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The answer will be found in a basket of flint. Ses re en sesit: Unbolting the door of concealed things. Divination in ancient Egypt.

6th April, 2016 Miscellaneous
Strabo 6463 BC

‘All who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true’. (Strabo 64/63 BC – c. AD 24, Roman geographer)

Murder, magic, adultery, treachery, trickery, oracles, conundrums, contradictions and boys’ own adventures. The Alexander Romance has it all. It offers us a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world. One that was ruled by the transient whim of the gods, demonstrated through the power of natural things. A fate manipulated by the magicians of the time, so some would say. Others opine that it was the will of the gods made manifest. The Romance is one of the earliest books of political spin. A blending of legend with historical ‘truth’. So, how much can we believe? And what does it tell us about the roots of divinatory practice in ancient Egypt? These are the extended notes for the talk given at the College of Psychic Studies, London 26 February 2016.

Divination: ‘Unbolting the door of concealed things

The general consensus is that divination falls into three categories: interpretation of natural phenomena, (known as augury and includes such things as water, flight of a bird, shape of a flame, cloud formations, etc.); interpretation of artificial phenomena (casting runes, reading dominoes, Tarot Cards, numerology); and direct communication with a deity via dreams, visions or trances. These interpretations may not only foretell the future, but can also be used in determining a person’s character and how it has been created by events of the past.’ [Nicole Yalsovac]


So, where do we go for our information? Some of the early ‘history’ writers have quite a lot to say on the matter but can we necessarily believe them:

‘The Egyptians were the first to assign each month and each day to a particular deity, and to foretell the date of a man’s birth, his character, his fortunes, and the day of his death… The Egyptians, too have made more use of omens and prognostics than any other nation…” [Herodotus,The Histories]

Sources include a so-called biography of this man, AlexanAlexanderder the Great and the account of his birth in The Alexander Romance.

Sourcing the Alexander Romance

The Alexander Romance as we know it today is a conflation of several editions and considerable mythological input. It demonstrates that,

‘the boundaries between romance and history are less fixed than we usually suppose and to read the history of Alexander critically means seeing how, in all genres, Alexander is a composite who grows out of the audience’s desire to see in him the hero and the great man undone by his own character.’ [Stoneman]

Mahaffy states,

‘first come the floating legend and the simple tale, handed down by oral tradition, embellished with wonders, and idealised by lofty motives… Then there is a time when such things no longer command assent, when men want to know dates and generations and a rational sequence of events.’ [The Prolegomena to Ancient History]

In the case of Alexander, however, the legend continued to grow for over 1500 years ‘aggrandizing from the marvellous and magical to the even more fabulous and miraculous.’ [Stoneman]  Many authorities see the Romance as a retrojection, backward look, hence the term ‘Romance’ for a ‘biography’ of one of the world’s most famous conquerors.

An extensive reservoir of material from oral and written traditions coalesced into over a hundred versions in numerous languages by editors, including pseudo-Callisthenes, into what is collectively known as The Alexander Romance.  This latter writer purported to be the nephew of Alexander’s tutor Aristotle to give the work authority and, it could be contended, to add gravitas to the claims. On the orders of Alexander, Callisthenes supervised the translation of the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries used by Callipus of Cyzicus to reform the Greek calendar. However, Callisthenes was executed by Alexander towards the end of his reign so he could not have written the Romance as it contains an account of Alexander’s death. Just one of many conundrums we will meet as we pursue this ancient Who Dun It.

The Romance causes considerable dissent amongst historians as to its date and content [see the academic dissertation on my website if you want to look into this further, apologies in advance for the language.] Jasnow judges that a date of circa 250 BCE is plausible and that the story presents Alexander as a true son of Egypt to support Ptolemaic rule. Stoneman takes the view that non-historical Egyptian elements of the Romance are authentic and date to the end of the third century BCE, some fifty years after Alexander’s demise. He cites as ‘crucially Egyptian’ the narrative of the Egyptian priest, Nectanebo, a former ruler of Egypt who flees Egypt following a vision. Even though this event did not occur until after Alexander’s death. Just one of many contradictions that we encounter in The Romance.

Alexanders life

Alexander’s life was the source of considerable ancient spin and misrepresentation.

The Conception

Alexander’s life was the source of considerable ancient spin. Well, it had to be. His father had inconveniently been away at war for quite some time. So what can we believe? We begin with the story of his conception as taken from The Alexander Romance. The extracts used here are taken from the Greek, Armenian and Syriac versions. We can start with this man, the deposed Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II who had, allegedly, fled to Greece after being deposed.

 Nectanebo IIThe magical Metternich StelaThe Metternich Stela

This is a magical stele found in Egypt from around the time of Nectanebo. Below the central figure panel, hieroglyphs record thirteen magic spells to protect against poisonous bites and wounds and to cure the illnesses caused by them. The stela was commissioned by the priest Esatum to be set up in ‘the public part of a temple.’ A victim could recite or drink water that had been poured over the magic words and images on the stela – the Egyptians were keen on flower and magical essences. The hieroglyphic inscription around the base describes the magic cure that was worked upon the infant Horus by Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. In the stela Horus holds symbols of magical and divinatory power.

Nectanebo II and The magical Metternich Stela (360-342 B.C).  

Nectanebo in the Alexander Romance

Nectanbebo was the last native Pharaoh of Egypt. According to accepted history, he disappeared into Upper Egypt when deposed. But according to The Romance, he fled to Greece.

‘Now in Macedonia it became clear to all that Nectanebos was highly respected. His reputation, indeed, was so great that Olympias wished to interview him… When he went to the palace, he saw that her beauty was brighter than the moon. He had been indifferent to women, restraining his mind from erotic desire. Now, stretching out his hand, he greeted her, saying: “A blessing on you, Queen of the Macedonians!” He did not deem it fitting to address her as “Lady,” remembering that he too once was a king.

When they were seated, Olympias said: “Are you really an Egyptian?” Nectanebos answered: “So those who have examined me say.” She continued: “What form of art do you use in giving true oracles?” He answered: “The analysis of the art is complex. For there are interpreters of dreams, translators of ciphers, watchers of birds, diviners of different types, students of horoscopes, magicians, astrologers. Now I have studied diligently all these arts, for I am a distinguished Egyptian prophet, and I am a magician and an astrologer.” After these words, he gave her a piercing look. And she, believing the look an omen, asked: “What are you thinking, learned prophet, when you look at me so earnestly?” Nectanebos replied: “I am recalling an oracle, Queen. For once I heard from my own gods, ‘You must prophesy for a queen and the words you utter will be found true.'”

He brought forth a tablet, very elegant and regal, which language cannot describe. It was made of ivory, ebony, gold, and silver. The symbols on it were in three zones: on the first circle the thirty-six decans, on the second the twelve signs of the zodiac, in the centre the sun and the moon. He placed it on a stool. Then he opened carefully a small ivory case and emptied out the seven stars and the horoscope of eight stones, revealing the great heaven in a small circle. The sun was of crystal, the moon of adamant, Ares of a blood-red jewel, Hermes of emerald, Zeus of a caerulean stone, Aphrodite of sapphires, Cronus of serpentine, the horoscope of white marble.

Tablet similar to Nectanebo’s

Tablet similar to Nectanebo’s

Then he said: “Tell me, Queen, the year, the month, the day, and the hour of your birth.” And when she told him, Nectanebos compared his own horoscope with hers to see if the stars agreed. Then, seeing that there was harmony, he said: “What do you wish to hear, Queen?” She answered: “I wish to learn the news about Philip. For rumour says that after the war he will forsake me and marry another.” Nectanebos replied: “The rumour about immediate separation is false, Queen. After a time, this will actually occur. Then I, as an Egyptian prophet and magician, can be of great aid to you when there is need of such work. For fate has decreed, according to the hour of your birth which you gave me, that you should meet an earth-born god, and be embraced by him and conceive a son, your own child, an avenger of the sins of Philip.” She said: “And who is this god with whom you say I will lie?” And he said: “The god of Libya, the horned, wealth-bringing Ammon.” She asked: “What is his age: is he young, or middle-aged? What is his personality?” He replied: “He is middle-aged. His hair is grey. He has ram’s horns above his temples. Therefore, prepare yourself as woman and queen for the marriage. You will see a vision and the god with you.” Olympias said: “When?” He said: “After a short time, – tomorrow. Therefore, I urge you to be yourself, putting aside your royal rank. For tonight in dreams, you will be embraced.” She said: “If I see this, I shall reverence you not as a prophet, or a magician, but as a god.”

Jupiter Ammon

Jupiter Ammon

After this conversation, Nectanebos left the palace. Without delay, he rushed to the desert and gathered the herbs which have the power of producing visions, through which he would bewitch the sleep of Olympias and produce an image of the act which she desired.   And having rapidly done this, he made a female body of wax and wrote on the figure Olympias’ name. Then he made a bed of wax and put on it the statue he had made of Olympias. He lit a fire and poured thereon the broth of the plant, saying over it the vows suited for these doings, until the spirits appeared to Olympias.  So in her sleep she saw Ammon meeting Olympias and embracing her and saying: “Madam, in your womb you carry your avenger.”

When she arose from her sleep, Olympias marvelled at the fulfilment of the prophecy. She sent for the mathematician and said: “I saw the god of whom you spoke to me. He came to me in person, laying aside his godhead. Now, therefore, I wish to lie with him when I am awake and it is day. Do you then arrange this…” He merely said: “Nothing escapes me. Since now you acknowledge that you wish to meet him when you are awake, there must be some preparation for it. A dream is one thing, reality is another. I believe that I must occupy the little room near your bed that, when the god approaches you, you may not be terrified since I will be near to help you with my incantations. For this god on his coming to you will become first a serpent creeping over the earth with a hissing sound, then he will be transformed into the horned Ammon, then into mighty Heracles, then into Dionysus…. Finally, arriving a god in human form, he will appear in the semblance of myself.” …

And immediately she gave him another room there close to her chamber. And he prepared the softest fleece of a ram together with the horns from its head, and a staff and a white robe. And he made a serpent, and he made it soft and limp; and it slithered out of his hands. All of a sudden he set the serpent loose and it entered Olympias’ bedroom. Now when all the events described had occurred, the queen had no fear, but courageously endured the transformation of the god…

In your dreams

In your dreams

And she reclined on the bed and covered her face; only out of the corner of her eye did she see him assuming the appearance which she saw in the dream. And he put aside the date-tree wood staff, got up onto the bed and turned Olympias toward him and mated with her.   And he, when he arose from her, smote her belly and said: “O child, remain forever unconquered, supreme!”…  

And when her belly grew large, she summoned Nectanebos and said: “Prophet, what am I going to do if Philip on his return finds me pregnant?” And he said: “Fear nothing, Queen. In this time, you will be aided by the tri-formed god, Ammon, who will show a sign to Philip, so that you will not be reproached by him.”

Then he procured a sea falcon and bewitching it made it a messenger of a dream to Philip.   And exercising his magic on the falcon, he spoke, and caused the falcon to fly. And having flown over land and sea, in two days and two nights it reached the place where Philip was and spoke to him in a dream.

Sending forth the sea eagle.

Sending forth the sea eagle.

 Philip saw a god, handsome, hoary, horned, the image of Ammon, lying with Olympias who said: “In your womb you bear my child, who will be the avenger of you and of his father, Philip. Now he fancied that the man drew her image on a papyrus from the Nile and sealed it with a golden seal having on the stone a symbol with the head of a lion, the might and darting brightness of the sun. Then it seemed that a falcon with its wings woke him from sleep.

After seeing these things, he arose, sent for an interpreter and told him the oracle…  ‘  

and it’s interpreted as saying that his son will be great and avenge his, Philip’s death.

Now all this, of course, occurs in Greece not Egypt. But Nectanebo is portrayed as an Egyptian seer of great power. It’s just a pity that he didn’t go into exile until after Alexander’s birth and so couldn’t have been in Greece at the time of the conception. It’s all part of ancient spin that portrays Alexander as of the lineage of the native Egyptian pharaohs.

But in this portion of the Romance we have both dream and bird augeries, and horoscopic prediction – and a reference to magic worked with wax figures a common Egyptian practice. There is of course a difference between divination, which seeks to glimpse the future, and magic which seeks to influence that future.

Definition of Magic

‘Now there used to be Egyptian sages, who were sprung from the families of the gods. They measured the earth, and stood thereon; they put in commotion the waves of the sea; and laid hold of the great Nile by its measure. They calculated the ordering of the stars of heaven. They delivered all these things to the world by the might of invincible words and by the powers of sorcery. Men say then of Naktibôs {Nectanebus} who was the last king of Egypt and was famed for great discoveries, that he was through his perfect knowledge the glory of Egypt, and to him were the creatures of the world subservient by reason of his magic. This king was a marvel, for when suddenly the hosts of the enemy were standing ready at his gate, and wished to come to battle, he used not to trouble his camp, neither did he bring weapons of war for the use of the men, nor polished iron that glittered, nor was it his wont to contrive the stratagems or plans which are necessary for war; but he used to go into his palace and to set a brazen basin in the middle of the hall and to fill it with rain water. He then made small models of ships and men in asphalt and placed them in the basin. And he took in his hand a rod of plane wood, and then uttered those words which he knew, and invoked the angels and Ammon the god of Libya. Now by this form of sorcery which took place in the basin, he was wont to contrive plans, until those models of ships and men which were in the basin went forth against the enemy and turned them back. In this manner he held constantly by his skill for a great length of time the kingdom of Egypt.’

The remains of an execration ritual

The remains of an execration ritual

Throughout his life Alexander was advised in his dreams by the god Ammon:

While he was asleep, Alexander saw Ammon standing near him in the guise of Hermes, wearing his cloak and holding in his hand his caduceus and a staff, and he had a Macedonian cap on his head. He said to him in his dream; “My son, Alexander, I have come to advise you in your hour of need. For whomever you send to Darius as a messenger shall betray you and reveal to him all your clever plans. Risk death yourself, then, and, assuming my appearance as you see it, go to him as your own messenger. It is dangerous for a king to be his own messenger, but when a god helps him, no danger shall ensue.” When King Alexander had seen this vision and had gotten this oracle from Ammon in his dream, his heart was bolstered with courage; and he rose to his feet smiling…

Astrology in Egypt?

According to academia, there was no astrology as such in ancient Egypt prior to the arrival of the Greeks – something I dispute in my dissertation and we’ll be looking at a piece of proto-astrological prediction a little later. There is a long esoteric tradition that astrology came out of Egypt and that it had its roots there. References to now-lost astrological books such as Petosiris and Nachopso abound. Calendars of fortunate and unfortunate days (hemerology) certainly exist, going far back into the Egyptian past. For instance, the papyrus Sallier IV warns that ‘whoever is born on this [the fourth] day [of the month] shall die of the disease ‘aat’, ‘whoever is born on this [fifth] day shall die of excessive ‘venery’. But it’s safe to be born on the ninth day as ‘whoever is born on this day shall die of old age.’

This description of an astrological consultation in the Temple of Serapis – more of him later – always gives me the shivers, particularly as it was penned by an academic professor, James Evans:

‘An astrological consultation … must have been a psychologically powerful experience. One entered a dark chamber of the temple, illuminated by a flickering lamp… In the small circle of light lay the astrologer’s board… The priest was austere and impressive with the golden seven-rayed star of Serapis on his diadem. He lay aside the sheaf of papyrus planetary tables he has previously consulted, retaining only the sheet on which he had summarized the results of his computations. Then he took out a small amulet casket… Opening it he poured out the coloured stones, engraved with magical signs and the names and images of the planetary gods.’

Serapis astrologer priests

Serapis astrologer priest 2

There are several omen and dream interpretation texts amongst early Egyptian papyri, some of which are astronomical in character. Dreams were extremely significant. The foretelling of future events often came through revelatory dreams. These dreams revealed not only the future but the locations of hidden things as well as new medicines. Many times, Egyptian physicians instructed their patients to seek cures for their ailments in dreams. The first reference to dreams appears in the Letters to the Dead dating from the Old Kingdom ca. 2649–2150 B.C. They were often written on pottery vessels, and left in the tombs as it was believed that the occupants could intervene with the gods on the dreamer’s behalf. Dreamers could turn to dream books or interpreters for answers. The Ramesside Dream-Book contains what could well be the first mention of a lucid dreaming process that was perhaps practised in the dream incubation temples:

“When the sleeper is temporarily in the primeval ocean of Nun [the ocean of “clear light”], and he awakens in a dream, he finds himself within the confines of the farworld, and able to interact with the other inhabitants.”

h≥r m||jªh≥ wbn\f; nfr h≥tp n\f jn nt≤r\f

… seeing the moon when it is risen; good, (it means) being clement to him by his god.

— Papyrus Chester Beatty III recto 5.22

Papyrus Chester Beatty III

Extract from Chester Beatty Papyrus written by the scribe Qenherkhepshef c.1220BC for his master Panhesy, second prophet of the Lord of the Two Lands Neferkheprure-Waenre (Akhenaten).

This particular Egyptian ‘Dream Book’ is preserved in the form of a papyrus in hieratic script. It was found in the ancient Egyptian workers’ village of Deir el-Medina, near the Valley of the Kings. Dated to the early reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.), each page of the papyrus begins with a vertical column of hieratic signs which translates as ‘If a man sees himself in a dream’. In each horizontal line that follows, a dream is described, and the diagnosis ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is given, as well as the interpretation. Thus, as an example: ‘If a man sees himself in a dream looking out of a window, good; it means the hearing of his cry’. The good dreams are listed first, followed by the bad ones (written in red, as it is the colour of bad omens).

Around 108 dreams, which describe 78 activities and emotions, are recorded. The second largest category deals with eating and drinking, and a few with ‘receiving and copulating.’ Prevalent images included breaking stones, having one’s teeth fall out, drowning in the Nile, having one’s face turn into a leopard, climbing to the top of a mast at sea, drinking warm beer, and eating white bread. Some interpretations were based on punning, or verbal connections between similar words, something that fascinated Egyptians. For example, the words for “donkey” and “great” were homonyms, therefore a dream about eating donkey meat meant good luck. Dreaming of:

a deep well meant prison
a mirror indicated a second wife
a shining moon represented forgiveness
a large cat symbolized a bumper crop

But the interpretations are often contradictory. Over time, a dream moved from being a private experience at home to temple-based dream incubation. These temples were open to everyone at every social level. The requirements for entry were belief in the particular god and ‘purity’, which could mean a ritual of cleansing, fasting, or abstinence in the preceding days. New Kingdom texts from Deir el-Medina also refer to an advisor called “the wise woman”, who could be consulted in addition to or instead of a temple oracle. I’ve mislaid the source of this information but you’ll see that some of the information contradicts that already given and there was room for individual interpretations:

‘The library of Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef also contained a Dream Book papyrus. This Dream Book was written long before Kenhirkhopeshefs time even then the text was considered ancient but the content remained relevant. The Dream Book contains approximately 108 ancient dreams, within which it describes about 78 activities and emotions. These include carving, pounding, brewing, weaving, sightseeing, stirring, and plastering, among many others. Of these activities and emotions, the majority deal with some form of sight or seeing, the second largest category deals with eating and drinking, and the fewest entries relate to receiving and copulating… Here are a few examples of dreams and their meanings as written in Kenhirkhopeshef’s Dream Book:

If a man sees himself in a dream:

..dead, good omen, long life
..eating crocodile flesh, good omen, he will become a village official
..bringing in cattle,  good omen, dreamer will evangelize the spirit of the community
..plunging into cold waters, good omen, indicating absolution of all ills
..with his face in a mirror, bad omen, meaning changes
..uncovering his own backside, bad omen, he will become an orphan
..putting his face to the ground, bad omen, the dead require something
..making love to his wife in daylight, bad omen, his god will discover his misdeeds

 ‘Of the predictions covered in the Dream Book, over one-third deal with the dreamer’s gains or losses: gains such as receiving an inheritance, or a new wife; losses include being robbed or taxed. One quarter of the dreams listed in the book predict physical events that will happen to the dreamer, including overeating, starving or being cured of an illness. Fifteen percent of the dreams predict the dreamer will be in a situation in which the gods make ethical judgements about him, either forgiving his sins or doling out retribution. Another fifteen percent centre around feelings such as pleasure, anger, deceit, or stopping gossip about the dreamer, and ten percent foretell a change in the dreamer’s position in his village, from becoming an important official to having his fellow villagers recognize the importance of the dreamers words.’

… the Dream Book contained a special spell that the dreamer could recite while eating fresh bread and green herbs moistened with beer. This spell “Come to me, come to me, my mother Isis; behold I am seeing what is far from my city” would eliminate any evil omens or demons predicted by the dream.’

So, apparent fate could be circumvented.

The Sphinx and the Dream Stele

The Sphinx and the Dream Stele

The Dream Stele

Perhaps one of the most famous of the Egyptian dream omens involves the young prince who would become Tuthmosis IV. He fell asleep at the base of the Sphinx and dreamed. According to the stele he erected as its base:

‘Sleep seized him, a sleep at the time when the sun was at the zenith, and he found the Majesty of this noble god speaking with his own mouth, like the words of a father for his son, saying: “Look at me, see me, my son Thutmosis. I am your father, HoremakhetKhepriAtum, and I shall give you the kingship on earth, in front of all the living ones. You shall wear the White and the Red Crowns upon the throne of Geb [the Earth], the hereditary prince. The earth shall be yours in its length and width, (all) that the Eye of the Lord-of-All illuminates. The food of the Two Lands shall be yours, and the great tributes of every foreign land, (your) lifetime will be a time, great in years. My face is yours, my heart is yours as you are a protector to me, for my (present) condition is like one that is in need, all my limbs (are) dismembered as the sands of the desert upon which I lie have reached me. So run to me, to have that done which I desire, knowing that you are my son and my protector. Come forth, and I shall be with you, I shall be your leader”.

The stele may not in fact date to the reign of Tuthmosis. In a classic piece of Egyptian recycling, it is possible that it is a replacement for an earlier stele or that it was placed there some time after to enhance the reputation of either the pharaoh or the Sphinx itself. The Stele is actually the reused lintel of a doorway from the mortuary temple of Khafre’s Pyramid.

So much of Egypt is layered in pictorial symbolism and we have lost the key to translate it into our modern world.

The Goddess Seshat

The Goddess Seshat: the Egyptian symbolic “wordpic” for wisdom, knowledge, and writing. She’s dressed in leopard skin Shem Priest/Priestess clothing. The crescent moon is above her head. She holds the measuring sticks of the universe in her hands and regulates the passage of time. Her collar and headdress may well relate to the lunar calendar. The Eye of Horus sees all.

Wallis Budge cites an invocation ritual for a dream from a Greco-Roman papyrus:

To obtain a vision from the god Bes. Make a drawing of Bes on your left hand and envelop your hand in a strip of black cloth that has been consecrated to Isis and lie down to sleep without speaking a word, even in answer to a question.

The ink with which you write must be composed of the blood of a cow, the blood of a white dove, frankincense, myrrh, black writing-ink, cinnabar, mulberry juice, rainwater and the juice of wormwood and vetch. With this write your petition.

Alexander’s birthchart

There’s been considerable surmising about Alexander’s birthchart, not only in the astrological community. But we just can’t be certain of his date of birth.

Alexander’s birthchartAlexander’s birthchart 1

“Unfortunately, the astronomical, religious and civil calendars did not coincide in the fourth century; as a consequence, it is impossible to give the date of Alexander’s birth.”

We do, however, have information about its timing. Back to the Romance:

‘And now, her time of pregnancy completed, Olympias sat down upon the seat of safety for childbirth and her pains began. Nectanebos stood beside her and, having observed the course of the stars in heaven in relation to the movement of the cycle of the zodiac, said: “Arise from the chair for a little and walk about. For the Scorpion is in the ascendant and the shining Sun of the four-horse chariot, beholding the heavenly bodies revolving backwards, turns one born at this hour altogether away from the heavens. Mighty be the reverence for yourself under this star. For Cancer controls the horoscope, and Cronus {Saturn} who was plotted against by his own two sons cut off his genitals to the root, and bearing in mind Poseidon, ruler of the sea, and Pluto of the lower world, took the throne of Zeus in heaven. In this hour, you will give birth to one, doomed to be a eunuch. Let the brief space of this hour pass. For the moon, the horned, with the yoke of bulls left behind, was the last to descend on earth, and she embraced a fair lad, the cowherd Endymion. Because of the meeting, burned by fire, he perished. So he who is born under such conditions dies, smitten by fire. Not such is the fate of the happy son of heaven. For Aphrodite, goddess of marriage, mother of Eros the bowman, will destroy Adonis the hunter. The one born in this hour, when he sees the light, arouses the wailing of the women of Byblos for himself, and he has the soul of Ares, the lion-hearted. For he is a horseman and a warrior, and now, unarmed, naked, he was revealed by the Sun on the bed of lust. So the one born in this hour will die despised. Await now this star of Hermes, Queen, beside the One of Ill Name of the goat horns. So you will bear a famous warrior of a different mind, your own son. In this hour, you give birth to a marvel. Be seated now comfortably on the chair that gives easy childbirth and endure the more severe and cutting pangs of delivery. For Zeus, the lover of maidens, brought to light Dionysus, the raver, who was nursed in his thigh, Zeus the divine god of heaven. He became the ram Ammon, born under Aquarius and the Fish, and he established an Egyptian man, a king, ruler of the world. In this hour, give birth to your child.”   And he himself delivered her child and said, “If you give birth now, O Queen, the one you bear is a world conqueror.” And Olympias cried out louder than a bull and gave birth to a boy child.   At this word, the infant fell on the ground. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, earth shook, so that all the universe was in commotion.’

In other words, in astrological terms, Nectanebo elected the time of birth that was most favourable for a world conqueror. One who, as he travelled that world, took with him his own seer and consulted many oracles.

Alexander the Great with his seer Aristander in the background.

Alexander the Great with his seer Aristander in the background.


Alexander’s personal seer

‘In the various histories of Alexander, the name Aristander occurs some 41 times connected with 20 different divinatory episodes. The evidence from the histories of Alexander reveals a diviner skilled in various arts of divination: extispicy (livers), augury (signs), the interpretation of prodigies [nature phenomena and disasters seen as signs], oneiromancy (dreams), and in one (possibly spurious) example, spontaneous prophecy. The Alexander Mosaic (c. 200 BC) depicts a figure behind Alexander. The horseman wears a white helmet with a visor and cheek coverings, embellished with a gold wreath. According to Plutarch prior to the battle at Gaugamela, Aristander rode along the ranks wearing a white cloak and a gold crown (‘stephanon’) on his head.”’  It is an extraordinarily modern face.

So let’s take a look at some of those systems of divination, and trace them back into Egypt where possible. The founding of the city of Alexandria took place after Alexander had consulted an oracle on Pharos, an off-shore island as to its approximate location. This is a bird augery:

The Book of the Dead of Nes-min

The Book of the Dead of Nes-min

They threw down grain and marked the line. But birds flew down and seizing all the grain flew away. And Alexander, disturbed at this, sent for soothsayers and related what had happened. They interpreted the events in this way: “This city which has been built will nourish the inhabited world and the men born in it will be everywhere. For the fowls of the air have flown all over the world.”

When Alexander has conquered Persia he has another bird augery which he recounts in a letter to his mother:

Two birds with human faces met us, and they were larger than our birds at home. And they were crying from above in Greek: ‘Why do you tread the earth looking for the home of the gods? For, you are not able to set foot in the Blessed Islands of the skies. Why do you struggle to rise to heaven, which is not within your power?’ And fear and trembling seized me, since I was of course frightened when I heard the divine utterance spoken by the two birds. And another bird spoke in Greek and said: ‘The East summons you. And you shall conquer Porus, king of the Indians.’ And having said this, the bird flew off. And turning back from that place, we set our guiding star by Arcturus and thus came out in twenty-two days. And I put the gates together and carefully sealed up the place. And I wrote on a stone all that we had seen. And only then did I rise and go offer sacrifices to the local deities.”

Egyptian ba (soul) human-head bird 2

Egyptian ba (soul) human-head birds

Egyptian ba (soul) human-head bird 1

In the fourteenth-century BC Amarna diplomatic correspondence, the king of Alasia in Cyprus requested an ‘eagle diviner’ to be sent from Egypt.

Alexander and Ammon

Ammon was not only a ‘god of Libya’, he was revered in Egypt too. Alexander the Great visited the Oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis after delivering Egypt from Persian rule in 332 BC in order to be confirmed as the son of the god and thus a hereditary ruler of Egypt. The Oracle is said to have been reluctant to provide confirmation ‘until poked with a stick’.

Alexander approaches the Oracle

Alexander approaches the Oracle

This is how the writers of the Romance spun the visit. You’ll notice the bird augery and a quick mention of something we haven’t covered yet, divination by entrails:

So he sought out the all-seeing god. Then he constructed a very great altar in front of the Herōon, which is now called the altar of Alexander. Then he made a sumptuous sacrifice, and offered this prayer: “Whatever god thou art who dost protect this land and dost survey the boundless world, accept the sacrifice and be my helper against my foes.” With these words, he placed the sacrifice on the altar. Then suddenly a great eagle, swooping down, seized the viscera of the offering and bearing them through the air put them down upon another altar. The watchers reported to King Alexander the spot. He went there in haste and saw the viscera lying on the altar and a temple built in antiquity and a seated wooden image inside, which mortal tongue could not describe. And beside the indescribable statue there stood a huge image of a maiden.

Alexander then said: “Master, reveal to me this also: when and how shall I die?” This was the god’s answer: 

Painless it is, yea, honourable and fair
For one born mortal not to foresee when
The end of his allotted span shall come.
For mortal men perceive not in their minds
That life, with all its sides, immortal is,
When they no knowledge of disasters have.
So do you too believe this fate most fair,
Thinking it good the future not to know.
But since you passionately long to learn,
Fated it is. In brief you shall hear this.
By my authority, you in your youth
Shall all the tribes barbarian subdue.
And have a longed-for city, queen of the world.
And, after many seasons and times pass,
It shall be famed among the brave, adorned
By many temples, many varied shrines,
Famed for its beauty, size, inhabitants.
And every traveller shall come to stay,
Forgetful of the land where he was born.
And of this city I shall be the god,
Residing there, halting the heaven’s turn.
Sailing the deep, encountering fearful fire,
Man marvels at not winning safe return
Until the hard decrees of the hostile gods
Prove impotent at the end to crush the town.
The quaking of the earth shall be but slight,
A little thing famine and pestilence,
And war shall not take grievous toll of deaths.
But like a dream shall the foe run through the town.
And everywhere and always in your life
Shall mortals reverence you as if a god,
And dying you shall be a god indeed,
Receive obeisance and the gifts of kings.
Here in this city always you shall dwell
In life and death. The city which you built.
Shall be your tomb. This I, your sire, swear,

Alexander continued to communicate with Ammon through dreams and oracles. He also met with him in the form of Serapis.

The Siwa Oracle Temple today

The Siwa Oracle Temple today

Serapis in his serpent form.

Serapis in his serpent form.


Egyptian numerals. Edfu Temple.

Egyptian numerals. Edfu Temple. The text is a recipe for a medicinal potion. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

The king's daughter the priestess Neferetiabet

The king’s daughter the priestess Neferetiabet is shown with an offering of 1000 oxen, bread, beer, etc. But is more going on here? She is wearing her priestess costume.

Numbers were very important in Egypt but given the subtle use of symbolism more might be going on than meets the eye at first glance. That animal leg above the offering table is found in many of the astronomical depictions as ‘the thigh’ constellation. It would be so useful if I could read hieroglyphs! Numbers were for more than counting. They had an esoteric dimension to them too. Although more like a mathematical textbook than a divination aid, the Rhind (“Mathematical”) Papyrus (1848-1801 BCE) reads,

Rules for enquiring into nature and for knowing all that exists, every mystery, every secret.

The papyrus was copied by the scribe Ahmes (i.e., Ahmose), from a now-lost text from the reign of king Amenemhat III (12th dynasty). It demonstrates that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the rules for numbers and their interactions (so-called mathematics) were the basis for “all that exists”. ‘

In the Leiden papyrus the numbering system itself is significant. The numbers 1 to 9, and then the powers 10, 20, 30, etc., constitute the ‘energetic foundations of physical forms.’

In the Greco-Roman ‘table of Democritus’, computations are described that ascertain whether a sick man will live or die. The month in which the sick man takes to his bed and the name he received at his birth are required but it is not clear from Wallis Budge’s translation in Egyptian Magic how these are used. The instruction is to ‘calculate the course of the moon and see how many periods of thirty days have elapsed. Then note in the table the number of days left over and if the number comes in the upper part of the table, he will live, but if in the lower he will die.

When Alexander first consults Serapis, he is told:

O Alexander. Who am I? You ask.
Take now 200 for the letter first.
Add one, then still 100 and one more,
Then four times ten and the letter first again
Thus shall you know the very god I am.

The numbers represent the letters of Sarapis’ name: 200=S, 1=A, 100=R, and so on. But rather than “four times”, the text should says “eighty” (=P).

A form of numerology is found in another of the Magical Papyri of the Greco-Roman period:

Great Isis the Lady. Copy of a sacred book found in the archives of

Hermes. The method is the odd number of letters i.e. 29, through

which Hermes received omensand Isis, searching, foundher own

brother and husband Osiris. Say:‘I invoke the sun and all the gods in

the deep’—about whatever you wish to receive an omen. Taking 29

leaves of a male palm, write on each of the leaves one of the names of

the gods and, when you have said a prayer, pick them up two by two.

Read the last remaining leaf, and you will find wherein your omen consists, and you will receive an omen lucidly.”

Indication by sacred barque

Sacred barque

Sacred barque

Have you ever noticed how several men carrying a heavy load find it difficult to walk in a straight line? Especially if it’s at a celebration and drink may be involved. The ancient Egyptians were very fond of their beer. In a public ceremony, a god would indicate its will or answer questions through the movements of a portable cult statue borne on the shoulders of priests or important members of the community. The statue was usually carried in a sacred barque. To be successful, the oracular process had to be carried out without any undue influence along the route. The path was carefully prepared and protected. Precautions included the arrangement of processional avenues lined with sphinxes between Karnak and Luxor. In the 21st dynasty a “soil of silver” was used where oracles could be held; and fan-bearers and censer-bearers surrounded the barque to keep away flies.

The avenue of Sphinxes today

The avenue of Sphinxes today

Year 27, first month of summer, day 19. This day, the workman Kha-em-waset reported to King Ameenhotep (life, prosperity, health) saying “Come to me, my lord! Judge between me and the workman Nefer-hotep. Shall one take the hut of Baki, my ancestor, that is in the Great Field on account of the share of Sekhmet-nofret, Oh, my Great Light?” And the god moved backwards emphatically. Then one said to him, “Shall one give it to Kha-em-waset?” And the god moved forwards emphatically. Witnessed by the chief workman Khonsu, the chief workman In-her-khau, all the bearers.

We have a contemporary description of the god resolving a dispute:

Sacred barque, Edfu Temple. C. Terrie Birch

Sacred barque, Edfu Temple. C. Terrie Birch

In a biographical inscription Tuthmosis III tells how he was chosen to be king. During the morning, the god in his sacred barque walked the northern hypostyle hall in Karnak and eventually settled in front of the young prince. Tuthmosis III prostrated himself on the ground and the god led him to the place reserved for the king (a procedure repeated to enthrone Ramesses IV 330 years later).






The hypostyle hall – with orbs 1

The hypostyle hall – with orbs c. Terrie Birch

The hypostyle hall – with orbs c. Terrie Birch

In a similar fashion, a scarab beetle moving a dung ball foretold events or gave answers and indications.

Scarab beetle divination. Note the marks left in the sand.

Scarab beetle divination. Note the marks left in the sand.

And the fall of dice was used way back into history to predict the future. Not everything that looks like a board game necessarily has only one purpose. One of the magical papyri (LXII 48-52) describes a method which uses dice to find out whether a person is still alive or has died.

The ‘board game’ Mankala

The ‘board game’ Mankala has close parallels with geomantic divination.

Proto-astrology: The Seven Hathors

The Seven Hathors, Dendera Temple

The Seven Hathors, Dendera Temple

Tutankhamen’s tombHapshepshut’s templeWhen a child was born the Seven Hathors came to his bedside to announce his fate. They knew the length of a child’s life from the day it was born as in the New Kingdom Tale of the Doomed Prince and the Tale of the Two Brothers, Anpu and Bata.

‘Now hear the tale of the doomed prince. Once upon a time there was a king in Egypt whose heart was heavy because that he had no son. He called upon the gods, and the gods heard, and they decreed that an heir should be born to him. In time came the day of the child’s birth. The Seven Hathors greeted the prince and pronounced his destiny; they said he would meet with a sudden death, either by a crocodile, or a serpent, or a dog. []

The end of the text is lost just as the Prince is finally meeting his fate. The Hathors predicted even when that birth was a supernatural rather than a natural one:

And Ra Harakhti said to Khnumu, “Behold, frame thou a woman for Bata, that he may not remain alive alone.”
And Khnumu made for him a mate to dwell with him.
She was more beautiful in her limbs than any woman who is in the whole land. The essence of every god was in her. The Seven Hathors came to see her: they said with one mouth, “She will die a sharp death.” (18th/19th Dynasty).

Hathor’s polished mirror of bronze was another way of foretelling the future, or of seeing what your enemies were up to:

Looking into Hathor’s Mirror, your own individual power is reflected on one side, while the thoughts or energies of friends/enemies are reflected on the other. Used as a ward of protection, the energies of an attacker is reflected back to themselves, sensing a power from their intended victim equal to the strength that they feel they possess. [Nancy Vedder-Shults]

Hathor magician priests could also read the fortune of a newborn child, and acted as oracles to explain the dreams of the people. They were called upon for help in matters of love and protection from evil spirits. The power of the red hair-ribbons of the Seven Hathors bound dangerous spirits and rendered them harmless. The Hathors may have been linked to the constellations Pleiades and so may be a form of protoastrology. The Hathors were predated by an earlier tale from the Old Kingdom of a prediction at the birth of three future kings, in the Westcar papyrus. This prediction is made by a group of goddesses who come to help with the birth, disguised as musicians.

Eleanor L. Harris, in Ancient Egyptian Divination and Magic, tells us that the magicians often had to work against the Seven Hathors to acquire a desire outcome. If offerings and flattery did not succeed, they employed ‘negotiation, threats or shape shifted to a dominant god-form.’ We’ll be meeting Hathor again later.

According to Harris the primary methods used in ancient Egyptian divination were trance; mediumship; fire, water, and oil scrying; dream and dream interpretation; and oracles. The following is Harris’ outline of the preparations required once a divination is planned.

  1. First, prepare yourself. It is stated in papyri that the magician must be pure for three days, and specifies celibacy and “purity from every abomination.”
  2. Locate a secret place to divine. this is defined as a dark, clean recess. It is specified often that the recess face east or south.
  3. Gather all required divination tools. Commonly, the tools were: natron-water to purify the location, a new white lamp (or a lamp without red color; a vessel or bowl can be used instead of the lamp), a clean linen wick, lamp oil or kerosene, vegetable oil to pour in vessel or bowl, frankincense, natural ink to write magical symbols or words of power onto the linen wick, eye-paint to place into your eyes to assist in seeing invoked deities, and, at times, a crude brick to set the lamp upon.

Magicians usually practiced divination in secret, at night or at dawn. It was thought that at these times the psychic currents were strongest.

  • Place the eye-paint into your eyes when you are ready to inquire of the lamp in any lamp-divination.
  • Invoke a specific god, or say a spell over the lamp. If you use eye-paint, you will see the god standing behind the lamp.
  • Depending upon the divination purpose and script, repeat the spells either seven or nine times.
  • If an answer is not forthcoming, threaten that the god’s lamp will not be lit, and will be filled with fat instead of oil.

The script is recited seven or more times so that the conscious mind can concentrate on the work at hand. A trance state is induced. For this reason, it is very important that you follow the script specifications to obtain the best results. Depending upon the script, a god may or may not be invoked. One reason for a god not to be summoned is that the god Souchos dwelled in the liquid oil of the lamp.

The script is recited seven or more times so that the conscious mind can concentrate on the work at hand. A trance state is induced. For this reason, it is very important that you follow the script specifications to obtain the best results. Depending upon the script, a god may or may not be invoked.  One reason for a god not to be summoned is that the god Souchos dwelled in the liquid oil of the lamp.

Lecanomancy, divination by mixing oil and water in a bowl

Lecanomancy, divination by mixing oil and water in a bowl

A number of gods could be invoked for bowl divination, which required the seer to go into a light trance beforehand. The elaborate preparations turned the consciousness inward. In the Leyden Papyrus  (3rd century BE but recording much older information) the instruction is given to:

‘take a bronze bowl engraved with a figure of Anubus, fill it with water and cover the water with a film of oil. The child who is to be the medium is made to lie on four bricks with a cloth over his head. The magician lights a lamp on one side of the child and a censer on the other. He is then to burn exotic incense and chant an invocation to Anubis over and over again.’

Commenting on this, Professor Geraldine Pinch says ‘it is hardly surprising that a child who was susceptible to influence would begin to see pictures in the soil.’ InThe Leyden Papyrus the word “compeller” refers to the invoked god who compels the other gods to do the magician’s will. One of four gods was usually invoked: Anpu, The Opener of the Ways; Tehuti (Thoth), Chief Over the Mysteries; Pshoi, A Graeco-Egyptian god of Destiny; or Khons, a Moon god.

Scrying bowl, a popular method in ancient Egypt

Scrying bowl, a popular method in ancient Egypt


A priestess of Persephone gave a prediction to Alexander and Stasagoras – a king who was about to be overthrown. Stasagoras was not amused:

“O worthless prophetess, I shall grow stronger on Alexander’s arrival, and you said I would be overthrown.” She replied: “Do not be angry at this, for the gods reveal all matters to men by signs, especially to the famous. For, when Alexander came here, it happened that the chiton of the goddess was being dyed purple, so I prophesied to him as I did. But you entered when the chiton was finished, and the loom taken down, so it was absolutely clear that you would be overthrown.” Then he ordered that she should be removed from her sacred office, saying: “It is for yourself that you have interpreted the sign.” Alexander, on hearing of this, straightway removed him from his command and restored the priestess to her rightful place.   And the priestess said, “Stasagoras, I related the sign for you, and the prophecy has worked out true.”

In ancient Egypt Neith was the predynastic goddess of weaving and wisdom. She wove each day into existence and it was she who measured out the length of life of a person in much the same way that the Fates did in Greece.

Neith with the weaving shuttle above her head.

Neith with the weaving shuttle above her head.

Necromany: Consulting the dead

‘Then those of the young men who were willing came to Macedonia as volunteers, as if summoned by the voice of the dead.’ (Romance)

The spirits of the dead were forever with the ancient Egyptians. Many of the temple and tomb rituals were designed to keep them settled and happy. But they could be consulted on matters pertaining to the living. Victims of Nile drowning were particularly knowledgeable. Numerous petitions and questions to the dead survive from the most ancient times. But it had become particularly ritualised by the Greco-Roman period. According to one spell a reluctant spirit could be forced to speak by placing a leaf inscribed with the names of power under the tongue of the corpse.

Death of Alexander prophesied

Alexander consults the wisdom tree

Alexander consults the wisdom tree

After his conquest of India, Alexander was approached by ‘wise men’ who said:

“Your Majesty, we have something to show you which deserves your special attention. We will take you to the trees that speak with a human voice.” So they brought Alexander to a place where there was a sanctuary of the Sun and the Moon… The two trees in the middle of the garden spoke, the one with a man’s voice, the other with a woman’s… [the trees were surrounded by the skins of wild animals.] In their neighbourhood there was no iron, bronze nor tin, not even potter’s clay…

The [wise men] told him ‘In the morning, when the sun rises, a voice issues from the tree of the sun, and again when the tree is in the middle of the sky, and a third time when it is about to set. And the same applies to the tree of the moon…

Just then the sun set; at once an Indian voice was heard in the tree…  ‘King Alexander, you are to die in Babylon, by the hand of one of your companions, and you will not be able to return to your mother, Olympia.’

Alexander was amazed, and wanted to bedeck the trees with the finest garlands, but the priests stopped him, saying: ‘[This may not be. If you insist, do as you will; a king can make every law unwritten.’ Then Alexander was very melancholy.

At dawn he returned [and laid his hand on the tree. [He wanted to know if the full span of his life would be completed.] ‘As the sun rose and the first rays fell on the top of the tree, a resonant voice came forth: ‘The span of your life is completed now… A short time later your mother and your wife will be horribly murdered by your own people. Ask no more about these matters for you will be told no more.’

The Oracle in the tree put me in mind of Hathor (and afterwards Isis) who was said to live in the sycamore tree.

Hathor in the tree ‘feeding the deceased’. But look at the blue lotus flowers of prophecy above the ‘offering’. Tomb of Sennedjem, Luxor

Hathor in the tree ‘feeding the deceased’. But look at the blue lotus flowers of prophecy above the ‘offering’. Tomb of Sennedjem, Luxor

Ramses II at Deir El Bahari with Thoth, Ptah

Ramses II at Deir El Bahari with Thoth, Ptah

Hathor’s tree is the sycamore: It’s divinatory meaning is love, communication, receptivity, nourishment, connection with Nature, abundance, and ghosts [Nancy Vedder-Shults]

Alexander left India for Persia. A little while later he entered a temple of Serapis and immediately asked how many days he had left to live. Serapis tells him:

It is best for a living man not to know when his end will come. As soon as he learns of the hour of his death, from that moment he is as good as dead. But if he remains in ignorance, this helps him to forget about his death, even though he must die one day. But the city which you have founded will be famous the world over. Many kinds will come to destroy it. But you will dwell in it, dead and yet not dead: the city you founded will be your tomb.’

Alexander headed to Babylon where a child was born whose upper body was human as far as the flanks, but from the hips downward it had the legs and paws of a wild beast. The legs moved but not the torso. The most skilled Chaldean seer told Alexander: ‘You may not be numbered among the living. If the upper part were alive… so would you be. But just as the animal parts are, so are those around you: they have no understanding and are savage towards men, and just so are those around you disposed to you.’ After he heard that, Alexander began to put his affairs in order.

According to versions of The Romance, Antipater, who was ruling Greece in Alexander’s absence, prepared poison and sent it in a lead container carried by his son to Alexander’s cupbearer. The cupbearer was nursing a grudge against Alexander from having been hit over the head with a stick, so agreed to give Alexander the poison. Alexander duly died. On his death bed he made a speech:

I who crossed all the inhabited earth,

And the uninhabited places, and the places of darkness,

Was unable to evade fate.

A small cup can yield a man to death, ad send him down among the dead with a drop of poison…

I shall lie buried in Hades.

‘Then the air was filled with mist, and a great star was seen descending from the sky, accompanied by an eagle; and the statue in Babylon, which was called the statue of Zeus (Jupiter/Ammon) trembled. When the star ascended again to the sky, accompanied by the eagle, and his disappeared, Alexander fell into his eternal sleep.’

[The Greek Alexander Romance, trans. Richard Stoneman].

He was 32 years old. The earlier oracle of a short life had been fulfilled.

And the Basket of Flint?

Crystals have been used as oracles since time immemorial and many crystal divinatory meanings go way back into antiquity. Flint was always regarded as magical because of its ability to produce sparks and electricity. In creating fire, it maintained life itself.

Predynastic flint knives

Predynastic flint knives

In the ancient Egyptian story of King Cheops and the Magicians, the King, builder of the Great Pyramid, had long sought hidden chambers in a temple of the wisdom god Thoth – keeper of the Akashic Record of all that has been or ever will be. Cheops’ son suggested he seek out a magician named Djedi. Asked if he knew the location of the chambers, the magician answered, “No, but the answer will be found in a basket of flint in a room named ‘investigator’ in Heliopolis.” Heliopolis is the sun or the self. This profound piece of oracular wisdom could be interpreted as suggesting that the answer has to be sought in the inner, not the outer, world. Flint traditionally acts as a reflective portal between the worlds. In ancient Egypt Flint was highly valued not only for the production of tool but also because of its sacred connections with the goddesses who are the Eye of Re, with Re himself, with snakes and lions. But, on a more practical level, the site of that basket of flint may have had implications of its own. Texts would have been incised on the wall and Flint itself is associated with the direction North. But that’s as far as we can go in decoding this particular oracle.

Egyption flint



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