The religious cult with a puppet diety

Throughout history, humans worshiped hundreds of deities. The cult of Glycon, a human-headed snake, arose in second-century Asia Minor. Founded by Alexander of Abonoteichus around 160 CE, the religion worshiped Glycon for a century or more after Alexander’s death. It was all a fraud. Glycon’s human head was a sock puppet.

All we know of Alexander comes from Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian writer. At the request of a friend, Lucian told Alexander’s story in a letter around 180 CE, about ten years after Alexander’s death. The letter makes plain Lucian’s contempt for Alexander, calling him “a man who does not deserve to have polite people read about him, but rather to have the motley crowd in a vast amphitheater see him being torn to pieces by foxes or apes.” Physical evidence, though, confirms the existence of Glycon’s cult.

Alexander was born around 105 CE in Abonoteichus (now ?nebolu, Turkey), a Black Sea port. Lucian claims Alexander was a child prostitute. He was part of a traveling medicine show as a young man, “practicing quackery and sorcery, and ‘trimming the fatheads,'” according to Lucian. He and another man went to a part of Macedonia with many large, “tame and gentle” snakes. They bought one of the best as part of a scheme to create a prophetic shrine and oracle.
They traveled to Chalcedon, now part of Istanbul, and buried bronze tables in a temple to Apollo. The tablets said Apollo and his son Asclepius, the god of medicine, would soon dwell in Abonoteichus. The tale quickly spread, and Abonoteichus began building a temple to host those gods.

Following his return home, Alexander one night buried a goose egg in the mud around the new temple’s foundations. The next morning he ran into the marketplace clad only in a loincloth, jumped atop an altar, and loudly proclaimed the physical presence of Asclepius was about to appear. Alexander then ran to where he’d buried the egg, followed by a crowd. Praying to Asclepius and Apollo, he pulled out the egg and broke it open. When a tiny snake fell into his hand, the crowd shouted, welcomed the god, and began praying to him. Alexander took the snake home and secluded himself.

Growing crowds, “all of them already bereft of their brains and sense,” Lucian wrote, surrounded the house. After a few days, Alexander let people in. He sat with the large Macedonian snake coiled around this neck, the tail extending over his lap onto the floor. The head, though, was under his arm. Alexander held a snakehead with a human appearance in the dimly lit space where the head should be. The head was linen. painted to look “very lifelike.” Alexander used horsehair to open and close the mouth and dart a forked black tongue in and out. Alexander proclaimed, “Glycon am I, the grandson of Zeus, bright beacon to mortals!”

With the snake emerging from the egg only days before, its growth appeared immense. Moreover, it had a human head and seemed entirely under Alexander’s control. People could touch the snake, but not the head, to verify it was real. The tale soon brought people from broad areas of Turkey and Greece.

Word of the cult spread as the temple neared completion. Alexander announced Glycon would begin making prophecies. He told people to write in a scroll what they wanted to know and seal the scroll. Alexander took the scrolls into the now completed temple. Lucian described various methods Alexander used to open the seals covertly. Alexander answered the questions, resealed the scrolls, and returned them. The recipients, of course, were amazed. Oracles like Glycon didn’t work for free. Lucian reports that each question cost 1 1/3 drachma, and Alexander brought in 70,000–80,000 drachma a year. Historians estimate that the traditional value of a drachma was one day’s pay for a skilled worker.

Statuette of Glycon in Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

Alexander also knew how to keep people interested. He later announced Glycon would make his prognostications aloud. Lucian reports he passed a tube made of crane windpipes through the head. Someone outside the room answered the questions by speaking spoke into the tube, giving the puppet a voice. Oral predictions didn’t come “promiscuously,” Lucian wrote, “but only to those who were noble, rich, and free-handed.”
There also were so-called “nocturnal” responses. Alexander said he slept on the scrolls, and Glycon provided replies in his dreams.

The prophecies varied. Many spoke of success and good fortune, while others dealt with treating illnesses. Some, according to Lucian, were “obscure and ambiguous, sometimes downright unintelligible.” He also claims Alexander was not above issuing later predictions negating or superseding ones that had proved wrong.

With the money Glycon was bringing in, Alexander hired agents to spread the word of the cult. The oracle’s fame attracted the support of the Roman proconsul of Asia, who later married Alexander’s daughter. The proconsul helped the cult spread to Rome, where it even attracted Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Some of Alexander’s agents tipped him off about the questions he would receive or the questioner’s wishes. Some of the questions, particularly from prominent people, revealed incriminating information, and Lucian says Alexander wasn’t above using it for blackmail.

Still, Glycon was successful enough that the cult continued to spread even after Alexander’s death around 170 CE. Its followers stretched from the Danube to the Euphrates and lasted for at least another century, although the snake god was now abstract, not palpable.

Lucian’s account makes a case for why it may not be wholly objective. He described the philosopher Epicurus as “truly saintly and divine in his nature, [and] who alone truly discerned right ideals.” In contrast, Lucian said “lying, trickery, perjury, and malice” suffused Alexander’s character. Epicureans steadfastly denounced Alexander’s trickery, and he vehemently denounced them. Still, Lucian’s account seems to go beyond mere philosophical combat.

He reports that Alexander considered him a “bitter enemy.” Moreover, when the two met in person, Lucian took Alexander’s hand as if to kiss it. Instead, Lucian “almost crippled it with a right good bite.” Lucian also claims that when Alexander provided him a ship and crew to return home, the ship’s captain admitted Alexander instructed them to murder Lucian and throw his body into the sea.

Whatever antipathy existed between the two men, the factual basis of Alexander and Glycon is firmly established, according to author R. Bracht Branham. The Antonine Plague, believed to be either smallpox or measles, swept the Roman Empire beginning in 165 CE. Around that time, there was an inscription in Antioch reading, “Glycon protect us from the plague-cloud.”

Several coins show Glycon on one side and the likeness of various Roman emperors who ruled from 160 to the middle of the third century on the other. Many of the coins bear the legend “Glykon” and “Ionopolis” (which Abonoteichus was later named). In addition, statuettes of Glycon are in various museums, including in Ankara and Athens.

“There is no known instance in the pagan world in which a single ‘religious genius’ achieved success equal to that of Alexander,” wrote Branham in his book, Unruly Eloquence. Making it all the more outlandish is the cult was worshiping a sock puppet.

It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

(First published at History of Yesterday)

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