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In Constantine P. Cavafy's 1917 poem, "Simeon," a young cultured aesthete (probably from Antioch), writes his friend Mebis about a recent chance encounter with the famous stylite that left him "shattered, unnerved, and aghast," and entirely unfit to resume his sophistic career in belles lettres:
Ah, don't smile; for thirty-five years, think of it-- winter, summer, daytime, night, for thirty-five years he's been living, martyring himself, atop a pillar. Before we were born--I'm twenty-nine years old, you are, I think, younger than I am-- before we were born, imagine it, Simeon climbed up that pillar. And since that time he has stayed there facing God. (1)
Simeon had a similar effect on a contemporary of Cavafy's fictional aesthete and fellow Antiochene: Theodoret bishop of Cyrrhus, who in 444 wrote a history of the monks of Syria, the Historia Religiosa. (2) Theodoret was in a privileged position to write such a history. First of all, he was of Greek parentage and educated in the Hellenistic paideia at Antioch. Furthermore, his mother was devoted to the local monks and consecrated her son to the monastic life at birth. True to his education, Theodoret cast his local Syrian monks as classical Greek athletes and heroes and exemplars of Christian piety. The climax of his history is the chapter on the life of Simeon. Had Cavafy's young aesthete read Thedoret's Historia Religiosa, he might have been less impressed by Simeon's virtuoso athleticism. Compared with his contemporaries, Simeon's fervent asceticism was none too extreme. Several of his fellows lived as "grazers" in the wild country, anticipating the angelic life. (3) Eusebius of Teleda, once distracted from the reading of the gospels by a pleasant hilltop view, made lifelong penance by chaining his neck to his belt, so that he was always stooped. (4) Marcianus and after him Baradatus lived in wooden huts too small in which to stand or lie and yet were open to the elements. (5)
Quite literally, what made Simeon stand out among his contemporaries was his pillar. This pillar has commanded a great deal of attention from antiquity forward: some condemned the practice from the start; others revered the stylite and made pilgrimage to receive his blessing; still others followed suit and mounted their own pillars. Two of the three vitae of Simeon (chapter 26 of Theodoret's Historia Religiosa and the anonymous Syriac vim) offer explicit explanations for this strange innovation in ascetic practice, while a third vim (by a certain Antonius) offers an interesting, implicit explanation. (6) Some recent scholarship, however, has been interested in the possible pagan antecedents of stylitism, chiefly the "pillar-dwellers," whom Lucian of Samosata mentions in his De Dea Syria. (7) Although the debates in scholarship regarding pagan antecedents are very interesting, they fail to account for a peculiar feature mentioned in all three vitae: when Simeon sets out on his own to perfect a demanding ascetic regime, his first move was not to ascend the pillar but instead to descend, to go underground. All three vitae mention some sort of inaugural descent (sometimes by angelic command), followed by a subsequent ascent. These three witnesses suggest that we should interpret Simeon's stylitism within the broader context of his entire solo ascetic career, a career that is governed by what I am calling (following Mircea Eliade) a peculiar "geometry." (8) Modern scholars have fixated on the pillar alone and so have been blind to the way in which the pillar serves as but one, albeit culminating, movement in Simeon's ascetic career. Rather surprisingly, given his ambivalent reputation in the contemporary study of religion, Eliade's discussion of the axis mundi, or cosmic pillar, offers a helpful framework for interpreting the peculiar "geometry" of Simeon's asceticism.
* Stylitism in Scholarship
Although all three of the vitae--which seem to come from independent sources (9)--agree that Simeon's stylitism was an innovation and nowhere mention a pre-Christian analog, some recent scholarship has exercised itself with the question of stylitism's antecedents, specifically its connection to the practice of ascending pillars in the cult of Atargatis in Hierapolis, as recorded in Lucian's De Dea Syria. (10) This trend, however, is a response to a longstanding scholarly refusal of the possible influence of pagan pillar pieties on Simeon. (11) Some of this traditional reluctance may indeed stem from "theological discomfort that the origins of stylitism [lie] outside the spectrum of a monolithic Christian asceticism," (12) but it may equally stem from the fact that the historical ligaments that connect Simeon to Hierapolis are somewhat strained.
The first to suggest the connection between Simeon's stylitism and its possible pagan antecedents was Jules Toutain in his 1912 article, "La legende chretienne de Saint Simeon et ses origines paiennes." (13) In 1968 and again in 1970, G. R. H. Wright strengthened the case for this connection by comparing the iconography of stylites (Simeon and others) with the depiction of pillars and trees from the ancient Near East. (14) He reproduced two stelai from the region in which Simeon was active, each of which depicts a saint living atop a pillar, being served by an attendant on a ladder and receiving a crown of flame from a bird (see figs. 1 and 2). Wright takes these to be "local and contemporary" representations of Simeon, undertaken "perhaps even within [his] lifetime." (15) To these two stelai Wright compares a third, a millennium older but from the same region. This Syro-Hittite stele from Tell Halaf shows a surprising similarity to the stelai of Simeon (see fig. 3): a ladder is set against a column or tree and a man ascends with instruments to tend the crowning foliage. The tree, Wright tells us, is the "Sacred Tree" that the attendant artificially fertilizes, a pervasive feature of religions of the ancient Near East. (16) Wright suggests not that Simeon necessarily modeled his behavior on the ancient Syro-Hittite practice but that "the composition alone of the St. Simeon stelai has served to raise the issue that those who formed the iconography of the saint were not unmindful of the God of vegetation figured in the Sacred Tree." (17) A thousand years separates the two, and so Wright suggests two "intermediary vehicles--intermediate in time, place and religion. These vehicles are the Hierapolis Cult and Christ Crucified." (18)
In his baffling work, De Dea Syria, Lucian, the second century Syrian satirist, mentions a cult at the temple of Atargatis in Hierapolis in which phallobates or "phallus-climbers" play a prominent role. Lucian tells us that outside the temple of this cult were erected two pillars--he calls them phalloi--which were associated with a strange rite:
 It is within these propylaea [of the temple] that the phalli stand which Dionysus erected, themselves three hundred fathoms tall. One of these two phalli is climbed twice a year by a man who lives on top of the phallus for a span of seven days. The reason for his ascent is supposed to be this. Most people think that he converses with the gods up there and asks blessing for the whole of Syria, and they hear his prayers from near at hand....
 The ascent goes like this. He encompasses himself and the phallus with a small rope, and then climbs up on bits of wood nailed to the phallus at a distance of about a foot apart. As he ascends he yanks up the rope on both sides like a charioteer. If someone has never seen this, but has seen the climbing of date-palms in Arabia or in Egypt or elsewhere, then he will know what I am talking about.
When he has reached the end of his ascent, he casts off another rope which he has brought with him, this time a large one, and hauls up what he desires, wood and clothes and equipment, from which he fashions a seat like a nest and sits in it, and stays there for the number of days I mentioned. Many visitors put gold and silver, or bronze, which they use as money, into a basket that lies before the phallus, each announcing his own name. A helper who stands alongside calls it upward. On learning the name, he makes a vow on behalf of each one, and as he prays beats a bronze artifact that sounds loud and shrill when struck. He never sleeps, because if sleep were ever to seize hold of him, then a scorpion would climb up and wake him and do him mischief: such would be his punishment were he to fall asleep. Their story about the scorpion is sacred and of divine import, but whether it is true I cannot say. I should have thought that the fear of falling also contributes greatly to sleeplessness.
 So much for the phallobatai. (19)
How far back this pillar cult stretched in history no one knows, but Wright contends that it was operative well into Simeon's day. If so, then Jacob Burkhardt's assessment in 1852 may well be right: "Could such an obscene cult be better atoned for in the Christian period than by a saintly penitent ascending the pillar to serve God after his own manner not for weeks but for decades on end?" (20) Following Burkhardt's suggestion, Wright argues that Simeon's interpreters understood his stylitism as the Christian appropriation of a pagan practice, the sanctification of a site and symbol of pagan power. (21)
This brings us to our second "intermediary vehicle": the figure of Christ Crucified. As Christ is the second Adam who undoes the effects of original sin through his death, so the Cross on which he works that salvation becomes the second Tree of Life. (22) It was an association especially common in Syriac Christianity: (23) Ephrem the Syrian sings:
The tree of life is the Cross Which gave radiant life to our race. On top of Golgotha Christ Distributes life to men. (24)
Wright produces three stelai in which Symeon atop his pillar is replaced with a cruciform figure (fig. 4). According to this iconography, then, stylitism is understood to be a form of imimtio Christi, more specifically imitatio crucis. For his iconographers, then, Simeon in effect mounts a pagan pillar--what would be to them a Tree of Life, a symbol of fertility--and appropriates its meanings just as he transforms them by christening them with his own cruciform practice.
Some years after Wright's pair of articles, Han J. W. Drijvers weighed in on this debate. (25) He essentially split Wright in two: contra Wright, Drijvers found no evidence of any continuity between pagan pillar pieties and Simeon's stylitism; but following Wright, he argues that not only their iconographers and hagiographer, but the stylites themselves (including Simeon) were engaged in an ascetic practice of imitatio Christi. In her 1988 article, "The Sense of a Stylite," Susan Ashbrook Harvey took issue with the imitatio Christi interpretation, more specifically the notion that his hagiographers …