Alexander the Paphlagonian (ca. second century C.E.)

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Alexander the Paphlagonian (ca. second century C.E.)

The oracle of Abonotica, an obscure Paphlagonian town, who for nearly twenty years held absolute supremacy in the empirical art. Born about the end of the second century, a native of Abonotica, he possessed little in the way of worldly wealth. His sole capital consisted in his good looks, fine presence, exquisite voice, and certain talent for fraud, which he was soon to profit from in an extraordinary manner. His idea was to institute a new oracle, and he chose Chalcedon as a suitable place to begin operations. Finding no great encouragement there, he spread a rumor to the effect that Apollo and his son Aesculapius intended shortly to take up residence at Abonotica. The rumor at length reached the ears of his fellow townsmen, who promptly set to work making a temple for the gods. The way was thus prepared for Alexander, who proceeded to Abonotica, diligently advertising his skill as a prophet, so that on his arrival people from many neighboring towns consulted him, and his fame soon spread as far as Rome. We are told that the Emperor Aurelius himself conferred with Alexander before undertaking an important military enterprise.

Lucian gives a possible explanation of the Paphlagonian prophet's remarkable popularity. Alexander, he says, came in the course of his early travels to Pella in Macedon, where he found a unique breed of serpents, large, beautiful, and so tame and harmless that they were allowed by the inhabitants to enter their houses and play with children. A plan took shape in his brain that would help him attain the fame he craved. Selecting the largest and finest specimen of the Macedonian snakes that he could find, he carried it secretly to his destination. The temple that the credulous natives of Abonotica had raised to Apollo was surrounded by a moat, and Alexander, ever ready to seize an opportunity wherever it presented itself, emptied a goose egg of its contents, placed within the shell a newly hatched serpent, and sunk it in the moat. He then informed the people that Apollo had arrived. Making for the moat with all speed, followed by a curious multitude, he scooped up the egg, and in full view of the people, broke the shell and exposed to their admiring eyes a little, wriggling serpent. When a few days had elapsed, he judged the time ripe for a second demonstration. Gathering together a huge crowd from every part of Paphlagonia, he emerged from the temple with the large Macedonian snake coiled about his neck. The head of the serpent was concealed under the prophet's arm, and an artificial head, somewhat resembling that of a human being, allowed to protrude. The assembly was astonished to find that the tiny serpent of a few days ago had already attained such remarkable proportions and possessed the face of a human being, and they appeared to have little doubt that it was indeed Apollo come to Abonotica.

By means of ingenious mechanical contrivances, the serpent was apparently made to reply to questions put to it. In other cases sealed rolls containing the questions were handed to the oracle and returned with the seals intact and an appropriate answer written inside.

His audacity and ready invention enabled Alexander to impose at will upon the credulous people of his time, and these, combined with a strong and attractive personality, won and preserved for him his remarkable popularity, as they have done for other "prophets" before and since.

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Alexander the Paphlagonian (ca. second century C.E.)

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