11 December 2020

The Pundit (12014 repost)

[This is the piece aboutt Daniel the Stylite that I mentioned in an earlier post. It was originally posted at Rational Rant on 11 December 12014.]

Odd things qualify an otherwise unremarkable person to become a pundit—a failed vice-presidential run based on having held a largely ceremonial job as village mayor, for example. A few speeches written for an actual vice-president. Claimed predictions of dire events. A thirty-year sojourn on top of a pillar.

That last one was what qualified Daniel the Stylite, an otherwise-unremarkable small-town monk, to advise an emperor in the warped world that was the Fifth Century of the Common Era, that liminal moment between Antiquity and the Dark Ages when the western Roman Empire tottered on the brink and finally gave up the ghost. That ghost—we know it as the Great Church—animated its twitching corpse and held the living Eastern Empire in its grip.

And that’s the clue to Daniel’s career. He probably never stood a chance of anything resembling a normal life. It’s not only that the times were out of joint—when were they not?—but that his mother promised him to God before he was born. By the time he was twelve he was hanging out at the local monastery full-time.

Present-day Christianity is strange enough to the uninitiated, but ancient Christianity was something else again. Today we think of snake-handlers and tongue-speakers as bizarre fringe-figures in Christianity. Even faith-healers are out there. These were mainstream in Christianity back then. To be noticed you had to do something really dramatic. Vows of silence, self-flagelation, never washing—these were the sorts of things you had to do to get noticed. A guy named Simeon came up with a new gimmick; he climbed up to the top of a pillar and stayed there, supplied with food by acolytes and curiosity-seekers.

On a trip to Antioch with his superior Daniel heard of this guy and wanted to see him. Hoisted up to the top of the pillar, Daniel conversed with him and received his blessing. Apparently it made an impression on him.

His first attempt at notoriety wasn’t pillar-sitting, however. After the superior died Daniel briefly took over his position, but soon abandoned it to live among the jackals and owls—and reputedly evil spirits—in an abandoned temple. Despite the annoyance this caused the neighbors, Daniel acquired a reputation as a saint and miracle-worker.

He’d been at this for some time when he ran into Sergius, Simeon’s acolyte. The pillar-sitter had died, it seemed, leaving Sergius his religious garb. Sergius had tried to pass the relics on to the Emperor Leo, but had been unsuccessful. Daniel seized on the opportunity. Why not take over Simeon’s gig? Sitting on a pillar was no doubt an improvement on living with jackals, and possession of the saint’s castoffs was authority enough, it seems, especially with Sergius willing to sign on as Daniel’s acolyte, assuming that Daniel wanted the position. Daniel immediately started looking for a likely pillar.

The pillars of the old temple were in too bad a shape to serve, but one of his fans set him up with a new pillar, and early one morning Daniel climbed on top of it, “where he soon became an object of curiosity and devotion to the sight-seers and pious of Byzanium,” according to Sabine Baring-Gould. “Crowds came to see him, and brought lunatics and sick people to be healed by him. Those who were afflicted were hoisted up to the top of the pillar, and then Daniel applies his hands to them, and was so successful as to cure many.”

As a pillar-dweller he was a hit. The Emperor Leo not only built him a more sumptuous pillar with a roof and a small room to protect him from the elements, but also came to consult him on matters of state. The Emperor Zeno, in his turn, consulted Daniel on matters both great and small. At one point Daniel predicted that Constantinople would suffer from a great fire, which it did—a connection that apparently raised no eyebrows in those simpler times.

In the end the celebrated pillar-sitter passed on at the age of eighty. His hagiographer tells it as follows:

Just about the time of his holy departure from this life a man vexed with an unclean spirit suddenly cried aloud in the midst of the people, announcing the presence of the saints with the holy man, naming each one of them; and he said, “There is great joy in heaven at this hour, for the holy angels have come to take the holy man with them, besides there are come, too, the honourable and glorious companies of prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints; they are tormenting me now, and to-morrow at the third hour they will drive me out of this tabernacle; when the holy man is going to his home in the heavens and his saintly corpse is being brought down, I shall come out.” And this did indeed happen. Our glorious father Daniel died at the third hour on the following day, a Saturday, December 11th in the second indiction (A.D. 493), and at the time of his death he worked a miracle in that the man with an unclean spirit was healed.

The people wanted a last look at the revered pundit. To accommodate them the local authorities had the body fastened to a board and raised upright so all could see and admire. When the body was taken down there was such a stampede that the men carrying it were knocked down along with the body. “By the grace of the Lord the carriers did not suffer any injury” according to his hagiographer.

It was a grotesque coda to a grotesque life. Daniel’s reward (I suppose) was to have influence in the halls of the incompetents holding the actual reins of power. It was probably worth living with jackals or standing for three decades atop a pillar, if that’s the price you have to pay for the cloak of authority.

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