8/30 days of deity devotion

Day Eight: Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.

This is one of the more peculiar tales from antiquity. In one of the Roman provinces, a popular cult arose around the son of a god. It began with a prophecy, and then witnesses who proclaimed a divine birth. There were miraculous healings, raising of the dead, divine teachings, and acclamations by the crowds.

I know this sounds a bit like a certain sect from Judaea. But the cult I’m describing originated around 160 CE in Paphlagonia, along the shore of the Black Sea in what is now Anatolia. The only written description we have of this particular cult is a satirical account by Lucian, a writer known for making fun of Homer, Thucydides, and Greek philosophers. If not for the existence of inscriptions, statues and coins to document the cult, it might be thought that Lucian made the whole thing up for fun.

The cult originated in 160 CE, in the Paphlagonian city of Abonoteichus. A man named Alexander proclaimed the impending birth of a new incarnation of Asclepius. Before a crowd of people gathered at the appointed time, Alexander sang hymns of praise to Apollo and Asclepius, and scooped an egg from the waters of a flowing spring. The egg hatched in his hand, revealing a tiny snake. Within a week, the snake had grown to the size of a man, with a human face and flowing blond hair. This was Glycon, who spoke oracles in a human voice that could be heard by onlookers.

Lucian presented the whole thing as a scam and a hoax, and reported that Glycon was nothing but a sock puppet but, given his predilection for ridicule, we don’t really know how much of his story is true. This is, after all, a guy who wrote scathing commentary about a Cynic philosopher and Christianity in his The Passing of Peregrinus. The cult of Glycon spread in popularity, through Asia Minor to Rome, and as far as the Danube. Mysteries were established, Glycon’s protection was sought for municipalities from the ravages of the plague, and Roman officials sought his advice. The cult survived the death of Alexander, and persisted at least another hundred years, perhaps even until the 4th century.

This statue is the only cult image of Glycon to have been found so far. It was discovered in 1962 during construction of a housing project in the city of Constanta, originally the Greek colony of Tomis, and the longest continuously inhabited city in Romania. The statue was part of an illustrious collection of 24 sacred objects that included statues of Asclepius, Fortuna, Isis, the Dioscuri, and Hecate, votive reliefs dedicated to Hecate, Selene, either Persephone or Demeter, Dionysus, the Thracian Rider, Cybele, the Three Graces, and Mithras, and a portable shrine to Nemesis. Glykon was obviously held in high enough esteem to be part of this ensemble. This treasure was buried just outside the Roman walls of the city, near the wall of a temple. The care with which the artifacts were apparently hidden has been interpreted as an attempt to safeguard them from destruction, possibly from Christians. Images of some of the other items from this treasure can be viewed here.

ImageGlycon, 2nd century CE. Museum of National History and Archeology,  Constanța, Romania.

30 days of deity devotion meme


One Comment Add yours

  1. My favorite! (Well, not my absolute favorite, but one of many!)

    One small note: it wasn’t so much a sock puppet, or as Alan Moore says, a glove puppet, but instead was a very complex marionette snake head on top of a trained python’s body, with the head controlled by strings, and then eventually with a crane’s windpipes going into the mouth so that someone could speak through it (according to Lukian). But, “sock puppet” is easier, I understand! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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