Glycon, the Fake Snake Oracle and Alexander, His Prophet
In the middle of the 2nd century CE, on the shore of the Black Sea, any visitor could have had his future foretold by a divine snake with a human-like head, called Glycon. The serpent and his prophet Alexander were so respected, even the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius asked them for help.
We have the most information about this pair from Lucian of Samosata, who considered them a fraud that needed to be exposed and punished. By actively working against the “prophet”, he endangered his own life.
The Origin of Glycon
Alexander was particularly good looking. A tall guy with a sweet convincing voice. With good looks came a quick wit. His natural intelligence and his charisma obviously helped him to gain the lasting respect and faith of the citizens.
While he was young, he became an apprentice of man who earned his living by selling charms, enchantments and other such medicine. Lucian claims that it was Alexander’s physical attractiveness that earned him the attention of this charlatan. He traded the occasional bodily pleasure for know-how in quackery and “magic”. While we must be cautious before accepting the accusations of the angry enemy, he makes an interesting connection in claiming that this teacher came from the city of Tyana and he gained his knowledge from the school of the famous Apollonius of Tyana, the famous miracle worker. We can also see a connection with the city of Aigai, where a famous temple of Asclepius stood and where Apollonius had established a school of his teachings.
After acquiring the necessary experience, Alexander teamed up with a songwriter nicknamed Cocconas and together they created a show of practising magic and luring money out of the pockets of their credulous victims. One especially beneficial victim was a rich Macedonian woman, who not only acted as their patron but introduced them to an unusually domesticated species of snakes popular in her homeland. These reptiles were said to be popular pets in that country and to behave so calmly that they were allowed to sleep with children.
The pair of entrepreneurs soon discovered a gap in the market. They decided to stop touring Greece with their magic show and settle down instead. Their quick market analysis showed that the shores of the Black Sea could still have a place for one profitable oracle. Having heard about the riches of Delphi, Claros and similar oracles, there was obviously a fortune to be made in this business. After all, at this stage of their life, they felt reasonably qualified to predict the future believably. They just couldn’t make up their minds about the best place to establish their soon-to-be-famous new temple. Cocconas had Chalcedon in mind, a large town close to his home of Byzantion, but Alexander convinced him to give up this idea in favour of his own hometown Abonoteichos (modern-day İnebolu, Turkey) in the region of Paphlagonia. Reportedly, he based his successful argumentation on the simple fact that the people there are stupid, superstitious and rich.
They still found a way to use Chalcedon to their benefit. In the temple of Apollo, they left bronze tablets with an ancient-looking inscription – Asclepius, the god of medicine, would appear again and find his new residence in Abonoteichos. This worked well as a teasing campaign before the epic launch of their new service. In fact, it worked so well, that the citizens of Abonoteichos immediately started building a new temple for their expected divine guest.
When Alexander returned home, he was instantly welcomed. The aspiring prophet took care of his appearance and outfit. He was successful in matching the expectations of the crowd. He looked the role and he added more gravitas by claiming descent from the hero Perseus. Cocconas did not accompany him. Alexander’s partner stayed in Chalcedon and soon died there (Lucian, with his usual sense of humour, assumes he must have been bitten by a snake). Yet, Alexander did not come alone. With him came a mysterious creature, at this time, still concealed from the sight of the people of Abonoteichos. This soon changed.
Alexander didn’t waste any time and instantly began his preparations. He visited the foundations of the new temple and planted an egg there. He had prepared this prop before. He had found a small snake and a goose egg, emptied the egg, placed the snake inside and closed the egg using a white wax. This egg with a little reptile surprise was then carefully planted in mud. Having done all this, Alexander grabbed the attention of the crowd by claiming god’s reincarnation, reciting loud prayers and expressing his joy. He led the crowd to the temple and right before everyone’s eyed, he “discovered” the mysterious egg with a newly hatched snake. This snake, ladies and gentlemen, was a god! Asclepius, in this new form, was now living in Paphlagonia.
Alexander took the snake for a couple of days and then presented himself with the animal in a shocking way in his home. While Alexander was sitting in a dark room on a couch, the snake, which had miraculously grown to a surprisingly huge size, was all around him. The serpent’s head looked out from Alexander’s beard and it bore a striking resemblance to a human face. Imagine the surprise of the spectators, when the serpent started talking and introduced itself as Glycon (“the sweet one”). It must have been divine after all!
Well, it was not. As you might have guessed, it was a fraud. The body of the serpent belonged to one of the aforementioned domesticated snakes from Macedonia. Alexander had purchased one and the animal was so tame, it could be easily moved. Only its head was not shown to the audience but kept out of sight under the prophet’s arm. The visible human-like head was actually a puppet – its movement was controlled by horsehairs. Glycon appeared to speak himself. One can think of ventriloquism in this context, but Lucian suggests a more elaborate scheme using a different human speaker (on Alexnder’s payroll) and a system of pipes. The darkness in the room certainly contributed to the success of the illusion. Nevertheless, the divinity of the serpent was instantly accepted, and they soon moved to the new temple.
Glycon was apparently an incarnation of Asclepius. While the traditional Greek god of medicine was sometimes depicted with snakes, being reborn as one put that on a whole new level. The change didn’t end with appearance. The god apparently also found a new set of skills. People usually turned to Asclepius in hope to be healed and often slept in his temple awaiting either a miraculous treatment of their disease or a dream with an inspiration to one. Glycon and Alexander didn’t want to be limited by health-related issues. Instead, they stepped into the same line of work as Apollo in the templates in Didyma, Claros or Delphi – answering questions about the future. For money.
Their most amazing speciality was receiving the questions in sealed scrolls and answering them without breaking those seals (probably not a miracle - Lucian provides at least three explanations how this could be done). Providing advice at premium prices, Alexander soon amassed a reasonable fortune and invested part of it to the expansion of his operations – employing people to gather information about his clients that he could use to provide more fitting answers.
Alexander also remembered to invest in marketing – employing people to travel around the Roman empire and spreading the word about his achievements. The advertising was certainly not holding back – the list of his successes also included raising the dead.
Hits and Misses
Alexander and Glycon started their prophetic career well. Alexander skillfully utilized the knowhow he had gained before and relied on general/nonsensical answers on one hand or very specific answers on the other hand when he was able to somehow get additional information about the party asking the question.
Sometimes, he was just lucky. Once he received envoys from P. Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, an important man in the Roman empire (he even achieved consulship) with a question about the most suitable tutors for Rutilianus’ son. Alexander convincingly suggested Pythagoras and Homer. Unfortunately, the boy died just a few days later. The disastrous situation was eventually made better by Rutilianus himself, who explained the answer in a way that surprisingly gave much credit to the oracle. Pythagoras and Homer were both long dead, and that is why the ingenious Asclepius picked them and not some living teacher. The relationship between Alexander and Rutilianus evolved to a great benefit of the former. A well-formulated prophecy even ensured that when Rutilianus sought a new bride, he ended up marrying Alexander’s daughter. This connection made Alexander virtually untouchable.
Alexander seemed to enjoy his elevated status. He publicly criticized male relationships with younger boys, yet Lucian accuses him of exploiting choir boys. He also frequently and successfully approached married women, while their husbands considered it a blessing. About the sexual life of Glycon, the snake/puppet, we know nothing. Or maybe we do. There is an inscription mentioning a priest of Apollo “Miletus, son of Glycon, the Paphlagonian”. Miletus’ mum might have been told she conceived her child by the god himself. Or she was just lucky enough to have a partner with the same name.
The advice provided in the temple didn’t always lead to the desired outcome. Severianus, the governor of Cappadocia, asked whether he should invade Armenia and fight against the Parthians. He received an affirmative answer in Abonoteichus, attacked and conceded a disastrous defeat and committed suicide.
In 165 CE, a plague pandemic known as the Antonine Plague expanded through the Roman empire causing many deaths. Alexander advised turning to Apollo for help - that a god that “strikes from afar” since Homeric times, was supposed to shoot away the disease was a common belief. People started to mark their doorways with Alexander’s prophetic verse, but it didn’t bring any positive results.
Alexander and Glycon were responsible for even more deaths. A man turned to him once when his son didn’t return from a trip to Egypt, but his servants did. The oracle suggested putting the servants on trial for murder for they killed the young man. Eventually, they were executed. However, the lost son reappeared and it was soon made clear that no murder was committed. How did Alexandr manage to keep his reputation untarnished? He ordered stoning the poor guy who demanded an explanation (he guy escaped luckily).
The most obvious failure came when the oracle was supposed to help the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. The philosopher-emperor was busy fighting the Germans tribes when oracle arrived and promised a decisive victory if the Romans throw two lions into the Danube river. Romans did exactly that. However, the animals made I to the other bank alive, there they were slaughtered by the enemy and subsequently the Romans suffered an enormous defeat. Alexander’s reaction? The god didn’t specify, which site would celebrate the victory.
Glycon’s Demise and Legacy
Alexander and Glycon naturally created many enemies, especially all who followed the epicurean philosophy or Christianity, for both these beliefs denied the existence of such divine oracles. One fierce enemy was our Lucian, who set his mind on exposing the fraud. He set many traps in order to find Alexander red-handed. Or example, he submitted a scroll with questions and paid the usual fee. He wrote on the visible part of the scroll that he is asking eight questions, but in fact inside he wrote only a single question “When will Alexander be caught cheating?”. In return, he received eight very general answers, proving that his question was not even read.
Lucian really hated the guts of Alexander. He proudly boasts about biting the prophet’s hand, when it was given to him to kiss. Lucian believes Alexander even attempted to murder him just to keep him silent. However, nothing could be done to effectively expose and remove Alexander as long as he enjoyed the favours of Rutilinus, his powerful son-in-law. Lucian certainly tried to weaken this connection, talking to Rutilianus, but to no avail. Rutilianus had the authority to stop any legal action against the prophet.
Eventually, Alexander died of an illness and was given a funeral with all honours. Glycon’s cult continued for decades and even today he is not completely forgotten. He is worshipped by Alan Moore, the comic book legend (author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta or The Killing Joke) who may not consider him Asclepius reborn, but appreciates the value of his story.
Lucian - Alexander the False Prophet
D. G. Dalziel - Alexander the Greater; Greece & Rome, Vol. 5, No. 14
Robin Lane Fox - Pagans and Christians