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A Mandaean Talisman

The evidence so far laid before scholars has been almost entirely confined to some of the Mandaen religious literature. This arroused much premature controversy amongst theologians as to the value of Mandaean traditions to students of the New Testament, especially where the Fourth Gospel is in question. As regards study of the Mandaeans at first-hand, the fleeting observation of travellers and causal observers have been superficial, for they are a shy and secretive people, and do not readily disclose their beliefs or explain their cults. Petermann's three month in the marshes of Lower Iraq represent the only effort at scientific study at first hand, while Siouffi, whose account represents the greater part of what is known about the community apart from its books, never saw a rite with his own eyes, but was entirely dependent on the report of a renegade Subbi. Both these observers remained on the surface and did not penetrate deeply into the spirit of the people or arrive at the inner meaning of the cults.

As for Arab observers, from the earliest time they were dependent upon hearsay, and their reports can only be accepted as such. The same may be said about the earliest account we have about the Mandaeans, that of the Syriac writer Bar Konai (in the Scholion, A.D. 792), who writes as a controversialist, ready to be little a heretic sect. This writer does, however, give us clues which go far to disprove his own account of the Mandaeans.

The evidence of Arab authors is, for the most part, concerned with the Harranian Sabians, a people with whom primitive pagan usages seems to have lingered until late into the Moslem era. They were said, by a Christian writer, to have adopted the name Sabians in order to profit by the tolerance offered by Islam to the 'people of a book', the true 'Sabians' or Sabba, of the marshes of Lower Iraq. In the mass of hearsay which Arab authors bring forward there is, however, a good deal to indicate that the Harranians had points of common belief which the orthodox Mandaeans, and that the learned Sabians of the Caliph's capital chose to assume Neoplatonic terms in speaking of their religion in order to lend an air of scholarship and philosophy to their tenets. Magianism was still alive and hated, and any semblance of relationship with Persian beliefs was to be avoided. The existence of the name Zahrun amongst these court philosophers may be adduced as a proof of their identity with the Mandaeans, for Zahrun is one of the Mandaeans spirits of light who, together with Shamish (Shamash), ride in the sun-vessel across the sky. It was easy for them to camouflage the Mazdean name Hormuz, Hirmiz, Hirmis (Ahuramazda) into the name Hermes, and proclaim that the Egyptian Hermes was one of their 'prophets'. Al-Biruni, a Persian himself, when not quoting from other Arab authors about the Harranians, gives a just estimate of their beliefs:

'All, however, we know of them is that they profess monotheism and describe God as exempt from anything that is bad, using in their description the Via Negationis, not the Via Positionis. E.g. they say 'he is indeterminate, he is invisible, he does not wrong, he is not injust'. They call him by the Nomina Pulcherrima, but only metaphorically, since a real description of him is excluded according to them. The rule of the universe they attribute to the celestial globe and its bodies, which they consider as living, speaking, hearing, and seeing beings. And the fires they hold in great consideration'.

He states that Zoroaster 'belonged to the sect of the Harranians'.
He mentions three prayers-at unrise, noon, and sunset.

'Their prayer is preceded by purification and washing. They also wash themselves after a pollution. They do not circumcise themselves, not being ordered to do so, as they maintain. Most of their regulations about women and their penal law are similar to those of the Muslims, whilst others, relating to pollution caused by touching dead bodies, &c., are similar to those of the Thora.'

Al-Biruni (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century A.D.) is positive about the 'real Sabians', who are, he says 'the remnants of the Jewish tribes who remained in Babylonia when the other tribes left it for Jerusalem in the days of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. These remaining tribes...adopted a system mixed up of Magism and Judaism.'

Chwolson, in his monumental book about the Sabians, was at pains to show that the Harranians could not have had real religious union with the Mandaeans, because the former openly 'worshipped' the planets, while the latter held planet-worshipped in abhorrence. I must here examine that statement.

Recently an Arab author who had been a student for some time in Lower Iraq wrote an article in an Egyptian periodical about the Subba, or Mandaeans, in which he described them as star-worshippers. Indignation broke out amongst the Mandaean priesthood, for it was the old accusation of paganism, so imperilling to Moslem toleration. Legal proceedings were taken against the author, and a ganzibra, or head-priest, was dispatched to Baghdad armed with the Ginza Rba, the Great Treasure, to translate before witnesses passages in the holy writ denouncing the worship of planets. (It is improbable that he would have brought holy books such as the Diwan Abathur into court, nor would some passages in the Drasha d Yahya have helped his cause.)

In truth the Mandaeans do not adore the heavenly bodies. But they believe that stars and planets contain animating principles, spirits subservient and obedient to Melka d Nhura (the King of Light), and that the lives of men are governed by their influences. With these controlling spirits are their doubles of darkness. In the sun-boat stands the beneficient Shamish with symbols of fertility and vegetation, but with him is his baleful aspect, Adona, as well as guardian spirits of light. The Mandaeans invoke spirits of light only, not those of darkness.

The fact that all priests are at the same time astrologers leads inevitably to contradictions. Those who read this book will see how easy it is to misjudge the matter. In the union of function, the Mandaean priests inherit the traditions of the country. The Baru and Ashipu priests of ancient Babylonia had functions and rituals close to those in use amongst the Mandaean priesthood of to-day, and the name of the Magian priests was so closely associated with their skill in incantation and astrology that their name has become incorporated in the word 'magic'.

Similarly many Mandaean priests, in spite of the Ginza's prohibition of such practices, derive part of their income from the writing of amulets, and from sorcery, when legitimate fees are insufficient for their needs.

The most important material here assembled is, I think it will be acknowledged, the account of the various Mandaean ritual meals. Inclined at first to see in these relics of Marcionite Christianity or of the gnostic rituals of Bardaisan, I perceived later that the Mandaean rituals are closer to Mazdean sources than has hitherto been suspected. Resemblances between the Mandaean, Nestorian Christian, and Parsi rituals are strong, but, as the ideas which underlie the Mandaean and Parsi rites are identical whereas those of Christianity have travelled wide, I submit that the Mandaean cults are nearer in essentials to some Iranian original than they are to primitive Christianity, although the latter, there is no doubt, may have been intimately related to Iranian models at its inception in Judaea or Galilee.

Ritual eating for the dead, or the belief that the dead derive benefit from foods ritually consumed in their name is, of course, a belief which goes back into primitive times, and is found not only amongst the Sumerians and Babylonians, but amongst many simple peoples. In my notes, however, I have confined myself to references to such practices in the Middle East alone, past and present.

The great alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates lie between the Far East and Near East and in constant contact with both. From earliest times, highroads have run from the uplands of Iran, from the steppes of Asia, from the deserts of Arabia, from the plains of India, through what is now modern Iraq, to the Mediterranean seaboard. From the first its inhabitants have been subject to influences from all quarters of the civilized globe and ruled by race after race. There could be no better forcingground for syncretistic thought. Babylonia and the kingdom of Persia and Media offered natural conditions favourable to the growth of religious conceptions compromising between ancient traditions and cults, and ideas which had travelled from the old civilization of China by way of the Vedic philosophers of India-ideas which spiritualized, revived, and inspired man's belief in the immortality of the soul, its origin in the Divine Being, and the existence of beneficient ancestral spirits. Moreover, in the five centuries before Christ, there was a steady infiltration of Jewish, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greek influences into Babylonia. Before the Captivities, Jewish communities of traders and bankers established themselves in the land of the two rivers, while mercenaries and merchants passed to and fro between the Far East and the seaboards of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Greece.

The soldier and the merchant, though they contributed as intermediaries in the exchange of ideas, could never, however, have been more than passive 'carriers' of religious thought. In Mandaean legends, as well as in those of India and Persia, one finds perpetual reference to wandering darawish, religious wanderers who, like Hirmiz Shah in the Mandaean story, like Gautama the Buddha in India, or, in medieval times, Guru Nanak, set out in search of intellectual and spiritual peace. Speculation in the West is mostly conducted from a chair: the adventurer into the realms of thought goes no farther than the laboratory or the study. In the East, seekers after truth were peripatetic: their intellectual vagabondage was physical as well. It is certain that where the merchant penetrated, religious wanderers followed; travelling philosophers, ranging from China to India, Baluchistan, and Persia, and from Persia and Iraq to the Mediterranean, using the passes of Kurdistan and the waterways of Iraq. The oriental loves metaphysical argument and seeks it: the higher his type, the more addicted he is to this form of mental exercise, and the readier to listen to the opinions of a guest. The result, a leaven of unorthodoxy amongst the intellectual, eventually spread to the masses, first, possibly, as secret heresies, and then as new forms of religion.

Abstracted from : Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, E.S. Drower, Leiden, 1962

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