Hermits in The Trees: The Dendrites

‘The Christian hermits appear in ecclesiastical history under many names. They were called
“ascetics” because of their austere spiritual exercises, “hermits” because they lived in the desert, “anchorites” because of their retirement from the world, and “recluses” because
they shut themselves off. There are almost as many terms for the forms which anchoritism took in the course of its historical development. There were monks who set up their cells in complete solitude, either in the desert or later in the forest, or who found themselves a remote cave. There were others who had themselves shut up in their cells, who withdrew
into the branches of a tree as “dendrites” or on to top of a pillar as “stylites” There were also the “boskoi” (the grazers) who did without any kind of shelter and lived on hay or wild herbs. Others deliberately made fools of themselves so as to ensure that they could not fall victims to pernicious pride.’

Click to access monastic.pdf

desert hermits
During the 4th century, from Upper Egypt to Syria, Palestine, and Arabia, various groups of ascetics formed around an abba, or “father” (from which “abbot” derives). In Syria, some monks went naked and in chains, lived on tall pillars (Stylites); nested in the branches of trees (Dendrites), or foraged in the woods like wild animals (Graziers).
paul the hermit
Moschos wrote an account of his travels; entitled “The Leimonarion or Spiritual Meadow”, his book received an enthusiastic reception in monasteries across the Byzantine Empire. Within a generation or two it had been translated into Latin, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and a variety of Slavonic languages. It was, if you like, the greatest travel bestseller in Byzantine history. Now as you all know the monastic world described by John Moschos was a very different scene from the settled world of the mediaval western cloister; it was a place where: St. Cyril could applaud his Coptic monks for lynching and murdering the pagan lady philosopher Hyperia as she passed in her litter though Alexandria; where oracle-like stylites settled the domestic disputes of E. Christendom from atop their pillars, where dendrites took literally Christ’s instruction to behave like the birds of the air, and who therefore lived in trees and built little nests for themselves in the branches – and where other hermits walled themselves up in hermitages, suspended themselves in cages and where one gentleman named Baradatus even sowed himself up in animal skins so that he would be baked alive in sweltering Syria midsummer heat – a sort of Byzantine boil-in the bag monk.
Yet for all this, there is a great deal in the period and in the ideals of Moschos’s monks that is still deeply attractive: the Great Orthodox monastic tradition which aims at the purification of the soul through the taming of the flesh, where the material world is pulled aside like a great heavy curtain to allow man’s gaze to go straight to God. Moreover the monasteries where this spiritual warfare took place were fortresses that preserved everything that had been salvaged from the wreck of classical civilisation, so preserving the learning of antiquity from the encroaching barbarism.

“Asceticism is based on the contrast between spiritual and corporal benefits. In the name of spiritual purification, the needs of the body were minimised. In its extreme forms this led to mortification. Examples can be found in Proto- and Early Christianity: the hermits in the deserts of Egypt, dendrites in the cavities of trees, or saints in columns (Simeon in the year 384).”

Click to access kp5_08_lehari.pdf

A fascinating paper on the Dendrites is: Kyle Smith “Dendrites and Other Standers in the ‘History of the Exploits of Bishop Paul of Qanetos and Priest John of Edessa’”
“Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies”, Vol. 12.1, 117-134: http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/Vol12No1/HV12N1Smith.pdf

“This paper summarizes evidence for tree-dwelling monks in late antiquity and outlines a little-known, fifth-century hagiography that has a peculiar focus on trees: the “History of the Exploits of Bishop Paul of Qanetos and Priest John of Edessa. In the text, there is an encounter with a long-bearded dendrite living in a mountaintop tree and a duel with an Arabian tree-god. An edition of the text—along with an introduction and an annotated translation by Hans Arneson, Christine Luckritz-Marquis, and Kyle Smith—is in preparation.”

“In 1767 a young Italian of noble birth, the Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, acted with unparalleled defiance. Refusing to eat the platter of snails served to him for dinner, he pushed back his chair, exited the dining room, and scurried up an oak tree in the garden.
In protest against the mores of society, as much as those of his aristocratic father, Cosimo resolved to live the rest of his life in an airborne, arboreal existence. Never again would he set foot on solid ground. Yet Cosimo was not an unlettered misanthrope, but rather a patron of the poor and a man of erudition who would insist that anyone “who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.”
baron in the trees
Cosimo is the hero of Italo Calvino’s 1957 neorealist novel, “The Baron in the Trees”, and his decision to take to the trees addresses—much like the Syriac hagiography that is the topic of this paper—the existential division between the solitary life and the worldly one, between duty to oneself and civic responsibility.
While keeping a distance from the world is imperative for any ascetic, in late antiquity “the primary contrast” between a dendrite and a stylite was, as Susan Ashbrook Harvey notes, the degree to which each was bound to society: “The tree-dwelling ascetic,” she says, “seems to have maintained the life of a recluse without the demands for spiritual and political patronage that generally plagued the late ancient holy man.”
Dendrites were, of course, not completely isolated from society, but various texts do confirm that their level of social engagement was not that of their column-dwelling brethren. In the rare references to dendrites in late ancient hagiography, a literary genre that Harvey appropriately describes as one “in which form is as important as content in understanding the text, “living in trees “seems to have been a temporary discipline in ascetic careers marked by changing locations and practice.” Whereas stylitism was often an enduring ascetic and public vocation, dendritism was typically the precursor to other forms of asceticism. As an ascetic practice, dendritism was rooted not just in Syria, although, interestingly, even the Greek sources that refer to dendrites typically specify that the tree-dwellers were of Syrian (or Mesopotamian) origin. David of Thessalonica, for example, a dendrite originally from Mesopotamia, inaugurated his ascetic feats by spending three years in an almond tree. Only after this relatively short stint as a dendrite did David then confine himself in a cell outside the city walls, a cell where he would remain for the next twenty years.
Maro the Dendrite, known to us from John of Ephesus’s “Lives of the Eastern Saints”, lived in a hollowed-out tree near where his brother, Abraham, presided as the resident stylite of their monastery. Unlike David of Thessalonica who, it seems, welcomed visitors to his cell, Maro the Dendrite would shut the door of his tree and remain silent whenever someone approached in search of healing. When Abraham died, Maro reluctantly left his enclosure in the tree and took his brother’s place atop the column, evidently displeased to be inheriting not only his brother’s pillar but also the requisite public responsibility that came with it.”
david the dendrite 2
“Our Venerable and God-bearing Father David of Thessalonica, also David the Dendrite ((Greek): Ὁ Ὅσιος Δαβὶδ ἐν Θεσσαλονίκη) circa 450 AD – 540 AD, was a renowned ascetic and blessed fool of Thessaloniki, in Byzantine Greece who lived as a dendrite for three years, in a form of asceticism similar to that of the Stylite saints. The examples of holy men of the Old Testament, in particular the Prophet and King David, prompted the Venerable David to live his ascetic ordeals by climbing up an almond tree to the right of the church (the Katholikon of the monastery) and living up there for three years, until the Lord would reveal His will to him, and grant him wisdom and humility. One source tells us that this tree was in between two churches within the monastery. This symbolic number (three) corresponds, according to the text, to the three year span in which the Prophet David gained goodness, education, and prudence, after his request to God.
For three years this Saint endured the most extreme trials like the Stylite Saints, enduring the bitter cold of the winter and the burning heat of the summer and fully exposed to all the elements of the weather.
At the end of the three years an angel of the Lord appeared to him, assuring him that his prayers had been heard, and that the period of his trial as a dendrite had ended. The angel instructed him to descend from the tree, and continue the ascetic life in silence in a cell, continuing to laud and bless God. He was foretold by this same angel that he would “accomplish one other act of love” before he died. Thus Saint David came down from the almond tree and entered a cell that had been prepared by his disciples. Saint David entered his cell in the presence of Archbishop Dorotheos of Thessaloniki (c.497-c.520) along with many pious clergy and faithful who gathered to see this momentous event when the news had spread.
Living as a recluse in his cell and for his unparalleled ascetic feats, this Saint was considered as an angel of God by the people. Many people came to seek his prayers and many healings of demonic possession, diseases and suffering are reported. In one such case, we are told a certain youth had a demon and came to the cell of the Righteous David crying out: “Release me, O David, thou servant of the eternal God, for fire comes forth from your cell and burns me.” Upon hearing this David reached out his hand from his cell through a small window and held the youth, saying: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, commands you to go forth from His creature, O unclean spirit!” After doing the sign of the Cross over the youth, the demon was immediately released and all marvelled glorifying God who glorifies those who please Him with God-pleasing works.”
david and simeon
St. David of Thessaloniki, depicted with St. Symeon the Stylite

See further on David the Dendrite: http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/st-david-of-thessaloniki-dendrite.html
Christina of Saint Trond (1150-1224), stylite and dendrite, of course was the hermit personified and inhabited trees and steeples and, in the last year of her life, withdrew again into “desert places” and only returned to the town rarely
dendrites book
See further: Kōnstantinos P. Charalampidēs. “The Dendrites in Pre-Christian and Christian Historical-literary Tradition and Iconography” Volume 73 of Studia Archaeologica. L’ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER, 1995

Innovative modern architecture has sometimes had a focus on living in trees, although very rarely with the limitations accepted by the Dendrites. See, for example:
Canada-based Tom Chudleigh creates these bubblicious Free Spirit Eco Spheres that sway amidst the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. Available for purchase or for rent, they offer a whimsical new way to experience the outdoors.
Cocoon Tree is a home in the trees making you feel free, child-like, and one with nature. It can be hung from tree branches hovering gently over the ground to give you a treasured experience. This tree house is beautifully crafted with white materials providing a custom mattress and duvet. It weighs 130 pounds with capacity to hold up to a ton. Two people or a couple with two small children can fit comfortably inside. Equipped with air conditioning and mosquito net windows, this isn’t your ordinary cocoon.

Or for more amazing tree houses, see http://www.boredpanda.com/amazing-treehouses/
This tree house, by the creators of the Tree Hotel, might confuse the birds even more. Although it looks like a massive nest from the outside, the house has a modern and high-standard room built inside

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