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The myth of Nysa


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). In 326, Alexander invaded the Indus valley, where he discovered in Gandara a town called Nysa that was dedicated to the god Dionysus. (Probably, this was the Indian god Shiva. The mountain Meru mentioned below was the center of the Indian universe.) The only description of the temple is to be found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by the Greek author Philostratus (more). The story of the discovery is told by the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia, whose Anabasis (section 5.1.1-2.2) was translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt.
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Map of the Kabul and Swat valleys. Design Jona Lendering.
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In the country on Alexander's route between the river Cophen and the Indus lay the city of Nysa, supposed to have been founded by Dionysus, at the time of his conquest of the Indians.

Nobody knows, however, who this Dionysus was, nor the date of his invasion of India, nor where he started from, and I myself should hardly care to say if this Theban deity marched with his army against the Indians from Thebes or from Tmolus in Lydia, or how it was that after passing; through the territories of so many warlike peoples unknown to the Greeks of that date, he fought and conquered only the Indians. However, one should not inquire too closely where ancient legends about the gods are concerned; many things which reason rejects acquire some color of probability once you bring a god into the story.

The people of Nysa, upon Alexander's approach, sent their chief, Acuphis, to him accompanied by thirty of their most distinguished men with instructions to ask him to leave their city to its god. The story is that when they entered Alexander's tent, they found him sitting there dusty and travel-stained, still wearing his equipment, his helmet on his head and a spear in his hand. The sight of him sitting thus surprised them so much that they prostrated themselves upon the ground and for a long time spoke never a word. At last, however, Alexander bade them get up and not be alarmed; whereupon Acuphis addressed him in the following words.

'Sire, it is the request of the people of Nysa that you show your reverence far Dionysus by leaving them free and independent. For when Dionysus, after his conquest of the Indians, was on his way homeward towards the Greek sea, he founded this city as a memorial of his long journey and his victory, leaving to inhabit it those of his men who were no longer fit for service - who were also his Priests. He did but as you have done; for you too founded Alexandria in the Caucasus and Alexandria in Egypt and many other cities as well, and will found yet more hereafter, in that you will have surpassed the achievements of Dionysus.

Dionysus named this city Nysa and this land Nysaea in memory of his nurse, who bore that name; and to the mountain near the city he gave the name Meru -or the Thigh- because legend has it that he grew in the thigh of Zeus. Ever since that time Nysa has been free; we who live in it have made our own laws - and obeyed them, as good men should. If you wish for a proof that Dionysus was our founder, here it is: this is the only place in India where ivy grows.' [1]

Alexander found what Acuphis said highly agreeable; he would have liked very much to believe the old tale about Dionysus' journey and his founding of Nysa, for then he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he had already penetrated as far as Dionysus did, and would presently advance yet further; he felt moreover that his Macedonian troops would consent to share his hardships a little longer, if they knew they were in competition with Dionysus. Accordingly he granted to the people of Nysa the continuance of their freedom and autonomy.

Note 1:
In Greece, ivy was dedicated to Dionysus.
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