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Ancient Skepticism And The Snake God Glycon

Present-day skeptics are fond of presenting their kind of thinking as the latest thing, a relatively new invention that was developed only with the struggle and sacrifice of freethinkers and scientists during the Enlightenment. However, the writings of Lucian of Samosata, who lived in present-day Syria nearly two thousand years ago, show that the skill skeptical inquiry is quite ancient.

Lucian writes of the popular god Glycon, a god who was said to have descended from the heavens to take on the earthly form of a snake. That snake was held in the arms of Alexander of Abonoteichus, who was said to have discovered him. Upon hearing of the wonders of Glycon, who was said to have been able to heal the sick and raise the dead, Lucian went himself to see what it was all about.

glyconLucian claims to have uncovered proof that Glycon’s prophet Alexander created the whole religion out of thin air. According to Lucian, Alexander planted false evidence of a prophecy of Glycon, by, in a foreshadowing of the Mormon’s Joseph Smith, burying bronze tablets with cryptic writing, and then discovering them later.

The next step, according to Lucian, was to perform a similar false discovery with the incarnation of the god itself. Lucian writes that Alexander, “went one night to the temple foundations, still in the process of digging, and with standing water in them which had collected from the rainfall or otherwise; here he deposited a goose egg, into which, after blowing it, he had inserted some newborn reptile. He made a resting-place deep down in the mud for this, and departed. Early next morning he rushed into the marketplace, naked expect for a gold-spangled loincloth; with nothing but this and his scimitar, and shaking his long loose hair, like the fanatics who collect money in the name of Cybele, he climbed on to a lofty altar and delivered a harangue, felicitating the city upon the advent of the god now to bless them with his presence. In a few minutes nearly the whole population was on the spot, women, old men, and children included; all was awe, prayer, and adoration. He uttered some unintelligible sounds, which might have been Hebrew or Phoenician, but completed his victory over his audience, who could make nothing of what he said, beyond the constant repetition of the names Apollo and Asclepius.

He then set off at a run for the future temple. Arrived at the excavation and the already completed sacred fount, he got down into the water, chanted in a loud voice hymns to Asclepius and Apollo, and invited the god to come, a welcome guest, to the city. He next demanded a bowl, and when this was handed to him, had no difficulty in putting it down a the right place and scooping up, besides water and mud, the egg in which the god had been enclosed; the edges of the aperture had been joined with wax and white lead. He took the egg in his hand and announced that here he held Asclepius. The people, who had been sufficiently astonished by the discovery of the egg in the water, were now all eyes for what was to come. He broke it, and received in his hollowed palm the hardly developed reptile; the crowd could see it stirring and winding about his fingers; they raised a shout, hailed the god, blessed the city, and every mouth was full of prayers—for treasure and wealth and health and all the other good things that he might give.”

Quickly, devotees of the new religion, worshipping Glycon, gathered in the province of Bithynia-Pontus, on the south shore of the Black Sea. In time, however, Lucian says that people began to see through the flim flam of the snake god. So, the prophet Alexander resorted to a tactic well-known to many present day preachers: Focus believers on the danger of infidels in their midst. Lucian writes, “A time came when a number of sensible people began to shake off their intoxication and combine against him, chief among them the numerous Epicureans; in the cities, the imposture with all its theatrical accessories began to be seen through. It was now that he resorted to a measure of intimidation; he proclaimed that Pontus was overrun with atheists and Christians, who presumed to spread the most scandalous reports concerning him; he exhorted Pontus, as it valued the god’s favor, to stone these men.”

We can’t know whether Lucian’s depictions of the religion of Glycon’s many frauds are honest and accurate, because we don’t have any corroborating evidence. It’s possible that Lucian had an axe to grind with the growing power of Glycon’s followers, and made up his story much as he accuses Alexander of doing. What Lucian’s writings about Alexander and Glycon do prove, however, is that the ability to think critically about religious claims of fantastic events has been around for a very long time.

3 comments to Ancient Skepticism And The Snake God Glycon

  • Dave

    So it was the atheists and Christians saw through the sham. It appears both make good skeptics.

    • J Clifford

      … also the Epicureans. They were in another passage.

      I don’t know if atheists, Christians and Epicureans saw through the sham as much as they were convenient targets… but then, the entire thing may be nothing but a story…

      … on the other hand, the story, at least outlines how one religion’s believer is another religion’s infidel.

      • Dave

        Indeed. The point about Eicureans is a good one. Anything that would threaten to diminish the enjoyment of life should be treated with suspicion.

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