Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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Acheloüs—The God Of Ancient Greece’s Longest River

Greece’s Acheloüs (or Akhelóös) River, which flows well over 200 kilometers through Epirus to the Corinthian Gulf, is arguably the longest river in Greece. In addition to its impressive length, the river also served as the much fought-over boundary between the ancient regions of Acarnania and Aetolia. As was common with bodies of water in ancient Greece (and much of the ancient world, in general), the river became paired with a deity that personified the geographical feature. Therefore, the Acheloüs River was linked to a god also named Acheloüs, who, naturally, was a river god and a water deity. Acheloüs was also given a lineage worthy of a water god—his father was said to have been the Titan deity, Oceanus, and his mother was variously proposed to have been the Titaness, Tethys, or the primordial earth deity, Gaia. In terms of how early in history Acheloüs was recognized as a deity in ancient Greece, he seemed to have been one of earliest inclusions into the mythology. Both Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE) and Homer (flourished c. 700 BCE) mentioned Acheloüs in their ancient poems, with the former mentioning that “silver-swirling Achelous” was a son of Oceanus (Hesiod, Theogony, approximately line 337), while the latter prestigiously named him “Achelous lord of Rivers” (Homer, The Iliad, book 21, approximately between lines 194-197), and claimed his power was surpassed only by the highest echelons of gods, such as mighty Zeus.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Feast of Acheloüs, by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577–1640), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).


Momus, by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (c. 1702-1761)

This print, by the Austrian-German artist Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (c. 1702-1761), was inspired by the ancient myth of Momus, who judged an art contest held among the Greek gods. In particular, the art contestants were said to have been Hephaestus, Poseidon and Athena. Each godly artist chose a different subject to depict in their artworks. Hephaestus decided to take the human anatomical route, while Poseidon chose to re-create a selection from animal wildlife, and Athena, contrastingly, went with a completely different tactic and showcased architecture. One would think that Hephaestus, as a god of craftsmanship who was practiced in making humanoid figures, would be the contestant with the clear advantage in the art contest. Yet, Momus was a judge of deep thought, going beyond shallow scanning of aesthetics in his decision-making process. The myth of Momus was summarized by the ancient satirist, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180+), who wrote:

“I expect you’ve heard about the faults Momus found in Hephaestus, but if not I’ll tell you. The story is that Athena, Poseidon, and Hephaestus were quarreling about which was the best artist. Poseidon fashioned a bull, Athena designed a house, and Hephaestus apparently constructed a man. They had appointed Momus as judge, and when they came to him he examined the handiwork of each. His criticisms of the others do not concern us, but the fault he found in the man and his censure of the craftsman Hephaestus, was that he had not made windows in his chest, which could be opened to show everyone his desires and thoughts, and whether he is lying or telling the truth” (Lucian, Hermotimus or On Philosophical Schools, section 20).

It is this tale that inspired Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner’s artwork. Athena’s house can be seen in the background, and Poseidon’s bull serves as Momus’ mount. Hephaestus’ art installation dominates the left side of the print, and Momus, wielding a magnifying glass, can be seen inspecting the humanoid figure that the craftsman god created. As told in Lucian’s quote, there is no window to the figure’s inner thoughts and intentions. Instead, there is what looks like a mirror, deflecting any attempt to look at what lays beyond the surface.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill (c. 1874-1965)

“Who shall presume to lift the veils of the future, and who would be believed if he reported what he saw?”

  • From Sir Winston Churchill’s “The Rome-Berlin Axis” (June 11, 1937), included in Winston S. Churchill Step By Step: Political Writings 1936-1939 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).

The Ironic Tale Of Cocconas, An Ancient Priest Who Lived And Died By Snakes

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).


Theseus Finding His Father’s Sword And Sandals, By Jean Lemaire (c. 1598-1659)

This painting, by the French artist Jean Lemaire (c. 1598-1659), was inspired by one of the early stories from the life of the legendary ancient Greek hero, Theseus. According to myth and legend, Theseus’ mother was a princess named Aethra—the daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. Theseus’ father was a disputed figure, with some writers claiming Poseidon was the father, while others insisted Theseus was sired by King Aegeus of Athens. Whatever the case, King Aegeus was a guest at the court of Aethra’s father when the princess became pregnant, and whether or not Poseidon had become involved, King Aegeus left Troezen thinking that Aethra’s future child would possibly be his son or heir at Athens. Nevertheless, King Aegeus did not want just any whelp from Troezen to come to Athens and succeed him; instead, the king decided to set up a trial for Princess Aethra’s child to one day pass. If the boy succeeded in overcoming the ordeal and brought proof to King Aegeus, then the king would accept the child as his own. The trial King Aegeus set up was similar to the Arthurian legends that later emerged about a sword in a stone, yet, in this ancient Greek case it was a sword under a stone. Summarizing this myth, the ancient scholar Plutarch (c. 50-120) wrote:

“[King Aegeus,] suspecting that she was with child by him, he left a sword and a pair of sandals hidden under a great rock, which had a hollow in it just large enough to receive these objects. He told the princess alone about this, and bade her, if a son should be born to her from him, and if, when he came to [a designated] man’s estate, he should be able to lift up the rock and take away what had been left under it, to send that son to him with the tokens, in all secrecy, and concealing his journey as much as possible from everybody” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Theseus, chapter 3).

After King Aegeus left Troezen, Princess Aethra gave birth to the hero, Theseus. Aethra eventually told her son about the gifts that King Aegeus had left under the nearby stone. Theseus, proving himself to be the legendary hero, was able to lift the great rock and retrieve the sword and sandals from underneath it. It is this episode of Theseus pulling the blade out from underneath the rocky obstacle that Jean Lemaire re-created in his painting. Curiously, Lemaire decided to feature his rock of legend as a block of stone flooring, whereas most other artists and storytellers described the stone as a boulder. This, however, is a small matter. Wielding the sword and other tokens left behind by King Aegeus, Theseus was able to travel to Athens and eventually become the heir of the city-state.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE)

“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly.”

  • From Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines (section 5), translated by Eugene Michael O’Connor in The Essential Epicurus (The Big Nest / Interactive Media, 2014).

The Sea Battle Of Cnidus In 394 BCE And Conon’s Lovely Construction Project After His Victory

Conon (or Konon) was an Athenian military leader who was involved in the complicated geopolitical chaos after the end of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta and their respective alliances. During the main conflict, Sparta and Persia had often worked together against Athenian interests. After the war’s conclusion, however, Sparta and Persia quickly had a falling out. A spark was the death of the Persian ruler, Darius II in 404 BCE, which resulted in a civil war between the new ruler, Artaxerxes II, and his rebellious brother Cyrus the Younger. Many of the Greek settlements in Anatolia joined the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, but he was defeated and killed by the forces of his brother in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE). Following Cyrus’ death, the Greek settlements involved in the rebellion refused to rejoin the Persian Empire, and instead launched an independence movement. Sparta, instead of supporting its former ally, Persia, now seized the opportunity to intervene on behalf of the Greek settlements. Sparta sent multiple armies to aid the Greeks in Anatolia against the Persians, and the newly crowned King Agesilaus II of Sparta (r. 400-360 BCE) took a personal role in overseeing the campaign.

Sparta, fresh off victory in the Peloponnesian War and now throwing its weight around in the Aegean, was—as the saying goes—feeling on top of the world. Yet, the entity at the top always has to be wary of being knocked off the pedestal by rivals. Sparta, suffice it to say, had many such opponents. While the Spartans were busy battling the Persians on the other side of the Aegean, a new anti-Spartan alliance began forming between Athens, Corinth, Argos and Boeotian cities. In what would come to be known as the Corinthian War (c. 395–387), this alliance began actively fighting against the Spartans in 395 BCE, and as an enemy of an enemy can be a friend, the anti-Spartan forces found the Persians to be a willing partner to the alliance.

Conon, the aforementioned Athenian leader, was given the curious opportunity to jointly-command a Persian fleet alongside the Persian satrap, Pharnabazus. As King Agesilaus II of Sparta was repositioning himself for a war in Greece, Conon’s fleet of Athenians and Persians was able to intercept a Spartan naval force led by Peisander near Cnidus (or Knidos). There, the Spartans were dealt a decisive defeat in 394 BCE, and Peisander did not survive the battle. Plutarch (c. 50-120), in his Life of Agesilaus, described the Spartan king receiving news of the disastrous sea battle as he marched his forces toward war: “Agesilaus marched through the pass of Thermopylae, crossed the territory of Phocis, which was friendly to him, and then on entering Boeotia pitched camp near Chaeronea. He observed a partial eclipse of the sun, and at the same time learned of the death of Peisander, who had been defeated in a sea-battle off Cnidus by Pharnabazus and Conon. He was naturally very distressed at the news, for both Peisander’s sake and that of the state” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Agesilaus, chapter 17).

Conon, following his victory, returned to Athens and began a great building campaign. He rebuilt the famed walls and fortifications of the Athenian port at Piraeus, and he also added a temple there, with links to Cnidus, as a memorial for his recent battle. The traveling Greek scholar, Pausanias (c. 2nd century), wrote of the temple that Conon constructed at Piraeus, stating, “Beside the sea stands a Sanctuary of Aphrodite built by Konon when he overpowered a Spartan battle fleet off Knidos in the Carian peninsula. The Knidians pay special worship to Aphrodite and have sanctuaries of the goddess; the most ancient belongs to Aphrodite of Gifts, the next to Aphrodite of the Cape, and the most recent to Knidian Aphrodite as most people call her, though the Knidians call her Aphrodite of Good Sailing” (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.1.3). A temple to a goddess of good sailing was, indeed, a good choice of memorial after a victorious sea battle. Nevertheless, the Athenian general’s career from then on was anything but blessed. He had a falling out with the Persians, resulting in his imprisonment, and he is said to have died in 390 BCE.

As for Athens and its war effort, defeating Spartans at sea and defeating Spartans on land were two entirely different tasks, especially when the masterful tactician, Agesilaus II, was at the head of the Spartan force. The Spartan king aggressively campaigned against the coalition forces, especially putting pressure on Corinth and the region of Acarnania. King Agesilaus II’s campaigns resulted in the differing factions agreeing to the Peace of Antalcidas in 387 BCE, ending the war in Sparta’s favor. Yet, although Sparta was at its height of power, the war had also emboldened the forces of Thebes, as they discovered they performed better than expected against Sparta’s famed warriors. This paved the way for Thebes and its brilliant military leader, Epaminondas (c. 410-362 BCE), to later humble Sparta on the battlefield and break Spartan dominance in Greece.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts, by Jacopo di Arcangelo (called Jacopo del Sellaio, ca. 1465), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).


Sappho, by Carl (or Karl) Agricola (1779–1852)

This painting, by Carl (or Karl) Agricola (1779–1852), presents a depiction of the enigmatic literary figure, Sappho. She was an ancient poetess from the Greek island of Lesbos who prolifically composed songs and poems during the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. Many of Sappho’s works contained evidence that she may have been attracted to women, and therefore her Sapphic name and her Lesbian homeland have long been associated with relationships between women. Sexuality aside, Sappho’s verses were greeted with great acclaim in ancient Greek and Roman circles, and she was considered to be rightfully ranked among the most talented poets to have ever lived in ancient Greece. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, enough of Sappho’s poems were still existent to fill nine volumes in the Library of Alexandria, possibly amounting to around 9,000 lines of poetry. Time, however, has ravaged Sappho’s work—of the nine volumes of her poems known to the ancients, only around 230 poetic fragments have survived to the modern day.



Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180+)

“Nothing highly honoured here is eternal, nor can a man take anything with him when he dies. On the contrary, he must go hence naked, and his house and his land and his gold will be forever changing their owners and belonging to others.”

  • From Charon or the Observers (section 20) by Lucian of Samosata, translated by C. D. N. Costa in Selected Dialogues (Oxford University Press / Oxford World Classics, 2005, 2006, 2009).

The Burning Of Peregrinus / Proteus

Peregrinus of Parium, who evidently liked the nickname Proteus (and is therefore often known as Peregrinus Proteus), was a 2nd-century philosopher from the Cynic school of thought. Unfortunately for him, the fullest ancient account of his life was written by Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180), who was a satirist and not a biographer. Therefore, most of what is known about poor Peregrinus comes from a satirical work and not a sober, matter-of-fact historian or scholar. Nevertheless, Lucian often wrote about real people and historical events, and much of what he wrote can be considered true, albeit embellished and shaped for comedic effect.

According to Lucian’s dubious account, Pereginus lived quite an adventurous life. On the one hand, he reportedly donated a great deal of money and land to his home region, and went out of his way to work with persecuted peoples, such as early Christian communities in Roman Syria and Palestine. Yet, contrastingly, he was said to have been temporarily imprisoned for adultery in Syria, and he also earned himself the punishment of being exiled from the city of Rome after having insulted Emperor Antonius Pius (r. 138-161). To top off the negatives, there was apparently rampant gossip that the philosopher may have killed his own father. Pereginus’ most famous life decision, however, was his personal choice to end his life by burning himself in front of the masses that were gathering for the Olympic Games held around the year 165. Lucian of Samosata, the aforementioned satirist, summarized the incident, claiming, “Ill-starred Peregrinus, or as he liked to call himself, Proteus…this noble fellow waited for the most crowded of the Greek festivals, piled up a most enormous pyre, and jumped into it in front of all those witnesses. He even made a speech about it to the Greeks a few days before his escapade” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 1). Thankfully, the satirist had more to say on the odd incident.

Lucian claimed to have personally witnessed Peregrinus’ fiery end. According to his account, which drips with hostile sarcasm, there was much fanfare and pageantry surrounding Peregrinus’ final days. As told by Lucian, “At last Proteus himself arrived, with an innumerable escort, after the contest of heralds, and gave some account of himself, describing the sort of life he had led, the dangers he had endured, and the troubles he had borne for the sake of philosophy…[he] was delivering his own funeral oration before his departure” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 32). There was apparently a delay between the announcement of Peregrinus’ intentions and the later day when the plan was set to be carried out, for Peregrinus let the Olympic Games come to a close, leaving the philosopher’s display as a grisly grand finale of the festivities.

Lucian of Samosata claimed that the pyre venue was set up at a place called Harpina, just over two miles east of Olympia. The satirist wrote, “I got up around midnight and went straight to Harpina, where the pyre was. This is fully 21/4 miles from Olympia as you go eastwards past the Hippodrome. As soon as we arrived we found the pyre piled up in a pit about six feet deep. It was constructed mainly of pinewood, stuffed with dry kindling so as to catch fire quickly” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 35). As the moonlight illuminated the area, Peregrinus arrived on the scene, reportedly accompanied by an entourage of fellow Cynic philosophers. Peregrinus, himself, was said to have carried one of the torches that crackled with the very fire that was soon to cause his demise. Peregrinus and the others tossed their torches on the pyre, quickly setting the wood alight. What came next, curiously, was said to have been a little underwhelming and anticlimactic. According to Lucian, “[Peregrinus] said, looking towards the south (for the south too was an element in the spectacle): ‘Spirits of my mother and father, receive me favorably.’ With these words he jumped into the fire; nor indeed could he be seen, but he was enveloped by the towering flames” (Death of Peregrinus, section 36). So ended the life of Peregrinus.  While other details of Peregrinus’ activities remain uncertain as to their accuracy, his self-inflicted death by fire at the Olympic Games in 165 is, indeed, considered a truthful historic fact.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The test of fire, the monk Peter, the disciple Saint John Gualbert, by Stefano della Bella (c. 1610–1664), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).