The rise of Monasticism in the 4th century continued in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the Christian east, this monasticism and attraction to asceticism manifested itself in many bizarre and extreme forms. One of these odd forms of hermetic asceticism can be seen in the Stylites, or “pillar-hermits”.
The Stylites were Christian ascetics that chose to live atop a column or pillar (Greek: stylos). These rare examples of asceticism were known for their great holiness and could be found throughout eastern Christendom. Stylites lived for extended periods atop pillars typically with an area of four square yards. They were exposed to the elements, though sometimes they had a roof, and received sustenance from disciples that brought meager amounts of food to them by climbing up ladders. They spent most of their time in prayer but were also known to perform pastoral work among those who gathered around their columns.
|Ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites,|
located 30km northwest of Aleppo Syria
The first known Stylite was Saint Simeon the Elder who mounted his column in Syria in 423 AD. He was born in Sisan about 388 and took up work as a shepherd before joining a monastery at age 16. due to his extreme asceticism and austerity, he was deemed unfit for communal life and was forced to quit the monastery. He became a hermit and lived a reclusive life in a hut in Telanissos in Syria. After three years he moved outdoors to a hill near one of Syria's main thoroughfares and was visited by travelers wanting to see the famous ascetic and ask his counsel. In order to escape this disturbance, he decided to live atop a pillar the first of which was 9 feet and finally, legend has it that, he ended up on a pillar 50 feet high. Atop his pillar, he conversed via letter with many people including the Emperor Theodosius, the Empress Eudocia and the Emperor Leo to whom Simeon wrote in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. He died in 459, having spent 37 years on his pillar. A church was built over his grave in the late 400s and his column was placed in the central court.
|Wellcome Library, London|
Saint Simeon the Elder inspired many others to follow in his footsteps and his imitators include, Saint Daniel in Constantinople, Saint Simeon the Younger near Antioch, Saint Alypius near Adrianopolis, Saint Luke at Chalcedon and Saint Lazarus near Ephesus. Various other stylites lived throughout Greece and the Middle East and the only known stylite in the West was Saint Wulfaicus, a deacon near Yvoi, France who was forced by church authorities to descend. The longest reported period any Stylite spent atop their pillar was Saint Alypius who remained atop his pillar for, as legend has it, 67 years.
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1976
Thurston, Herbert. "St. Simeon Stylites the Elder." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 12 Feb. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13795a.htm>.
Crocker, H.W. Triumph:The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church. Three Rivers Press, New York.2001.
Encyclopedia Britanica, Saint Simeon Stylites, www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Simeon-Stylites
Encyclopedia Britanica, Stylites