religion compounded of Christian, heathen and Jewish elements on a type which is essentially that of ancient Gnosticism.
The Mandaeans are found in the marshy lands of South Babylonia (al-baṭāiḥ), particularly in the neighbourhood of Basra (or Bussorah), and in Khūzistān (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 Mandaeans has been known since the middle of the 17th century, when the first Christian missionaries, Ignatius a Jesu and Angelus a Sancto, began to labour among them at Basra; further information was gathered at a somewhat later date by Pietro della Valle and Jean de Thévenot (1633–1667), and in the following century by Engelbrecht Kaempfer (1651–1716), Jean Chardin (1643–1713) and Carsten Niebuhr. In recent times they have been visited by A. H. Petermann and Albrecht Socin, and Siouffi published in 1880 a full and accurate account of their manners and customs, taken from the lips of a converted Mandaean. For our knowledge of their doctrinal system, however, we still depend chiefly upon 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 Sidrā rabbā (“Great Book”), known also as Ginzā (“Treasure”), consisting of two unequal parts, of which the larger is called yamīnā (to the right hand) and the smaller s’mala (to the left hand), because of the manner in which they are bound together. The former is intended for the living; the latter consists chiefly of prayers to be read at the burial of priests. As regards doctrine, the work is exhaustive; but it is diffuse, obscure, and occasionally self-contradictory, as might be expected in a work which consists of a number of unconnected 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 dated somewhere between A.D. 700 and 900. 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, is 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 Pīrā, or more correctly Pērā rabbā (“the great abyss,” or from פער, “to split,” cf. the Gnostic βυθός, or more probably cf. Heb. perī, “the great fruit”), associated with whom, and forming a triad with him, are the primal aeons Ayar zīvā rabbā, “the great shining aether,” and Mānā rabbā d’eḳārā, “the great spirit of glory,” usually called simply Mānā rabbā. 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 Yarděnā rabbā, “the great Jordan,” which, as the higher-world soul, permeates the whole aether, the domain of Ayar. Alongside of Mānā rabbā frequent mention is made of D’mūthā, 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 name of ἔννοια among the Greek Gnostics. Mānā rabbā called into being the highest of the aeons properly so called, Hayyē Kadmāyē, “Primal Life,” and then withdrew into deepest secrecy, visible indeed to the highest but not to the lowest aeons (cf. Σοφία and Προπάτωρ), 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 Mandaean 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 Hayyē Kadmāyē is surrounded (see for example the beginning of Sidrā rabbā) corresponds very closely with the Manichaean 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 branches, viz. “the highest purest light, the gentle wind, the harmony of sounds, the voice of all the aeons, and the beauty of their forms,” all these being treated as abstractions and personified. Out of the further development and combination of these primary manifestations arise numerous aeons (‘Uthrē, “splendours,” from עתר, “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,” Hayyē Tinyānē, generally called Yōshamīn. This last name is evidently meant to be Hebrew, “Yahweh of the heavens,” the God of the Jews being of a secondary rank in the usual Gnostic style. The next emanation after Yōshamīn is “the messenger of life” (Mandā d’hayyē, literally γνῶσις τῆς ζωῆς), the most important figure in the entire system, the mediator and redeemer, the λόγος and the Christ of the Mandaeans, from whom, as already stated, they take their name. He belongs to the heathen Gnosis, and is in his essence the same as the Babylonian Marduk. Yōshamīn desired to raise himself above the Primal Light, but failed in the attempt, and was punished by removal out of the pure aetherial world into that of inferior light. Mandā, on the other hand, continues with the First Life and Mānā rabbā, and is called his “beloved son,” the “first born,” “high priest” and “word of life.” The “Life” calls into existence in the visible world a series of three great Helpers, Hibil, Shithil and Anōsh (late Judaeo-Babylonian transformations of the well-known names of the book of Genesis), the guardians of souls. The last son of the Second Life is Hayyē t’līthayē, the “Third Life,” usually called father of the Uthrē (Abā d‛ ‛Uthrē, Abāthūr). His usual epithet is “the Ancient” (‛Aṭīqā), and he is also called “the deeply hidden and guarded.” He stands on the borderland between the here and the hereafter,
- In 1882 they were said to have shrunk to 200 families, and to be seeking a new settlement on the Tigris, to escape the persecutions to which they are exposed.
- See T. Nöldeke’s admirable Mandäische Grammatik (Halle, 1875).
- Narratio originis, rituum, et errorum Christianorum S. Joannis (Rome, 1652).
- Reisebeschreibung, part iv. (Geneva, 1674).
- Voyage au Levant (Paris, 1664).
- Reisen im Orient, ii. 447 seq.
- M. M. Siouffi, Études sur la religion ... des Soubbas (Paris, 1880).
- Mandaean MSS. occur in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale of France, and also in Rome, Weimar and Berlin. A number of Mandaean inscriptions relating to popular beliefs and superstitions have been published by H. Pognon, Inscriptions mandaites (2 vols., Paris, 1898–1899), also by M. Lidzbarski in his Ephemeris (Giessen, 1900 seq.).
- The first printed edition and translation of the Sidra rabba, by Matth. Norberg (Codex Nazaraeus, liber Adami appellatus, 3 vols., Copenhagen, 1815–1816, followed by a lexicon in 1816, and an onomasticon in 1817), is so defective as to be quite useless; even the name Book of Adam is unknown to the Mandaeans. Petermann’s Thesaurus s. Liber magnus, vulgo “Liber Adami” appellatus, opus Mandaeorum summi panderis (2 vols., Berlin and Leipzig, 1867), is an excellent metallographic reproduction of the Paris MS. A German translation of about a quarter of this work has been published in W. Brandt’s Mandäische Schriften, with notes (Göttingen, 1893). A critical edition still remains a desideratum. Next in importance to the Sidrā rābbā is the Sidrā d’Yahyā, or “Book of John,” otherwise known as the D’rāschē d’Malkē, “Discourses of the Kings,” which has not as yet been printed as a whole, although portions have been published by Lorsbach and Tychsen (see Museum f. bibl. u. orient. Lit. (1807), and Stäudlin’s Beitr. z. Phil. u. Gesch. d. Relig. u. Sittenlehre 1796 seq.). The Kolāstā (Ar. Khulāṣa, “Quintessence”), or according to its fuller title ’Enyānē uderāshē d’maṣbūthā umasseḳthā (“Songs and Discourses of Baptism and the Ascent,” viz. of the soul after death), has been admirably lithographed by Euting (Stuttgart, 1867). It is also known as Sidrā d’neshmātha, “Book of Souls,” and besides hymns and doctrinal discourses contains prayers to be offered by the priests at sacrifice and at meals, as well as other liturgical matter. The Mandaean marriage service occurs both in Paris and in Oxford as an independent MS. The Dīwān, hitherto unpublished, contains the ritual for atonement. The Asfar malwāshē, or “Book of the Zodiac,” is astrological. Of smaller pieces many are magical and used as amulets.
- The use of the word “life” in a personal sense is usual in Gnosticism; compare the Ζωὴ of Valentin and el-ḥayāt el-muallama, “the dark life,” of Mani in the Fihirst.