In the 2nd century, there emerged a curious cult in the Black Sea region of Paphlagonia that revered a snake entity named Glycon, which was said to be an avatar or reincarnation of the healer-god Asclepius. Instead of Asclepius’ usual sphere of influence in health, Glycon particularly specialized in prophecy and oracles, with a certain Alexander of Abonoteichus—the founder and prophet of the cult—acting as the foremost interpreter and messenger of the snake-god’s oracular knowledge. Although Alexander was the most prominent and famous priest of Glycon, he was not the only holyman of the cult. As the story goes, he had an enigmatic comrade, known by the alias Cocconas, who played a role in starting the cult of Glycon and went on to embark on his own prophetic practice.
Unfortunately for Alexander and Cocconas, most of the written information that survives about them was composed by the witty writer, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180+), an orator, teacher, and literary figure who was known for his comedy and satire—not history. Suffice it to say, Lucian’s account is satirical and far from an unbiased work of historical record. Even worse for the subjects, Lucian absolutely loathed the cult of Glycon. His work of satire was openly hostile to the group, with the title of the satirical piece in question being Alexander or the False Prophet. Regardless of the satirical nature of the work, Lucian often wrote about real people and actual historical events, and much of what he wrote can be considered true, albeit embellished and shaped for his comedic purposes.
Lucian wrote quite the detailed origin story for Cocconas. As told by the satirist, Alexander of Abonoteichus met, “a Byzantine chorus writer, one of those who enter for public contests. This man—I think he was nicknamed Cocconas—was a much more disgusting character, and they travelled around, practicing witchcraft and quackery, and fleecing the thick-headed, as charlatans usually refer to the public” (Lucian, Alexander or the False Prophet, chapter 6). According to Lucian’s colorful narrative, Alexander and Cocconas traveled to the Macedonian city of Pella, where there was a thriving pet snake market. It was there, among the friendly slithering serpents, that Alexander and Cocconas were allegedly struck with inspiration for the cult of Glycon. After obtaining a snake of their own, the two began laying the groundwork for their religious movement. Lucian cynically wrote, “With much twisting and turning between the two of them, they formed a scheme to set up an oracular shrine, hoping, if it succeeded, that they would speedily become rich and prosperous. Thus indeed it turned out, better than their first expectations and beyond their hopes” (Alexander or the False Prophet, chapter 8).
In the midst of their growing success, Alexander and Cocconas began contemplating the expansion of their cult. The two partners, however, had a difference of opinion. Alexander of Abonoteichus wanted to set up shop at his homeland in Paphlagonia. Cocconas, instead, wished to move the operation to Chalcedon. In the end, the two men agreed to split up, both setting up their own organizations in their chosen cities. To Cocconas’ great pleasure, the city of Chalcedon evidently welcomed the cult of Glycon with impressive fervor, even reportedly going so far as to build a temple in the new snake-god’s honor. Unfortunately, Cocconas was not able to enjoy the success of the religious movement for long. On the snake priest’s time in Chalcedon and his ironic death, Lucian wrote, “the people there at once voted to build a temple and lost no time digging the foundations. At that point Cocconas stayed in Chalcedon composing oracles which were ambiguous, doubtful, and misleading; and not long afterwards he died, bitten, I believe, by a viper” (Alexander or the False Prophet, chapter 10). An ironic death, indeed, for a snake cult leader.
While Cocconas met his venomous end, Alexander continued to thrive in Paphlagonia. To Lucian of Samosata’s dismay, the cult of Glycon achieved great renown in the 2nd century. Several Roman governors supported the cult, most importantly Rutilianus (governor of Upper Moesia and Roman Asia), who became a devoted son-in-law of Alexander of Abonoteichus. Alexander’s cult of Glycon was formally given imperial recognition during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c. 161–180). Worship of Glycon continued into the 3rd and 4th centuries until it, like other traditional Greek and Roman religious practices, was eventually eclipsed by the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Coin Depicting the God Asklepios, dated about 200-133 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Lucian, Selected Dialogues, translated by C. D. N. Costa. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World Classics), 2005, 2006, 2009.