Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The cult of the talking snake began in the town of Abonoteichus around the year 150 CE, shortly after the Bar Kochba revolt. Located on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey, the town was in fact a Greek settlement under Roman rule that practiced paganism.
One day workers in the local temple discovered some strange bronze tablets there proclaiming the imminent arrival of a divine healer named Asclepius, supposedly the son of Apollo. Locals quickly erected a new temple to honor the guest from heaven. And just as the temple was being completed, a strange egg was discovered in its earthworks. When cracked open, a baby snake emerged. A man named Alexander then proclaimed that this snake was the expected “god” and that he himself was its oracle.
Within days, the baby snake transformed itself miraculously into a giant one, much larger than a python. It revealed secrets and prophesies to its oracle, Alexander, spoken conveniently in the local Greek dialect. People from all over the Roman empire – including dignitaries from Rome – came to hear the prophecies.
Many brought the oracle Alexander valuable gifts. A single prediction of the future or message of advice from the snake would cost the supplicant the equivalent of a day’s wages, and the snake could provide a hundred of these on any working day. Husbands, hearing the snake’s advice to turn their wives over to Alexander as concubines, did so.
As it turned out, the entire snake cult was nothing more than a pagan predecessor to the movie classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The snake had been created out of paper mach?, with a speaking tube inside its head constructed from wind pipes of large birds, connecting to a room behind the wall. The snake had levers that could make its head move and stick out its tongue. Alexander would operate it all from the next room, much like the humbug wizard pulling the levers behind the curtain to fool Dorothy and her friends.
The original bronze tablets with the prophecy had been placed there by Alexander, who had also hidden the baby snake inside an ostrich egg glued back together.
Alexander ran his scam for many years, until he died at the age of 70 and his tricks were uncovered. The cult of the snake was strongly denounced by Greek Epicureans and by some early Christian writers in the Roman Empire.
But whatever became of the pagan snake itself, the collection of moving paper mach? parts that led astray tens of thousands of people? After exhaustive research, we have discovered the answer.
Many centuries after the death of Alexander of Abonoteichus, his snake reappeared, but under a new name. In the late twentieth century the talking snake with the levers and the speaking tubes made a new grand appearance. “My name is Peace,” it proclaimed. “All who desire peace must come and hear my pronouncements, then follow my commands and obey my oracles.”
With its tongue flicking in and out, the sounds emerging from its speaking tubes were no longer Greek, but modern Hebrew. The Peace Snake from the New Middle East first emerged as a baby from an ostrich egg discovered in a Norwegian fjord by left-wing Israeli academics, meeting in Oslo with representatives of the PLO.
Smuggled back to Israel, the miraculous baby snake was displayed to Shimon Peres by Peres’s loyal apostle, Yossi Beilin. Then, right before their eyes, the snake underwent a metamorphosis, turning into a giant python, several times larger than any seen before.
“The Peace Messiah has arrived in the form of a giant talking snake,” Peres happily announced to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. “All we need to do is follow its instructions.”
“And what might those be?” asked a skeptical Rabin.
“Just obey it. One must not argue with such a divine creature,” insisted Peres. “First, it wants Israel to announce that it accepts the existence of a ‘Palestinian people,’ recognizes their right to their own state, and agrees to recognize the PLO as its national leadership. Next, Israel must allow Palestinian terrorists from all over the world to enter the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, arm themselves, set up militias in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and impose their sovereignty upon the Arabs there. Then Israel must evict all Jews living in the Gaza Strip and promise to do the same with the Jews living in Judea and Samaria. Finally, Israel must bankroll the PLO terrorists and provide them with weapons.”
“The public will never accept this,” objected Rabin.
“Ah but you are wrong,” replied Peres. “We will simply show them the talking snake head, proclaiming in Hebrew the emergence of a peaceful New Middle East. The snake head is charming and comforting. The people will believe in its pagan magic.”
Rabin was finally sold on the idea.
“Behold the magic snake,” proclaimed Peres to the nation. The snake urged listeners to accept Peres as its prophet and obey its divinations, as whispered into Peres’s ear. No one seemed to notice that whenever the snake would speak Hebrew, it was in Peres’s Polish accent. Strangely, the snake head spoke no Arabic at all.
After Rabin was assassinated by a non-believer in the snake, it became all but impossible to denounce the serpent as a sham. Snake doubters were rounded up and indicted for incitement. The media fell into line and broadcast and published the snake’s epistles. Virtually no time or space was allowed for rebuttals from anti-snake dissidents.
The demands of the snake kept escalating. Its message was essentially the same: “The highest form of courage is cowardice,” it hissed. “Capitulation is the highest for of victory. Weakness is the highest form of strength. National self-debasement is the highest form of patriotism. Terrorism must be rewarded. The best way to end war is to pretend it does not exist.”
Since then, Peres has been replaced as the snake’s chief oracle by Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Audiences stand before it with mouths agape as it hisses through its speaking tubes: “There is no military solution to the problems of terrorism. Erecting a Palestinian state is the best assurance for the achievement of Zionist goals. Talk with Hamas. Negotiate with Hizbullah.”
And all the while, the Israeli humbugs of defeat pull the levers that make the serpent writhe and speak, while the media proclaim the miracle of the talking snake’s peace.