Simeon Stylites  

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Saint Simeon Stylites or Symeon the Stylite (c. 388 – 2 September 459) was a Christian ascetic saint who achieved fame for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. Several other stylites later followed his model (the Greek word style means pillar). He is known formally as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger and Simeon Stylites III.


Atop the pillar

In order to get away from the ever increasing number of people who frequently came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived amongst ruins, formed a small platform at the top, and upon this determined to live out his life. It has been stated that, as he seemed to be unable to avoid escaping the world horizontally, he may have thought it an attempt to try to escape it vertically. For sustenance small boys from the village would climb up the pillar and pass him small parcels of flat bread and goats' milk.

When the monastic Elders living in the desert heard about Simeon, who had chosen a new and strange form of asceticism, they wanted to test him to determine whether his extreme feats were founded in humility or pride. They decided to tell Simeon under obedience to come down from the pillar. They decided that if he disobeyed they would forcibly drag him to the ground, but if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. St Simeon displayed complete obedience and humility, and the monks told him to stay where he was.

This first pillar was little more than four meters high, but his well-wishers subsequently replaced it with others, the last in the series being apparently over 15 meters from the ground. At the top of the pillar was a platform, with a baluster, which is believed to have been about one square meter.

According to his hagiography, Simeon would not allow any woman to come near his pillar, not even his own mother, reportedly telling her, "If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come." Martha submitted to this. Remaining in the area, she also embraced the monastic life of silence and prayer. When she died, Simeon asked that her remains be brought to him. He reverently bade farewell to his dead mother, and, according to the account, a smile appeared on her face.

Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Simeon's existence as follows:

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Even on the highest of his columns, Simeon was not withdrawn from the world. If anything, the new pillar drew even more people, not only the pilgrims who had come earlier but now sightseers as well. Simeon made himself available to these visitors every afternoon. By means of a ladder, visitors were able to ascend, and it is known that he wrote letters, the text of some of which have survived to this day, that he instructed disciples, and that he also delivered addresses to those assembled beneath, preaching especially against profanity and usury. In contrast to the extreme austerity that he demanded of himself, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion, and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism.

Much of Simeon’s public ministry, like that of other Syrian ascetics, can be seen as socially cohesive in the context of the Roman East. In the face of the withdrawal of wealthy landowners to the large cities, holy men such as Simeon acted as impartial and necessary patrons and arbiters in disputes between peasant farmers and within the smaller towns.

Cultural references

      "And yet I know not well,
For that the evil ones come here, and say,
'Fall down, O Simeon; thou hast suffered long
For ages and for ages!'"]]

Alfred Tennyson's poem St. Simeon Stylites (1842) dramatizes the story of Saint Simeon.

Luis Buñuel's film Simón del desierto (1965) is loosely based on the story of Saint Simeon.

The Mark Twain novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court features a man who lives on a pillar in the valley of the hermits and repeatedly bends over at the waist; the main character hitches him to a sewing machine and uses the man to make linen shirts.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Simeon Stylites" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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