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Stylites (from Greek stylos, "pillar") or Pillar-Saints are a type of Christian ascetic who in the early days of the Byzantine Empire stood on pillars preaching, fasting and praying. They believed that the mortification of their bodies would help ensure the salvation of their souls. The first stylite was probably Simeon Stylites the Elder who climbed on a pillar in Syria in 423 and remained there until his death 37 years later.
Palladius of Galatia (chapter 48) tells us of a hermit in Palestine who dwelt in a cave on the top of a mountain and who for the space of twenty-five years never turned his face to the west so that the sun never set on his face. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Patrologia Graeca 37, 1456) speaks of a solitary who stood upright for many years together, absorbed in contemplation, without ever lying down. Theodoret assures us that he had seen a hermit who had passed ten years in a tub suspended in midair from poles (Philotheus, chapter 28).
Simeon Stylites and His Contemporaries
There seems no reason to doubt that it was the ascetic spirit manifested in such examples as these which spurred men on to devise new and more ingenious forms of self-crucifixion and which in 423 led Simeon Stylites the Elder first of all to take up his abode on the top of a pillar. Critics have recalled a passage in Lucian (De Syria Dea, chapters 28 and 29) which speaks of a high column at Hierapolis Bambyce to the top of which a man ascended twice a year and spent a week in converse with the gods, but the Catholic Encyclopedia argues that it is unlikely that Simeon had derived any suggestion from this pagan custom. In any case Simeon had a continuous series of imitators, particularly in Syria and Palestine. Daniel the Stylite may have been the first of these, for he had been a disciple of Simeon and began his rigorous way of life shortly after his master died. Daniel was a Syrian by birth but he established himself near Constantinople, where he was visited by both the Emperor Leo and the Emperor Zeno. Simeon the Younger, like his namesake, lived near Antioch; he died in 596, and had for a contemporary a hardly less famous Stylite, Saint Alypius, whose pillar had been erected near Hadrianopolis in Paphlagonia. Alypius, after standing upright for 53 years, found his feet no longer able to support him, but instead of descending from his pillar lay down on his side and spent the remaining fourteen years of his life in that position. Roger Collins, in his Early Medieval Europe, tells us that in some cases two or more pillar saints of differing theological viewpoints could find themselves within calling distance of each other, and would argue with one another from their columns.
Saint Luke the Younger, another famous pillar hermit lived in the 10th century on Mount Olympus, but he also seems to have been of Asiatic parentage. There were many others besides these who were not so famous and even women Stylites were known. One or two isolated attempts seem to have been made to introduce this form of asceticism into the West but it met with little favour. In the East cases were found down to the 12th century; in the Russian Orthodox Church it lasted until 1461, and among the Ruthenians even later. There can be no doubt that for the majority of the pillar hermits the extreme austerity of which we read in the lives of the Simeons and of Alypius was somewhat mitigated. Upon the summit of some of the columns for example a tiny hut was erected as a shelter against sun and rain, and we hear of other hermits of the same class among the Monophysites, who lived inside a hollow pillar rather than upon it; but the life in any case must have been one of extraordinary endurance and privation.
In popular culture
- The Vertigo stunt performed by David Blaine on 22 March 2002 was in part inspired by the Pillar-Saints, as he declared in the TV documentary about this stunt.
- In Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the title character encounters a stylite who prays by Metanoia and uses the pedal motion to sew shirts describes as "St. Stylites".
- Umberto Eco's Baudolino temporarily becomes a stylite towards the end of the book.
- Luis Buñuel's Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965) is a humorous film about the life of a stylite.
In the Discworld book Small Gods, a character named St. Ungulant lives on top of a pole.
- This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain.
- Frederick Lent, translator, The Life of Saint Simeon Stylites: A Translation of the Syriac in Bedjan’s Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, 1915. Reprinted 2009. Evolution Publishing, ISBN 978-1-889758-91-6.