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In case you wondered whatever happened to Simon Magus--who, the Acts of the Apostles (8:9-24) tell us, was renowned in Samaria as a great sorcerer, was baptized by Philip, and invented the sin of simony by trying to purchase spiritual power from St. Peter--this mildly amusing philosophical novel fills out the many gaps in his career. (British writer Mason is evidently much taken with the occult: in 1981's Bethany she described the contemporary adventures of a nefarious mystic, also named Simon.) Tradition claims that Simon Magus founded a Gnostic sect, a hint which Mason makes a great deal of. Her Simon despises Jehovah as an omnipotent sadist and preaches ecstatic revolt against him: ""The sins he prohibits must be committed, not once or several times, but again and again until the consciousness of the act is lost. . . the obscene must be made holy."" Together with his consort, the wise and sensually enthralling ex-prostitute Helen, Simon leads orgiastic ceremonies that climax with a blasphemous eucharist of semen and menstrual blood (Mason is echoing pagan rumors about early Christian rites). Simon also creates spectacular illusions--we never learn how--before admiring throngs: he makes snakes, birds, and palaces appear and disappear, flies through space, etc. But his Faustian dreams urge him on; his obsessive desire to raise the dead leads to his baptism, his flirtation with Christianity. So he finally squares off against Peter in an absurd contest of miracle-working before the Emperor Nero: it's more or less a draw--but Simon, who handily shreds Christian dogma in a public debate with Peter, has been driven into embracing a lethal dualism. (""Nothing is one. There is no statement that does not create its own denial, and of which the denial is not the necessary reflection."") And at the close he jumps out a window, stays briefly aloft. . . then crashes to his death. Mason's evocation of 1st century Palestine is not scholarly-accurate, but reasonably colorful and tasteful. The desultory plot seldom grips (except for an episode about the death of the slave boy Demetrius)--but the characters do embody some of the diverse spiritual currents of the era in a clear and lively fashion.

Pub Date: July 2nd, 1984
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston