Friday, May 16, 2014

Barnum was an Optomist
Glycon Coin

In the second century C. E. there lived in the Roman Empire a man named Alexander from the city of Abonoteichus on the Black Sea in modern day Turkey who was a wonder worker who established in the city of Abonoteichus a new Oracle that could answer questions and foretell the future. Of course Alexander was a fraud and so was his Oracle.

Aside from some coins, gems and inscriptions, which testify to the existence of Alexander and the oracle our main source of information, by far, concerning Alexander and his doings is brief life of Alexander by the Roman writer Lucian (c. 125 - 180 C.E.).1
Lucian was a convinced Empirican who disbelieved, oracles, miracles and other such phenomena. Although Empirican beliefs did in fact contain a awful lot of dogma and out and out woo.2 Still it appears that Lucian knew a fake when he saw one.
Alexander was born c. 105 C.E., and active c. 150 - 170 C. E., dying about 170. Lucian wrote his piece about Alexander c. 180 C.E., shortly before his own death.
Lucian describes Alexander has follows:
First I shall draw you a word-picture of the man himself, making as close a likeness as I can, although I am not particularly good at drawing. As regards his person—in order that I may exhibit this also to you—he was tall and handsome in appearance, and really godlike; his skin was fair, his beard not very thick; his long hair was in part natural, in part false, but very similar, so that most people did not detect that it was not his own. His eyes shone with a great glow of fervour and enthusiasm; his voice was at once very sweet and very clear; and in a word, no fault could be found with him in any respect as far as all that went.3
Lucian then describes the man's upbringing, claiming that Alexander learned the  fine art of being a conman from various people. Thus Lucian says that:
...and they went about the country practising quackery and sorcery, and "trimming the fatheads" —for so they style the public in the traditional patter of magicians. Well, among these they hit upon a rich Macedonian woman, past her prime but still eager to be charming, and not only lined their purses fairly well at her expense...4
Lucian recounts that Alexander was taught well the art of the con:
While he was still a mere boy, and a very handsome one, as could be inferred from the sere and yellow leaf of him, and could also be learned by hearsay from those who recounted his story, he trafficked freely in his attractiveness and sold his company to those who sought it. Among others, he had an admirer who was a quack, one of those who advertise enchantments, miraculous incantations, charms for your love-affairs, “sendings” for your enemies, disclosures of buried treasure, and successions to estates. As this man saw that he was an apt lad, more than ready to assist him in his affairs, and that the boy was quite as much enamoured with his roguery as he with the boy’s beauty, he gave him a thorough education and constantly made use of him as helper, servant, and acolyte. He himself was professedly a public physician, but, as Homer says of the wife of Thon, the Egyptian, he knew 'Many a drug that was good in a compound, and many a bad one,' all of which Alexander inherited and took over. This teacher and admirer of his was a man of Tyana by birth, one of those who had been followers of the notorious Apollonius, and who knew his whole bag of tricks. You see what sort of school the man that I am describing comes from!5
Alexander then decided after the death of his patron to pull a most outrageous scam. This scam consisted of setting up his own Oracle in his home town of Abonoteichus and then raking in the dough has the person running the Oracle.

This stunt required a bit of planning. First Alexander and a confederate buried two bronze tablets in the Temple of Apollo at Chalcedon, (Near modern day Istanbul.), that said that the god Asclepius and his father Apollo would take up residence in Abonoteichus. Further Alexander's confederate stayed behind in Chalcedon composing fake oracles like this to further encourage credulity. Such as:
Here in your sight is a scion of Perseus, dear unto Phoebus;
This is divine Alexander, who shareth the blood of the Healer6
So along with putting over an outrageous farce Alexander was claiming divine descent.

The response of the folks in Abonoteichus was to build a temple forthwith in anticipation of the blessed event about to happen.

It was now time to pull the con and here it is:
When at length it was time to begin, he contrived an ingenious ruse. Going at night to the foundations of the temple which were just being excavated, where a pool of water had gathered which either issued from springs somewhere in the foundations themselves or had fallen from the sky, he secreted there a goose-egg, previously blown, which contained a snake just born; and after burying it deep in the mud, he went back again. In the morning he ran out into the market-place naked, wearing a loin-cloth (this too was gilded), carrying his falchion, and tossing his unconfined mane like a devotee of the Great Mother in the frenzy. Addressing the people from a high altar upon which he had climbed, he congratulated the city because it was at once to receive the god in visible presence. The assembly—for almost the whole city, including women, old men, and boys, had come running— marvelled, prayed and made obeisance. Uttering, a few meaningless words like Hebrew or Phoenician, he dazed the creatures, who did not know what he was saying save only that he everywhere brought in Apollo and Asclepius. Then he ran at full speed to the future temple, went to the excavation and the previously improvised fountain-head of the oracle, entered ‘the water, sang hymns in honour of Asclepius and Apollo at the top of his voice, and besought the god, under the blessing of Heaven, to come to the city. Then he asked for a libation-saucer, and when somebody handed him one, deftly slipped it underneath and brought up, along with water and mud, that egg in which he had immured the god; the joint about the plug had been closed with wax and white lead. Taking it in his hands, he asserted that at that moment he held Asclepius! They gazed unwaveringly to see what in the world was going to happen; indeed, they had already marvelled at the discovery of the egg in the water. But when he broke it and received the tiny snake into his hollowed hand, and the crowd saw it moving and twisting about his fingers, they at once raised a shout, welcomed the god, congratulated their city, and began each of them to sate him­self greedily with prayers, craving treasures, riches, health, and every other blessing from, him. But Alexander went home again at full speed, taking with him the new-born Asclepius, “born twice, when other men are born but once,” whose mother was not Coronis, by Zeus, nor yet a crow, but a goose! And the whole population followed, all full of religious fervour and crazed with expectations.
For some days he remained at home, expecting what actually happened—that as the news spread, crowds of Paphlagonians would come running in. When the city had become over-full of people, all of them already bereft of their brains and sense, and not in the least like bread-eating humans, but different from beasts of the field only in their looks, he seated himself on a couch in a certain chamber, clothed in apparel well suited to a god, and took into his bosom his Asclepius from Pella, who, as I have said, was of uncommon size and beauty. Coiling him about his neck, and letting the tail, which was long, stream over his lap and drag part of its length on the floor, he concealed only the head by holding it under his arm—the creature would submit to anything—and showed the linen head at one side of his own beard, as if it certainly belonged to the creature that was in view.7
Thus Alexander created a "human" headed snake, (The head was cloth), Oracle which he called Glycon who would utter Oracles:

Now Alexander went into his money making mode and this is how he made his bundle:
When it was time to carry out the purpose for which the whole scheme had been concocted—that is to say, to make predictions and give oracles to those who sought them—taking his cue from Amphilochus in Cilicia, who, as you know, after the death and disappearance of his father Amphiaraus at Thebes, was exiled from his own country, went to Cilicia, and got on very well by foretelling the future, like his father, for the Cilicians and getting two obols for each prediction—taking, as I say, his cue from him, Alexander announced to all comers that the god would make prophecies, and named a date for it in advance. He directed everyone to write down in a scroll whatever he wanted and what he especially wished to learn, to tie it up, and to seal it with wax or clay or something else of that sort. Then he himself, after taking the scrolls and entering the inner sanctuary—for by that time the temple had been erected and the stage set—proposed to summon in order, with herald and priest, those who had submitted them, and after the god told him about each case, to give back the scroll with the seal upon it, just as it was, and the reply to it endorsed upon it; for the god would reply explicitly to any question that anyone should put.
As a matter of fact, this trick, to a man like you, and if it is not out of place to say so, like myself also, was obvious and easy to see through, but to those drivelling idiots it was miraculous and almost as good as incredible. Having discovered various ways of undoing the seals, he would read all the questions and answer them as he thought best. Then he would roll up the scrolls again, seal them, and give them back, to the great astonishment of the recipients, among whom the comment was frequent: 'Why, how did he learn the questions which I gave him very securely sealed with impressions hard to counterfeit, unless there was really some god that knew everything?'8
Alexander than gave obscure oracles and charged for them. In this way he encouraged the credulous and raked in the dough. For year after year he ran this quite transparent fraud. He became a honoured citizen of Abonoteichus.

The Merchants and town folks benefited economically from the pilgrim traffic to the Oracle. The town formerly obscure became renowned. Thus Alexander became very popular in the town. Alexander became rich and famous. With town monuments and the Oracle he had created getting on coins.

Very quickly it became apparent that so many people were benefiting from this fraud that showing it was a fraud or terminating it would have hit far too many people in the pocket book aside from leaving the town with egg on its face. So a conspiracy of silence and wilful avoidance of accepting that it was a fraud came into play.

Thus the fraud continued until Alexander died and apparently for c. a century afterwards.

It is amazing to read about how Alexander's marks came from all levels of society. No one was immune to the lure of nonsense it seems, further the fact that so many benefited from the fraud allowed it to continue because no one was willing to stop it. After all who wants to kill the goose laying golden eggs.

The similarity with modern psychics and modern faith healing, (Alexander offered healing as a sideline to the Oracle), is obvious. So is the rather sad notion that credulity of this kind is both of long standing and still with us, and likely to be with us for a very long time.

1. Lucian, Wikipedia Here.
2. Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990, pp. 618-630.
3. Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, Tertullian Here, sec. 3.

4. IBID, s. 6.

5. IBID, sec. 5

6. IBID, sec. 10

7. IBID, s. 13-15.

8. IBID, s. 19-20.


MacMullen, Ramsay, Enemies of the Roman Order, Routledge, London, 1968, pp. 115-120.

Nutton, Vivian, Ancient Medicine, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2013, pp. 289-290.

Sagan, Carl, Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers, Skeptical Inquirer, v. 10, i 3, Spring 1986 Here. Can also be found in Broca's Brain, Ballantine Books, New York, 1979, pp. 52-54.

Pierre Cloutier

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