1902 Encyclopedia > Mandaeans


MANDAEANS, also known as Sabians, Nasorasans, or St John's Christians, an Oriental sect of great antiquity, interesting to the theologian as almost the only surviving example of a religion compounded of Christian, heathen, and Jewish elements on a type which is essentially that of ancient Gnosticism.

The Mandaeans, who can never have been numerous, and are now much decayed, are found in the marshy lands of South Babylonia (al-bataih), the ancient refuge of so many strange sects, particularly in the neighbourhood of Basrah (or Bussorah), and in Khuzistan (Disful, Shuster). They speak the languages of the localities in which they are settled (Arabic or Persian), but the language of their sacred books is an Aramaic dialect, which has its closest affinities with that of the Babylonian Talmud, written in a peculiar character suggestive of the old Palmyrene. The existence of the Mandasaus has been known since the middle of the 17th cen-tury, when the first Christian missionaries, Ignatius a Jesu and Angelus a Sancto, began to labour among them at Basrah; further information was gathered at a some-what later date by Pietro della Valle and Thevenot, and in the following century by Kaempfer, Chardin, and Niebuhr. In recent times they have been visited by Petermann and Albert Socin, and last of all Liouffi pub-lished in 1880 a full and accurate account of the manners and customs of the sect, taken from the lips of a converted Mandeean himself. For our knowledge of their doctrinal system, however, we must of course still depend chiefly npon the sacred books already mentioned, consisting of fragments of very various antiquity derived from an older literature. Of these the largest and most important is the Siclrd rabbd or " Great Book," known also as Ginzd (treasure), consisting of two unequal parts, of which the larger is called "yamfna" (to the right hand) and the smaller "s'mala" (to the left hand), because of the manner in which they are bound together. In Petermnnn's edition the former occupies three hundred and ninety-five large quarto pages and the other only one hundred and thirty-eight. The former is intended for the living; the latter consists chiefly of prayers to be read at the burial of priests. As re-gards doctrine, the work is exhaustive; but it is characterized throughout by diffuseness, and often by extreme obscurity, besides being occasionally self-contradictory, as might be expected in a work which consists of a number of uncon-nected paragraphs of various authorship and date. The last section of the " right-hand" part (the " Book of Kings ") is one of the older portions, and from its allusion to " the Persian and Arabian kings " may be concluded to date from somewhere between 700 and 900 A.D. Many of the doctrinal portions may in substance well be still older, and date from the time of the Sassanids. None of the MSS., however, are older than the 16th century.

The following sketch represents, as far as can be gathered from these heterogeneous sources, the principal features of the Mandaean system. The ground and origin of all things is Pira, or more correctly Pe>a rabbd, " the great abyss " (either Persian Pir, " old," or from TJJS, " t° split," comp. the Gnostic fivdos), associated with whom, and forming a triad with him, are the primal aeons Ayar zivd rabbd, " the great shining sether," and Mdnd rabbd d'ekard, " the great spirit of glory," usually called simply Mana rabba. The last-named, the most prominent of the three, is the king of light properly so called, from whom the development of all things begins. From him emanates Yardena rabba, " the great Jordan," which, as the higher world soul, permeates the whole aether, the domain of Ayar. Along-side of Mdnd rabbd frequent mention is made of D'miithd, his " image," as a female power ; the name " image of the father" arises out of the same conception as that which gives rise to the names of o-iyi? and evvoia among the Greek Gnostics. Mdnd rabbd called into being the highest of the seons properly so-called, Hayye' Kadmdye, " Primal Life," and then withdrew into deepest secrecy, visible indeed to the highest but not to the lowest aeons (comp. 2o$ta and IIpo7rttrojp), yet manifesting himself also to the souls of the more pious of the Mandaeans after their separation from the body. Primal Life, who is properly speaking the Mandaaan god, has the same predicates as the primal spirit, and every prayer, as well as every section of the sacred books, begins by invoking him. The extremely fantastic delineation of the world of light by which Hayy6 ~Kadm&j6 is surrounded (see for example the beginning of Sidrd rabbd) corresponds very closely with the Manichasan description of the abode of the " king of the paradise of light." The king of light " sits in the far north in might and glory." The Primal Light unfolds himself by five great brandies, viz., " the highest purest light, the gentle wind, the harmony of sounds, the voice of all the asons, and the beauty of their forms," all these being treated as abstrac-tions and personified. Out of the further development and combination of these primary manifestations arise numerous aeons ("Uthre, "splendours," from "inj?, "is rich"), of which the number is often stated to be three hundred and sixty. They are divided into a number of classes (kings, hypostases, forms, &c.); the proper names by which they are invoked are many, and for the most part obscure, borrowed doubtless, to some extent, from the Parsee angelology. From the First Life proceeds as a principal emanation the " Second Life," Hayye Tinydne, generally called Viishamin. This last name is evidently meant to be Hebrew, "Jehovah of the heavens," the God of the Jews being of a secondary rank in the usual Gnostic style. The next emanation after Yushamln is " the messenger of life " (_____, literally _____), the most important figure in the entire system, the mediator and redeemer, the Ao'yos and the Christ of the Mandasans, from whom, as already stated, they take their name. He is occasionally also called the primal man, Gabrd K^dmdyd, as in the Kabbala and by Mani. Yiishamm desired to raise himself above the Primal Light, but failed in the attempt, and was punished by removal out of the pure ffitherial world into that of inferior light. The one world is separated from the other by water channels (H'fike' Mayye). Mandd on the other hand continues with the First Life and Mdnd rabbd, and is called his "beloved son," the " first born, " high priest," and " word of life." Mandd makes his appearance in the visible world in a series of incarnations beginning with the three brothers Hibil, Shith.il, and Amish (late Judseo-Babylonian transformations of the well-known names of the book of Genesis), and ending with John the Baptist. Of the first three the most highly honoured is Hibil, almost invariably referred to as " the brilliant Hibil"; he is the alter ego of Mandd, his image in this present world, having the same predicates and the same activities, and is the Jesus Christ of the Mandaeans. The Second Life, Yiishamin, has as the last of three sons Hayye t'lftaye, the " Third Life," the most distinguished of the 'TJthre, hence usually called their father (Aba d' 'TJthrd, Abathiir). His usual epithet is "the Ancient" ('Atika); and he is also called " the deeply hidden and guarded." He stands on the borderland between the here and the hereafter, like the mysterious wpex/Sirrrys rptros or senex tertius of Mani, whose becoming visible will betoken the end of the world. Abathiir sits on the furthest verge of the world of light that lies towards the lower regions, and weighs in his balance the deeds of the departed spirits who ascend to him. Beneath him was originally nothing but a huge void with muddy black water at the bottom, in which his image was reflected, becoming ultimately solidified into P'tahil, his son, who now partakes of the nature of matter. The demiurge of the Mandaeans, and correspond-ing to the Ialdabaoth of the Ophites, he at the instance of his father frames the earth and men,—according to some passages in conjunction with the seven bad planetary spirits. He created Adam and Eve, but was unable to make them stand upright, whereupon Hibil, Shithil, and Amish were sent by the First Life to infuse into their forms spirit from Mana rabba himself. Hibil, at the instance of the supreme God, also taught men about the world of light and the aeons, and especially gave them to know that not P'tahil but another was their creator and supreme God, who as " the great king of light, without number, without limit," stands far above him. At the same time he enjoined the protoplasts to marry and people the world. P'tahil had now lost his power over men, and was driven by his father out of the world of light into a place beneath it, whence he shall at the day of judgment be raised, and after receiving baptism be made king of the'Uthre with divine honours.

The underworld is made up of four vestibules and three hells properly so-called. The vestibules have each two rulers, Zartay and Zartanay, Hag and Mag, Gaf and Gafan, Anatan and Kin. In the highest hell rules alone the grisly king Sh'diim, "the warrior"; in the story immediately beneath is Giv, " the great"; and in the lowest is Kriin or Karkiim, the oldest and most powerful of all, commonly called "the great mountain of flesh" (Tiira rabba d'besra), but also " the first-born of darkness." In the vestibules dirty water is still to be met with, but the hells are full of scorching consuming fire, except Kriin's domain, where is nought but dust, ashes, and vacancy. Into these regions descended Hibil the brilliant, in the power of Mana rabba, just as in the Manichsean mythology the " primal man," armed with the elements of the king of light, descends to a contest with the primal devil. Hibil lingers, gradually unfolding his power, in each of the vestibules, and finally passing from hell to hell reaches Karkiim. Hibil allows himself to be half swallowed by the monster, but is unhurt, and compels his antagonist to recognize the superiority of Mana rabba, the God of light, and to divulge his profoundest secret, the hidden name of darkness. Armed with this he returns through the suc-cessive hells, compelling the disclosure of every secret, depriving the rulers of their power, and barring the doors of the several regions. From the fourth vestibule he brought the female devil Riiha, daughter of Kin, and set her over the whole four. This Riiha, the mother of false-hood and lies, of poisoning and fornication, is an anti-Christian parody of the Riiha d'Kudsha (Holy Spirit) of the Syriac Church. She is the mother of IJr, the personified fire of hell, who in anger and pride made a violent onset on the world of light (compare the similar occurrence in the Manicheean mythology), but was mastered by Hibil and thrown in chains down to the " black water," and imprisoned within seven iron and seven golden walls. By Ur, Riiha, while P'tahil was engaged in his work of creation, became mother of three sets of seven, twelve, and five sons respectively; all were translated by P'tahil to the heavenly firmament (like the Archons of Jlani), the first group forming the planets and the next the signs of the zodiac, while the third is as yet undeter-mined. Of the names of the planets Estera (Istar, Venus, also called Riiha- d'Kudsha, " holy spirit"), Enba (Nebo, Mercury), Sin (moon), Kewan (Saturn), Bil (Jupiter), and Nirig (Nirgal, Mars) reveal their Babylonian origin; II or IIII, the sun, is also known as Kadiish and Adiinay (the Adonai of the Old Testament); as lord of the planetary spirits his place is in the midst of them; they are the source of all temptation and evil amongst men. The houses of the planets, as well as the earth and a second world immediately to the north of it, rest upon anvils laid by Hibil on the belly of Ur.

In the Mandean representation the sky is an ocean of water, pure and clear, but of more than adamantine solidity, upon which the stars and planets sail. Its transparency allows us to see even to the pole star, who is the central sun around whom all the heavenly bodies move. Wearing a jewelled crown, he stands before Abathiir's door at the gate of the world of light; the Mandaeans accordingly invariably pray with their faces turned northward. The earth is conceived of as a round disk, slightly sloping towards the south, surrounded on three sides by the sea but on the north by a high mountain of turcpioises; behind this is the abode of the blest, a sort of inferior paradise, inhabited by the Egyptians drowned along with Pharaoh in the Red Sea, whom the Mandaeans look upon as their ancestors, Pharaoh himself having been their first high priest and king. The total duration of the earth they fix at four hundred and eighty thousand years, divided into seven epochs, in each of which one of the planets rules. The Sidrd Rabba know7s of three total destructions of the human race by fire and water, pestilence and sword, a single pair alone surviving in each case. In the Mandasan view the Old Testament saints are false prophets; such are Abraham, who arose six thousand years after Nii (Noah) during the reign of the Sun, Misha (Moses), in whose time the true religion was professed by the Egyptians, and Shlimun (Solomon) bar Davith, the lord of the demons. Another false prophet and magician was Yishu M'shiha, who was in fact a manifestation of the planet Mercury. Forty-two years before his day, under King Pontius Pilate, there had appeared the true prophet Yahya or John son of Zechariah, an incarnation of Hibil, of whose birth and child-hood fantastic stories are told. Yahya by a mistake gave baptism to the false Messiah, who had feigned humility; on the completion of his mission, after undergoing a seeming execution, he returned clothed with light into the kingdom of light. As a contemporary of Yahya and the false Messiah Hibil's younger brother Amish 'Uthra came down from heaven, caused himself to be baptized by Yahya, wrought miracles of healing and of raising the dead, and brought about the crucifixion of the false Messiah. He preached the true religion, destroyed Jerusalem (" Urashlam," i.e., " the devil finished it"), which had been built by Adiinay, dispersed over the world the Jews who had put Yahya to death, and previous to his return into the worlds of light sent forth three hundred and sixty prophets for the diffusion of the: true religion. All this speaks of intense hatred alike of Jews and Christians; the fasts, celibacy, and monastic and anchoret life of the latter are peculiarly objectionable to the Mandasans. Two hundred and forty years after the appearing of the false Messiah there came to the world sixty thousand saints out of Pharaoh's world to take the place of the Mandaeans, who had been completely extirpated; their high priest had his residence in Damascus. The last false prophet was M'hammad or Ahmat bar Bisbat (Mohammed), but Amish, who remained close beside him and his immediate successors, prevented hostilities against the ^rue believers, who claim to have had in Babylonia, under the Abbasides, four hundred places of worship. Subsequent persecutions compelled their withdrawal to 'Ammarah in the neighbourhood of Wasit, and ultimately to Khiizistan. At the end of the world the devil Ur will swallow up the earth and the other intermediate higher worlds, a, I thereupon will burst and fall into the abyss of darkne. J, where, along with all the worlds and powers of darkness, he will ultimately cease to be, so that thence-forward the universe will consist of but one everlasting world of light.

The chief depositaries of these Mandaean mysteries are the priests, who enjoy a high degree of power and social regard. The priest-hood has three grades. (1) the Sh'kanda or deacon is generally chosen from episcopal or priestly families, and must be without bodily blemish. The candidate for orders must be at least nineteen years old and have undergDne twelve years' preparation ; he is then qualified to assist the priesthood in the ceremonies of religion. (2) The Tarmida (i.e., "Talmida," initiated") or priest is ordained by a bishop and two priests or by four priests after a long and extremely painful period of preparation. (3) The Ganzivra ("treasurer") or bishop, the highest dignitary, is chosen from the whole body of the Tarmi'das after a variety of tests, and possesses unlimited authority over the clergy. A supreme priestly rank, that of Rish 'ainina, or "head of the people," is recognized, but only in theory ; since the "time of Pharaoh this sovereign pontificate has only once been filled. The priestly dress, which is all white, consists of drawers, an upper garment, and a girdle with the so-called taga or "crown"; in all ceremonies the celebrants must be barefoot. By far the most frequent and important of the religious ceremonies is that of baptism (masbiitha), wdiich is called for in a great variety of cases, not only for children but for adults, where consecration or purification is required, as for example on all Sundays aud feast days, after contact with a dead body, after return from abroad, after neglect of any formality on the part of a priest in the discharge of his functions. In all these cases baptism is performed by total immersion in running water, but during the five days' baptismal festival the rite is observed wholesale by mere sprinkling of large masses of the faithful at once. The Mandaeans observe also with the elements of bread (pehta) and wine (mambuga, lit. "fountain") a sort of eucharist, which has a special sanctifying efficacy, and is usually dispensed at festivals, but only to baptized persons of good repute who have never willingly denied the Mandaean faith. In receiving it the communicant must not touch the host with his finger; otherwise it loses its virtue. The hosts are made by the priests from unleavened fine flour. A peculiar act of piety is for a ayman under the guidance of the bishop to receive the massektha ("elevation"), and thereby become asortof ascetic, a shalmana taba (" really perfect"). The Mandaean places of worship, being designed only for the priests and their assistants, are excessively small, and very simply furnished; two windows, a door that opens towards the south so that those who enter have their faces turned towards the pole star, a few boards in the corner, and a gabled roof complete the whole structure ; there is neither altar nor decoration ci any kind. The neighbourhood of running water (for baptisms) is essential. At the consecration of a church the sacrifice of a dove (the bird of Venus) has place among the ceremonies. Besides Sundays there are six great feasts: (1) that of the New Year (Nauriiz rabba), on the first day of the first month of winter ; (2) Dehwa h'nina, the anniversary of the happy return of Hibil Ziva from the kingdom of darkness into that of light, lasting five days, beginning with the 18th of the first month of spring; (3) the Marwana, in com-memoration of the drowned Egyptians, on the first day of the second month of spring; (4) the great five days' baptismal festival (pantsha), the chief feast, kept on the five intercalary days at the end of the second month of summer,—during its continuance every Mandaean, male and female, must dress in white and bathe thrice daily; (5) Dehwa d'daimana, in honour of one of the three hundred and sixty ' Uthras, on the first day of the second month of autumn; (6) Kanshe Zahla, the preparation feast, held on the last day of the year. There are also fast days called m'battal (Arab.), on which it is forbidden to kill any living thing or eat flesh. The year is solar, and has twelve months of thirty days each, with five intercalary days between the eighth and the ninth month. Of the seven days of the week, next to Sunday (habshaba) Thursday has a special sacredness as the day of Hibil Ziva. As regards secular occupation, the present Mandaeans are goldsmiths, ironworkers, and house and ship carpenters. They practise polygamy, the Sidrd Rabba laying great stress upon the duty of procreation, but few of them are rich enough to maintain more than two wives. In the 17th century, according to the old travellers, they numbered about 20,000 families, but at the present day they hardly number more than 1200 souls. In external appearance the Mandaean is distinguished from the Moslem only by a brown coat and a parti-coloured headcloth with a cord twisted around it. They have some peculiar death-bed rites : a deacon with some attendants waits upon the dying, and as death approaches administers a bath first of warm and afterwards of cold water; a holy dress, consisting of seven pieces (rastá), is then put on ; the feet are directed towards the north and the head turned to the south, so that the body faces the pole star. After the burial a funeral feast is held in the house of mourning.

The Mandaeans are strictly reticent about their theological dog-mas in the presence of strangers ; and the knowledge they actually possess of these is extremely small. The foundation of the system is obviously to be sought in Gnosticism, and more particularly in the older type of that doctrine (known from the serpent symbol as Ophite or Naassene) which obtained in Mesopotamia and Further Asia generally. But it is equally plain that the Ophite nucleus has from time to time received very numerous and often curi-ously perverted accretions from Babylonian Judaism, Oriental Christianity, and Parsism, exhibiting a striking example of religious syncretism. In the Gnostic basis itself it is not difficult to recognize the general features of the religion of ancient Baby-lonia, and thus we are brought nearer a solution of the problem as to the origin of Gnosticism in general. It is certain that Babylonia, the seat of the present Mandaeans, must be regarded also as the cradle in which their system was reared ; it is impossible to think of them as coming from Palestine, or to attribute to their doctrines a Jewish or Christian origin. They do not spring historically from the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts xviii. 25; xix. 3 sq.; Recog. Clem., i. 54) ; the tradition in which he and the Jordan figure so largely is not original, and is therefore worthless ; at the same time it is true that their baptismal praxis and its interpretation place them in the same religious group with the Hemerobaptists of Eusebius (II. E., iv. 22) and Epiphanius (Hssr., xvii.), or with the sect of disciples of John who remained apart from Christianity. Their reverence for John is of a piece with their whole syncretizing attitude towards the New Testament. Indeed, as has been seen, they appropriate the entire personale of the Bible from Adam, Seth, Abel, Enos, and Pharaoh to Jesus and John, a phenomenon which bears witness to the close relations of the Mandaean doctrine, at the time of its formation, both with Judaism and Christianity,.—not the less close because they were relations of hostility. The history of religion presents other examples of the degradation of holy to demonic figures on occasion of religious schism. The use of the word "Jordan," even in the plural, for "sacred water," is precisely similar to that by the Naassenes described in the Philosophnmena (v. 7) ; there ó ¡íé-yas 'lopoávns denotes the spiritualizing, sanctifying fluid which pervades the world of light. The notions of the Egyptians and the Red Sea, according to the same work (v. 16), are used by the Peratee much as by the Mandaeans. And the position assigned by the Sethians {~2.nQio.voi) to Seth is precisely similar to that given by the Mandaeans to Abel. Both alike are merely old Babylonian divinities in a new Biblical garb. The genesis of Mandseism and the older gnosis from the old and elaborate Babylonio-Chaldsean religion is clearly seen also in the fact that the names of the old pantheon (as for example those of the planetary divinities) are re-tained, but their holders degraded to the position of demons,—a con-clusion confirmed by the fact that the Mandaeans, like the allied Ophites, Peratse, and Manichseans, certainly have their original seat in Mesopotamia and Babylonia. Great caution is necessary, in the present state of our knowledge, in the use made of the results of cuneiform decipherment in relation to Babylonian mythology ; but so much seems clear, that the trinity of Anu, Bil, and Ea in the old Babylonian religion has its counterpart in the Mandaean Pira, Ayar, and Maná rabbá. The D'múthá of Maná is the Damkina, the wife of Ea, mentioned by Damascius as Aainn, wife of 'AOs. Manda d'hayyé and his image Hibil Ziva with his incarnations clearly correspond with the old Babylonian Marduk, Mero-dach, the "first-born" son of Ea, with his incarnations, the chief divinity of the city of Babylon, the mediator and re-deemer in the old religion. Hibil's contest with darkness has its prototype in Ma rduk's battle with chaos, the dragon Tiamat, which (another striking parallel) partially swallows Marduk, just as is related of Hibil and the Manichsean primal man. Other features are borrowed by the Mandaean mythology under this head from the well-known epos of Istar's descensus ad inferos. The sanctity with which water is invested by the Mandaeans is to be explained by this fact that Ra has his seat "in the depths of the world sea."

Compare K. Kessler's article "Mandaer" in Herzog-Plitt's Real-encyJdopddie, and the same author's paper, " Ueber Gnosis u. altbabylunische Religion," in the Abhandh. d. funften internationalen Orientalisten-congresses zu Berlin (Berlin,
1882). (K. K.)


7 The use of the word '' life " in a personal sense is usual in Gnosticism ; compare the Zu4i of Valentin, and el-hayat el-muallama, "the dark life," of Mani in the Fihrist.

The above article was written by: Prof. K. Kessler, University of Marburg.

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