Alexander of Abonoteichus may not be one of the most famous figures of the second century AD… in fact, with a mouthful of a name like that it’s surprising anyone remembers him at all. But a Roman emperor threw lions into the Danube on the advice of Alexander’s talking snake, so he obviously made, well, a bit of a splash…
Alexander was born at the beginning of the second century and lived until the 170s. According to his own publicity, he was the prophet of a new god, Glycon, a purveyor of oracles and a healer; to his opponents, he was a charlatan and a conman. But the cult he started appealed to all classes of society and spread throughout the Roman Empire, surviving his own death by perhaps another century, which isn’t bad going if he was nothing but a trickster.
We only have one source for his life story, an extremely hostile attack by the satirist Lucian (c.120–180), who came from Samosata in Syria and may have met Alexander in person, probably about 162.
The reliability of Lucian’s account is something we’ll return to later, but for forteans it has a double interest: apart from the fascinating detail it contains, it shows us a second-century sceptic at work, debunking his subject in a way that would make contemporary hyper-rationalists proud. So, leaving aside any further debate, let’s have Alexander’s story as it appears in Lucian’s essay, Alexander the False Prophet.
WHAT A CULT
Alexander was probably born in Abonoteichus, a small town in Paphlagonia, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Now known as Inebolu, in the Turkish province of Kastamonu, at the time it was in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus.
Alexander is described as tall, long-haired and good-looking, and Lucian accuses him of prostitution as a youth, through which he became apprenticed to a doctor and magician, apparently taught by the Pythagorean philosopher and wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana (early 1st century–c. AD 98). After the doctor died, Alexander travelled with a chorus-writer from Byzantium nicknamed Cocconas, making a living as quacks, magicians and conmen. Latching on to a rich widow, they headed for Pella in Macedonia, noted for its huge, tame snakes, and bought one for a few coppers. Then, ditching the widow, they decided to set up in the oracle business.
Heading for Chalcedon, they buried bronze tablets in the temple of Apollo, announcing that the god and his son, the healing deity Asclepius, would soon be moving to Abonoteichus. When these were ‘discovered’ the news spread like wildfire, particularly to Abonoteichus, where the townsfolk began to build a new temple in readiness. Cocconas stayed behind in Chalcedon, composing dubious oracles, and allegedly died from the bite of a viper; Alexander headed home.
His status as a prophet and healer foretold by similar oracles, Alexander arrived claiming descent on his mother’s side from the hero Perseus (he said his father was Podaleirius, son of Asclepius), and chewing soapwort so he foamed at the mouth, an obvious sign of the ‘sacred disease’ epilepsy. Inserting a live baby snake in a blown goose egg, he hid it in a puddle in the foundations of the new temple. Next morning, he ‘miraculously’ discovered the egg, broke it, and revealed his new deity: snakes being particularly sacred to Asclepius.
A few days later, Alexander presented his serpentine god to the astounded population, miraculously fully-grown, with a somewhat human-looking head and now called Glycon (‘Sweetie’). This, we’re told, was the gigantic snake Alexander had bought in Pella, which he held wrapped round his body with its head tucked under his armpit, while holding a false head supposedly made of linen, with horse-hairs inside that could be pulled to make the mouth open and the tongue shoot out. This was displayed to the local Paphlagonians who, Lucian informs us, were renowned for their stupidity, in a small shadowy room where the excited crowd was rushed through as rapidly as possible. Unsurprisingly, the show caused a sensation.
Glycon was said to be a new form of Asclepius and, while Lucian mentions a few cures and ridicules Alexander’s ‘cytmides’, a healing ointment made of bear grease, he implies that the main function of the shrine was to give expensive oracles. The usual procedure was for the consultants to write their questions on sealed scrolls, which Alexander would answer the following morning, apparently without opening them; sometimes withdrawing to an underground chamber overnight, where he received the answers in dreams. Lucian then lists a number of methods whereby the scrolls could be opened and resealed without the original writers being aware of the process.
Other oracles were ‘autophones’, apparently spoken by Glycon himself. Lucian says this effect was achieved by making a long tube of crane’s windpipes, which ran from the linen head of Glycon to an assistant in another room, who then provided the answer.
The shrine was an enormous success, soon became rich, and supported a large staff of servants, secretaries and oracle-interpreters, its reputation spreading across the empire and attracting high-ranking clients. We’re told the Roman governor of Cappadocia, Severianus, consulted the oracle before invading Armenia in 161 and received a favourable response; when the invasion force (along with Severianus) was cut to pieces by the Parthians, Alexander apparently replaced his original oracle in the temple records with one far less favourable.
Alexander’s also said to have set up an extensive spy network, which allowed him to provide surprisingly accurate answers about events far from Abonoteichus, and to have blackmailed consultants who asked questions of an embarrassing nature. He continued to take an interest in medical affairs however, distributing one of the autophonic oracles throughout the empire during the great plague of 165–6. This read: “Phœbus [i.e., Apollo] with unshorn hair averts the dark cloud of the plague” and was written over the doors of houses to ward off the disease. Lucian implies that deaths were higher in houses where this charm was used, though he points out that this could have been because the inhabitants relied on the god rather than taking other, more necessary precautions.
Possibly Alexander’s greatest coup, however, was to bring under his spell an ex-consul and provincial governor called Rutilianus, who provided him with some extremely high-status contacts. Rutilianus was already 60 years old by this time, but seems to have been a tireless promoter of the oracle’s virtues. Alexander eventually married his daughter to him… a daughter he claimed to have fathered on the moon-goddess Selene.
This story also formed part of a celebratory three-day festival imitating the Mystery rites performed at Eleusis in Greece. After a preliminary ‘expulsion’ of any Christians and Epicureans (noted for their worldliness) who might be attending, this included torchlight processions, initiations and various ritual re-enactments showing the birth of Apollo and his son Asclepius, the epiphany of Glycon, the marriage of Podaleirius with Alexander’s mother, and finally the romance between Alexander and Selene that resulted in the birth of Rutilianus’s wife. This last Lucian portrays as a sort of religious sex-show, claiming that Alexander’s mistress, a girl called Rutilia, was lowered from the ceiling to embrace him on stage, in full of view of her husband (the similarity of names need not cause surprise: if the girl was born to a family who were clients of Rutilianus, she’d perhaps be named after their patron). At other times, Alexander would show off his apparently golden thigh, thus claiming kinship with the ancient sage Pythagoras, who had one also.
The temple also featured choirs of young boys, sent from neighbouring cities to serve a three-year term, whom Alexander is accused of sleeping with, along with the wives of all and sundry, many of the latter proudly boasting about his fathering their offspring.
Alexander’s most famous stunt, though, occurred during Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s war against the Quadi and the Marcomanni, Germanic tribes from north of the Danube, between 168 and 174. Having contacts at court through Rutilianus, Alexander proclaimed an oracle saying a great victory would be won if two lions were thrown into the Danube. The lions swam to the north bank, where the Germans promptly despatched them with clubs, thinking them some strange sort of dog. The ensuing battle resulted in a disaster for the Romans, with 20,000 dead. Alexander fell back on the old excuse that the oracle hadn’t actually said which side would win…
Lucian claims to have visited Alexander, calling him by his real name rather than ‘Prophet’, biting his hand when it was offered for kissing and testing his oracular skills with various misdirecting questions, as well as trying to persuade Rutilianus against his marriage.
However, he later placated Alexander, who offered to provide him with a boat and crew to continue his journey along the coast. The crew were, naturally, paid to murder Lucian and throw him overboard; rescue only coming when the tearful captain persuaded his sailors against the crime. However, Lucian was dissuaded from prosecuting Alexander by the provincial governor, Avitus, for fear of upsetting Rutilianus.
Lucian imputes one more act of hubris to Alexander, which was persuading the emperor to change the name of Abonoteichus to Ionopolis, and to issue coins bearing Glycon’s image. Finally though, despite predicting he would live to be 150, Alexander died at the age of 70, when his leg became gangrenous to the groin and infested with maggots. After his death, a contest arose over who should control the shrine, with Rutilianus judging the outcome… though ultimately he decided that none of the contestants was worthy of the prize.
A LOAD OF OLD CORROBORATIVES
While Lucian’s is the only literary account we have of Alexander and his cult, there’s some corroboration for it from archæological finds. Perhaps the most startling of these was made in 1962, at Constanta on the coast of Romania, once the ancient city of Tomis. A collection of statuary dating from the Severan dynasty (193–235) was excavated, including a magnificent marble statue of Glycon, complete with long hair and human ears. Also present was a statue of Asclepius and several of Hecate, who, while not directly cognate with Selene certainly has lunar attributes; an interesting conjunction in view of Alexander’s ‘Mystery’ celebrations. Smaller, bronze statuettes of Glycon have been found at Athens, testifying to the spread of the cult.
Images of Glycon, usually showing his hair, also appear on coinage of the period, sometimes accompanied by the new god’s name. These spread through the Balkans and Turkey, and range in date from the mid-second to the mid-third century, long after Alexander’s death. Again, the anti-plague oracle has been found inscribed at Antioch in Syria.
The name of Abonoteichus was actually changed to Ionopolis (from which the modern name Inebolu derives), first appearing on coinage from between 161 and 169, the period of Alexander’s greatest influence. And the names of the notable Romans Lucian mentions are known to history as well. M Sedatius Severianus was, indeed, the Roman governor of Cappadocia, and his disastrous expedition to Armenia is a historical fact. P Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus is recorded as consul for 146 and held the governorships of Asia and Upper Moesia, while L Hedius Rufus Lollianus Avitus is similarly known as the governor of Bithynia-Pontus.
Lastly, there’s an inscription naming a priest of Apollo at Cæsarea Trochetta in Lydia (southern Turkey) as “Miletus the son of Glycon, the Paphlagonian”, which some have taken as supporting evidence for Lucian’s account of Alexander’s promiscuous fathering of children.
THE CASE AGAINST THE PROSECUTION
Strangely, the authenticity of Lucian’s description of Alexander is rarely questioned. Introducing his translation, Harmon remarks: “Without doubt his account is essentially accurate.” Again, Stephen A Kent has constructed an entire psychological hypothesis that Alexander was a ‘malignant narcissist’ who can be usefully compared to modern cult leaders such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh by reading Lucian’s work, effectively, as history. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine his account.
Little is known of Lucian’s life. Trained in rhetoric, he made his living as a satirist, touring the Roman Empire and reading his works to live audiences though, as he says, at the age of 40 he gave up rhetoric for ‘philosophy’. However, the great majority of his surviving work is comedy. As a satirist, then, he might be compared to a modern stand-up comedian, writing his routines and then touring them round the provinces, and his tale of biting Alexander’s hand sounds very much like exaggerated comedian’s patter. A hint as to his ‘philosophical’ activities is found in one of the few independent mentions of Lucian that survives.
This occurs in a work by the famous doctor, Galen, only surviving in Arabic, and it’s assumed that the transliteration ‘Luqiyanus’ refers to Lucian (whose name in Greek would read ‘Lukianos’). Here he’s said to have made up a book of meaningless sayings and attributed them to the ancient philosopher Heraclitus. This was then passed to a famous contemporary philosopher, who apparently “managed to make sense of it”. He also discredited certain grammarians by getting them to elucidate meaningless expressions he’d made up himself. Rather than being a largely unbiased witness, as Harmon and Kent would have him, this makes Lucian sound much more like a ‘professional troublemaker’.
Reading Lucian’s account in full, one’s often reminded of contemporary sceptics and professional magicians. Lucian knows how an effect could be produced – therefore that’s how it must be produced. Take the speaking tube of crane’s windpipes, for example. This is certainly possible, and the Christian writer Hippolytus (c.170–c.236) mentions similar speaking tubes used to make skulls appear to speak. However, this doesn’t prove that’s how Alexander made Glycon ‘talk’. An early form of ventriloquism would explain the effect much more elegantly, in the same way that some form of glove-puppet would provide a simpler answer than a linen head manipulated by horsehair; and no one at the shrine would have been likely to reveal the secret of either of these to Lucian. In boasting that he knows how the trick was done, Lucian is plainly covering up the fact that this can only be a matter of conjecture. These conjectures may be very close to the truth; but they remain conjectures, not proof.
Similarly conjectural are Lucian’s exposures of the ways in which the seals of scrolls could be removed, such as sliding heated needles between the impression and the scroll. Again, Hippolytus has a section on such methods, though his material seems to be quoted from another source. Lucian’s treatise on Alexander is actually addressed to a certain Celsus who, we learn, had also written a book against sorcerers with similar examples, and there were probably others in circulation.
Alexander’s taking of the scrolls to his ‘inner sanctuary’ (adyton) and giving the answers the following morning after dreaming the responses looks slightly less suspicious when we consider that the same procedure was followed at the famous oracle of Apollo at Claros, to which fraud, while possible, was not normally imputed; also, the adyton is an underground chamber, and it’s now known that withdrawal to a cave or subterranean chamber to obtain visions and mystic revelations was a common practice among Greek seers, being used similarly to a modern sensory deprivation tank. Of course, neither of these arguments exonerates Alexander, but they do make his behaviour considerably less unusual.
Lucian claims to have been working against Alexander in collaboration with the disciples of an Epicurean philosopher named Lepidus, and it’s possible that he learned about the prophet’s past history from them, or from tales told in Rutilianus’s circle, who Lucian claims to have known. But in the absence of further corroborative evidence, we have to treat his biography of Alexander with caution.
To accuse someone of male prostitution in his youth was a commonplace of ancient invective; it’s hardly likely the information was volunteered by Alexander himself, so we can only treat this as scandal. His early companion, whose real name Lucian obviously doesn’t know, only saying he was nicknamed Cocconas, is equally suspect. The name can be translated as ‘nut’ or ‘seed’, but it also carries the slang implication of ‘testicle’, appropriately for a writer of false oracles accused of ‘talking bollocks’. Again, one has to wonder how Lucian got the story of their early adventures. Hardly from Alexander, so it’s either scandal or possibly, taking Lucian as a satirist rather than a historian, entirely fictional. One certainly suspects a fictional element in the story of Alexander’s buying the large snake from Pella. This was the birthplace of Alexander the Great, who was supposedly sired by Zeus in the form of a snake, a parallel so obvious it immediately raises suspicions of satirical mischief-making.
Similar objections can be raised about much else in the narrative. Alexander obviously wouldn’t reveal the tale of the blown egg so this, while possibly true, is again conjectural, similar arguments applying to the accusations of blackmail, of the vast spy organisation, and the abuse of the boy-choirs. And the tale of Lucian’s narrow escape from the ship’s villainous crew, saved only by the honest, weeping captain, is such a commonplace of the ancient Greek romantic tale that it’s hard to take seriously.
There’s one last matter that, to me, raises a doubt about Lucian’s account, which is his description of Glycon having a “slightly human” head. Looking at the extant statues, the shape of Glycon’s head is frankly inhuman, and has two features Lucian fails to mention at all. One is the obviously human pair of ears, the other the long hair, the latter confirmed by coins bearing Glycon’s name. A hairy snake would seem worthy of remark or, in Lucian’s case, downright scoffing. One’s left wondering whether Lucian ever saw Glycon face to face at all, and while this may not cast doubt on his claim to have actually visited the temple at Abonoteichus, it does leave one wondering about the extent of his knowledge of the inner workings of Alexander’s organisation. Perhaps the author who blatantly claimed to be lying in his ironically-titled satire A True History is doing a little lying here as well.
I wouldn’t want to be mistaken here. Much of Lucian’s account of Alexander and his cult may well, in fact, be true; but I fear that rather too much of it isn’t actually trustworthy, and we might have a fraudulent account rather than a fraudulent cult.
ALEXANDER IN CONTEXT
For the sake of balance, let’s see what sort of picture a more charitable interpretation of Alexander might provide.
The second century was a time of religious ferment: apart from the gradually strengthening Christian church, there was a variety of religious movements centring on oriental and Egyptian deities, Gnostics, cult-leaders, magicians, oracles and philosophers. Many of these movements offered the celebration of mystery rites, so Alexander was hardly doing anything unusual. “Giving the public what they want” isn’t necessarily the same as “taking the public for a ride” and despite Lucian’s racy account of them, we can see that they tend to follow a fairly standard pattern: the epiphany of the deity, the founding of the shrine, and a ‘sacred marriage’.
We’ve seen that Alexander’s first teacher was a pupil of the Neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana, and references to the golden thigh, reincarnation and such-like, suggest that Alexander was very much within the Neo-Pythagorean tradition. This was a popular movement at the time, so despite Lucian’s attempt to make fun of Alexander’s pretensions, we can see that, among second-century religio-philosophical leaders, he was really fairly mainstream.
Robin Lane Fox provides a more balanced view of Alexander than most, pointing out that Perseus was the founding hero of Agai, where Apollonius had once taught, which may not only explain Alexander’s claim to descent from this legendary figure, but also raises the possibility that he may actually have been sent to Abonoteichus to take over the shrine, rather than the whole thing being a confidence trick.
Oracles, such as those of Apollo at Claros and Didyma, were also experiencing a revival at this time so, again, Alexander’s oracle was not unusual as such, although a talking snake-god would certainly be innovative… assuming that we can take Lucian’s word for this. It’s also, plainly, a fraud, but there are different kinds of fraud, especially in matters of religion. No one except the most fervent Christian would believe the communion wafer and wine are actually transubstantiated into the flesh and blood of Christ, so this is, effectively, a fraud; but only the most fervent atheist would call it a confidence-trick. And from hoary antiquity, snakes had been associated with Asclepius and his temples; if oracles were channelled through an Asclepian snake-god called Glycon, we may be dealing with a well-intentioned pious fraud as seen through the jaundiced eye of an extremely vitriolic opponent. Of course, we could still be dealing with an outrageous hoaxer and money-grabbing conman… but not necessarily.
Lucian’s extended attacks on Alexander’s oracles also tend to divert attention from the fact that, quite plainly, he was also operating a healing shrine, many of his oracles actually being about cures for various conditions. As Lane Fox points out, a frequently-asked question at oracles throughout the ancient world concerned the conception of children, and this could explain the inscription mentioning “Miletus the son of Glycon”. Miletus’s mother may have consulted the god about a fertility problem; if she then conceived, she perhaps attributed the paternity to Glycon. If such attributions were commonplace, this could explain Lucian’s slanderous accusations of Alexander’s extreme promiscuity and the placid acceptance of the offspring.
At this remove in time, it’s no more possible to exonerate Alexander than it is to prove Lucian entirely correct about him; but there are certainly other possibilities than taking Lucian’s account at face value – which rather makes one wonder why it has been accepted so uncritically in modern times. Perhaps the answer is that the majority of those dealing with Alexander’s story have either been Christian scholars of religion or rationalist academics, for both of whom he provides an ideal whipping-boy. For Christians, his story demonstrates the follies of pagan religion; for rationalists, the follies of all religions. There’s thus a natural predisposition to accept Lucian’s tale; and, besides, when it comes to an entertaining scandal, we all have a tendency to believe the worst about people. Perhaps Alexander deserves a fairer hearing.
Besides, you’ve just got to love a man with a talking snake. If there were a TV show called Paphlagonia’s Got Talent, he’d win it hands down…
1 Jaap-Jan Flinterman: “The Date of Lucian’s Visit to Abonuteichos”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 119 (1997), p282. The date has been a matter of some dispute.
2 CDN Costa (trans): Lucian: Selected Dialogues, Oxford World’s Classics, 2005, pp129–151; AM Harmon (trans): Lucian, Vol. 4, Loeb Classical Library, 1925, pp173–253 (includes Greek text).
3 Ramsay MacMullen: Paganism in the Roman Empire, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981, pp120–121.
4 CP Jones: Culture and Society in Lucian, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p138.
5 American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 7, 1903, p364.
6 Jones, op.cit., p146.
7 [ibid], p141; Flinterman, op.cit., p280.
8 Robin Lane Fox: Pagans and Christians, Penguin Books, 1988, pp242–243.
9 Harmon, op.cit., p173.
10 Stephen A Kent: “Narcissistic Fraud in the Ancient World: Lucian’s Account of Alexander of Abonuteichos”, Cultic Studies Review Vol. 7, No. 3 (2008), pp225–253, passim.
11 Costa, op.cit., p.xi.
12 Daniel Ogden: Night’s Black Agents, Hambledon Continuum, 2008, p108.
13 Jones, op.cit., p137.
14 Harmon, op.cit., p204.
15 Costa, op.cit., p137; Harmon, op.cit., p205.
16 Yulia Ustinova: Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind, Oxford University Press, 2009, passim.
17 Costa, op.cit., p139; Harmon, op.cit., p211.
18 Costa, op.cit., p261.
19 Lane Fox, op.cit., p246.
20 [ibid], op.cit., p243.
In the modern world, the most notable adherent (if not the only one) of Alexander’s snake-god, Glycon, is the well-known author and magician, Alan Moore, whose work includes Watchmen, From Hell and quite a lot else. Moore finds a fraudulent glove-puppet a suitable deity both for mystical explorations and for puncturing the pretensions of supposed sages and hyper-rationalists alike. He was introduced to Glycon by Steve Moore, whose relationship to Selene is well-known (FT272:65), whereupon they decided to form the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, a completely public yet secret magical dis-Order, which has no specific teachings, seeks no members and cares nothing for its reputation, yet has somehow managed to stage half a dozen magical performances and evocations of place in various parts of the country, all of which have been released on CD. Taking its inspiration from the mysteries of Glycon and Selene performed at Abonoteichus, the Moon and Serpent claims (when it can be bothered) a direct lineage from Alexander, in that there seems to be absolutely no evidence of any other Glycon worship between the original establishment and Messrs Moore and Moore. Frequently to be seen carrying a snake-cane in honour of his deity, Alan Moore’s private magical workings with Glycon are, of course, private…