Simon Magus (ca. 67 C.E.)
Founder of the heterodox sect of Simonites, often identified
with the sorcerer mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8) who
was said to have bewitched the people of Samaria and made
them believe that he was possessed of divine power.
He was born in Samaria or Cyprus and was among the number
of Samaritans who came to Philip for baptism after hearing
him preach. Later, when Peter and John laid their hands on the
new converts, so that they received the Holy Ghost, Simon offered
the disciples money to procure a similar power. But Peter
sternly rebuked him for seeking to buy the gift of God with
money (a practice afterward called simony) and bade him pray
that his evil thought might be forgiven, whereupon the already
repentant Simon said, ‘‘Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none
of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.’’
Though we are not told in detail the sorceries with which
Simon was supposed to have bewitched the people of Samaria,
certain early ecclesiastical writers have left a record of his doings.
They claimed that he could make himself invisible when
he pleased, assume the appearance of another person or of one
of the lower animals, pass unharmed through fire, cause statues
to come alive, make furniture move without any visible means
of imparting motion, and perform many other miracles. In explanation
of his desire to possess the apostles’ power of working
miracles, he is said to have affirmed that his sorceries took a
great deal of time and trouble to perform, owing to the necessity
for a multitude of magical rites and incantations, while the
miracles of the apostles were accomplished easily and successfully
by the mere utterance of a few words.
The adept from whom Simon was supposed to have learned
the art of magic was Dositheus, who pretended to be the Messiah
foretold by the prophets and who was contemporary with
Christ. From this person Simon was said to have acquired a
great store of occult erudition, and owed his power chiefly to
the hysterical conditions into which he was capable of throwing
himself. Through these, he was able to make himself look either
old or young, returning at will to childhood or old age.
It seems that he had not been initiated into transcendental
magic, but was merely consumed by a thirst for power over humanity
and the mysteries of nature. Repulsed by the apostles,
he is said to have undertaken pilgrimages, like them, in which
he permitted himself to be worshiped by the mob. He declared
that he himself was the manifestation of the Splendor of God,
and that Helena, his Greek slave, was its reflection. Thus he imitated
Christianity in the reverse sense, affirmed the eternal
reign of evil and revolt, and was, in fact, an antichrist.
After a while, according to popular legend, he went to
Rome, where he appeared before the Emperor Nero. He is said
to have been decapitated by him; however, his head returned
to his shoulders, and he was instituted by the tyrant as court
sorcerer. Legend also states that St. Peter, alarmed at the
spread of the doctrine of Simon in Rome, hurried there to combat
it. When Nero was made aware of Peter’s arrival, he imagined
Peter to be a rival sorcerer and resolved to bring Simon
and Peter together for his amusement.
An account ascribed to St. Clement states that upon the arrival
of Peter, Simon flew gracefully through a window into the
outside air. The apostle made a vehement prayer, whereupon
the magician, with a loud cry, crashed to the earth and broke
both his legs. Nero, greatly annoyed, immediately imprisoned
the saint, and it is related that Simon died of his fall. He had,
however, founded a distinct school, headed by Merrander, that
promised immortality of soul and body to its followers.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a sect existed in France and
the United States that credited the principles of this magician.
French scholar Jacques Lacarrière viewed Simon Magus as
one of the precursors of Gnosticism.
Lacarrière, Jacques. The Gnostics. London Owen, 1977. Reprint,
San Francisco City Lights, 1989.