Apsethus the Libyan: How to Get Ahead in Divine Advertising


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“Advertising is legalized lying” – H.G. Wells

Twitter in the 2nd Century A.D.

Twitter in the 2nd Century A.D.?

Are you in a dead end job?  Perhaps you should consider retraining as a god.  A lot of folks mistakenly assume that divinity is something you have to be born into, but the truth is it’s all about marketing.  That said, you can’t just write “God” on your resume and expect to be taken seriously, although that’s how your boss probably got his ill-deserved promotion.  Even more modestly declaring yourself “the son of God” rarely ends well.  Being a god takes more than moxy, miraculous powers, and a high opinion of oneself.  The truth is you have to work at it.  You need to network.  You need a strategic plan.  Sure, throwing a few thunderbolts lends a little to your celestial cache and turning water to wine buys a few votes, but long term sustainability of a divine reputation requires a slightly more thoughtful public relations campaign, and like politics, all godhood is local, so if you don’t pay attention to cultural nuances in the neighborhood, things can go sideways fast.  Take to heart the lessons of Apsethus the Libyan in the 2nd Century A.D.  He had a product.  He had a hook.  Early returns were promising and investors were sniffing around.  Unfortunately, his advertising strategy was fundamentally flawed and he wound up burnt alive.  While this works out well for some, it’s because they take the long view.  They base their theology on a popular meme.  They get themselves some devoted apostles.  They perform a few miracles to amaze the crowds.  And a few hundred years later they are in business.  You can’t rush these things.  You might get some stunning early adoption, but neglect long term sustainability and all you get is early martyrdom and a snarky footnote in somebody else’s theology.  Apsethus the Libyan made a splash with some dazzling initial commercialization, but lacked a model for long term growth.  Consequently, there aren’t a lot of devout followers of Apsethus out there anymore that don’t work on Madison Avenue.

Times were confusing for the average 2nd Century A.D. Libyan in what would one day be Libya, but which from about 630 B.C. had been a Greek colony centered at Cyrenaica.  In 525 B.C. the Persian army of Cambyses II overran Cyrenaica, later turning it over to the Egyptians.  In 331 B.C., it was annexed by Alexander the Great.  Alexander eventually died, and Libya became a province of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom centered in Egypt.  Carthage fell, and Rome started to look like the leading superpower in the Mediterranean, but they largely ignored Libya until roughly 74 B.C., when the last Greek ruler of Libya, Ptolemy Apion decided to bequeath Cyrenaica to Rome when he died, eventually landing Libya as part of the greater Roman province of Africa Nova.  Things settled down for a while in North Africa, and the 2nd-3rd Century A.D. in Libya was considered a “Golden Age”, which is usually what we call it when us humans manage to avoid mass slaughter, the economy prospers, and we can send the kids to good schools.  About this time, Apsethus emerged.  We don’t know much about him personally, except that he believed he was a god, and set about figuring out how to prove it to the rest of us.

Now, I’ve declared myself a god on several occasions, only to be laughed at.   Given my godhead is somewhat limited to my preternatural level of neurosis, ability to eat more or less anything without gaining weight, and sincere conviction that the voices in my head might have a point, but I nonetheless know what it feels like to suspect one had at least a spark of divinity that goes largely unrecognized.  Where I have productively channeled my delusions of grandeur into blogging and competitive eating, Apsethus decided that he had a more universally applicable sort of godliness, lacking only a dedicated fan base and a way to spread the good word that he had arisen on Earth.  Like any good chief executive, he called in the consultants, who were no doubt all too aware that gods have a reputation for impatience and omnipotence, and not desirous of being turned into pillars of salt or otherwise smited, recommended using missionaries that wouldn’t filter the message.  They suggested parrots.  2nd Century A.D. Christian Theologian Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.) is oft quoted in describing the results of Apsethus’ efforts.

Apsethus the Libyan was very desirous of making himself a god, but when, after long labouring, he had failed in his endeavours, he wanted, as the next best thing, to be supposed to have made himself a god; and in fact for a considerable time he did enjoy such a reputation. For the simple Libyans used to sacrifice to him as to a Divine Power, in the belief that they were obeying a voice sent forth out of Heaven. He had got together and confined several parrots in one and the same little room, for parrots are plentiful all over Libya, and they distinctly mimic the human voice; and having kept these birds for some time, he taught them to say ‘Apsethus is a god.’ And when the birds in course of time were taught, and could speak that sentence which he supposed, when spoken, would cause him to pass for a god, then he opened their place of confinement, and allowed the parrots to escape in different directions. And as the birds flew about, the sound was carried all over Libya, and the words traveled as far as the Greek territory (Cyrene); and thus the Libyans, being struck with amazement at the voice of the birds, and not suspecting the trick played them by Apsethus, accounted him a god. But one of the Greeks having clearly detected the contrivance of the supposed deity, did, by means of the self-same parrots, not merely confute, but also extinguish that vain-glorious and impudent fellow. This Greek caged several of the same parrots, and taught them to utter a contrary strain, ‘Apsethus shut us up, and forced us to say Apsethus is a god.’ But when the Libyans heard this recantation of the parrots, they all came together with one accord, and burnt Apsethus alive (King, 1887, p58-59).

Obviously, Apsethus was just setting himself up for failure in utilizing parrots, since parrots can be taught to say just about anything.  Any good marketer will tell you that you can bend the truth, but it’s foolhardy to say something that can be so easily contradicted, and that those who will parrot your sagacious words today, will parrot the pithy statements of your competitors tomorrow.  While Apsethus the Libyan did not enter any of our pantheons, some experts have argued that his methodology was adopted by modern academia.

Apsethus the Libyan wished to become a god. Despairing of doing so, he did the next best thing—he made people believe he was a god. He captured a large number of parrots in the Libyan forests and confined them in cages. Day after day he taught them to repeat, “Apsethus the Libyan is a god,” over and over again. The parrots’ lesson learned, Apsethus thus set them free. They flew far away, even into Greece. And people coming to view the strange birds, heard them say, “Apsethus the Libyan is a god; Apsethus the Libyan  is a god.” And the people cried, “Apsethus the Libyan is a god; let us worship Apsethus the Libyan.” Thus was founded the first post-graduate school (Harmon, 1911, p24).

The lesson here is that it is not hard to declare yourself a god.  The tough part is proving it.  And proof is in the testaments of other people (or parrots).  The fact that the more someone’s divinity is talked about, the more people tend to believe it should make us suspicious from the get go.  Real gods don’t have degrees in public affairs and tend to keep their mouths shut unless it’s absolutely necessary.  After all, as observed by the 13th Century Tibetan spiritual leader Saskya Pandita, “Much talking is the cause of danger. Silence is the means of avoiding misfortune. The talkative parrot is shut up in a cage. Other birds, without speech, fly freely about”.

Harmon, Albert V. Large Fees And How to Get Them: a Book for the Private Use of Physicians. Chicago: W. J. Jackman, 1911.
Hippolytus, Antipope, approximately 170-235 or 236. Philosophumena: Or, The Refutation of All Heresies. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1921.
King, Charles William, 1818-1888. The Gnostics And Their Remains, Ancient And Mediaeval. 2d ed. New York: Putnam, 1887.


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