.9, that Alexander meant to lay bare Natura’s secret parts - Archanasque sui partes aperire parabat, where aperire, meaning both ‘to reveal’ and ‘to open what was closed’, is very fairly rendered by the word rannsaka.

    This, the so-called nuda Natura topos, is another twelfth-century Neoplatonist theme which is nicely illustrated by the dream poem Nature talamos intrans reseransque poeta, dated ca. 1200 and discussed pithily by Peter Dronke (1974, 53 n.1): Natura appears as a naked maiden, trying vainly to cover her pudenda from the dreamer’s gaze; she reproaches the dreamer for having debased her secrets and leaves him to be killed by wild animals, at which point he awakes and understands ‘that not all things may be told to all’. The idea underlying this poem is that not all men are fit to receive Natura’s philosophical mysteries, a notion which descends from the late-fourth-century philosophical commentator Macrobius (1868, I.ii.17), who says that Natura loathes an open, naked exposition of herself, and that this is actually why prudent men discuss her secrets only through the medium of myth.

    The inclusion of the nuda Natura theme in the saga suggests that a Macrobian interpretation of the Natura episode may be appropriate, in which Alexander symbolises the unwise philosopher who blabs arcane truths to vulgar minds; but an allegorical interpretation of this type, if it is valid at all, is surely not the primary meaning of the episode, for the secret parts which Alexander seeks to expose are nothing so vague as high Neoplatonic truths, but are specific geographical locations which Natura has placed out of bounds to mortals.

    This last notion descends to Walter directly from his main source, the first-century historian Quintus Curtius: in a passage which corresponds to the one in Alexanders saga where the king announces for the first time his intention of attacking the southern hemisphere, Curtius (1946, makes his Alexander declare that he will grant fame to unknown places and open up to all nations lands which Natura has set apart; and when the army is approaching the Ocean at the edge of the world, Alexander encourages his men by declaring that even though Natura herself could go no farther they will see what was unknown except to the immortals (Curtius 1946, IX.ix.4).

    Certainly the ideas of disclosure and popularisation figure here, but the concerns are not the theoretical ones of a philosophical demystifier but those of a practical statesman: conquest, colonisation and the exploitation of resources.

    In the saga narrative and in the Alexandreis (but not in Curtius, who never mentions her again after the references just cited), Natura takes her complaint against Alexander to the Infernal Powers, ethically equivocal as she is, and motivated by wounded pride and the thirst for vengeance. In Walter’s poem, Anticlaudianus we find Natura involved with the Virtues in the creation of the perfect New Man. She has to apply to God for the soul, after which she fashions an appropriate body out of material in the world.

    the figure whom she seeks is called Leviathan (Walter 1978, X.75), but he is unmistakably the Satan of Christian myth, the serpent who contrived mankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (X.102-103); in the saga, too, there can be no doubt that the un-named myrkra h*f›ingi who comes to meet Natura is the Christian devil and not some safe classical deity of the underworld, for he is shown changing his appearance, like Satan in 2 Cor. 11:14, from a dragon’s to that of an angel of light (Al. saga 1925, 14617-19): leggr [hann] nu ni›r dreka hofu› flat et ogorliga er hann bar a›r. en tecr nu vpp fla ena biortv engils ásiano er naturan haf›e gefit honom.

    The last words indicate Natura’s role as maker of the devil in his original form; the words in which she now addresses him emphasise her continued involvement with her creature even after he his fall (Al. saga 14624-27; Walter X.85-87): flic em ec komin at finna sv sama natura er fler feck flenna myrkrasta› til herbergis flviat flu vart nockor at vera flott flv verir utlage goR or himnarike fire flinn ofmetna›.

    Such is the basis of Satan’s debt of allegiance to Natura, which she does not hesitate to invoke.

    And here her moral ambiguity can be seen: she is august, powerful and in some sense the vicar of God in the work of creating and regenerating the world, the order and limits of which she upholds; but at the same time she is complicit in the processes of death and disorder which are part of her world - the fallen world whose nature she is. It is to the chief representative of death and disorder in the world that she brings her complaint, rather than taking her prayers to God.

    The substance of her complaint is that Alexander has terrified the world of the three northern continents, oc etlar ef honom byriar at koma flar sem Nil sprettr vpp. oc heria si›an íparadisum (Al. saga 14634-1471; Walter X.95-98).

    Strictly speaking her statement that Alexander means to make war on Paradise is stretching the facts as they have been narrated, for Alexander has only declared his intention of finding the source of the Nile; but the one thing may be said to imply the other. What Natura says next, however, is a piece of pure manipulation of the truth designed to prompt Satan into taking the action which she desires (Al. saga 1471-8; Walter X.98-104):

    ef flu gelldr eigi varhvga vi›. fla man hann oc heria á y›r helvitis buana. Oc fire flvi ger›u
    sva vel fire minar sacir oc flinar. hept hans ofsa oc hegnn fyR en si›aR. e›a hver freg› er
    fler í at hava komet enom fyrsta manne ábrott ór paradiso enn slegasti ormr ef flu scallt
    flenna mann lata fa me› vallde flann ynniliga sta› oc innvir›iliga.

    Note that it is merely a possibility that Alexander will attack the denizens of the underworld and that Natura does not positively say that Alexander has declared any such intention; but this is enough for her purpose. If her rhetorical method seems a little unscrupulous she can justify herself, at least in the saga account, by referring to the secondary meaning of Alexander’s phrase annarr heimrinn.

    Now it can be seen why the Old Norse translator has incorporated into his text a play on words which was scarcely present in the Latin original: it gives Natura a sort of pretext for her accusation, which in the Latin original looked more like pure fabrication.

    The possibility of a Macedonian attack on Hell is hardened into supposed fact in the final episode to be discussed here, when Satan, the Father of Lies, addresses his peers in a hastily convened council of devils. What Natura had suggested as a hypothetical risk, Satan now puts forward as an immediate threat; and in explaining the threat he develops the secondary meaning of the phrase annarr heimrinn in terms which carry Alexander and the audience to the centre of the Christian myth of redemption (Al. saga 14727-1485; Walter X.131-142):

    Ecke kvi›e ec flvi en heyrt heve ec at hann ætle iamvel at koma áhendr oss. oc heria he›an salur flær er ver hofvm vndir oss dregit veit ec flo flat er meiR bitr á mic at fe›az mon á iar›riki nockoR ma›r vndarligar getinn oc vndarligar borenn en ec mega scilia.

    fiesse man briota flessa ena sterkv borg. oc ey›a vart riki me› einv tre flvi er of mikill timi man fylgia. oc flviat flessi ma›r man vera sterkvm sterkare fla varir mec at hann mone mikit herfang draga or hondum oss. En flat er nu til at sinne at flér dau›ans drotnar gefit gaum at eigi gangi flessi ma›r yvir y›r. ra›et honom bana ra› at eigi sigri hann oss flott einnhverR scyli sa ver›a.

    Here we see that, through the innuendo present in Alexander’s declaration that he will attack the other world, the Old Norse translator has prepared the way, more deftly than Walter did, for this development of the theme of Alexander as a forerunner of both Christ and Antichrist. As king of Babylon and as the strong man who rules the secular world, Alexander is a type of the Antichrist even though he rules mercifully and does not demand worship; but if he had genuinely intended to capture the souls of the dead as plunder, as Satan asserts, then he would have been usurping the role of Christ in the Harrowing of Hell, and would have been Antichrist indeed.

    As it is, the secondary meaning of his words shows him functioning as an unwitting type or precursor of Christ, that is to say a pagan who knows not what he does but who foreshadows the actual Christ. By saying that he will attack the other world the pagan Alexander means simply that he will attack the Antipodes, but by saying it he also foreshadows the work of redemption.

    After Satan’s speech the infernal conspiracy to do away with Alexander moves swiftly to its conclusion when one of the devils, the allegorical Proditio (Treason), offers to make her human fóstri poison the king. Her plan is adoptedwithout delay, and Alexander’s death follows as the direct consequence of Satan’s accusations. Alexander is murdered, therefore, on account of a threat against Hell which he did not actually make: to be precise, in the Latin version he did not make the threat at all, and in the Old Norse version he did not intend it even though it fell from his lips in a play on words.

    To sum up: the double entendre in the phrase annarr heimrinn depends for its effect on the fact that the audience was fully conversant with the idea of a spherical world with the Antipodes on the far side of it; otherwise the ambiguity collapses into the simple statement that Alexander wanted to attack the underworld, which would represent a drastic change to Walter’s poem of the sort not found anywhere else in the saga.

    Accepting the double entendre, we can see that the Old Norse translator is engaged in a sophisticated manipulation of the mythological episode which he inherited from the Latin text: at a stroke he prepares for the passage which presents Alexander as a type of Christ or as a possible Antichrist, but he protects him from the sin of actually usurping Christ’s role in the myth of redemption; and he gives a mythological explanation of his hero’s early death, in terms which put the blame largely on the Satanic powers, making Alexander seem innocent of the specific intention for which he is killed and yet not utterly without responsibility.

    At the same time the translator does full justice to the myth of Natura’s revenge on Alexander for his real threat to attack the Antipodes and hence to transgress the boundaries which Natura has imposed. There is a kind of ambiguity even in this, however, because the heroic zest of Alexander’s words remains impressive and alluring even though the official significance of the myth is probably the one suggested to Alexander by the emissary of the ascetic Scythians (Al. saga 1925, 12633-1278; Walter 1978, VIII.409-415): We live in simplicity, says the emissary,

    oc latom oss florf vinna flat er natturan sialf en fyrsta mo›er vár vill hafa gefet [...] Enn ef flu konungr gengr nockor framaR. fla gengr flu yvir flat marc. er natturan hefir sett flér oc o›rom er alla gerer at sonno sela. fla er hennar ra›e vilia fylgia.

    The Scythian’s advice would no doubt be welcomed by those of a prudent clerical bent; but others in the Old Norse audience would surely rise to the image of Alexander as the representative of that less docile type of man, gloriously and yet sinfully driven always to transcend his world - and this is the heart of the Alexander myth itself, which has proved so potent and so adaptable, like all true myths, for so many generations.

    Download full .pdf here


    1 All quotations from Finnur Jónsson’s edition of Alexanders saga in this paper coincide with the wording of the late-thirteenth-century MS AM 519a, 4to, published in facsimile by Jón Helgason (Alexanders saga 1966).
    2 For examples see Historia de preliis (1975) and Julii Valerii Epitome (1867).
    3 It may also be noted that the writer of Gy›inga saga (1995, 3), alluding to the Alexanders saga account, takes it as sober historical fact that the Macedonian became sole ruler of the world: Alexandr hinn Riki ok hinn mikli kongr. fla er hann hafdi sigrat ok undir sik lagt allar fliodir iheiminum sem fyrr var Ritat [...] fla skipti hann Riki sino med sinum monnum xii.
    4 ‘Nothing now remains to be completed in this world. Come, then, let us seek the peoples of the Antipodes who lie beneath another sun, that your familiarity with the use of arms may not languish, and that our glory and valour may leave nothing untried whereby they can gain increase,or deserve the strains of an eternal song’ (Walter 1986, 227).

    5 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders with Lemmatized Concordance (1998) gives three separate occurrences, and also one occurrence of the phrase flessa heims og annars.

    6 For the quasi-heathen view see Snorri (1988, 9): Vándir menn fara til Heljar ok fla›an í Niflhel,flat er ni›r í inn níunda heim. An Old Norse view of the situation according to Graeco-Roman mythology is given in Trójumanna saga (Hauksbók 1892-96, 194), where Saturn distributes the three-tier cosmos between his sons: in descending order, Jupiter gets the sky (himinn), Neptune receives the earth (flessi heimr), and Pluto becomes the prince of Hell (h*f›ingi yfir helvíti). For an especially interesting account of the subject from a thoroughly Christian perspective, see the passage in Konungs skuggsiá (1945, 19-20) which suggests that the place of torment may actually be located in Iceland on account of the great fires ‘in the foundations of the land’ (j grunduollum landsinz); it is particularly notable that the treatment of the matter is explicitly both geographicaland symbolic, since it is said that the visible fires and ice-fields (on the surface) bear witness to the reality of Hell even if they are not themselves the abode of the damned.

    7 The other three rivers are the Ganges, the Tigris and the Euphrates. For an example of an account of this in Old Norse, see the short description of the world in AM 736 I, 4to, reproduced by Simek (1990, 430).


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