Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.



As was said above, after spending three days in the holy places, he arrived in the city of Emesa. The manner of his entry into the city was as follows: When the famous Symeon found a dead dog on a dunghill outside the city, he loosened the rope belt he was wearing, and tied it to the dog’s foot. He dragged the dog as he ran and entered the gate, where there was a children’s school nearby. When the children saw him, they began to cry, “Hey, a crazy abba!” And they set about to run after him and box him on the ears.

On the next day, which was Sunday, he took nuts, and entering the church at the beginning of the liturgy, he threw the nuts and put out the candles. When they hurried [146] to run after him, he went up to the pulpit, and from there he pelted the women with nuts. With great trouble, they chased after him, and while he was going out, he overturned the tables of the pastry chefs,[30] who (nearly) beat him to death. Seeing himself crushed by the blows, he said to himself, “Poor Symeon, if things like this keep happening, you won’t live for a week in these people’s hands.”

According to God’s plan, a phouska-seller[31] saw him, who did not know that he was playing the fool.[32] And he said to him (for he seemed to be sane), “Would you like, my lord abba,[33] instead of wandering about, to be set up to sell lupines?”[34] And he said, “Yes.” When he set him up one day, Symeon began to give everything away to people and to eat, himself, insatiably, for he had not eaten the whole week. The phouska-seller’s wife said to her husband, “Where did you find us this abba? If he eats like this, it’s no use trying to sell anything! For while I observed him, he ate about a pot full of lupines.” But they did not know that he had given away all the rest of the pots to fellow monks and others—the beans, the lentil soup, the desert fruits, all of it. They thought that he had sold it. When they opened the cash box and did not find a single cent, they beat him and fired him, and pulled his beard. When evening fell he wanted to burn incense.[35] Now he had not departed from them that evening, but slept there outside their door. And not finding a shard of pottery, he put his hand in the oven and filled it with live coals and burned incense. Because God wished to save the phouska-seller, for he was a heretic of the Acephalic Severian sect,[36] his wife saw Symeon burning incense in his hand and was very frightened and said, “Good God! Abba Symeon, are you burning incense in your hand?” And when the monk heard this, he pretended to be burned and was shaking the coals in his hand and threw them into the old cloak which he wore, and said to her, “And if you do not want it [147] in my hand, see I will burn incense in my cloak.” And as in the presence of the Lord who preserved the bush [Ex 3:2] and the unburnt boys [Dn 3:19 ff.], neither the saint nor his cloak were burned by the coals. And the manner in which the phouska-seller and his wife were saved will be told in another chapter.

It was also the saint’s practice, whenever he did something miraculous, to leave that neighborhood immediately, until the deed which he had done was forgotten. He hurried on immediately elsewhere to do something inappropriate, so that he might thereby hide his perfection.

Once he earned his food carrying hot water in a tavern. The tavern keeper was heartless, and he often gave Symeon no food at all, although he had great business, thanks to the Fool. For when the townspeople were ready for a diversion, they said to each other, “Let’s go have a drink where the Fool is.” One day a snake came in, drank from one of the jars of wine, vomited his venom in it and left. Abba Symeon was not inside; instead he was dancing outside with the members of a circus faction.[37] When the saint came into the tavern, he saw the wine jar, upon which “Death” had been written invisibly. Immediately he understood what had happened to it, and lifting up a piece of wood, he broke the jar in pieces, since it was full. His master took the wood out of his hand, beat him with it until he was exhausted, and chased him away. The next morning, Abba Symeon came and hid himself behind the tavern door. And behold! The snake came to drink again. And the tavern keeper saw it and took the same piece of wood in order to kill it. But his blow missed, and he broke all the wine jars and cups. Then the Fool burst in and said to the tavern keeper, “What is it, stupid? See, I am not the only one who is clumsy.”[38] Then the tavern keeper understood that Abba Symeon had broken the wine jar for the same reason. And he was edified and considered Symeon to be holy.

Thereupon the saint wanted to destroy his edification, so that the tavern keeper would not expose him. [148] One day when the tavern keeper’s wife was asleep alone and the tavern keeper was selling wine, Abba Symeon approached her and pretended to undress. The woman screamed, and when her husband came in, she said to him, “Throw this thrice cursed man out! He wanted to rape me.” And punching him with his fists, he carried him out of the shop and into the icy cold. Now there was a mighty storm and it was raining. And from that moment, not only did the tavern keeper think that he was beside himself, but if he heard someone else saying, “Perhaps Abba Symeon pretends to be like this,” immediately he answered, “He is completely possessed. I know, and no one can persuade me otherwise. He tried to rape my wife. And he eats meat as if he’s godless.” For without tasting bread all week, the righteous one often ate meat. No one knew about his fasting, since he ate meat in front of everybody in order to deceive them.

It was entirely as if Symeon had no body, and he paid no attention to what might be judged disgraceful conduct either by human convention or by nature. Often, indeed, when his belly sought to do its private function, immediately, and without blushing, he squatted in the market place, wherever he found himself, in front of everyone, wishing to persuade (others) by this that he did this because he had lost his natural sense. For guarded, as I have often said, by the power of the Holy Spirit which dwelt within him, he was above the burning which is from the Devil and was not harmed by it at all. One day, when the aforementioned virtuous John, the friend of God who narrated this life for us, saw him mortified from his asceticism (for it was the time after Easter and he had passed all of Lent without food), he felt both pity and amazement at the indescribable austerity of Symeon’s regimen, although he lived in the city and associated with women and men. And wanting him to refresh his body, John said to him playfully, “Come take a bath, Fool!” And Symeon said to him, laughing, “Yes, let’s go, let’s go!” And with these words, he stripped off his garment and placed it on his head, wrapping it around like a turban. And Deacon John said to him, “Put it back on, brother, [149] for truly if you are going to walk around naked, I won’t go with you.” Abba Symeon said to him, “Go away, idiot, I’m all ready. If you won’t come, see, I’ll go a little ahead of you.” And leaving him, he kept a little ahead. However, there were two baths next to each other, one for men and one for women. The Fool ignored the men’s and rushed willingly into the women’s. Deacon John cried out to him, “Where are you going, Fool? Wait, that’s the women’s!” The wonderful one turned and said to him, “Go away, you idiot, there’s hot and cold water here, and there’s hot and cold water there, and it doesn’t matter at all whether (I use) this one or that.” And he ran and entered into the midst of the women, as in the presence of the Lord of glory. The women rushed against him, beat him, and threw him out. The God-loving deacon (John) asked him, when he told him his whole life, “For God’s sake, father, how did you feel when you entered into the women’s bath?” He said, “Believe me, child, just as a piece of wood goes with other pieces of wood, thus was I there. For I felt neither that I had a body nor that I had entered among bodies, but the whole of my mind was on God’s work, and I did not part from Him.” Some of his deeds the righteous one did out of compassion for the salvation of humans, and others he did to hide his way of life.

Then one time (some youths) were outside the city playing lysoporta,[39] of whom one was the son of Symeon’s friend, John the deacon, who a few days earlier had fornicated with a married woman. As he was leaving her house, he was possessed by a demon, although no one saw it happen. Therefore the saint wanted both to chasten him and heal him at the same time. And he said to the runners, “Truly, unless you let me play with you, I won’t let you run.” And they began to throw stones at him. They wanted to take him to the side where the one he wished to cure was running. Seeing this, Abba Symeon went off the opposite way instead. For he knew what he was going to do. And when they began to run, the saint rushed headlong toward the possessed boy and overtook him. When no one was looking, he punched him in the jaw, and said, “Commit adultery no more, wretch, and the Devil won’t draw near you.” And immediately [150] the demon threw the boy down, and everyone jumped on top of him. As he lay on the ground foaming, the afflicted one saw the Fool chasing a black dog away from him, beating it with a wooden cross. Many hours later, when the youth came to, they asked what happened to him. And he could not say anything except, “Someone said to me, ‘Commit adultery no more.’ ” Only after Abba Symeon had died in peace, as if coming to his senses, the youth narrated the event carefully.

One day, some mimes were putting on a performance in the theater. One of them was a juggler. The righteous one wanted to put a stop to such an evil thing—for the juggler mentioned had done some good deeds—he did not disdain to go, but went and sat below in the arena, where the mimes performed. And when he saw the juggler, he began to do wicked things: He threw a very small stone, after making the sign of the cross on it, and he hit the juggler’s right hand, causing it to shrivel up. No one noticed who had thrown the stone. The saint appeared to the juggler that night in a dream and said to him, “Truly I hit the mark, and unless you swear that you will no longer do such things, you won’t be healed.” So the juggler swore to him by the Mother of God, “I will never again engage in such a game.” And when he awoke, he found that his hand was healed. And he related all which he had seen, except that it was the Fool who spoke these things to him in his sleep. He could only say, “Some monk wearing a crown of palm branches said this to me.”

Once when a large earthquake was about to seize the city, when Antioch fell, during the time of the faithfully departed Emperor Maurice[40]—for it was then that the saint came down from the desert into the inhabited world—he grabbed a whip from a school and began to strike the pillars and say to each one, “Your master says, ‘Remain standing!’ ” And when the earthquake came, none of the pillars which he struck fell down. However he also went up to one pillar and said to it, “You neither fall nor stand!” And it was split from top to bottom and bent over a bit and stayed that way. No one figured out what the blessed one had done, but everyone said that he struck the pillars because he was out of his mind.

There was this for the glorification and admiration of God: The gestures which caused some to believe that Symeon led an [151] irredeemable life were often those through which he displayed his miracles. For once when a plague was about to come upon the city, he went around to all the schools and began to kiss the children, saying to each of them, as in jest, “Farewell, my dear.” He did not kiss all of them, but only those whom the grace of God made known to him. And he said to the teacher at each school, “In God’s name, idiot, do not thrash the children whom I kiss, for they have a long way to go.” The teachers mocked him, sometimes giving him a whipping; sometimes also the teacher nodded to the children and they ridiculed him publicly. When the plague came, not one of the children whom Abba Symeon had kissed remained alive, but they all died.

It was the saint’s habit to enter into the houses of the wealthy and clown around, often even pretending to fondle their female slaves. For example, one day a certain circus faction member had got a slave girl of one of the notables pregnant. The slave girl did not want to expose the one who had fornicated with her, and when her mistress asked her who had seduced her, the slave girl said, “Symeon the Fool raped me.” Therefore, when he came into the house, according to his custom, the girl’s mistress said to him, “Well, Abba Symeon, so you seduced my slave and got her pregnant.” And immediately he laughed and hid his head in his right hand and said to her, while at the same time squeezing his five fingers, “Leave me alone, leave me alone, wretch, soon she will give birth for you, and you will have a little Symeon!” Until her day arrived, Abba Symeon kept bringing her wheat bread, meat, and pickled fish, and said, “Eat, my wife.” When the time and the hour for her to give birth came, she struggled in child-birth for three days and almost died. Then her mistress said to the Fool, “Pray, Abba Symeon, for your wife cannot give birth.” He said to her, dancing and clapping his hands, “By Jesus, by Jesus, wretch, the child won’t come out from there until [152] she says who its father is.” When the girl in danger heard this she said, “I slandered him. The child belongs to so-and-so of the circus faction.” Immediately then she gave birth.[41] And while all were amazed, some in the house believed he was a saint, while others said once again, “He prophesied this because of the Devil, since he is a complete imbecile.”

Two fathers then in a certain monastery near Emesa considered a question among themselves and inquired why the heretic Origen had fallen, although honored by God with such knowledge and wisdom.[42] One said, “The knowledge which he had was not from God, but was a natural advantage. Furthermore, he had a clever mind, and especially when he devoted himself to his reading of the Holy Scriptures and to the holy fathers, he sharpened his mind, and from this he wrote his books.” The other responded, “It is not possible for someone to say the things which he put forth because of natural advantage (alone), especially the statements in his Hexapla”—which is why even to this day the catholic Church accepts them as indispensable. And the first answered again, “Believe me, the pagans have acquired more wisdom than he and have written more books than he. What then? Should we also approve them because of their wordy nonsense?” When they could not agree, thus standing their ground to the end, one said to the other, “I hear from those who have come back from the Holy Places that the desert of the holy Jordan has great monks. Let us go and learn from them.” Thereupon they came to the Holy Places, and after they had prayed, they went also to the desert of the Dead Sea, in which John and Symeon of everlasting memory had been anchorites. God had not rendered their labors fruitless, for they found Abba John, who still remained there alone and had achieved an even higher level of virtue. When he saw them, he said, “Welcome, you who have left the sea and come to draw water at the dry pool.” After having conversed for a long time together about things pleasing to God, they told him why they had made such a journey. And he said to them, “My fathers, I have not yet received the gift to discern God’s judgments, but go to Symeon the Fool in your land, and he himself can explain both this and anything else that [153] you wish. Say to him, ‘Pray also for John, so that a ten[43] might be cast for him.’ ” So they went to Emesa and asked where a fool named Symeon was. And everyone laughed at them and said, “What do you want from him, fathers? The man is beside himself, and he abuses and jeers at all of us, particularly monks.” They sought him out and found him in the phouska-seller’s shop, eating beans like a bear. Immediately one (of the fathers) was scandalized and said to himself, “Truly we have come to see a great sage;[44] this man has much to explain to us.”[45] As they approached him, they said to him, “Bless us.” He said to them, “You have come at a bad time, and the one who sent you is an idiot.” Thereupon he grabbed the ear of the one who had been scandalized and gave him such a blow that (the bruise) could be seen for three days. And he said, “Have you found fault with my beans? They were soaked for forty days, but Origen would not eat them because he plunged into the sea and was not strong enough to get out, and he drowned in the deep.” They were amazed that he said all this in advance—and also this, “Does the Fool want the ten? He’s as much an idiot as you!—Do you want a kick on the shin?” he said. “Yes, yes, go away.” And immediately lifting up a jug of hot wine he burned the two of them on their lips, so that they were unable to repeat what he had told them.

One day while he was in the phouska-seller’s shop he picked up a pandora[46] and began to play in an alleyway, where there was an unclean spirit. He played and spoke the prayer of the great Nikon in order to chase the spirit away from the place, for it had abused many. When the spirit fled, it passed through the phouska-shop in the form of an Ethiopian and broke everything. The amazing Symeon, when he returned, said to his mistress, “Who [154] broke these things?” She said, “An accursed black man came and smashed everything.” He said to her, laughing, “Too bad, too bad.” She said, “Yes, indeed, Fool.” He said to her, “Truly I sent him, so that he would break everything.” When she heard this, she tried to beat him. But ducking down and scooping up a handful of dirt, he threw it in her eyes and blinded her. And the saint said, “Truly, you won’t catch me, but either you will take communion in my church, or the black man will break everything every day.” For they were members of the sect of Acephalic heretics. After he left her, behold the next day at the same hour, the black man came and again smashed everything in sight. In dire straits, they became Orthodox, taking Symeon to be a sorcerer. They did not dare to tell anyone about him, although every day the Fool came by and jeered at them.

One of the city’s artisans wanted to unmask Symeon when he had perceived his virtue. For one time he saw Symeon at the baths conversing with two angels. Now the artisan was a Jew, and he blasphemed Christ all the time.[47] The saint appeared to him in his sleep and told him to say nothing about what he saw. That morning he wanted to expose him, and immediately the saint stood before him, touched his lips, and sealed up his mouth. He was silenced and unable to speak to anyone. He came up to the Fool and gestured to him with his hand to make it so he could speak. But Abba Symeon played the fool[48] and gestured back to him like an idiot. He gestured to him to make the sign of the cross. To see the two of them gesturing to each other was an impressive sight. Symeon appeared to him again in a dream and the monk said, “Either you get baptized, or you will go begging.” At that time he refused to obey him, but after Abba Symeon died and the Jew saw the straits he was in, and especially after the (vision he had) at the transporting of the saint’s remains,[49] then he was baptized together with his household. And as soon as he came up from the holy font, immediately he spoke. And every year he commemorated the Fool and he invited beggars (to join him).[50]

The blessed one had advanced to such a level of purity and impassivity that often he skipped and danced, holding hands with one dancing-girl[51] [155] on this side and another on that, and he associated with them and played with them in the middle of the whole circus, so that the disreputable women threw their hands into his lap, fondled him, poked him, and pinched him. But the monk, like pure gold, was not defiled by them at all. For, as he said, when he had the burning desire[52] and the battle in the desert, he asked God and the great Nikon, so that they would lift him above the battle with unchastity. And one time he saw the celebrated Nikon coming to him and saying, “How are you, brother?” “And I said to him,” Symeon reported, “ ‘Badly, if you hadn’t come. For my flesh troubles me, and I don’t know why.’ ” The admirable Nikon, he reported, smiled and took some water from the holy Jordan and put it beneath Symeon’s navel sealing the place with the sign of the precious cross. And he said to him, “Behold, you are healed.” And from then on, so he swore, neither in his sleep, nor while awake, did he experience burning desire or bodily arousal. And because of this, and especially thus assured, the noble one returned to the world wishing to show compassion for those who were under siege and save them. For sometimes also he would say to one of the courtesans, “Do you want me to make you my girlfriend and give you a hundred gold pieces?” All excited, many were persuaded by him, for he also showed them the money. For he had as much as he wanted, because God supplied him invisibly for the sake of His inspired plan. And moreover he extracted a promise from the one receiving the money, that she would be faithful to him.

He played all sorts of roles foolish and indecent, but language is not sufficient to paint a portrait of his doings. For sometimes he pretended to have a limp, sometimes he jumped around, sometimes he dragged himself along on his buttocks, sometimes he stuck out his foot for someone running and tripped him. Other times when there was a new moon, he looked at the sky and fell down and thrashed about.[53] Sometimes also he pretended to babble, for he said that of all semblances, this one is most fitting and most useful to those who simulate folly[54] [156] for the sake of Christ. For this reason, often he reproved and restrained sins, and he sent divine wrath to someone to correct him, and he made predictions and did everything he wanted, only he changed his voice and (the position of) his limbs completely. And in all that he did, they believed that he was just like the many who babbled and prophesied because of demons. If one day one of the women whom he called his girlfriends betrayed him, he knew immediately by her spirit[55] whether she had fornicated, and he spoke to her, opening his mouth wide and screaming, “You have lapsed, you have lapsed! Holy Virgin, Holy Virgin, strike her!”[56] And either he prayed that a deadly disease would come to her, or often, if she continued in her unchastity, he would send her a demon. Because of this, henceforward, he got all those who promised him to remain chaste and not betray him.

There was a certain village headman living near Emesa, and when he heard about Symeon’s way of life, he said, “Believe me, if I saw him, I would know if he’s pretending or if he really is an idiot.” Therefore, he came to the city and found Symeon by chance while one prostitute was carrying him and another was whipping him. Immediately the village headman was scandalized, and he reasoned with himself and said in Syriac, “Does Satan himself not believe that this false abba is fornicating with them?” At once, the Fool left the women and came toward the village headman, who was about a stone’s throw away from him, and hit him. And stripping off his tunic, he danced naked and whistled. And he said to him, “Come here and play, wretch, there’s no fraud here!” By this the man knew that Symeon had seen what was in his heart, and he was amazed. Every time he started to tell someone about this, his tongue was bound, and he was unable to utter a sound.[57]

Symeon possessed the gift of abstinence in a way not many of the saints do. For each time the sacred Lenten fasts came, he did not taste anything until Holy Thursday. From early on the morning of Holy Thursday he sat in the cake shop and gorged himself, so that those who saw him were scandalized since, as they said, “He doesn’t fast on Holy Thursday.” Now John [157] the deacon knew his behavior was (inspired by) God. When he saw him on Holy Thursday sitting in the cake shop having eaten since early morning, he said to him, “How much does it cost, Fool?” And he said to him, holding forty noumia in his hand, “Here’s my follis, stupid,” showing that he was eating after forty days (of fasting).[58]

Once again a demon was haunting another part of town. One day, while he was walking around, the saint saw it trying to strike one of the passersby. And taking stones from his pocket Symeon began to throw them every which way into the marketplace, and he turned back everyone who wanted to go across. At this moment, a dog passed by, and the demon struck it and (the dog) began to foam. Then the saint said to everyone, “Go on now, idiots!” For the all-wise one knew that if someone had gone across, the demon would have struck him instead of the dog. It was for this reason that he stopped them from crossing for a short while.

As I already said before, the all-wise Symeon’s whole goal was this: first, to save souls, whether through afflictions which he sent them in ludicrous or methodical ways, or through miracles which he performed while seeming not to understand, or through maxims which he said to them while playing the fool; and second, that his virtue not be known, and he receive neither approval nor honor from men. For example, one day when some little girls were dancing and singing satiric songs,[59] he got the idea to pass through that street. When they saw him, they began to lampoon monks. The righteous one prayed, wishing to make them learn, and immediately God made all of them cross-eyed. And when they began to tell each other the bad thing which had happened to them, they knew that it was Symeon who had made them cross-eyed, and they ran after him, wailing behind him, and they cried, “Loose us, Fool, loose us!”[60] For they thought that he had made them squint with a spell. When they caught up to him, they seized him with force and they commanded the one who, they said, bound them to loose them. Then he said to them, joking, “You will be cured of such things; I will kiss your crossed eyes and heal them.” Then all of them, said the saint, whom God wanted to be healed, consented, but the rest did not let him kiss them, and they stayed cross-eyed and wailed. Then a little while after [158] he left them, and the others began to run after him and cry, “Wait, Fool, wait! By God, wait! Kiss us too!” One can just see the monk running with the young girls behind him! And some people said that they were playing with him, while others thought that the girls too had been driven insane. Thus they remained permanently unhealed. For the saint said, “Unless God had made them cross-eyed, they would have exceeded all the women of Syria in debauchery. But through the disease of their eyes they gave up all their evil.”

Once his friend, Deacon John, invited him to lunch, and they were hanging salted meats there. So Abba Symeon began to knock down the raw meat and eat it. The all-wise John, not wanting to say anything to him with a loud voice, drew near his ear and said to him, “You really don’t scandalize me, (even) if you eat raw camel. Do whatever you’d like with the rest.” For he knew the Fool’s virtue, because he also was a spiritual person.

Once some Emesans went to the holy city during Eastertide to celebrate the feast. One of them descended to the holy Jordan to pray. And when he visited the caves he gave gifts to the fathers. It happened that Abba John, Abba Symeon’s brother, met the Emesan merchant in the desert by God’s design. When the merchant saw him, he threw himself on the ground, begging for a blessing from him. Abba John said to him, “Where do you come from?” The merchant said to him, “From Emesa, father.” Then he asked him, “And as long as you have Abba Symeon called the Fool there, what do you seek from wretched me? For I too have need of his prayers, as does the whole world.” And Abba John took the merchant into his cave and set an abundant table before him. Everything he had was from God. For where in that parched desert can [159] white bread, hot fried fish, first-rate wine, and a full wine jar be found?[61] After they ate and had had their fill, John gave him a gift of three spiced fish,[62] which had also come from God, and said, “Give these to the Fool, and say to him for me, ‘For the Lord’s sake, pray for your brother John.’ ” Then the Lord’s truth was confirmed: When the merchant came to Emesa, Abba Symeon met him at the city gate and said to him, “What is it, idiot? How is Abba John, who is a fool like you? Didn’t you eat the gifts which he gave you? Really, really, if you ate all three, you have digested them badly.” The merchant was astounded when he heard everything which he wanted to say coming out of Symeon’s mouth. The Fool immediately took him into his hut, and the merchant affirmed confidently that “Everything he set before me was exactly the same as Abba John had,” even the size of the wine jar, which he had seen in John’s cave. “And after we ate, I gave him the three gifts and returned to my house, embarrassed to tell anyone anything about him, since everyone was convinced that he was an idiot.”

I said before that he performed a miracle for the God-loving man who also narrated this life for us. The manner of the miracle was this: Some criminals committed a murder, and taking the corpse, they threw it through the window into the house of that most God-beloved man. This caused not a little trouble: the matter came to the attention of the governor, and he decided that Deacon John should be hanged. When he went off to be executed, he said to himself nothing other than, “God of the Fool, help me, God of the Fool, stand beside me in this hour.” Because the Lord wanted to save him from this false accusation, someone went and said to Abba Symeon, “You, wretched one, this friend of yours, Deacon John, is going to be hanged, and truly, if he dies, you will die of hunger, for no one looks out for you as he does.” He also told him about the false charge of [160] murder. Then Abba Symeon, playing the idiot, according to his custom, left the man who had told him, and he retired to his hiding place, where he used to pray all the time, which no one knew about except his friend, God’s beloved John. And on bended knee he beseeched God that his servant might be delivered from such danger. And when those who led him out to be hanged came to the place where they were going to erect his gallows, behold! the cavalrymen ran up and said that the man should be released because those who really committed the murder had been discovered. As soon as John was free he ran straight to the place where he knew Abba Symeon prayed all the time. And seeing him from afar stretching out his hands to heaven, he was afraid. For he swore that he saw balls of fire going up from him to heaven, “And round about him, like a baker’s oven with him in the middle,[63] so that I did not dare to approach him, until he had finished his prayer. And he turned and saw me, and he immediately said to me, ‘What is it, Deacon? By Jesus, by Jesus, you almost drank it.[64] But go and pray. This trial came to pass because yesterday two beggars came to you, and although you were quite able to give to them, you turned them away. The things which you give, are they yours, brother? Or do you not believe in Him who said that you will receive a hundredfold in this age and eternal life in the age to come [cf. Mt 19:29]? If you believe, give. And if you don’t give, it will be manifest that you don’t believe in the Lord.’ ” Behold the words of a fool, or rather of a holy wise man. For concerning this Deacon John, when the two found themselves alone together, the old man did not act like a fool at all, but he conversed with him so gracefully and with such compunction,[65] that often perfume came from his mouth,[66] as Deacon John maintained, “such that I almost doubted that he had been a fool only moments before.”

But he behaved otherwise before the crowd. For sometimes when Sunday came, he took a string of sausages and wore them as a (deacon’s) stole. [161] In his left hand he held a pot of mustard, and he dipped (the sausages in the mustard) and ate them from morning on. And he smeared mustard on the mouths of some of those who came to joke with him. Wherefore also a certain rustic, who had leucoma in his two eyes, came to make fun of him. Symeon anointed his eyes with mustard. The man was nearly burned to death,[67] and Symeon said to him, “Go wash, idiot, with vinegar and garlic, and you will be healed immediately.” As it seemed a better thing to do, he ran immediately to a doctor instead and was completely blinded. Finally, in a mad rage he swore in Syriac, “By the God of Heaven, even if my two eyes should suddenly leap (from their sockets), I will do whatever the Fool told me.” And he washed himself as Symeon told him. Immediately his eyes were healed, clear as when he was born, so that he honored God.[68] Then the Fool came upon him and said to him, “Behold, you are healed, idiot! Never again steal your neighbor’s goats.”[69]

Someone in Emesa stole a sum of five hundred gold pieces, and when (the owner) looked for them, Abba Symeon came upon him, and the man, wishing to encourage himself, said to him, “Can you do something, idiot, so that the coins are found?” And Symeon said to him, “If you wish, yes.” And he said to him, “Do it, and if they are found, I will give you ten.” The Fool said to him, “Do everything I tell you, and you will find them in your money chest tonight.” So he promised him with an oath that he would obey him in anything he might say, except if he told him to do something indecent. Symeon said again, “Go, the slave who is your cupbearer took your money. But behold, give me word that you won’t thrash him nor anyone else in your house.” For he thrashed them brutally. The other one thought that it was only in regard to the coins that he told him not to [162] thrash anyone. But Abba Symeon said this to him so that the man would never thrash his slaves. So the man gave Symeon his word with terrible oaths that he would not thrash anyone. And when he returned, he took his slave aside gently and got the money back from him. Then after this, sometimes he would be about to thrash someone and was not able to, but instantly his hand grew numb. And understanding why, he said, “Truly I have the Fool to thank for this.” And he went to him and said, “Loose the oath, Fool.” And immediately Symeon played the fool and pretended that he did not know what the man was saying to him. When the man continued to bother him, Symeon appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Truly, if I loose the oath, I will loose your money and disperse all of it. Would you disgrace yourself? Why do you want to thrash your fellow slaves who precede you in the age to come?” When he saw this, he ceased thrashing his slaves.

Symeon had extraordinary compassion for those possessed by demons, so that from time to time he went off to make himself like one of them, and passed his time with them, healing many of them through his own prayer, and therefore some daimoniacs cried out and said, “O violence, Fool, you jeer at the whole world. Have you also come by us to give us trouble? Retreat from here; you are not one of us. Why do you torture us all night long and burn us?” While the saint was there (in Emesa), he cried out against many because of the Holy Spirit and reproached thieves and fornicators. Some he faulted, crying that they had not taken communion often, and others he reproached for perjury, so that through his inventiveness he nearly put an end to sinning in the whole city.

During this time there was a woman clairvoyant and maker of amulets who performed incantations. The righteous one contrived to have her as a girlfriend and gave her things he had collected from those who gave him presents, whether coins or bread or even clothing. Then one day [163] he said to her, “Do you want me to make you an amulet so that you will never be touched by the evil eye?” And she said to him, “Yes, Fool,” reasoning that although he was a fool, perhaps he would succeed. So he went off and wrote in Syriac on a tablet, “May God render you impotent and stop you from turning his people away from him and toward yourself.” Then he gave it to her, and she wore it. And she was no longer able to make anyone either oracles or amulets.[70]

Another time he was sitting with his brothers (in poverty) and warming himself near a glassblower’s furnace. The glassblower was Jewish. And Symeon said to the beggars, joking, “Do you want me to make you laugh? Behold, I will make the sign of the cross over the drinking glass which the craftsman is making, and it will break.” When he had broken about seven, one after the other, the beggars began to laugh, and they told the glassblower about the matter, and he chased Symeon away, branding him. As he left, Symeon screamed at the glassblower, saying, “Truly, bastard,[71] until you make the sign of the cross on your forehead, all your glasses will be shattered.” And again after the (glassblower) broke thirteen others, one after the other, he was shattered[72] and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. And nothing ever broke again. And because of this, he went out and became a Christian.

Once ten circus fans were washing their clothes outside the city. The blessed one came up to them and said, “Come here, idiots, and I will prepare a sumptuous lunch for you.” The five of them said, “God knows! Let’s go.” But the rest prevented them, saying, “Sure, he’s going to prepare us lunch from nothing.[73] This man begs from door to door, and where does he get anything? He only wants us to stop working.” The five, however, believed and went off. And he said to them, “Wait here.” And he left them alone and went about an arrow’s flight away from them,[74] and hiding himself, prayed. Then they said among themselves, “Truly we have been tricked. For I think that Abba Symeon wants to bring us grass so that we may graze.”[75] And behold, when [164] they said this, they saw him motioning them to come toward him. For he had prayed, as I said, and with God’s help he had prepared everything. When they came to him they found, as before the Lord, lying in front of him wheat bread, flat cakes, meat balls, fish, excellent wine, fried cakes, jam, and simply everything tasty which life has (to offer). And while they ate, he said, “Wretches, take some also for your wives. And if you will stop being idiotic circus fans, truly this wheat bread will not be lacking in your houses until I die.” They said to each other as they left, “Let us test it for a week and if the wheat bread does not stop, let us go no more with our companions to the circus.” Then when they saw that the wheat bread did not stop even though they ate from it every day, they no longer took part in bad things, and three of them became monks, spurred on by the Fool’s conduct.[76] But while the Fool lived in the flesh, they were unable to tell anyone anything about this.

It is worth relating in my writing about Symeon the thing he did for a certain wretched but worthy mule driver. For the mule driver was merciful and through a series of accidents had bad luck in business. Then one day, when he had gone out to bring wine for his house and to sell, the blessed one met him and said to him, “Where are you going, idiot?” For he always had these words in the same way on his lips. Then the mule driver said to him, “For wine, Fool.” Abba Symeon answered him, “Bring fleabane[77] too, when you come back.” Regarding this as a bad omen, the mule driver then said to himself, as he went away, “What sort of Satan sent me this abba early in the morning saying to me, ‘Bring me fleabane’? Truly this wine will spoil and either turn to vinegar or I don’t know what.” When he returned bringing very good wine, in his joy he forgot to bring the fleabane. Abba Symeon met him at the gate and said to him, “What is it, idiot? Did you bring the fleabane?” Again the mule driver said to him, “Truly, wretch, I forgot it.” The Abba said to him smiling, [165] “Just go away, your matter is taken care of.” Later, when he went to unload the wineskins, he discovered that they were (full of) vinegar so foul that a person might die smelling it. Then he understood that Abba Fool had done this, and he began to say, “Truly now, now let’s go for the fleabane.” Then he ran and went to the Fool and entreated—for he said that just as the juggler does an optical illusion, thus had Symeon done—“Unbind what you’ve done, Fool.” He said to him, “What did I do?” He said, “I bought good wine, and after two hours it was found to be vinegar.” And again Symeon said, “Go, go, it doesn’t matter to you! Quickly, open a tavern and it will turn you profit.” For the old man’s aim and prayer was that the mule driver’s toils might be blessed, because he was merciful. However, Symeon did not want to do anything in a clear manner; instead he always did things through clowning. Then the mule driver gave up and said, “Blessed be God, I will open a tavern.” And when he opened it, God blessed him. And instead of thanking the Fool for these things, he was angry with him, for he did not know what Symeon had brought about for him. In this whole matter, God hid Abba Symeon’s plan.

Once, one of the city’s great men fell ill. The saint was in the habit of entering his house and clowning around. And when he was burdened (by illness) almost to death, he saw himself in his sleep playing dice with an Ethiopian, who was death. The sick man’s turn came and, he said, he was about to roll the dice, and unless he threw a triple six, he would lose. Then Abba Symeon appeared to him in his sleep and said, “What is it, idiot? Truly this black man is about to beat you. But give me your word, that you will no longer soil your wife’s bed,[78] and I will roll instead of you, and he won’t beat you.” “I swore,” the one who saw this said, “and he took the dice from me, [166] rolled, and they fell triple six.” The sick man woke up, and immediately the Fool went up and said to him, “You threw a beautiful triple six, stupid.[79] Believe me, if you transgress your oath, that black man will choke you.” And after Symeon had insulted him and all those in his house, he left, running.

This wise man truly kept nothing in his hut—for he had a hut to sleep in, or rather in which to stay awake at night—except for one bundle of twigs. Often he passed the night without sleeping, praying until morning, drenching the ground with his tears. He went out in the early morning and cut branches either from an olive tree or shrub, and made himself a crown, and he wore it and held a branch in his hand and danced, crying, “Victory for the emperor and for the city!” But he said “the city” for the sake of the soul, and “the emperor” for the sake of the mind.

Also, the saint begged God that neither the hair on his head nor his beard should grow, lest in his having it cut, it become known that he was (only) playing the fool. Therefore, during all the time when he was continuing to behave this way, no one saw the hair on his head grow or saw him cut it.

He often carried on very helpful conversations with John the deacon alone, and threatened that if he unmasked him, he would meet with great torture in the coming age. Symeon said to the deacon, when he related his whole life to him just two days before he was translated from this life, “Today I went off to my brother John, and, thanks to God, I found him to have made great progress, and I was overjoyed. For I saw him wearing a crown upon which was written, ‘Crown of patience in the desert.’ And that blessed one said, ‘I saw you, when you were coming, as someone who says to you, “Go away, go away, Fool,” for you win not one crown, but the crowns of those souls whom you offer me.’ But I maintain, Mister Archdeacon, that he saw nothing on me such as (I saw), but rather he was being gracious with me. For the Fool, who is an idiot, what sort of reward does he have to carry off?” And he spoke again, “I beg you, never disregard a single soul, [167] especially when it happens to be a monk or a beggar. For Your Charity knows that His place is among the beggars, especially among the blind, people made as pure as sun through their patience and distress. Such country peasants as I often saw in the city, coming in to receive communion,[80] are purer than gold on account of their innocence and simplicity, and by the sweat of their brow, they eat their bread [cf. Gn 3:19]. But do not blame me at all for what I say to you, master. For my love for you compels me to relate to you also all the carelessness of my miserable life. Know that the Lord will soon receive you as well. But as long as you have the strength and the power, take thought for your own soul, so that you are able to pass by the worldly rulers of this airy darkness [cf. Eph 6:12]. For the Lord knows that I have much anxiety and fear until I am free from the cares which come from them. For that is the evil day about which the apostle and David spoke [cf. Eph 6:13; LXX Ps 40:2, RSV Ps 41:1]. For this reason I beg you, my child and brother John, with all your might, if possible beyond your might, show love for your neighbor through almsgiving. For this virtue, above all, will help us on that day. For it says, ‘Blessed is he who meets with the poor, the Lord delivers him on the evil day’ [LXX Ps 40:2, RSV Ps 41:1]. I ask this also of you: never approach the holy altar holding anything against someone else, lest your transgression make others also unworthy of the visitation of the Holy Spirit.” These and many other things Symeon exhorted him; among them he begged for something which he never spoke to anyone, because not all received his words with faith: “Comfort yourself, for during these three days, the Lord will receive His most humble Fool and John, his brother. For I myself went to say to him, ‘Brother, come, let us go, now is the time.’ But after two days come to my hut and see what you find. For I want you to have a memento of the humble and sinful Fool.” And when he had said these and many more things to him, he left and withdrew into his hut.

Now the time calls, O Friends, to narrate to you his marvelous death, [168] or rather sleep. For his death does not present ordinary edification, but it was more remarkable than everything I said before. It became both seal and guarantee of his triumph and confirmation that his behavior did not defile him. For when the great one perceived the profane hour, not wanting to obtain human honor after his death, what did he do? He went inside, lay down to sleep underneath the bundle of twigs in his sacred hut, and committed his spirit to the Lord in peace. When they had not seen him for two days, those who knew him said, “Let’s go, let us visit the Fool in case he’s ill.” And they went and found him lying dead under his bundle of twigs. Then they said, “Now all will believe that he was beside himself. Behold his death is another idiocy.”[81] And two of them lifted him up without washing him, and they went out without psalm singing, candles, or incense, and buried him in the place where strangers are buried.[82] Then when those who were bearing him and going out to bury him passed the house of the formerly Jewish glassblower, whom Symeon had made a Christian, as I said before, the aforementioned former Jew heard psalm singing,[83] music such as human lips could not sing, and a crowd such as all humanity could not gather. This man was astounded by the verse and the crowd. He glanced out and saw the saint carried out by the two men and them alone bearing his precious body. Then the one who heard the invisible music said, “Blessed are you, Fool, that while you do not have humans singing psalms for you, you have the heavenly powers honoring you with hymns.” And immediately he went down and buried him with his own hands. And then he told everyone what he had heard in the angel’s songs. John the deacon heard this and went running, with many others, to the place where he was buried, wishing to take up his precious remains in order to bury him honorably. But when they opened the grave, they did not find him. For the Lord had glorified him and translated him. Then all came to their senses,[84] as if from sleep, and told each other what miracles he had performed for each of them and that he had played the fool for God’s sake.

[169] Such, O friend of Christ, was the life and conduct of this wondrous Symeon. Such were a few of his virtues collected from the many. Such truly was his hidden and heavenly course which no one saw, but which was suddenly found manifest to all. Such was the new Lot, just like the one in Sodom [cf. Gn 19:1ff.] who thus went secretly in the world unseen. I was eager to commit his miracles and his praiseworthy victory-prize to writing, as far as it is possible for me in my worthlessness, even though I had already done another shorter one in addition to this, because detailed knowledge of this marvelous story had not yet come to me. Honoring him with encomia does not result from my knowledge, but from that of those to whom the power belongs also to compete with his virtue. For what language could praise one who is honored beyond language, or how can fleshly lips (praise) one who, while in the flesh, appeared plainly without flesh?[85] How can the wisdom of the tongue praise the one who obliterated all wisdom and prudence in the folly according to God? Truly human in face, but God in heart. Truly God will not see thus as a human sees. Truly no one knows a person’s deeds without knowing the person’s spirit. Truly we must not judge someone before the time, O friends of Christ, before the Lord comes and illuminates everything. Who knew, friends of Christ, that Judas who lived with the disciples in his body was with the Jews in his heart? Who in Jericho supposed that Rahab who was in a brothel in body was in the Lord in spirit [cf. Jos 2:1ff.]? Who had hoped that that beggar Lazarus who lived suffering such sores would be in such health in Abraham’s bosom [cf. Lk 16:20ff.]? Knowing these things, beloved friends, let us also obey the one who counseled well, “Attend to yourself alone,” neither to your family, nor those around you, but to yourself alone, because each carries his own [170] burden and will receive his own wages from the hand of Christ the heavenly king, to whom are glory and power with the Father and the All-holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Having lived the angelic and most admirable life on earth, Symeon, who for Christ’s sake was named Fool, died on July 21, having shone exceedingly in his achievements according to God and astounded even the supernatural powers of the angels with his virtues. And when he received confidence, he placed himself at the insufferable throne of God and Father of lights, and he honored Him in unceasing hymns along with all the heavenly powers. May the Lord grant us part and portion with this holy Symeon, and with all the saints in His eternal kingdom, for His is the glory forever and ever. Amen.


Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.