One of the neologisms to come out of the Pandemic is “covidiot,” signifying someone who does not obey health directions. Lately I’ve seen a calque of this word appear in the Greek language in the form of: «κοβηλίθιος», as opposed to «κωβηλίθιος», which possibly describes a situation either when an idiot cuts one off, or when one cuts off an idiot.
That there were pandemics in ancient times is a given and consequently, it follows logically that there were also ancient equivalents of covidiots, even before the term was invented. One of these, undoubtedly, would have to have been possibly the ancient world’s most brilliant charlatan, Alexander of Abonoteichus.
According to his chief opponent, the satirist Lucian of Samosata, Alexander was a native of Abonoteichus, in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea, now known as Inebolu, from the Greek Ionopolis, which is the name this remarkable man successfully petitioned the Roman Emperor to change his birthplace to.
A snake-oil salesman like no others, Alexander plied his trade by working in travelling medicine shows around Greece, professing to effect miracle cures. Sometime along the way, he received some form of rudimentary instruction on medicine from a doctor who according to Lucian, was also a quack and became successful enough to be able to establish an oracle of the healing god Aesclepius in his home town, around 150AD, where he became renowned for his skills in healing the sick and prophesying the future, much like a modern televangelist, but without the private jet.
Between approximately 160 to 190AD, a great plague swept through the Roman Empire. According to Australian sinologist and historian Rafe de Crespigny who has researched notices of plagues in Chinese records, it may have originated in Eastern Han China and swept westwards. Its slow, inexorable and devastating progress was described by the Greek physician and writer Galen and its effects were so devastating that its total death count has been estimated at five million, the pandemic killing as much as one third of the population in some areas and devastating the Roman army.
Where Emperor Marcus Aurelius mourned the devastation of the pandemic and its effect on civil society stating that even the pestilence around him was less deadly than falsehood, evil behaviour and lack of true understanding, and eventually uttering as his dying words: “Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others,” the wily Alexander saw opportunity. Drawing on traditional Macedonian snake worship, he announced at his oracle an imminent incarnation of Aesclepius, When the people gathered in the marketplace of Abonoteichus at noon, when the incarnation was supposed to occur, Alexander produced a goose egg and sliced it open, revealing the god within, in the form of a snake. Within a week it grew to the size of a man with the features of a man on its face, including long blond hair. What in actual fact the resourceful Alexander had done, was create a very skilled, elaborate sock puppet god named Glycon, the sweet one, who could guarantee anxious women in the time of pandemic fertility. As a result, women seeking divine intervention in order to conceive would bring offerings to Glycon, though Lucian implies that Alexander, keeper of the cult had less magical ways of causing pregnancy, giving a new nuance to the phrase, “put a sock in it.”
Not content with merely making babies, Alexander soon discovered that propitiating Glycon was a much more effective method of staving off the pandemic than masks, social distancing, lockdowns and self-isolation. This was a magic verse, derived from the omniscient Glycon, which if inscribed upon residential properties, would protect the inhabitants from the ravages of plague. As Lucian of Samosata wrote, he revealed the thaumaturgic verses: “which he despatched to all the nations during the pestilence… was to be seen written over doorways everywhere.” These spread throughout the Aegean into the broader Mediterranean. An inscription from Antioch of those times records the words “Glycon protect us from the plague-cloud,” and this, even before the advent of 5G.
Sock puppet cults will only go so far without the support of the establishment and it is here that Alexander got spectacularly lucky. Sometime in 160AD, the governor of the province of Asia, Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, declared himself protector of Glycon’s oracle and later bought into the family franchise by marrying Alexander’s daughter. This was a sound business decision,for while dispensing pandemic protection, Alexander would sit in the shrine with his sock puppet wound around him, giving “autophones”, or random unasked oracles. As for specific questions, there were answered by Alexander in rhymes, in his most profitable year delivering nearly 80,000 replies, for the bargain price of one drachma and two oboli, a goldmine if there ever was one. According to Lucian his devoted followers believed that he “made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases actually raised the dead,” which was handy, if you had perished before getting round to inscribing Glycon’s verses on your door.
The skeptical Lucian alleges that Alexander became adept at opening sealed inquiries by heated needles, forging broken seals, and giving of vague or meaningless replies to difficult questions, while also profiting from those whose inquiries were of a rather sensitive nature by blackmailing them and predictably, his investigations into Alexander’s practices, led to attempts on Lucian’s life, purely as a means of asserting copyright and trademark rights of course.
Sadly, for all of Alexander’s adroitness, Glycon the sock-puppet did not confer protection against plague and the governor of Cappadocia was apparently led by Glycon’s oracle to his death in Armenia. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius was sucked in. An oracle was sent, his request, by Alexander to the Roman army on the Danube during the war with the Marcomanni, declaring that victory would follow on the throwing of two lions alive into the river. The result was utter catastrophe although the unflappable Alexander avoided loss of credibility by spinning his ambiguous oracular pronouncements in the opposite direction.
Neither the defeat on the Danube nor the five million pandemic deaths served to diminish devotees’ faith in their beloved sock puppet, even after Alexander died in his seventieth year, Glycon mysteriously neglecting to warn him that he would contract gangrene at that time. Instead, he became so mainstream that in 20 BC he was referred to by the Roman poet Horace, in his Epistle 1 to Maecenas: “… you despair of the muscles of the invincible Glycon…” Worship of Glycon spread from the Danube to the Euphrates, with Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius even striking coins in honour of the sock puppet and these remained in circulation continued right up until the third century AD. Glycon has also appeared on currency in the modern era, on a Romanian 10.000 lei note in 1994, owing to a 4.76 metre long ancient marble statue of the sock puppet being unearthed underneath a railway station in Constanta and another in the city of Tomis.
Alexander, possessed of dashing good looks, mind-blowing charisma and all the answers was the archetypal cult leader of his day. Not for him the mindless adherence to state propaganda, the giving up of his civil liberties, the entertainment of vested interests or the refusal to see past the obvious and discern hidden agendas. With his sock puppet in his hand he conferred absolution and a sense of security to his adherents throughout the Roman Empire, basking in his popularity and raking in millions, even as millions perished. Though his memory barely lingers, his practices and ability to capitalise prejudice remain perennial, a cautionary tale for us all. In the words of Dave Matthews: “The world and the universe are for more wonderful if there is no puppet master.”