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An Ancient Precursor of the Psycho-Politician?




The statue of Glycon unearthed at Tomis, Romania, in 1962; right-hand view (public domain). Image via ShukerNature blog

A snake with a blond head of hair and the ears of a man would certainly be a marvel – but how much more so would one be that could also speak, and even foretell the futures of those who sought an audience with this wondrous ophidian oracle? All of this and much more – or, quite probably, a great deal less – was Glycon, the Roman Empire’s incredible serpentine soothsayer.

In c.105 AD, a very controversial, enigmatic figure was born who would in time come to be known far and wide as Alexander of Abonoteichus, after the small fishing village on the Black Sea’s southern coast that was his birthplace. Back in Alexander’s time, Abonoteichus was located within the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus (specifically within Paphlagonia, which was sandwiched between Bithynia and Pontus), but today it is contained within the Asian Turkish province of Kastamonu, and is now named Inebolu.

Apparently very handsome and tall with an extremely charismatic personality, Alexander was originally apprenticed to a physician/magician, but after his mentor died Alexander met up with a Byzantine chorus-writer nicknamed Cocconas, and the two spent some time thereafter travelling around together, earning their living as fake magicians, quack doctors, and via other chicanery. Eventually, they reached Pella in Macedonia, and it was here that Glycon was born, so to speak, because this is where they purchased for just a paltry sum of money an extremely large and impressive-looking yet very tame snake (such serpents being commonly for sale in this locality at that time).

It was probably an African rock python Python sebae, as specimens of this very sizeable species (averaging 15.75 ft long but sometimes exceeding 20 ft) were apparently brought back to Rome, because it is depicted in Roman mosaics. Also, fertility-related snake cults had long existed in Macedonia, stretching back at least as far as the 4th Century BC.

Alexander and Cocconas then journeyed to Chalcedon, a maritime town in Bithyna, where they lost no time in concealing inside its temple to the god Apollo a series of bronze tablets proclaiming that both Apollo and his serpent-associated son Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, would soon be appearing in Alexander’s home village of Abonoteichus. They then contrived for these ‘hidden’ tablets to be found, and news of the tablets’ sensational proclamations swiftly travelled widely, eventually reaching Abonoteichus itself, whose inhabitants promptly began building a temple dedicated to Apollo and Asclepius. It was then, in or around 150 AD, that the partnership of Alexander and Cocconas broke up, with Cocconas electing to stay in Chalcedon and continue producing phoney oracles, whereas Alexander was keen to put the next stage of their original plan into action, and so he duly set off back to Abonoteichus.

Using more fake oracles to proclaim himself as a prophet and healer, Alexander also claimed that his father was none other than Podaleirius, son of Asclepius himself and a legendary healer in his own right. Moreover, as signal proof of this, he arranged for a goose egg that he had ‘discovered’ inside Abonoteichus’s newly-built temple to be publicly opened by him at noon on the following day in the village’s marketplace before a crowd of curious but credulous onlookers, promising that a wonder would be revealed that would confirm all that he had alleged. And sure enough, when he opened the egg, a tiny snake emerged (one that supposedly he had subtly inserted inside before overtly ‘discovering’ the egg in the temple). As snakes were sacred to Asclepius (one common European species, the Aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus, is actually named after Asclepius’s Roman counterpart, Aesculapius), Alexander’s grandiose claims were readily accepted by Abonoteichus’s simple, unworldly villagers.

As an interesting aside here: Chickens are often infected with parasitic gut-inhabiting worms, including the ascarid roundworm Ascaris lineata, a nematode species that can grow to a few inches in length (a related giant species in humans can grow to over 1 ft in length!). They are often passed out of the bird’s gut when it defaecates. Unlike in mammals, however, the bird’s gut and its reproductive system share a common external passageway and opening – the cloaca. Sometimes, therefore, an ascarid worm ejected from the gut finds its way into the bird’s reproductive system rather than being excreted into the outside world, and moves into the oviduct. Once here, however, it becomes incorporated into the albumen of an egg, inside which it remains alive yet trapped when the egg is laid. But as soon as the egg is broken open to eat by some unsuspecting diner, the worm wriggles its way out of it and inevitably scares the diner, who frequently but mistakenly assumes that this unexpected creature is actually a tiny snake.

But that was not all. Alexander also stated that the baby snake was itself a deity, and that he would therefore be caring for it. After a few days had elapsed with the villagers not setting eyes upon this infant reptilian god, Alexander reappeared, once again thronged by awed spectators, but now only briefly and ensconced within a small dimly-lit shrine inside the temple where viewing conditions were far from ideal. Moreover, this time his huge, fully-grown pet snake from Pella was wrapped around his body, and he glibly announced that the baby serpent deity had miraculously matured directly into adulthood.

Yet even that incredible high-speed transformation was not the most surprising facet of Alexander’s outrageous revelation. Instead of possessing a typical snake’s head, the head of this remarkable creature apparently resembled that of a man, and sported an abundance of long blond hair sprouting liberally from it, as well as a pair of human ears! Moreover, it could even speak, and in the future would directly voice certain oracles or autophones to temples worshipers seeking guidance. Alexander announced that this astonishing entity was called Glycon, and constituted a new, living, physical manifestation or incarnation of Asclepius.

Henceforth, Alexander’s reputation, wealth, prestige, influence, and power, derived from his status as a celebrated prophecy-spouting soothsayer and in turn a highly-esteemed personage attracting acclaim and attention from all strata of Roman society, knew no bounds. In particular, the temple that he had established at Abonoteichus (by now a prosperous town) became a focus for fertility-themed worship and offerings by barren women wishing to become pregnant; and also for the very lucrative provision of oracles (always requiring prior receipt of payment). Moreover, Alexander was frequently consulted by public figures of high political standing anxious to solicit his ostensibly Heaven-sent advice regarding significant matters of state. The fact that sometimes his advice was by no means reliable seemed to be conveniently overlooked.

Thus it was, for example, that in 161 AD, Alexander provided a very favourable oracle to Marcus Sedatius Severianus, the Gaul-originating Roman governor of Cappadocia, on the basis of which Severianus put into action his plan to invade Armenia – only for his invasion force, including himself, to be slaughtered by the Parthians. Allegedly, Alexander soon afterwards replaced the official temple record of his oracle with a revised one that was much less favorable.


Of course, Alexander was far from being entirely unsuccessful as a prophet, but reputedly his triumphs often involved the use of spies, thugs, and blackmailers to obtain the necessary information upon which to base his oracles. In addition, there were claims that sealed scrolls containing requests for oracles that acolytes presented to him were secretly opened by him using hot needles in order to discover what information they contained and thus devise an oracle in accordance with it. He also benefited from making friends in (very) high places, of which one of the most significant was Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, a former Roman consul and provincial Roman governor in Asia and Upper Moesia, who declared himself protector of the Glycon oracle. He also provided Alexander with some very high-ranking contacts in Roman society, and he even married Alexander’s own daughter.


Continue reading …

[Byline Karl Shuker]

13 May 2017
ShukerNature blog


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