ii. THE MANDAEAN RELIGION
A major characteristic of the Mandaeans is the frequent ritual use of (running) water (for baptisms and ritual purifications); another is the possession of a rich literature in their own eastern Aramaic language and script, “Mandaic” (see v). They have their own priests and centers of worship (mandi), aside from which (or in place of which) there have recently been built cultural centers, especially in the non-Oriental areas. Their doctrines (theology, mythology) are centered within a dualistic philosophy of life (light ~ darkness; soul ~ body), derived from the Gnosis of Late Antiquity (see GNOSTICISM).
Self-designations. According to the Mandaean sources, the earliest self-appellations are: “elect of righteousness” (bhiri zidqa) and “guardians” or “possessors” (naṣuraiyi), i.e., of secret rites and knowledge. The word “Mandaean” (mandaiyi) refers back to an ancient term, manda “knowledge” or “gnosis,” and therefore means “Gnostic,” but today it denotes the “laity” as distinct from the priests (tarmidi “disciples”) and “initiates” (naṣoraiyi). In modern times, this term has increasingly been used for them by the Western scholarly tradition. Before that, Portuguese Catholic missionaries of the 17th century called them “disciples of John the Baptist,” and they were known in European literature until the 19th century under this name or as “John-Christians.” Actually, they considered John the Baptist to be only one of their prophets or priests; they are thus occasionally called “John the Bapist’s followers” today. The Muslims gave them the name ṣābeʾun, “Sabians” (in modern Arabic ṣobba), known from the Qurʾān (2:62, 5:69, 22:17) and early Arabic literature. This designation enabled them to belong to the “people of the book” who are tolerated by Islam (see also “Ṣābiʾa,” in EI2). The original meaning of this word is probably “baptists, baptizers” (from the Aramaic root ṣeba, “to immerse, baptize, wash”).
Literature. The written tradition of this small community is quite extensive and diverse (Rudolph, 1996, pp. 339 ff.). It consists of ritual books (liturgies, prayers, hymns) and commentaries, theological or mythological tractates, illustrated scrolls, legends, and magical texts. Since we do not know the names and dates of the authors, redactors, or compilers, it is very difficult to give exact information about the origin and age of the literature. Very often the nature of the texts create a problem for interpretation because early and late material is interwoven. Surely the collection of many writings into “books” had already started before the invasion of Islam into Mandaean settlements in Mesopotamia. Apart from these, other texts have been transmitted in the earlier form of scrolls (“divans”) rather than books, and they are illustrated in a peculiar artistic style. The oldest Mandaean magical texts, written on bowls and lead tablets, can be dated to the third or fourth centuries C.E. Modern research in the written transmission of the texts, and comparisons of the special terminology, style, and phrases with non-Mandaean (Gnostic, early Christian, and Manichean) literature have shown that the existence of the liturgical and poetic writings must be postulated already in the third century C.E. The script of the texts was probably developed in the second century or earlier in order to preserve the more ancient religious tradition, which probably originated in Palestine and Syria and was brought orally to Mesopotamia.
The more important Mandaean texts are the following: The “Treasure” (ginza) or “Great Book” (sidra rba) is the most complete collection of writings; it consists of two parts, the larger “Right Ginza” (ginza yamina) and the smaller “Left Ginza” (ginza smala). The former is a collection of 18 tractates with predominantly cosmological, theological, and didactic (including ethical) content, while the latter deals only with the ascent of the soul to the realm of light; therefore this part is also called “Book of the Souls”(sidra d-nišmata).
The “Book of John” (draša d-yahya or -yuhana) or “Books of the Kings” (i.e., Angels, draši d-malki) is also a collection of mixed content. The main parts report on the “sermons” (draši) of John the Baptist, the “discourses” of Šum (Shem), the appearance of Anōš (Enosh) in Jerusalem, and the story of the conversion of Miryai.
The liturgical hymns, prayers, and ritual instructions are assembled in the “Canonical Prayerbook,” in Mandaic commonly called Qolasta (“praise” or generally “collection” of hymns). The first two parts of it contain the liturgy for baptism (maṣbuta) and the mass for the dead, called “ascent” (masiqta) of the soul; both are still used today by Mandaean priests.
A series of other ritual texts or scrolls have been published in recent times based on manuscripts of the “Drower Collection” in Oxford, e.g., the wedding ceremony, a ritual for the ordination (“crowning”) of priests, a ritual for the purification of a polluted priest, esoteric interpretations of rituals and ceremonies (e.g., the “Great First World,” the “Small First World,” and the “Scroll of Exalted Kingship”). Similar texts are still unpublished. A large collection of writings only for priestly use is the so-called “1,012 Questions” (alf trisar šualia).
Some of the scrolls are illustrated, like the interesting Diwan Abathur, which deals with the ascent of the soul through the heavenly purgatories of the planets and the signs of the zodiac, or the “Diwan of the Rivers” (diwan nahrawata), which gives an impression of the traditional worldview of the Mandaeans. The only text with some historical information is the (fragmentary) “Diwan of the Great Revelation,” called Haran Gawaita (“Inner Haran”). The “Book of the Signs of the Zodiac” (asfar malwaši) serves the priest for horoscopes and for the bestowing of a Mandaean’s esoteric name (which is therefore called the “malwaša-name”).
The absence of sufficient historical evidence makes it difficult to trace the origin and early history of the Mandaeans (Rudolph, 1996, pp. 402 ff.). The oldest dateable sources are magic texts from the 3rd/4th centuries CE in Mesopotamia, which already contain elements of Mandaic mythology (names of spirits and demons). This fact is in agreement with the indications of research into the history and traditions of Mandaean literature, especially the mythological and theological traditions (Rudolph, 1965; 1996, pp. 363 ff., 402 ff., 433 ff.). This research points to the apparent origin of Mandaeism and to the history of influence on it by the surrounding cultural environment, which starts with the Jewish-Baptist and biblical features and with the old Mesopotamian after-effects (especially in the magic texts), the early Christian and Gnostic texts, and also the Iranian (Persian), in particular the Zoroastrian, traditions (see below, sec. iii). The originality of the Mandaeans consists in the unique processing of these components to form an autonomous religion, which previously was wrongly called “syncretism,” without taking into account that there exists no žpure’ religion, i.e., one without a history and the processing of žforeign’ traditions and ideas.
Doctrine (theology and mythology): A real problem for research in Mandaeism is the understanding of the origin, growth, and development of Mandaean traditions. No scholarly consensus has yet been reached with regard to source analysis and redaction. Such analyses would undoubtedly enable scholars to isolate early traditions and thus to trace their evolution throughout the extensive and diverse Mandaean literature. Here, only a brief summary of the main lines of Mandaean theology and mythology can be presented (Rudolph, 1965; 1996, pp. 363 ff., 370 ff., 402 ff.; texts in: Foerster, 1974, pp. 145 ff.)
The cosmology is marked by a strict dualism between a “World of Light” (alma d-nuhra) and a “World of Darkness” (alma d-hšuka). The world of light is ruled by a sublime being who bears different names: “Life” (hiia, haiyi), “Lord of Greatness” (mara d-rabuta), “Great Mind” (mana rba), “King of Light” (malka d-nuhra). He is surrounded by a countless number of beings of light (uthri or malki), living in “dwellings” (škinata) or “worlds” (almi), performing cultic acts and praising the Life. The world of light came into being from the “First Life” (haiyi qadmaiyi) by way of descending emanations or creations, which are called “Second,” “Third,” and “Fourth Life”; they also bear personal names, such as Yōšamin, Abathur, and Ptahil; the last one is the later demiurge.
The “World of Darkness” is governed by the “Lord of Darkness” (mara d-hšuka) and arose from the “dark waters” (meyi siawi, or ʿkumi, tahmi) representing the chaos. The main powers of the world of darkness are a giant monster or dragon with the name Ur (probably a polemic transformation of hebr. ʿor “light”) and the evil (female) “Spirit” (ruha). Their offspring are demonic beings (daiwi) and “angels” (malaki). To them belong also the “Seven” (šuba), i.e., the planets (šibiahyi), and the “Twelve” (trisar) signs of the Zodiac; they are sons of Ur and Ruha.
The conflict between light and darkness, life and death, good and evil leads to the creation of the world (tibil) by the demiurge Ptahil with the help of the dark or gloomy powers, mainly Ruha and the “Seven” and “Twelve.” In this process, the body of first man, Adam, is created by the same bad beings, but his “animating essence” is derived from the World of Light. This “substance of light” in Adam is called “inner (hidden) Adam” (adam kasya, adakas, also adam rba “great Adam”), and it represents the “soul” (nišimta) or “mind” (mana) in humans, which has to be saved or rescued from the dark, evil body (pagra) and the world (tibil) by heavenly beings of light. The wife of Adam, Eve (Hawwa), is created separate from him according to the heavenly “cloud of light” (who figures as the wife of the heavenly or “great Adam”; regarding another tradition on Eve, see below). The salvation of souls is the main concern of the Mandaean religion. One of its central creeds is the belief in several “messengers” (šganda, šliha), “helpers” (adyaura), or “redeemers” (parwanqa) sent by the Life in order to inform the pious of their “call” and to save their souls. The dominant figure of these “envoys of light” is the “Knowledge of Life” (Manda d-Haiyi), who is also called “Son of Life” (Barhaiyi) or “Counterpart of Life” (Dmuthaiyi). Beside him stand the three heavenly Adamites, Hibil (Abel), Šitil (Seth), and Anōš (Enosh). Actually, the Mandaeans know no “historical” redeemers but only the “mythological” ones appearing throughout the ages of the history of the world as a repetition of the first revelation to Adam, which is the prototype of redemption. In some texts the soul ascending after death is escorted and saved by one of the saviors mentioned. Probably after the confrontation with early Christianity, the Mandaeans developed the story that one of their messengers (Anōš or Manda d-Haiyi) appeared in Jerusalem as an antagonist of Jesus Christ in order to expose him as a liar and a false messiah. In this connection John the Baptist played the role of a true Mandaean “disciple” or “priest” (tarmida). Whether reliable information about early Mandaean history in relation to the movement of the followers of John the Baptist can be derived from these tales is a problem that remains unsolved (Rudolph, 1960, pp. 66-80). Clearly, for the Mandaeans John is not the founder of their religion but only one of their prominent representatives. Only the ritual of baptism in flowing water still reminds us of John’s practice (see below).
The rituals. The center of the Mandaean religion is the cult. For centuries the traditional cult sites have been the principal foci of the local communities. They formerly consisted of a small hut (maškna, bit manda, bimanda, mandi) made of mud; in front of it lay the pool or “Jordan” (yardna) with “flowing (living) water.” Therefore the sanctuaries were always situated next to rivers or canals. Otherwise the rituals were performed directly on the banks of the rivers or creeks close to the residences of the community. However, since the mid-1970s, the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran have partly changed the tradition of their cultic areas in order to avoid polluted streams and rivers. Modern cultic structures are built of bricks, and often the ritual font is connected with the public water system. But émigré Mandaeans in the West, prefer to use natural waters, if it is possible and permitted.
The most important and oldest ceremonies are the “baptism” (maṣbuta, pron. maṣwetta) and the “ascent” (of the soul; masiqta, pron. masexta). The baptism or “immersion” takes place every Sunday (the first day of the week, habšaba) in “flowing water” (called yardna). It consists of two main parts: first is the actual baptismal rite, including a threefold immersion (the participants dressed in the sacral white garments, rasta), a threefold “signing” of the forehead with water, a threefold gulp of water, the “crowning” with a small myrtle wreath (klila), and the laying on of hands by the priest. The second part takes place on the banks of the “Jordan” and consists of the anointing with oil (of sesame), the communion of bread (pihta) and water (mambuha), and the “sealing” of the neophyte against evil spirits. Both parts are concluded by the ritual handclasp or kušṭa (“truth”). The purpose and meaning of the baptism is not only a purification of sins and trespasses but also a special kind of communion (laufa) with the world of light, because it is believed that all “Jordans” or “living waters” originate in the upper world of “Life.” There is no doubt that the basic constituent features of the water ceremonies are derived from baptismal practices (lustrations) of Judaism in the pre-Christian period (Segelberg, 1958, pp. 155 ff.; Rudolph, 1965, pp. 367 ff.; 1996, pp. 569 ff.; 1999; pictures in Drower, 1962; Rudolph, 1978; Tahvildar, 2001). Apart from this “full baptism” ritual, there exist two water rites, which can be done without priests and not only on Sunday (Rudolph, 1965, pp. 105 ff.).
The other chief ceremony is a kind of “mass for the dead,” or rather “for the soul” of the dead, called “ascent” (masiqta). It is performed at the death of a Mandaean and supports the “rise” of his soul to the world of Light and Life. It consists of lustrations with “running water,” anointing with oil, and “crowning” with a myrtle wreath. The main part starts three days after death, when the soul is released from the body and begins its forty-five-day “ascent” through the dangerous heavenly “watchhouses” (maṭarata, a kind of purgatory), until it reaches the “home of Life.” Recitations from the “Left Ginza” and ceremonial meals serve the ascending soul, including its symbolic nourishment, rebirth, and creation of a spiritual body (see below, iii, on the Iranian, Zoroastrian source of this “meal in memory of the dead”).
The Mandaeans have many more rituals such as the ordination of priests (tarmidi) and bishops (ganzibri, “treasurer”), the end-of-year ceremonies (parwanaiyi or panja; see iii), the cleansing of the cult-hut or “temple,” the marriage ceremony (which includes always the Masbuta), and several kinds of funeral and commemorative meals (lofani, zidq brikha).
A Characteristic of the Mandaean religion is the close connection between rituals and Gnostic ideas. It is not only “knowledge” (manda, madihta, yada) that brings salvation, but also the ceremonies, at first baptism and “offices for the soul,” which are indispensable means for release or salvation. One may, indeed, say that here Gnosis has been implanted into the ancient stock of a cultic community of presumably early Jewish origin (the so-called “baptismal sects”), but from this and other connections (e.g., Iranian or Persian) an authentic and even typical Mandaean (Nasoraean) offspring has been created—by whom we still do not know.
Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Mandaeans. Ancient Texts and Modern People, Oxford, 2002.
Ethel S. Drower, The Mandaean of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends and Folklore, Oxford, 1937, repr. Leiden, 1962, New York, 2002.
Idem, “The Mandaeans To-day,” The Hibbert Journal 37, 1938-39, pp. 435-47.
Idem, The Haram Gawaita and the Baptism of Hibil-Ziwa. The Mandaic Text with Translation, Notes and Commentary, Vatican City, 1953.
Idem, The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans, Leiden, 1959.
Werner Foerster, ed., Gnosis. A Selection of Gnostic Texts, Eng. tr. ed. R. McL. Wilson, II: Coptic and Mandaean Sources, Oxford, 1974.
Hans Jonas, Gnosis and spätantiker Geist I: Die mythologische Gnosis, Göttingen, 1934, 2nd ed. 1988.
Mark Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer, 2 pts., Giessen, Germany, 1905 (text), 1915 (tr.); repr. Berlin, 1965.
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Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans. The Last Gnostics, Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge, 2002.
Rudolf Macuch, ed., Zur Sprache und Literatur der Mandäer, Berlin, 1976.
Mandaeans and Manichaeans, ARAM 16, 2004.
Majid Fandi al-Mubaraki, ed., Ginza Rba (The Great Treasure), Sydney, 1998.
Siegfried G. Richter, Die Aufstiegspsalmen des Herakleides. Untersuchungen zum Seelenaufstieg und zur Seelenmesse bei den Manichäern, Wiesbaden, 1997.
Kurt Rudolph, Die Mandäer I. Prolegomena: Das Mandäerproblem, Göttingen, 1960.
Idem. Die Mandäer, II. Der Kult, Göttingen 1965.
Idem, “Problems of a History of the Development of the Mandaean Religion,” History of Religions 8, 1969, pp. 210-35.
Idem, Mandaeism, Iconography of Religions XXI, Leiden, 1978.
Idem, “The Baptist Sects,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism III.The Early Roman Period, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 471-500, 1135-39.
Idem, Gnosis und spätantike Religionsgeschichte. Gesammelte Aufsätze, Leiden, 1996.
Eric Segelberg, Masbuta. Studies in the Ritual of Mandaean Baptism, Uppsala, 1958.
Idem, Gnostica - Mandaica - Liturgica, Uppsala, 1990.
Abbas Tahvildar, Massoud Fourouzandeh, and Alain Brunet, Baptists of Iran/Les baptistes d’Iran/Ṣābeʾin-e Irān-zamin, Tehran, 2001.
April 7, 2008
Originally Published: April 7, 2008
Last Updated: April 7, 2008