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Olympias's decision to visit the Sanctuary of Dodona was the result of a strange premonition that had come to her as she slept alongside her husband, Philip II, King of the Macedonians, who lay that night in a wine- and food-sated slumber.
She had dreamed of a snake slithering slowly along the corridor outside and entering their bedchamber silently. She could see it, but she could not move, and she could not shout for help. The coils of the great reptile slid over the stone floor, its scales glinting copper and bronze in the moonlight that penetrated the room through the window.
For a moment she wanted Philip to wake up and take her in his arms, to hold her against his strong, muscular chest, to caress her with his big warrior's hands, but immediately she turned to look again on the drakon, the huge animal that moved like a ghost. A magic creature, like the creatures the gods summon from the bowels of the earth whenever the need arises.
Now, strangely, she was no longer afraid of it. She felt no disgust; indeed, she felt ever more attracted and almost charmed by the sinuous movement, by the graceful and silent force.
The snake worked its way under the blankets, it slipped between her legs and her breasts. She felt it take her, light and cold, without hurting her at all.
Olympias dreamed that its seed mingled with the seed her husband had already thrust into her with the strength of a bull, with all the vigor of a wild boar, before he had collapsed under the weight of exhaustion and of wine.
The next day the King had put on his armor, dined with his generals on wild hog's meat and sheep's milk cheese, and left to go to war against the Triballians. A people more barbarous than his Macedonians, they dressed in bearskins, wore hats of fox fur and lived along the banks of the Ister, the biggest river in Europe.
All Philip said to Olympias was, "Remember to offer sacrifices to the gods while I am away and bear me a man-child, an heir who looks like me."
Then he had mounted his bay horse and set off at a gallop with his generals, the courtyard resounding with the noise of the steeds' hooves, echoing with the clanging of their weapons.
Olympias took a warm bath following her husband's departure, her maidservants massaging her back with sponges steeped in essence of jasmine and Pierian roses. Still deeply troubled, she sent for Artemisia, the woman who had been her wet nurse. Artemisia was aged now, but her bosom was still ample, her hips still shapely, and she came from a good family; Olympias brought her from Epirus when she had come to marry Philip.
She recounted the dream and asked, "Good Artemisia, what does it mean?"
Artemisia helped her mistress out of the warm bath and began to dry her with towels of Egyptian linen.
"My child, dreams are always messages from the gods, but few people know how to interpret them. Go to the most ancient of the sanctuaries in Epirus, our homeland, to consult the Oracle of Dodona. Since time immemorial the priests there have handed down the art of reading the voice of the great Zeus, father of the gods and of men. The voice speaks when the wind passes through the branches of the age-old oaks of the sanctuary. It makes their leaves whisper in spring and summer, and stirs the dead leaves into movement around the trunks during autumn and winter."
And so it was that a few days later Olympias set off toward the sanctuary which had been built in a most impressive place in a green valley nestled among wooded mountains.
Tradition had it that this was among the oldest temples on earth. Two doves were said to have flown from Zeus's hand immediately after he chased Cronus, his father, from the skies. One dove had lighted on an oak at Dodona, the other on a palm tree at the Oasis of Siwa, in the midst of the burning sands of Libya. And ever since then, in those two places, the voice of the father of the gods had made itself heard.
"What is the meaning of my dream?" Olympias asked the priests of the sanctuary.
They sat in a circle on stone seats, in the middle of a green meadow dotted with daisies and buttercups, and listened to the wind through the leaves of the oaks. They seemed rapt in thought.
One of the priests spoke, "It means that the child you will bear will be the offspring of Zeus and a mortal. In your womb the blood of a god has mixed with the blood of a man.
"The child you bear will shine with a wondrous energy. But, just as the most brightly burning flame consumes the walls of the lamp and quickly uses up the oil that feeds it, his soul may burn up the heart that houses it.
"Remember, my Queen, the story of Achilles, ancestor of your great family: he was given the choice of a brief but glorious life or a long and dull one. He chose the former; he sacrificed his life for a moment of blinding light."
"Is this fate inevitable?" Olympias asked apprehensively.
"It is but one possibility," replied another priest. "A man may take many roads. But the strength that comes as a gift from the gods seeks always to return to those who bestowed it. Keep this secret in your heart until the moment comes when your child's nature will be fully manifest. Be ready then for everything and anything, even to lose him. Because no matter what you do you will never manage to stop him fulfilling his destiny, to stop his fame spreading to the ends of the earth."
He was still talking when the breeze that had been blowing through the leaves of the oaks changed, almost suddenly, into a strong, warm wind from the south. In no time at all it was strong enough to bend the tops of the trees and to make the priests cover their heads with their cloaks.
The wind brought with it a thick reddish mist that darkened the entire valley. Olympias, too, wrapped her cloak around her body and her head and sat motionless in the midst of the vortex, frozen like a statue of a goddess.
The wind subsided just as it had begun, and when the mist cleared, the statues, pillars, and altars that embellished the sacred place were all covered in a thin layer of red dust.
The priest who had spoken last touched the dust with his fingertip and brought the finger to his lips: "This has been brought here on the Libyan wind, the breath of Zeus Ammon whose oracle sits among the palms of Siwa. This is an extraordinary happening, a remarkable portent! The two most ancient oracles on earth, separated by enormous distances, have spoken at the same moment. Your son has heard voices that come from far away and perhaps he has understood the message. One day he will hear them again within the walls of a great sanctuary surrounded by the desert sands."
After listening to these words, the Queen returned to the capital, to Pella, the city whose roads were dusty in summer and muddy in winter, and there she waited in fear and trembling for the day on which her child would be born.
The labor pains came one spring evening, after sunset. The women lit the lamps and Artemisia sent word for the midwife and for the physician, Nicomachus, who had been doctor to the old King, Amyntas, and who had supervised the birth of many a royal scion, both legitimate and otherwise.
Nicomachus was ready, knowing that the time was near. He put on an apron, had water heated, and more lamps brought so that there would be sufficient light.
But he let the midwife approach the Queen first, because a woman prefers to be touched by another woman at the moment she brings her child into the world: only a woman truly knows of the pain and the solitude in which a new life is made.
King Philip, at that very moment, was laying siege to the city of Potidaea and would not have left the front line for anything in the world.
It was a long and difficult birth because Olympias had narrow hips and was of a delicate constitution.
Artemisia wiped her mistress's brow. "Courage, my child, push! When you see your baby you will be consoled for all the pain you must suffer now." She moistened Olympias's lips with spring water from a silver bowl, which the maids refreshed continuously.
But when the pain grew to the point where Olympias almost fainted, Nicomachus intervened, guiding the midwife's hands and ordering Artemisia to push on the Queen's belly because she had no strength left and the baby was in distress.
He put his ear to Olympias's womb and could hear that the baby's heart was slowing down.
"Push as hard as you can," he ordered Artemisia. "The baby must be born now."
Artemisia leaned with all her weight on the Queen, who let out one frightfully loud cry and gave birth.
Nicomachus tied the umbilical cord with linen thread, then cut it immediately with a pair of bronze scissors and cleaned the wound with wine.
The baby began to cry and Nicomachus handed him to the women so that they could wash and dress him.
It was Artemisia who first saw his face, and she was delighted. "Isn't he wonderful?" she asked as she wiped his eyelids and nose with some wool dipped in oil.
The midwife washed his head and as she dried it she found herself exclaiming, "He has the hair of a child of six months and fine blond streaks. He looks like a little Eros!"
Artemisia meanwhile was dressing him in a tiny linen tunic because Nicomachus did not agree with the practice followed in most families by which newborn babies were tightly swaddled.
"What color do you think his eyes are?" she asked the midwife.
The woman brought a lamp nearer and the baby's eyes shone as they reflected the light. "I don't know, it's difficult to say. They seem to be blue, then dark, almost black. Perhaps it's because his parents are so different from each other."
Nicomachus was taking care of the Queen, who, as often happens with first-time mothers, was bleeding. Having anticipated this beforehand, he had snow gathered from the slopes of Mount Bermion. He made compresses of the snow and applied them to Olympias's belly. The Queen shivered, tired and exhausted as she was, but the physician could not afford to let himself feel sorry for her and continued to apply the ice-cold compresses until the bleeding stopped completely.
Then, as he took off his apron and washed his hands, he left her to the care of the women. He let them change her sheets, wash her with soft sponges steeped in rosewater, change her gown to a clean one taken from her clothes chest, and give her something to drink.
It was Nicomachus who presented the baby to Olympias. "Here is Philip's son, my Queen. You have given birth to a beautiful boy."
Then he went out into the corridor where a horseman of the royal guard was waiting, dressed for a journey. "Go, fly to the King and tell him his child is born. Tell him it's a boy, that he is beautiful, healthy and strong."
The horseman threw his cloak over his shoulders, put the strap of his satchel over his head, and ran off. Before he disappeared at the end of the corridor, Nicomachus shouted after him, "Tell him too that the Queen is well."
The messenger did not pause in his course, and an instant later there came the noise of a horse neighing in the courtyard below and then the clatter of galloping, which soon faded to silence along the roads of the sleeping city.
Copyright © 1998 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.P.A.
Translation copyright © 2001 by Macmillan