Monday, 12 July 2010

Simeon Stylites the Older

In the fourth century monasticism was gaining popularity in Antioch. But it did not stay with that. Many started to find more austere ways to express their religiosity.[1] In Antioch most of this sort of people took shelter in some cave on the slopes of mount Silpius or elsewhere and spent their time contemplating their salvation. But in the beginning of the fifth century a new fashion was introduced.

A young man called Simeon (ca. 390 – 459) decided that he would spend his life on the top of a pillar believing that this would bring him closer to God. We are told that he at first had followed the habits of other anchorites, but as he was disturbed in his contemplations by many visitors he took refuge on the top of a pillar in the mountainous region between Antioch and Aleppo.

His first pillar was not very tall but as time went by the pillars grew taller and taller and Simeon’s fame grew accordingly. Visitors could still consult him by means of a ladder. So now he had visitors from everywhere and his influence on politics and decision-making in Antioch grew as well. We are told that he was able to influence politics there and even the Byzantine Emperor took him rather seriously.

But perhaps the fashion of sitting on a pillar was older than Simeon and not invented by him. A book called De Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess) that has been ascribed to the pagan philosopher Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – c. 180) describes a practice in a pagan temple in Hierapolis (Manbij in North Syria), not far from where Simeon climbed his pillar. This temple had been dedicated to the Mother Goddess and was a centre of sex rites.

According to Lucian the temple had a couple of “phalli”[2] or columns about 20 metres tall. On these there were “mannikins made of wood, with enormous pudenda [genital organs]”.[3] Lucian further describes how a man twice every year climbs the pillar the same way as people in Egypt climb palm trees and once up there he “abides on the summit of the phallus for the space of seven days.” Then visitors come to the place and names are shouted up to the man on the pillar so that he can pray in their behalf.[4]

Evidently the marriage between fashion and sex is an old one and even anchorites are slaves of fashion.

[1] Monasticism and asceticism are foreign to Christianity as it is described in the New Testament. The tendency may have originated with the Manicheans, a dualistic religious philosophy common at that time. – Wallace-Hadrill, Christian Antioch, Cambridge 1982, p. 25

[2] Plural of phallus, the erected male organ.

[3] Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, Forgotten Books 2007, p. 36. These small men with huge erected organs are still found in Turkish fields and often depicted on post cards.

[4] Lucian, pp. 43, 44