“You are all sitting here listening to me – a talking amphibian. That alone is a radical act of creativity. It’s what I call a “conspiracy of craziness” – Kermit the Frog (TED Talk)
Human existence requires the suspension of disbelief. Sure she loves you. Of course the boss values your contribution. Your children aren’t little savages. And if you work hard enough, someday your genius will be recognized. Or maybe you’re just born, muddle through life, and die, and no matter what miraculous feats you’ve accomplished and Sisyphean tasks you’ve somehow triumphed over, in a few thousand years you will be unknown and unmourned. But that’s just plain boring. Suck it up cowboy, and make some noise. Invent a new philosophy. Start a revolution. Write a timeless song. Finish that heartbreaking novel. Or, if you’re feeling edgy like the Greek prophet Alexander of Abonutichus (105-170 A.D.), make yourself a hand puppet and declare it a god. It’s bold. It’s ironic. It worked for Jim Henson. After all, if Fozzie Bear has not yet been nominated for sainthood, it is no doubt merely an oversight by the beatification committee. Or perhaps he’s Protestant. Some sins are just unforgivable. There were a lot of philosophies and theologies indolently laying about the Greco-Roman World in at the opening of the 2nd Century A.D, but Alexander of Abonutichus’ cult of the snake god Glycon achieved stunning popularity given its foundation in puppetry.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting you grab the nearest tube sock, slap some eyes on it, and start singing hosannas. That would just be foolish. Maybe only slightly less so if it was argyle. Before going into the oracle business, Alexander of Abonutichus and his partner Cocconas of Byzantium knocked around the Levant with a travelling medicine show, dabbling in the healing arts and looking for a quick way to make a drachma. Starting a religion when you’re not the son of a god takes a little bit of fancy footwork and a lot of practice. In about 150 A.D., Abonutichus decided it was time to settle down, setting up a temple of Aesculapius (Greek god of medicine, his Rod of Asclepius – a snake on a stick often confused with Herme’s caduceus – is still used as the symbol for the medical profession) in his hometown of Abonutichus, gaining a measure of fame and a reasonably respectable living magically healing the sick and prognosticating future events. Evidently, Alexander came to the conclusion that the traditional Greek pantheon was getting stodgy and timeworn, fishing about for something to liven up things around the temple. According to his foremost contemporary critic, Greek rhetorician Lucian of Samosata (125-180 A.D.), Alexander and Cocconas concocted a scheme to introduce a new incarnation of Aesculapius (reputed to be a son of Apollo) in the form of a crazy snake god named Glycon.
Alexander, then, returning to his native city, after long absence, with all this pomp and solemnity, contrived to make himself the observed of all observers, and the hero of the hour. One of his tricks was to feign an attack of prophetic frenzy by foaming at the mouth; an effect which he produced easily enough by simply chewing the root of the soapwort; to his audience, however, the resulting foam was an object of dread and holy awe. Moreover, he had in readiness a serpent’s head which he and Cocconas had manufactured some time before. It was made of linen rags, and had a face fashioned in some degree in human likeness, cleverly painted with the colors of life; its mouth could be opened or closed by means of a horsehair attachment, and from it protruded a serpent’s tongue — black and forked — which was also worked by means of horsehair strings. As for the serpent they had bought at Pella, the scamp was keeping it carefully at home with a view to producing it at the appropriate moment, when he intended it to play its part in his solemn farce — in which he had confined a newly hatched snake after emptying the contents of the egg; this he imbedded carefully in the mud, and then betook himself home again. Next morning early he rushed wildly into the market-place, all naked save for a golden girdle round his middle, and the famous scimitar in his hand. Shaking his long, disheveled locks frantically to and fro, as the votaries of Cybele do when they crowd round the Great Mother in pious frenzy, he sprang up on a high altar, and delivered a harangue wherein he congratulated the city, which, he said, was now on the point of being blest with the visible presence of the god. Meanwhile the whole town — old men, and women, and children, and all — had rushed to the spot; and the entire crowd stood lost in wonderment, offering up prayers and adoration while he solemnly uttered a string of unintelligible words which might have been Hebrew or Phoenician, thereby striking awe into the souls of his audience, who did not understand a single word, except that he seemed frequently to bring in the names of Apollo and Asclepius. Next, he betook himself at the top of his speed to the site of the new temple; and when he got to the excavations and to the fountain which was being built for the future oracle, he went into the water singing hymns to Apollo and Asclepius with all the power of his lungs, and called upon the god graciously to vouchsafe his presence to the city. Next, he asked for a libation-vessel; and when somebody had given him one, he promptly put it under the water, and brought to light the egg in which he had concealed the god (he had stopped the hole by which he put him in with wax and white lead), and with it a quantity of water and mud. This he took in his hands, and told the people that he there held the god Asclepius. And they continued gazing and wondering what was to happen next; for they were already much astounded by the finding of the egg in the water. When he had crushed the egg in the hollow of his hand, and the people saw the little snake moving and twining itself round his fingers, they shouted aloud and cried out greetings to the god and congratulations to the city — all praying open-mouthed, full of petitions for treasure, and riches, and health, and all other blessings. But Alexander ran home as fast as he could, carrying with him the newborn Asclepius, who thus entered the world a second time, unlike other people who are content to be born once (Lucian, “Alexander, the False Prophet”).
Alexander then got down to business, forming the cult of Glycon and issuing oracles like the future was going out of style. Epicureans and Christians were Alexander’s main rivals and detractors at the time, and Lucian was decidedly pro-Christian, which probably accounts for all the pen and papyrus he wasted proclaiming Alexander a false prophet and con man. Thus we must take his version of events with a grain of salt. Sour grapes and all. Nevertheless, the cult of Glycon, the second coming of Aesculapius in snake form, went prime time. Now, it’s equally possible that the cult of Glycon was a revival of an older form of fertility-related snake worship with ancient Macedonian roots. Glycon worship spread from the southern coast of the Black Sea to Rome. Alexander married the daughter of a Roman Governor in Asia Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus; Roman coins were struck with a likeness of Glycon; even the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sought and received oracles from Glycon through Alexander. The cult continued to spread and found adherents from the Danube to the Euphrates, persisting long after Alexander’s death, and was rumored to have survived into the 4th Century A.D. Not bad for a muppet.
From snake gods to resurrected carpenters to quantum theory, sometimes you just have to go with the flow, and if the metaphysic fits, you may as well wear it. There’s always another philosophy, another ideology, another science, or another religion that will come along and lay claim to divine inspiration. Puppets can speak the truth just as easily as prophets or physicists. It’s what we hear that makes the difference. What tenet has humanity ever embraced that was as wise as that expressed by Kermit the Frog, who suggested, “no matter how large the swamp, be your own frog”?
Deane, John Bathurst, 1797-1887. The Worship of the Serpent Traced Throughout the World, And Its Traditions Referred to the Events In Paradise: Proving the Temptation And Fall of Man by the Instrumentality of a Serpent Tempter. London: J. Hatchard and son and C.J.G. & F. Rivington, 1830.
Lucian, of Samosata. Translations From Lucian. London: Longmans, Green, 1902.