Content warning: Cults, Sexual Abuse, Snakes
One of the strangest stories from the ancient world comes from the pen of the Second Century CE writer Lucian of Samosata. Lucian, a Greek-speaking Syrian, was part of the great flowering of Greek culture under the Roman Empire that we refer to as the Second Sophistic. To generalize greatly, the Second Sophistic was characterised by great erudition, self-consciously elaborate language, and a playful attitude toward history, myth and literature. Lucian is one of the most emblematic of this movement, and many of his works are wonderful examples of wit, learning and subtle self-parody.
The work I’m discussing today, though, is a bit more exotic. Apparently at the request of a friend named Celsus, Lucian recounts the career of a notorious con-man who has become known as the False Prophet Alexander. Combining stage-magic, razzmatazz and careful puppetry, this man briefly created a new religion,
Alexander, writes Lucian, began his career as the assistant to a travelling magician and snake-oil salesman, helping him sell magic charms and “miracle cures.” When his master died, Alexander inherited the charlatan business, and, together with another rogue named Cocconus, began planning a truly audacious con.
Alexander travelled to his native city of Abonoteichus (now Înebolu in Turkey), a city in northern Asia Minor on the shores of the Black Sea. There, he began to make a name for himself as a mystic, dressing in eccentric clothing and occasionally going into prophetic fits and foaming at the mouth (the foam, Lucian says, was supplied by chewing on a certain plant) One day, appearing in the marketplace in what he hoped would seem like a frenzy, Alexander began digging in the mud at the site of a temple under construction. Soon enough, he triumphantly produced a large egg, which, when cracked open, was found to contain a tiny snake. This, Alexander proclaimed, was a new god, the son of Asclepius, god of healing – and he, Alexander, was its prophet. The egg, complete with snake, had, of course, been concealed by Alexander the night before.
After hiding in his house for a few days, Alexander issued an invitation to the people of the region to come see the new god. Entering a dimly-lit room, Alexander’s neighbours discovered that the snake-god had grown miraculously fast. Not only that, but it had a strangely human face, complete with a full mane of hair. This, he said, was the new god, and its name was Glycon (which translates as something rather like “Sweetums”). News of this marvel spread, and more and more people travelled to Alexander’s residence to see the new deity.
According to Lucian, both the growth of the snake and its face were easily explained. The snake they saw now was not the same one that had been found in the egg, but a much larger animal that Alexander had picked up in Macedonia. As for the snake’s strangely human appearance, I’ll let Lucian explain:
Then, too, they had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.
Yes, Alexander’s new god was, in fact, a sock-puppet.
Lucian further explains how Alexander positioned the snake:
Coiling him about his neck, and letting the tail, which was long, stream over his lap and drag part of its length on the floor, he concealed only the head by holding it under his arm—the creature would submit to anything—and showed the linen head at one side of his own beard, as if it certainly belonged to the creature that was in view.
Alexander was apparently skillful and charismatic enough to pull this performance off, and word spread throughout Asia Minor about the new god and its prophet. Once Glycon’s (and Alexander’s) fame had spread far enough, Alexander announced that the god was now ready to issue prophecies. If people were willing to mail him their questions (plus one drachma and two obols as a handling fee, of course), he would give them the god’s response.
According to Lucian, thousands of people flocked to the opportunity. Alexander would receive their sealed letters, take them into the shrine he had had built for the Great Glycon to commune with the god, and emerge again with the letter, still sealed-up, and deliver them their answer. The fact that the god had, apparently, read the letter without breaking the seal seemed to confirm the supernatural nature of the oracles, and Lucian devotes a great deal of time to explaining how Alexander managed to open and invisibly reseal the letters.
The oracles Glycon delivered were a mixed bag. Some were the expected promises of wealth, success, and good fortune; others gave advice on how to treat illnesses (generally prescribing a medicine of Alexander’s own invention, which, presumably, could be bought from the prophet at a reasonable cost). Still others were answered with complete gibberish. Lucian explains that, seeking to test the “prophet” he sent a sealed letter asking if Alexander was bald. In response, he received a message from Glycon that, apparently, came to the prophet in a dream: “Sabardalachou malachaattealos en!” Clearly, deep wisdom indeed.
Indeed, it seems that Lucian entered into a personal feud with the prophet. Travelling to Abonoteichus himself, Lucian attempted to have the prophet arrested. The Roman provincial governor, however, refused to allow the prosecution go forward. A wealthy and well-connected Roman named Rutilianus had fallen under Alexander’s spell, and the governor had no wish to offend so illustrious a man. Thwarted, Lucian went home, and Alexander and Glycon were left in peace to continue their prophetic activities.
Alexander did well out of the prophet game. Of course, he amassed large amounts of money (Lucian estimates that he earned 70,000-80,000 drachmas a year). But there were other perks as well. He convinced his followers that great fortune would attend them if he was allowed to have sex with their wives. He asked families to send their young sons to serve as choirboys in Glycon’s temple, and their actual fate can, unfortunately, easily be guessed. He even managed to convince his protector Rutilianus to marry the prophet’s own daughter (her mother, Alexander assured him, was none other than the Moon). In the end, however, Glycon could not save his prophet. Alexander died of sepsis in his late sixties (he had, of course, predicted that he would live to 150).
I find Alexander an eminently fascinating figure. On one level, there is the sheer humour and absurdity of it: a man with a snake sock-puppet peeking out of his beard, dispensing gibberish and quack cures to his admiring followers. But on another level, the whole story seems strikingly modern. With his use of mass-communication and his wild and energetic performances, Alexander can be thought of as the spiritual ancestor of televangelists; with his bogus medical advice and miracle cures, he echoes many modern quacks and charlatans peddling herbal remedies, magic crystals or the healing power of magnets. Most of all, though, Alexander resembles a modern cult leader. Proclaiming an ersatz deity, collecting adoring followers and then using them to gratify his desires for power, sex, and wealth, Alexander all too easily can be seen as the forerunner of the likes of Jim Jones, Reverend Moon, or L. Ron Hubbard.
And lest anyone be tempted by the absurdity of the story to think that Lucian is making it all up, we actually have archaeological evidence to back it up. A coin minted in Alexander’s hometown survives. On one side is the head of the Emperor, Antoninus Pius. On the other is a bearded snake, surrounded by the inscription ΓΛΥΚΩΝ ΑΒΩΝΟΤΕΙΧΕΙΤΩΝ – “Glycon of the Abonoteichans.”
No discussion of Alexander and Glycon can be complete without mentioning that in modern times Glycon has in fact at least one worshipper. The British graphic novelist Alan Moore has repeatedly stated that he has put Glycon at the centre of his own spiritual practices. Moore fully accepts that Glycon was invented by Alexander, but, in his own words, “It’s a fiction, all gods are fiction. It’s just that I happen to think that fiction’s real. Or that it has its own reality, that is just as valid as ours.” You can hear more of Moore’s thoughts on Glycon the sockpuppet god’s role in his spirituality here: