Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Wizard's Duel

A wizard's duel, Harry, is far more dangerous than you can possible imagine...

Like all good periods of history, the ancient world had a fair number of magicians, sorcerers and holy men who performed miracles. Our focus this week is one one of the more famous of them: Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Magician. He was also the inspiration for the Faust story, and was sometimes called the source of all heresies by early Christians.

There's some controversy over who he really was: early Christian texts seem to refer to several people called Simon who might all be the same man, or could be any number of men. In almost all accounts, including the Biblical one, Simon was a Samaritan sorcerer who became a Christian, usually when St Peter or another saint/ preacher baptised him. In the Biblical account, Simon had previously considered himself some kind of messianic figure, as evidenced by his god-like powers. 

He may also have had a wife, who was once a prostitute, called Helen from the city of Tyre. There's a myth, recounted by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, that he believed she was the reincarnation of Helen of Troy, who was herself a reincarnation of Eve, herself a female companion to God? It's all a bit confused. In this story, Simon believed himself to be an incarnation of God who had come to rescue her from subjugation at the hands of the angels.

On the other hand, Hippolytus says : "But the liar was enamoured of this wench, whose name was Helen, and had bought her and had her to wife, and it was out of respect for his disciples that he invented this fairy-tale"- Refutation of All Heresies 6, 19. Which is more believable, if less pleasant.

It is possible that St Peter laid a curse on him. Acts of the Apostles 9: 18-24 (A book of the bible) states:

"And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” But Peter said unto him, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee,  for I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.” Then answered Simon, and said, “Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me" "

In this story he is depicted as somewhat grasping: a man who wanted greater magical powers, and didn't mind which God he had to pray to to get it.

Hippolytus also tells us about Simon Magus' death, and it it typically loaded with hubris and arrogance:

"[Simon flourished] until he came to Rome also and fell foul of the Apostles. Peter withstood him on many occasions. At last he came [. . .] and began to teach sitting under a plane tree. When he was on the point of being shown up, he said, in order to gain time, that if he were buried alive he would rise again on the third day. So he bade that a tomb should be dug by his disciples and that he should be buried in it. Now they did what they were ordered, but he remained there until now: for he was not the Christ." 

That seems like the end of that, now doesn't it?

But wait, what happened to his followers? They called themselves the Simonians (original) and were a 2nd-4th century Gnostic sect. Gnostics, generally, believed that the spiritual world should be embraced, that the material world should be rejected and that gnosis (a concept perhaps best thought of as "enlightenment") could only be achieved through extreme philanthropy, poverty and sexual abstinence. They can be thought of as coming from a broadly Christian tradition, but didn't all believe in Christ or the Judaeo-Christian God, so I guess it depends on how flexible your definition of "Christianity" is.

The starting principle was that God was Fire (taken from Deuteronomy,  the writings of Heraclitus, and probably the appearance of the sun). However, Fire/God was also the Universal Principle (the being that caused or made the world, and existed before it) and also a super-intelligent being. The other parts of the diagram depict the various levels of minor beings above humans, and the separation between humans and God. The six powers, Mind, Voice, Reason, Reflection, Name, and Thought, all lie between God and Man, in the middle distance. Does any of that make any sense? No, I don't think so either. As you can see, it is far removed from most contemporary monotheisms that we in the West are familiar with. 

The Simonians flourished in Rome, Syria and some parts of Asia Minor, though they were condemned as a pagan heresy by many Christian writers. In Church History 2.13, Eusebius calls them "the most immoral and depraved [people] of all mankind". 

Deeply unpopular, and always in the minority, they were described in the 3rd century by Origen.

"Also Simon the Samaritan, a magician, wished to filch away some by his magic. And at the time indeed he succeeded in his deception, but now I suppose it is not possible to find 30 Simonians altogether in the world; and perhaps I have put the number higher than it really is. But in Palestine there are very few, and in the rest of the world, in which he wished to spread his own glory, his name is nowhere mentioned. If it is, this is due to the Acts of the Apostles. It is the Christians who say what is said about him, and it has become plain as daylight that Simon was nothing divine"- Against Celsus 1.57.

Now hang on a second, I definitely said "Wizard's Duel", didn't I? Where does that come in? Surely that's much more exciting than all this religious sects nonsense.

Go on then, if you insist.

There's a more elaborate version of his death in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Acts of Peter and Paul. These were sort of semi-Canonical documents, which were sometimes included with others in a short book between the Testaments or as an appendix to the New Testament. In these versions, Simon's showdown with Peter is significantly more dramatic.

They were debating in the forum in front of Emperor Nero (who else?). Simon was casting magic and illusions to prove his power. Finally, he levitated himself and flew about the forum. Presumably, all who saw him were sore amazed. However, when it was Peter's turn, he resorted to no such conjurours' tricks. He simply prayed to God that Simon's powers be revoked, and they were. Simon crashed to the ground. At this point, either he died instantly, or broke his legs in three places, was then stoned by a hostile crowd, and then died from blood loss after being "sorely cut by two physicians"- Acts of Peter. 

Nero, but of course, kept his body for three days, just to check he didn't rise again.

Spoilers: he didn't. 

1 comment:

  1. Simon is indeed a fascinating character, so much so that I am writing a novel about his exploits. http://simonmagus.com