Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Alypius the Stylite

Today is the Feast of St. Alypius the Stylite — where the title Stylite refers to that wonderfully strange monastic practice of living life atop a pillar. His mother was a Christian and was widowed early in the life of her son. Therefore, she sent him to be educated by the Bishop Theodore. She then gave all that she owned to the poor, took up the ascetic life and became a deaconess.

As an aside, this is why and how I can justify female cleric characters in my games. Though the deaconess was required to be celibate (or widowed, as in the case of Alypius' mother) and older (40 years old), women were ordained in the ancient church. They primarily served in monasteries and ministered to women and girls, especially during sacraments that required physical contact like baptism — it was seen as inappropriate for male priests and bishops to physically handle women. Historically, the ordination of the deaconess largely fell out of practice around the 9th century, though there are still pockets where the practice still exists.

While he was traveling with the bishop to Constantinople, St. Alypius received a vision from St. Euphemia to build a church dedicated to her in the pace of his birth, the city of Adrianopolis. Once he had raised enough funds, he set about building the church on the site of a dilapidated pagan temple. The site was infested by devils. Having had the desire to lead an ascetic life since his youth, Alypius erected a pillar on top of a pagan tomb next where the church was to be built. There, he battled the devils on a nightly basis. Their favorite attack was to pelt him with stones. He was finally able to drive them away when he had all the protections of his small shelter removed and he was completely exposed to the elements.

St. Alypius remained upon his pillar for fifty-three years. Two monasteries were built at the site during his lifetime — one for men and one for women. He reposed at the age of 118 in the year A.D. 640. His relics remain in the church he built in honor of St. Euphemia.

Besides the various Christian artifacts that can be found in the early editions of D&D, it is stories like those of St. Alypius that make me entirely comfortable with the idea that D&D is compatible with Christianity. His story reads like the character arc of a typical D&D cleric. He is apprenticed to a bishop (levels 1 to 3). He then heads off on his own adventure — that wonderful trope of the temple ruins (levels 4-6). He battles the denizens of this location based adventure and finally emerges victorious (levels 7-9). Having collected enough funds, he builds a church and begins to attract followers (the two monasteries).

As I have said before (and I am sure I will say again), the idea of the stylite is marvelously bizarre. It is a great way to add flavor to a fantasy setting — and I love the fact that it comes from an established Christian practice.


Stylite Pillars

These structures appear in various forms, but are always columnar with enough space on the top for a single person to stand or sit. They are almost always found in remote wilderness and radiate of magic when detected for. This magic manifests when someone tries to spend the night praying atop the pillar. When attempting to do so, a wandering monster check should be made every hour, with a minimum of one wandering monster encounter for the night. These encounters do not result in the loss either of sleep or the gaining of spells.

At the end of the night, non-clerics gain the effects of a Bless spell for 24 hours. Clerics may choose one of the following benefits:

  • The effects of a Bless spell for 24 hours.
  • The ability to Turn Undead at one level higher for 24 hours.
  • An extra spell (to be determined by the Referee).

Stylite Pillars cannot be moved.


Anthony said...

I've always assumed that Stylites, once they ascended the pillar, never came down. Your description of the pillar itself makes me wonder how they avoided falling off in their sleep or in storms.

You're right, though, pillar-sitting monastics are a wonderful "setting element" for the PCs to interact with.

Alex Osias said...

I'm also curious -- how did they eat if they didn't come down? did someone bring food up to them?

I do assume they come down periodically for all the normal bodily functions.

Anthony said...


I've seen illustrations from old art showing food being raised in a basket to the monks on their pillars. I suspect bodily waste may have been lowered by the same means. Ew.

FrDave said...

@Anthony @Alexander
Most (if not all) of the stylites lived in or near a community and were often seen as spiritual leaders. Thus, food etc. would have been brought to them.

I have yet to find any historical account as to the size of the pillars used by the stylites. There are three interesting clues in the life of St. Alypius, however.

Originally, his pillar had a roof. He was unable to defeat the devils until he took it down. Fourteen years before he died, his legs gave out and he had to spend the rest of his life laying on his side. He was considered the spiritual leader of the two monasteries and he taught. All three suggest a pillar of a much larger diameter than I suggest in my fantasy version. But then, I was going for weird rather than historic accuracy...