In celebration of our not having been scorched from this earth, I thought I’d use this week’s post to highlight that when it comes to bizarre practices carried out in the name of religion, the history books take a lot of beating. Where, I wonder, will Harold Camping’s prophecies of doom and cult of loony (and rather sad) followers rank in the all time top ten?
To set the benchmark, I give you this from the endlessly enthralling A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch (and yes, I’ve blogged about this book before. Frankly, there’s enough to keep me blogging about nothing else for months). Best let the Professor do the talking:
One of the most extraordinary practices adopted by some ascetics in Syria was to spend years on end exposed on top of a specially built stone column, living on a wicker platform which resembled the basket of a modern hot-air balloon. This form of devotion was pioneered in the early fifth century by [a man called] Simeon, therefore nicknamed the Stylite (‘pillar dweller’). Once established on his column, he reputedly never descended from it before his death.
But wait, there’s more:
Simeon’s frugal needs were met by an eager entourage of admirers who hoisted food up to him from the ground. His pillar survives in part … [t]he column has literally been eaten away by its devotees, who over centuries chipped off small portions which they then ground to powder and swallowed for healing purposes.
A precursor to homeopathy? The real punchline, though, is surely this:
Stylites often became major players in Church politics, shouting down their theological pronouncements from their little elevated balconies to the expectant crowds below, or giving personalized advice to those favoured enough to climb the ladder and join them on their platform. [...] Simeon does not seem to have protested while a large expensive church (whose ruins also still survive) was being built round his pillar, thus making this ragged hermit into a bizarre living relic, sole exhibit in a Christian zoo.
Bizarre indeed. The Monty Python boys really weren’t making it up, were they? Suddenly the delusions of Mad Camping don’t seem that extreme. Other nominations for the top ten list gratefully received, either here or via @philblogs.