This Ancient Cult Leader Tricked the Entire Mediterranean With a Snake Puppet

This Ancient Cult Leader Tricked the Entire Mediterranean With a Snake Puppet

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It turns out that modern America isn't the only place suffering from scary and bizarre cults. Meet Alexander of Abonoteichus, who used a hand puppet to create his own cult centered on a snake. Alexander's story comes to us from the Greek satirist Lucian, who weaves a fascinating tale of faith and scams. External sources corroborated the existence of a Glycon cult, and even one of Lucian's more spurious claims - that Alexander slept with married ladies - seems to have been possible, if not terribly likely.

Early Life

Alexander hailed from Abonoteichus, a hot-spot in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea. But the story of this Alexander, Lucian says, is no mean feat to tell; Lucian might as well be speaking of Alexander the Great! As Lucian quips, "The one was as great in villainy as the other in heroism."

As a youth, Alexander was a prostitute. One of his clients was a snake oil salesman/doctor, a "quack, one of those who advertise enchantments, miraculous incantations, charms for your love-affair." This guy recognized trained him in the ways of trickery and selling scams. There was a long tradition of wandering scholars/magicians in this part of the world at the time, as Lucian attests: Alexander's master once followed the famed mystic Apollonius of Tyana.

Sadly for Alexander, his master died when he hit his teens, so he "formed a partnership with a Byzantine writer of choral songs" to go around the countryside "practicing quackery and sorcery." Alexander and his partner Cocconas followed one of their best clients home to Pella in Macedon.

At Pella, Alexander got the idea for his greatest scheme yet, one that allowed him to become the Professor Marvel of the ancient Mediterranean. He bought one of those pet snakes and, having realized that people who provided hope to their worshippers earned a lot of money in tribute and offerings, decided to found his own snake cult based around prophecy. Serpents had long been associated with foreknowledge in ancient Greece, so that was a no-brainer.

A False Prophet Is Born

Alexander and Cocconas started in Chalcedon, where they went to the temple of Asclepius, a healing deity and son of prophecy god Apollo. In that sanctuary, they buried tablets that foretold the coming of Asclepius to Alexander's hometown of Abonoteichus. Once people “discovered” these texts, every mystic headed straight there to build a temple to Asclepius. Alexander went home dressed as a prophet descended from Perseus (even though everyone who knew him from home was aware his parents were Average Joes).

In order to keep up the pretense of prophecy, Alexander chewed soapwort root to fake fits of madness. He also created a snake hand puppet made from linen that “would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue… also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.” Alexander even stashed an extra snake egg near the temple in Abonoteichus; muttering words in Hebrew and Phoenician - which seemed like magical gibberish to his listeners - he scooped up the snake and said Asclepius had arrived!

Alexander then snuck in a tame snake he bought from Pella and swapped it out for the baby serpent, telling everyone it grew up super-fast, thanks to magic. He also put tubes into his snake puppet and had a friend speak through them to allow "Asclepius" to prophesize. As a result, his snake, Glycon, was turned into a god.

To interpret prophecies, Alex told supplicants to write down their questions on scrolls and drop them off with him; he secretly read them after removing their wax seals with a hot needle, then prepped his answers before they returned. He banned others from sex with young boys, but allowed himself to molest choirboys who served him.

This fraud set a high price for his prophecies and sent people abroad to stir up good PR for him. Word reached as far as Rome, from which rich but gullible Rutilianus came to visit; the false prophet even manipulated this guy into marrying Alexander's own daughter. This helped Alexander establish a spy network in Rome and create mystery rites for his cult, like those of Demeter or Dionysus.

So great was Alex's influence that he convinced the emperor to change the name of Abonoteichus to Ionopolis (perhaps after another of Apollo's mythical sons, Ion); the emperor also issued coins with Alexander on one side and the snake Glycon on the other!

Alexander once prophesied he'd live until 150, then get struck by lightning, but his real death was less dramatic. Before he turned 70, one of his legs rotted all the way to his groin; only then did people notice he wore a wig to look young.

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