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From the ancient world we have several stories of amazing or miraculous births, of which the following are especially worth noting.
- 1 A: CREATION OF ADAM & EVE and the BIRTH OF HERACLES
- 2 SET B: TWIN BOYS— ONE BORN TO RULE
- 3 SET C: BABY SURVIVES EXPOSURE TO BECOME GREAT RULER
- 4 SET D: BIRTH OF FUTURE MILITARY HERO
- 5 SET E: TWO GREAT RELIGIOUS LEADERS
A: CREATION OF ADAM & EVE and the BIRTH OF HERACLES
Adam & Eve (Bible: Genesis 2:4b–25)
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
18 Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man3 there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
"This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken."
24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Birth of Herakles (Greek mythology)
But meanwhile, the beauty of Alkmene had attracted Zeus. Taking the form of Anphitryon, he visited her on the very night of her husband's return, which he made three times the usual length. Later in the night, the real Amphitryon came to her, and she conceived twin children. One, Amphitryon's son, Iphikles or Iphiklos, was an ordinary child, not destined to any very distinguished career; the other was Herakles. In this story we have a very widespread belief, firstly that twins are apt to be in some way remarkable, or that one of them is, and secondly that one of the two is the child of a god or spirit of some kind, not of the mother's mortal consort.
Hera, who knew to what glory her husband's bastard was destined, was furious and did everything in her power to kill or at least hamper him; to her machinations, in the story as we have it, nearly all his misfortunes and trials are due. Before his birth, she robbed him of his true inheritance; for Zeus had meant him to be lord of the surrounding peoples. But on the day when his birth was expected, he mentioned this, and Hera tricked him into an ambiguous oath: `Verily, he that this day is born of a woman, of the race that boasts my blood, shall be lord of all that dwell around him.' Now Menippe, the wife of Sthenelos, was seven months gone with child; as her husband was of the blood of Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danae, the conditions would be fulfilled if she that day bore a son. Hera sent the Eileithyai to delay the birth of Alkmene's children and bring Menippe's into the world before his time. She bore Eurystheus, who thus got the benefit of the oath of Zeus.
Ovid has an amusing tale on this subject. Eileithyia, to prevent Alkmene from being delivered, sat seven days and nights with her hands clasped on her knees, a well-known magical gesture to bind anything. But Alkmene had a clever waiting-maid, Galanthis, who noticed the attitude of the goddess and recognized her and her intentions. She ran hastily out from the house and cried to Eileithyia, `Give my mistress your congratulations; she is safely delivered!' Eileithyia, in astonishment, sprang up and raised her hands; at once the charm was undone, and Alkmene suddenly found herself a happy mother. Galanthis, however, was seized by Eileithyia and turned into a lizard, which still runs about houses. Hera then sent two serpents to attack Herakles and his brother in their cradle; Herakles clutched their necks in his hands and choked them to death.
Apollodoros records, from Pherkydes, a variant which may be a piece of genuine tradition, or may be the result of some attempt to rationalize. The serpents were not sent by Hera, but put into the cradle by Amphitryon himself. When Herakles faced them and Iphikles ran away, Amphitryon recognized that the former was the child of Zeus. The age of Herakles at the time is variously given; in Plautus he is just born, in Apollodoros he is eight months old.
SET B: TWIN BOYS— ONE BORN TO RULE
Esau & Jacob (Bible: Genesis 25:19–26)
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger."
24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
Romulus & Remus (Plutarch, ca 75 CE)
Some again say that Roma, from whom this city was so called, was daughter of Italus and Leucaria; or, by another account, of Telaphus, Hercules's son, and that she was married to Aeneas, or, according to others again, to Ascanius, Aeneas's son. Some tell us that Romanus, the son of Ulysses and Circe, built it; some, Romus, the son of Emathion, Diomede having sent him from Troy; and others, Romus, king of the Latins, after driving out the Tyrrhenians, who had come from Thessaly into Lydia, and from thence into Italy. Those very authors, too, who, in accordance with the safest account, make Romulus give the name of the city, yet differ concerning his birth and family. For some say, he was son to Aeneas and Dexithea, daughter of Phorbas, and was, with his brother Remus, in their infancy, carried into Italy, and being on the river when the waters came down in a flood, all the vessels were cast away except only that where the young children were, which being gently landed on a level bank of the river, they were both unexpectedly saved, and from them the place was called Rome. Some say, Roma, daughter of the Trojan lady above mentioned, was married to Latinus, Telemachus's son, and became mother to Romulus; others that Aemilia, daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, had him by the god Mars; and others give you mere fables of his origin. For to Tarchetius, they say, king of Alba, who was a most wicked and cruel man, there appeared in his own house a strange vision, a male figure that rose out of a hearth, and stayed there for many days. There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid. Tarchetius, hearing this, in great anger imprisoned them both, purposing to put them to death, but being deterred from murder by the goddess Vesta in a dream, enjoined them for their punishment the working a web of cloth, in their chains as they were, which when they finished, they should be suffered to marry; but whatever they worked by day, Tarchetius commanded others to unravel in the night.
In the meantime, the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. This one Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.
SET C: BABY SURVIVES EXPOSURE TO BECOME GREAT RULER
Moses (Bible: Exodus 1:8–2:10)
1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.9 He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them."20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said.7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?"8 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother.9 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it.10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."
Sargon of Akkad (c. 2300 BCE)
1. Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkadê am I,
2. My mother was lowly; my father I did not know;
3. The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.
4. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the bank of the Purattu [Euphrates],
5. My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth.
6. She placed me in a basket of reeds, she closed my entrance with bitumen,
7. She cast me upon the rivers which did not overflow me.
8. The river carried me, it brought me to Akki, the irrigator.
9. Akki, the irrigator, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out,
10. Akki, the irrigator, as his own son brought me up;
11. Akki, the irrigator, as his gardener appointed me.
12. When I was a gardener the goddess Ishtar loved me,
13. And for four years I ruled the kingdom.
14. The black-headed peoples I ruled, I governed;
15. Mighty mountains with axes of bronze I destroyed (?).
16. I ascended the upper mountains;
17. I burst through the lower mountains.
18. The country of the sea I besieged three times;
19. Dilmun I captured (?).
20. Unto the great Dur-ilu I went up, I . . . . . . . . .
21 . . . . . . . . . .I altered. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
22. Whatsoever king shall be exalted after me,
23. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
24. Let him rule, let him govern the black-headed peoples;
25. Mighty mountains with axes of bronze let him destroy;
26. Let him ascend the upper mountains,
27. Let him break through the lower mountains;
28. The country of the sea let him besiege three times;
29. Dilmun let him capture;
30. To great Dur-ilu let him go up.
SET D: BIRTH OF FUTURE MILITARY HERO
Samson (Bible: Judges 13:1–25)
13:1 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.
2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children.3And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, "Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean,5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite1 to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines."6Then the woman came and told her husband, "A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel2 of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name;7 but he said to me, 'You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite3 to God from birth to the day of his death.'"
8 Then Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, "O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born."9 God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her.10 So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, "The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me."11 Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, "Are you the man who spoke to this woman?" And he said, "I am."12 Then Manoah said, "Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy's rule of life; what is he to do?"13 The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, "Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her.14 She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her."
15 Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, "Allow us to detain you, and prepare a kid for you."16 The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, "If you detain me, I will not eat your food; but if you want to prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord." (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord)17 Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, "What is your name, so that we may honor you when your words come true?"18 But the angel of the Lord said to him, "Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful."
19 So Manoah took the kid with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to him who works4 wonders.520 When the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground.21 The angel of the Lord did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the angel of theLord.22 And Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God."23 But his wife said to him, "If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these."
24 The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him.25 The spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
Alexander the Great (Greek empire, 356-323)
Within Alexander's own lifetime, it was widely believed that Olympias had conceived him through the agency of one of the Gods, namely Zeus. Not the ordinary Zeus of the Greek homeland, however, but the exotic version of Zeus-Ammon, whose world-famous shrine was in faraway Siwa, Cyrene, deep in the Sahara desert. Writing some four hundred years after his death, Plutarch records the generally accepted account concerning Alexander's true divine origin, but he also included the skeptical minority viewpoint.
" Alexander was a descendant of Heracles, on his father's side, through Karanos; on his mother's side he was descended from Aidos through Neoptolemos; this is universally believed. It is said that Philip [Alexander's father] was initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias [Alexander's mother]. He was still a youth and she was an orphan. He fell in love with her and conjoined a marriage, with consent of her brother, Arumbas.
The bride, before the night in which they were to join in the bride chamber, had a vision. There was a peal of thunder, and a lighting bolt fell upon her womb. A great fire was kindled from the strike, then it broke into flames which flashed everywhere, then they extinguished. At a later time, after the marriage, Philip saw a vision: he was placing a seal on his wife's womb; the engraving on the seal was, as he thought, in the image of a lion. The men charged with interpreting oracles were made suspicious by this vision and told Philip to keep a closer watch on his marital affairs. But Aristander of Telmessus said [the vision meant that] her husband had impregnated her, for nothing is sealed if it is empty, and that she was pregnant with a child whose nature would be courageous and lion-like.
On another occasion, a great snake appeared, while Olympias was asleep, and would coil itself around her body. This especially, they say, weakened Philip's desire and tenderness toward her, so that he did not come often to sleep with her, either because he was afraid she would cast spells and enchantments upon him, or because he considered himself discharged from the obligation of intercourse with her because she had become the partner of a higher being.
. . . After the vision [concerning the snake], Philip sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi [to learn its meaning]. He brought an oracle to Philip from Apollo: Philip was henceforth to sacrifice to Zeus-Ammon and worship that God especially. Furthermore, he was to put out the eye which spied on the God through the crack in the door, the God who, in the form of a serpent, had lain with his wife. And Olympias, as Erastosthenes says, when she sent Alexander on the campaign [against the Persians], told him alone the forbidden secret of his conception, ordering him to act worthy of his birth. But others say that she just dismissed him remarking [to her friends], "Alexander never stops lying about me to Hera" [i.e., by claiming Zeus had been unfaithful to Hera, his wife].
Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alexander 2.1-3.2:
SET E: TWO GREAT RELIGIOUS LEADERS
Samuel, prophet of ancient Israel (Bible: 1 Samuel 1:1–28)
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of theLord.10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.11 She made this vow: "O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head."
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.14 So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine."15 But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before theLord.16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time."17 Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him."18 And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the Lord."
21 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow.22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, "As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time." 23 Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only--may the Lord establish his word."11 So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him.24 When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull,12 an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young.25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli.26 And she said, "Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord.27 For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him.28 Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord." She left him there for the Lord.
Buddha Skakyamuni (India, c. 624–544 BCE)
The Buddha who is the founder of the Buddhist religion is called Buddha Shakyamuni. He was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in, originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal. His mother was Queen Mayadevi and his father was King Shuddhodana.
One night, Queen Mayadevi dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb. The white elephant entering her womb indicated that on that very night she had conceived a child who was a pure and powerful being. The elephant's descending from heaven indicated that her child came from Tushita heaven, the Pure Land of Buddha Maitreya. Later, when she gave birth to the child, instead of experiencing pain the queen experienced a special, pure vision in which she stood holding the branch of a tree with her right hand while the gods Brahma and Indra took the child painlessly from her side. They then proceeded to honor the infant by offering him ritual ablutions.
When the king saw the child he felt as if all his wishes had been fulfilled and he named the young prince "Siddhartha." He invited a Brahmin seer to make predictions about the prince's future. The seer examined the child with his clairvoyance and told the king, "There are signs that the boy could become either a chakravatin king, a ruler of the entire world, or a fully enlightened Buddha. However, since the time for chakravatin kings is now past it is certain that he will become a Buddha, and that his beneficial influence will pervade the thousand million worlds like the rays of the sun."
According to the legends about this birth, the baby began to walk seven steps forward and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground. Then, at the seventh stride, he stopped and with a noble voice shouted:
"I am chief of the world,
Eldest am I in the world,
Foremost am I in the world.
This is the last birth.
There is now no more coming to be."