Glykon - The Fantastic Snake / The History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: Glykon - The Fantastic Snake

The Glykon Snake became one of the most powerful symbols of Dobrogea and Tomis (the initial, Roman name of the modern city of Constanța). Presently, it can be viewed and admired in the Treasury Room of the Museum of National History and Archaeology in Constanța. Glykon is also called the Fantastic Snake and dates from the 2nd century AD. He was a protective deity of home and family and a god of fertility. His cult was extremely popular for almost half a century in many of the provinces of the Roman Empire, especially in the basin of Pontus Euxinus (The Black Sea) and Asia Minor.

Photo 2: The Treasury Room of the Museum of National History and Archaeology in Constanța

The piece in Constanța is unique in the world due to its dimensions and artistic achievement. It is made of white marble and was certainly carved in one of the workshops of a larger city of the era and brought to Tomis only later.

Photo 3: Glykon, side view

Glykon is a strange creature with a lamb’s snout, human hair, a lion's tail and a snake's body. If the statue could be untangled, the specialists maintain that it would be over 16 feet long. It is one of the 24 pieces of the Sculpture Treasury discovered by chance, on April 1, 1962 (on Fool's Day), while the rails of the old station in Constanța were being removed.

Photo 4-6: Aspects from the archeological site where the 24 pieces of the Sculpture Treasury were discovered by chance, on April 1, 1962

Most likely, the pit in which the pieces were discovered was dug in the 4th century AD, when someone tried to hide pagan objects of worship to protect them from the persecution of Christianity which had become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.

But to learn more about the statue and the cult it represented, we have to make a leap of about 1,800 years back in time. We are still on the shores of the Black Sea, but in the town of Abonoteichus, Inebolu in modern Turkey, the province of Kastamonu (Timonion in Antiquity). A self-proclaimed prophet named Alexander summons his fellow citizens to the Agora of the city one afternoon to witness a miracle. He shows them a huge snake egg, breaks it, and takes out the "god" Glykon, a strange creature, with a reptile body, but with human features. In a week, the "god" reaches the size of an ordinary man and has long, blond and rich hair, eyes of a penetrating blue, but the same body of a snake. "He works miracles and utters prophecies," "speaks," and "gives counsel," obviously through his "father" Alexander, who therefore proclaims himself the reincarnation Aesculapius, the ancient Roman god of medicine.

Photo 7: Bronze coin of Antoninus Pius minted in Abonoteichos and showing the snake god Glykon

Alexander of Abonothicos became the high priest of the cult of Glykon, the serpent god. This was a fertility god and barren women were offering large sums of money to receive his graces. A contemporary, Lucian of Samosata, harshly attacked Alexander in a pamphlet, calling him a charlatan and a swindler, someone in search of making a fortune by deceiving people in every way possible. The famous writer also claimed that Glykon was a doll handled by its master.

Interestingly, the cult of Glykon became immensely popular in the Roman Empire: coins with his appearance were issued, statuettes were made, he was often mentioned in inscriptions and, most likely, he had his temples and oracles and several seaside towns. However, its glory lasted only a few decades. The cult started to decline around 175, after the death of its "prophet", Alexander, and in the third century it disappeared completely.

The statue of Glykon discovered in Constanța is the only cult statue of this deity known so far on the former territory of the Roman Empire.

This year, for the first time since its discovery, the Glykon Snake left its pedestal in the Museum of National History and Archeology Constanța to take part in a unique international exhibition, where it can be admired by many.

Photo 8-10: Aspects form the set up of the “Archaeological Treasures of Romania. Dacian and Roman Roots” in Madrid

The Fantastic Snake is now part of the exhibition entitled “Archaeological Treasures of Romania. Dacian and Roman Roots”, which has opened on October 1, 2021 at the Museo Arquelogico Nacional de Espana, in Madrid. Glykon is part of an 835 strong series of valuable artifacts from the collections of the history museums throughout Romania.

Bolg text by historian Cristian Cealera. Video presentation and text by historian Irina Sodoleanu. Film concept by Cristian Cealera and Constantin Țițineanu. A project developed together with the Museum of National History and Archaeology in Constanța.

The building of the Museum of National History and Archaeology

You can't say you have visited Constanta if you didn't stop, for an hour at least, at the Museum of National History and Archaeology, the monumental building located in the Ovidiu/Ovid Square. Here, in the imposing construction erected exactly a century ago (in 1921) one can easily find evidence of a fascinating history, vestiges that help reconstruct the stories of the millennial city which in the Ancient times used to be called Tomis.

From 1921 until 1977, the building was home to the City Hall and, in the interwar period, was known as the Communal Palace, as Constanţa was at that time an urban commune, municipality and county seat. The edifice became the museum's headquarters on December 25, 1977, with ancient artifacts finally finding their well-deserved home, after endless pilgrimages through various other locations.

Today, the Museum of National History and Archaeology is visited by tens of thousands of tourists from around the world, eager to learn the stories of a settlement two and a half millennia old. A city that was founded and developed by the Greeks of Miletus, which flourished under Roman and Roman-Byzantine rule, survived the troubled times of the Middle Ages and continued to exist during Ottoman rule in Dobrogea, Romania’s south-eastern historical province. Today's Constanţa tells us both the stories of the ancient Tomis, and of a stylish city that became part of the modern Romanian state in 1878.

However, treasures of the region are also hosted by regional museums such as Histria, Adamclisi or Capidava, all administered by the History Museum in Constanța. This project highlights six exquisite objects which tell the fascinating story of Dobrogea.

Our online series THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, developed in partnership with some of the most important history museums in the country, evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from artifacts or vestiges with powerful symbolic, representative value.

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