Mandaean Scriptures and Fragments
The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran by E.S. Dower
This is an extended extract from an early classic study of the Mandeans by E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran:Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends, and Folklore (Leiden: Brill 1962, reprint of 1937 edition).
The complete book is also available online at the Internet Archive.
The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran:
Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends, and Folklore
by E. S. Drower
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.
Here lies the importance of the Mandaeans. Extremely tenacious, while adopting the new at some far distant syncretistic period, they also conserved the old so religiously and faithfully that one can disentangle the threads here and there, and point to this as Babylonian, to that as Mazdean, to this as belonging to a time when animal flesh was forbidden, to that as suggesting a phase when
zealous reformers endeavoured to purge out some ancient and inherent beliefs.
At such a period as the last-named, the scattered religious writings of the Mandaeans were gathered together and edited. One may surmise that the editors and collectors were refugees, sophisticated priests who, returning to peaceful communities in Lower Iraq, were scandalized at their incorrigible paganism. The emended writings breathe reform and denunciation.
The core or nucleus, of the Mandaean religion, through all vicissitudes and changes, is the ancient worship of the principles of life and fertility. The Great Life is a personification of the creative and sustaining force of the universe, but the personification is slight, and spoken of always in the impersonal plural, it remains mystery and abstraction. The symbol of the Great Life is 'living
water', that is flowing water, or yardna. This is entirely natural in a land where all life, human, animal, and vegetable, clings to the banks of the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It follows that one of the central rites is immersion in flowing water. The second great vivifying power is light, which is represented by personifications of light (Melka d Nhura and the battalions of
melki or light spirits), who bestow such light-gifts as health, strength, virtue, and justice. In the ethical system of the Mandaeans, as in that of the Zoroastrians, cleanliness, health of body, and ritual obedience must be accompanied by purity of mind, health of conscience, and obedience to moral laws. This dual application was characteristic of the cults of Anu and Ea in Sumerian times
and Bel and Ea in Babylonian times, so that, if Mandaean thought originated or ripened under Iranian and Far Eastern influences, it had roots in a soil where similar ideals were already familiar and where ablution cults and fertility rites had long been in practice.
The third great essential of the religion is the belief in the immortality of the soul, and its close relationship with the souls of its ancestors, immediate and divine. Ritual meals are eaten in proxy for the dead; and the souls of the dead, strengthened and helped, give assistance and comfort to the souls of the living.
- The Mandaeans (or Subba) of Iraq and Iran
It is a peculiarity of the various communities and religions classed together as 'minorities' in modern Iraq that, for the most part, they 'keep to themselves', associating only with co-religionists and rarely marrying an outsider. Especially is this true of the Jews, the Yazidis, and the Subba.
Though the last group are only a handful of people, surrounded by neighbours of other faiths, they never mingle with them or admit them to intimacy; while a Subbi who marries outside his race and creed automatically leaves it.
The appellation 'Subba' (singular Subbi) is a colloquial form which this people accept as reffering to their principal cult, immersion; but the more formal name of their race and religion, used by themselves, is Mandai, or Mandaeans.
In Arabic literature they appear as Sabe'e or Al-sabiun, and there can be little doubt that they are also identical with the Mughtasila amongst whom, according to the Fihrist, Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was born. Arab authors have sometimes confounded the Mandaeans with the Majus,
or Magians, and not without reason, since the cults are similar. Travellers in the East were wont to refer to them as 'Christians of st. John', and Europeans who have come to Iraq since the Great War know them as 'the Amarah silverworkers'.
As the community is small and peace-loving, with no political aspirations, it has no place in history beyond the occasional mention of its existence, and the record that some of the most brilliant scholars of the early Moslem Caliphate were of its way of thought. To-day, the principal centres of
the Subba are in southern Iraq, in the marsh districts and on the lower reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris; in the towns of Amarah, Nasoriyah, Basrah, at the junction of the two rivers at Qurnah, at Qal'at Salih, Halfayah, and Suq-ash-Shuyukh. Groups of them are found in the more northerly towns
of Iraq: Kut, Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Kirkuk, and Mosul all have Subbi communities of varying size. The skill of the Subba as craftsmen takes them far afield, and Subbi silver-shops exist in Beyrut, Damascus, and Alexandria. In Persia the Mandaeans were once numerous in the province of Khuzistan, but
their numbers have diminished, and the settlements in Muhammerah and Ahwaz along the banks of the Karun river are not so prosperous or so healthy as those in Iraq.
The racial characteristics of those people are, as regards the better classes, marked, and they can be distinguished by their unusual physical type. I have said 'better classes', and by that I mean Mandaeans who come of priestly families, who are strict as to unblemished pedigree, and look for
perfect health when they take a wife. The priestly families have two distinct types, one wiry, tanned, and black-eyed; the other tall, white-skinned, or slightly bronzed, and with a proportion of blue eyes to dark of about three persons in twelve. The poorer Mandaeans of the marsh districts and
Southern Persia are darker-skinned and smaller-bodied than the priestly caste, who are almost invariably of good physique. As a rule, Mandaean features are strong and handsome, the nose big, curved, and long.
During the British occupation and the early days of the mandate, as one walked between the Subbi silver-shops in River Street, Baghdad, one sometimes saw a board announcing the proprietor to be a 'St. John Christian', but these, now that Iraq has a national government, have disappeared. Like the
followers of other secret religions, the Mandaeans, when talking to people of another faith, accentuate small points of resemblance between their beliefs and those of their hearers. To inquirers they will say, 'John is our prophet like Jesus' (or 'Muhammad', as the case may be) 'is yours'. I soon
found that John the Baptist (Yuhana, or Yahya Yuhana) could not with accuracy be described as 'their prophet'; indeed, at one time I was tempted to believe that he was an importation from the Christians. I became gradually convinced, however, that he was not a mere accretion, and that he had real
connexion with the original Nasurai, which was an early name given to the sect. Mandaeans do not pretend that either their religion or baptismal cult originated with John; the most that is claimed for him is that he was a great teacher, performing baptism in the exercise of his function as priest,
and that certain changes, such as the diminution of prayer-times from five to three a day, were due to him. According to Mandaean teaching, he was a Nasurai; that is, an adept in the faith, skilled in the white magic of the priests and concerned largely with the healing of men's bodies as well as
their souls. By virtue of his nasirutha, iron could not cut him, nor fire burn him, nor water drown him, claims made to-day by the Rifa'i darawish.
Jesus too, according to Mandaean theologians, was a Nasurai, but he was a rebel, a heretic, who led men astray, betrayed secret doctrines, and made religion easier (i.e. flouted the difficult and elaborate rules about purification).
The references to Christ (Yshu Mshiha) are, in fact, entirely polemical, and for the most part refer to the practices of Byzantine Christianity which awake horror in Mandaeans, such as the use of 'cut-off' (i.e. not flowing) water for baptism, and the celibacy of monks and nuns. The Haran Gawaitha
(D.C. 9) mentions the establishment of Christian communities on Mount Sinai. In the cults, Jesus and John are both unmentioned. Siouffi's story that John's name is pronounced at baptism is a fiction. In no ritual is he mentioned or invoked, unless I except the dukhrana, when lists of spirits
of light, holy men, and the righteous dead from the earliest times to the present are read; but in these lists he has no especial honour.
The explanation of the term 'Christian of St. John' lies therefore, not in the relation of either Christ or John to the sect, but partly in the fact that John is a useful name to produce to Christians, and has often cited to induce their toleration, and partly in the obvious cennexion between the word
'Nasurai' and the Arabic word for Christians-Nasara. I am not going to enter here the controversy which arose when Lidzbarski pointed out the philological difficulties which prevent Nasorai meaning 'a man from Nazareth'. So strong was his belief that it did it, that he suggested that the evangelists
placed the childhood of Jesus at Nazareth to explain the tradition that he was a 'Nasurai'. His arguments are set forth in Mandaeische Liturgien, xvi ff., and in the introduction to his translation of the Ginza Rba.
In Mandaean manuscripts and legends, however, the word Nasurai is generally used in the sense indicated above, namely, 'one skilled in religious matters and white magic', while the Christians are usually called mshihiia, that is to say, 'followers of Messiah', or kristianaia, 'Christians'.
Magic rolls bear the inscription, 'this is written from the nasirutha (i.e. priestly craft)of So-and-So'. Of John it is written in the Harran Gawaitha:
'When he was seven years old, Anush 'Uthra came and wrote the ABC (a ba ga) for him, until, when he was twenty-two years old, he had learnt all the priestly-craft (Nasirutha).'
In later manuscripts Nasurai are often mentioned as if they were of higher grade than laymen e.g. 'Nasurai and Mandai', while nowadays I hear the word sometimes applied to a priest who is especially literate, or reputed skilful in white magic. 'Ah, he is a real Nasurai!'
What is the root-meaning? Lidzbarski thinks it akin to 'observe', and deduces that the Nasurai were 'observers'. Another orientalist suggests that it may be analogous to the Syriac root nsr meaning 'to chirp, twitter (as a bird), utter broken sounds (as a magician), to chant, sing praises'.
Both these suggested root-meanings agree with the Mandaean conceptions. The Nasurai was an observer of stars and omens, of constellations, and of auspices. A Mandaean priest in Ahwaz, speaking of the secret knowledge transmitted from priest to priest, vaunted this secret knowledge.
'If a raven croaks in a certain burj (astrological house) I understand what it says, also the meaning when the fire crackles or the door creaks. When the sky is cloudy and there are shapes in the sky resembling a mare or a sheep, I can read their significance and message. When the moon
(gumra) is darkened by an eclipse, I understand the portent: when a dust-cloud arises, black, red, or white, I read the signs, and all this according to the hours and the aspects'.
The second meaning also answers to the functions and nature of the Nasurai. No exorcism, no ceremony, no religious act is considered efficacious without a formula. Words have magic power. The mere utterance of a name will compel its owner to be at the service of the utterer, or at least, will summon
his presence. Prayers, except when profoundly secret and pronounced 'in the heart', are spoken aloud. In short, the Mandaeans of to-day, like his predecessors in the land of Shumer long ago, believes in incantation.
The last name, Mandai, or Mandaeans, brings me to the question of the origin of these people. I discussed it originally in an article on the Mandi(cult-hut) in Ancient Egypt and the East, and the theory there tentatively proffered has lately received strengthening evidence from the Haran Gawaitha,
a most interesting manuscript which, after years of effort, I succeeded in purchasing. Here, at last, I found what I had been looking for, definite information about the Tura d Madai (Mountain of the Maddai or Mandai), which figures in Mandaean tradition and legend.
The manuscript is broken, the beginning is missing, and it bears marks of shameless editing. Owing to this last, it is difficult to date it from internal evidence. Unlike the 18th book of the Ginza, it assigns 4,000 years to Arab rule before the advent of the 'lying Messiah', but, like the Ginza, says that
'the mud brick in the wall' will proclaim him. Bar Khuni in his 'Scholion' (A.D. 792) repeats the same legend.
On the other hand, tarmida is used in its ancient sense of 'disciple'. It is written after the Arab invasion, but the attacks on Islam are not so venemous as those on the Yahutaiia, which word is used throughout as meaning both 'Chaldeans' and 'Jews'.
The roll purports to be a history and prophecy combined, and is looked upon with the utmost reverence by the Mandaeans, though on account of its dangerously polemical character it has been always kept secret.
It starts in the middle of a sentence:
'The interior of the Haran (i.e. Harran) admitted them, that city which has Nasurai in it, so that there should not be a road (passage?) for the kings of the Yahutaiia (Chaldeans). Over them (the Nasurai) was King Ardban. And they served themselves from the sign of the Seven and entered the mountain of the Madai,
a place where they were free from domination of all races. And they built mandis (mandia) and dwelt in the call of the Life and in the strength of the high King of Light.'
The birth of Jesus is narrated briefly, and-
'He perverted the words of the Light and changed them to darkness and converted those who were mine and perverted all the cults ('bidatha)....He and his brother established themselves on Mount Sinai and took unto themselves all nations and brought the people unto themselves and were called Christians
(krastinaiia) and were called after Nazareth (Nisrath mdinta).'
Nazareth is identified with the city of Qum!
The miraculous birth of John (Yahya Yuhana) follows (the account differs from that in the Drasha d Yahya), and the story of his rearing in the 'white mountain' Parwan, of his baptism, education, and initiation into priesthood in the Mountain of the Madai. Later in the document the Mountain of the Madai is located,
mitqiria Haran Gawaitha, 'which is called the Inner Harran'. A curious gloss, possibly interpolated, since it breaks the current of narration, says:
'The Madai are not counted as belonging to Ruha and her seven Sons because there are amongst them (those) of Hibil Ziwa.'
John is brought to Jerusalem, where, apparently, there was a community from the Mountain of the Madai:
'And Anush 'Uthra brought him and came with him to the city of Jerusalem, amongst the community (kinta d kanat) founded by Ruha. All of them belonged to her and to her sons except those from the Mountain of the Madai.'
There is no account of John's baptism of Christ (as in the Drasha d Yahya), or of John's baptism of Manda-d-Hiia: indeed, the expression 'Manda-d-Hiia' is not used throughout. John is represented as teacher, baptist, and healer: 'he taught disciples (tarmid tarmidia)', and 'set the broken going upon their legs'.
Sixty years after his death, the manuscript relates, there was a persecution of Nasurai in Jerusalem, 'so that there did not escape of the disciples and Nasurai a man'. The escape of a remnant is indicated. The Jews in their turn were harried, and many of them driven 'by a flail' to a place called Suf Zaba ('stream of reeds')
later glossed as 'Basra'. This migration is embroidered by the 'historian' with detail from the ancient flight from Egypt, as he describes a miraculous passage through the waters (of the marshes? Suf Zaba is evidently here the reedy marsh region of the Basrah district). No pursuing host is mentioned.
With the help of Ruha, the 'Yahutaiia' (here Chaldeans) built a strong new city with seven walls, 'each more magnificent than its fellow'. This city ('Baghdad') is destroyed utterly later by the powers of light, aided by the 'Madai' and seven guards (natria) from 'Mount Parwan'. A descendant of King Ardban is set up in
'Baghdad', and his rule established over the four corners of the world. Satraps are set up over the provinces, and these all have Mandaean names. This rule is throughly approved of by the Powers of Light.
Next comes a description of the destruction of Jerusalem by the powers of light.
'He (Anush 'Uthra) went and burnt and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and killed the Beni Israel (bnia Sriil) and the priests (kahnia) of Jerusalem and made it like mounds of ruins (akwath tilia d habarawatha).'
The period of prosperity in Babylonia is followed by divisions, many races, tongues and wars. The Hardabaiia (or harba baiia, 'seeking war'?) take the power from the descendants of Ardban and their king rules '360 years', till the Arab era.
The writer, however, is less concerned with invaders and rulers, such as the Hardabaiia, than with a split within the ranks of the Nasuraiia themselves. He chronicles a large settlement of Nasuraiia at Tib (i.e. the well-watered lowlands between the marshes of the Amarah Liwa and the Jebel Hamrin), and describes how, eighty-six
years before the Moslem invasion, one Qibel, a rish 'ama (religious chief) of the Nasurai, was deluded by Ruha disguised as a spirit of light, so that he, together with his priests and many others, fell away from the true faith and wrote 'writings' inspired by the powers of darkness. That this was still a powerful heresy
appears from the exhortations of the writer to avoid contact with these schismatics and to burn and destroy their works.
After this, the coming of the Arabs appears a minor disaster. Muhammad is sometimes termed 'Son of Harm, the Arab', and sometimes 'Muhammad, son of 'Abdallah'.
The writer relates how one 'Anush son of Danqa' 'from the mountains of Arsaiia' (mn tura d Arsaiia-tura is used for mountainous country as well as 'mount') approached the Arab king (malka) and explained to him that the Mandaeans had valuable and holy writings and an ancient religion. Thus he won protection for his
Here ends the relation of the past, and prophecy for the future begins-ending with the ultimate confusion of the Arabs, the reign of the false Messiah, the eventual return of Anush 'Uthra, and then, a final debacle before the end of the world under the domination of 'Amatit, daughter of Qin'.
The importance of the document lies in the implication that the Nasurai are identical with the Parthians, since the latter correspond most nearly with the bnia d bnia d Ardban Malka, who came from the Tura d Madai. That this was a mountainous country and stretched to Harran is clearly indicated, also, that not all the 'Madai'
were Nasurai. Noteworthy also is the fact that the expression 'Manda d Hiia' does not occur, nor the expression 'Mandai' for Mandaeans. It may be argued that 'Madai' refers to the Mandaeans, but in that case, Mandaean cannot mean 'gnostic' but refers to nationality.
I had long been concerned with this question of origins. When I questioned the priests and got the answer 'We came from the North', I did not attach much literal value to the answer, for dwellers in the Middle East cannot distinguish between religion and race, and the divine ancestors naturally resided in the north, the seat of the gods.
But there seemed something more than this in their refusal to acknowledge Lower Iraq as the original home of the race. There is an arrogance, almost worthy of the present 'Nordic' propaganda, about the following, culled from the seventh fragment of the eleventh book of the Ginza Rba:
'All the word calls the north a highland and the south a lowland. For the worlds of darkness lie in the lowlands of the South....Whose dwelleth in the North is light of colour but those who live in the lowlands are black and their appearance is ugly like demons.'
Pinned down to detail, the Mandaean priests produced a hotch potch of legend and tradition, but the Mountain of the Maddai always figured in their accounts. When I pressed for information as to its whereabouts, answers differed. Some thought it must be identical with Mshunia Kushta, that ideal world which corresponds to our own. Others were
more precise. 'It is, I think, in Iran, for Madia is in Iran.' One priest ventured, 'Some say the Tura d Maddai is in Turkestan, and I have heard that the Arabs call it Jebel Tai.' Significant was the remark of another Subbi when speaking of baptism: 'the Subba of old time were with the Persians in a place where there were springs which were
hot in winter and cold in summer.' The Mountain of the Mandai described in one of the legends has an equable climate and hot springs. Less direct evidence is furnished by the references, so common in the texts, to 'black water' which 'burns like fire'. This can be nothing else but the black oil seepages and outcrops of burning oil and gas so
common in oil-bearing districts.
Oddly enough, the priests do not place the creation of man in the north. Adam, the First Man, they say, was in Serandib (Ceylon). Still more inexplicable is the assertion that the Egyptians were co-religionists, and that the original ancestors of the Mandaean race went from Egypt to the Tura d Madai. Yearly, a ritual meal is eaten in memory
of the Egyptian hosts who perished in the waters when following the wicked Jews. This story must come through some Israelitish source, and one is inclined to wonder if that portion of the Israelites who were taken captive by Sargon were in truth settled near the Caspian, converted to Mazdaism, and merged into the people of the district, as
some have suggested.
However, legend, tradition, and the Haran Gawaitha point all in one direction, namely, that at one time a community whose beliefs approximated to those held by the Mandaeans, inhabited a mountainous country to the north, that this country stood in some relation to Harran, that a sect in Jerusalem which afterwards emigrated to the south were of
the same faith, and that Maddai or Mandai originally had no reference to religion. Further, it appears not only from the narrative of the Haran Gawaitha but, as I shall show in this book, from all the cults and the ideas which underlie them, that the faith held by all these people was in fact closely related to Mazdaism, or to early
Zoroastrianism, as well as to some ancient Babylonian cults.
I now approach, with some diffidence, a series of philological and historical coincidences. What does 'Madai' or 'Mandai' mean? In the extract from the Haran Gawaitha quoted above, the expression 'they built mandis and dwelt' is used. To-day, the ordinary cult-hut, called in the literary language mashkhana (dwelling), is known in
ratna (colloquial modern Mandaean) as the 'mandi'. In the roll 'Sharh d Parwanaia' (D.C. 24) the cult-hut is called the manda. Priests explain, 'the word is Persian and means a dwelling'. The word occurs again in a compound from in the term mandilta (mand-ilta), the name of the curious triple betyl erected in the
courtyard of a house where a member of the familly has died, the meaning here being obviously 'dwelling-of-the-spirit', or 'dwelling-of-the-god'.
Now on the strength of similarities of religious phraseology in Syriac and Aramaic, 'Manda d Hiia' has hitherto been translated 'knowledge of life', i.e. gnosis; and by analogy, 'Mandai' as 'gnostics'. As Prof. Pallis has already pointed out, the form would be an imported one. The word for 'knowledge' in Mandaean literature is madita,
yadutha, madda or madihtha, and nowhere is the n imported into any form of the verb 'ada, 'to know'. Why is this? Moreover, when separated from the name 'Manda d Hiia' the translation as 'knowledge' or 'gnosis' becomes a little strained, as in the sentence:
'Thou (Manda d Hiia) art... the great Tree which is all mandia' (plural)'.
The Tree is a common religious symbol in Mandaean books for Divine Life, and the souls of Mandaeans are not seldom represented as birds, taking refuge in the shelter of a Vine, or Tree, against the tempests of the world. Here, to translate the word mandia by 'dwellings' or 'shelters' would make sense.
There was actually a district known as Manda in late Babylonian times; Winckler in Untersuchungen zur altorientalischen Geschichte 1889, p.112, places this 'Manda', 'am kaspischen Meere und oestlich davon'. Nevertheless, the whereabouts of the province is not certain. About 553 b.c. (see the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. iii, p. 220), the
god Marduk, appearing to Nabonidus in a dream, bade him restore the ancient and famous moon-temple of Harran. The king urged that it was still in the hands of the Umman-Manda, and asked how could a Babylonian king-
'interfere with their share of the spoil obtained by Cyaxares? The god answered that the Umman-Manda were dead or scattered, for in the third year of Nabonidus, Cyrus, the king of Anzan, had defeated them, carried Ishtumegu (Astyages) into captivity and had spoiled their city of Ecbatana.'
Ecbatana is the modern Hamadan. Winckler surmises that the Umman-Manda were possibly a Median tribe. R.W. Rogers, in his A History of Ancient Persia (p. 12), ventures to equate the Manda with the Madai, or Medes. Delattre (Le Peuple et l'empire des Medes, 1883, p. 195), says:
In the Babylon inscription under the name of Cyrus, the king of all far east devides his subjects , in three categories, people of Quti or Guti, people of Tsalmat-qaqqadi, and people of Manda.
The Quti People were from Armenia, people of Tsalmat-qaqqadi were the whole nation under roule of Semitic Empire of Niniv and Babylon.
The people of Manda were the subjects of Medes King . Nabonide gave Astyage the title "the King Of Manda men" .
The nomination of Manda men was applied by Asarhaddon of Gimirriens (Gimmirriens were people of Gomer, which is on the Black Sea shore )which bible assigns
the affinity with Medes and help them to demolish and collaps the empire of Ninive.looking at all these aspects, Could we come to this conclusion that the name of 'people of Manda' was an ethnic attribute chose for Aryen people neighbours of Caucase, such as Cimmeriens, and also for the people of Iran.
The word manda occurs in several Iranian dialects, or languages in which Iranian words occur; for instance, in northern India the word mandi means a 'covered-in market' or 'bazaar'. In Gujarati there is the word mandap or mandava, meaning a 'shed' or 'temple', derived from the Sanskrit mandapa with the same
meaning. The Todas of the Nilgiris in southern India, who have a tradition of migration from the Caspian, call their village, or group of thatched huts with a dairy for the sacred buffaloes, a mand. Ma-da occurs in Sumerian as meaning 'land, or settlement' (philologists arc undecided as to whether Semitic matu is related
to it or not. Does Mada lead us back to the Medes?)
Philology is a quicksand for all who are not philologists, and I do not venture, therefore, to do more than ask those who are qualified, if it is, or is not, possible, that the word mada or manda originally had the meaning of a 'settlement', 'dwelling-place', or 'shelter', and indicated a building or collection of buildings in
contrast to the temporary erections of wandering tribes.
Were this so, Manda-d-hiia would mean something equivalent to 'House-of-the-Life', or 'Indwelling-of-Life' and would be a personification (once again) of the group-spirit of Man, whose body is the tenement of the soul. Or, as was suggested by Lidzbarski in the case of another Mandaean light-being, he might be a personification of race. I can
only leave it to others to unravel the trangled mass of clues which I have here laid before them.
Against the theory that the Mandaeans came from the north, as Prof. Burkitt points out, is their language.
Noeldeke stated Mandaean to be a Babylonian dialect:
'Mandaean is closely related to the ordinary dialect of the Babylonian Talmud. Both the dialects are neighbours, geographically speaking... actually, we may assume that the language of the Babylonian Talmud was that used in Upper, and Mandaean that used in Lower Babylonia.' (N., pp. xxv ff.)
Elsewhere he wrote:
'Close relationship between Mandaean and the Talmudic language is apparent throughout the grammar: the Mandaean, however, appears to be a later from than the Talmudic, but not throughout, for the Mandaean texts are purer linguistically and not so mixed with foreign elements, and represent the Aramaic speech of Babylon better than the Talmud.
Had the Arabs preserved for us something more than a few accidentally introduced words of the dialect of the Iraqi Nabateans, (i.e. the Aramaic-speaking inhabitants of Babylonia), we should again find the main features of Mandaitic and Talmudic, and far more clearly than is now possible.' (N., p. xxvi.)
The lack of gutturals in Mandaean, the frequent confusion between s and sh, s and z, k and q are paralleled to some extent in the old Babylonian language, but the fact that one h is made to do duty for the hard and soft Semitic h does seem to indicate that the tongue was at one time foreign to the people
who spoke it, or that there were considerable Aryan (if one dare use so abused a word), or non-Semitic elements. There is, in fact, a soft h, but as it is used exclusively and only for the third person suffix, and pronounced i or a, according to gender and number, it cannot be counted in.
Leaving the doubtful question of origins, and turning to the history of the race in Iraq, the Sabians are mentioned three times in the Qur'an in conjunction with Jews and Christians, as people of a recognized religion. I have referred already to the Arab sources of information gathered by Chwolson in his monumental work. He gives a full account of
the brilliant Sabian scholars of the Baghdad Court. Greek learning first became accessible to Europe through Arab translations of the classics, and amongst the first translators into Arabic were Harranian Sabians at the Caliph's capital city. Physicians, astrologers, philosophers, and poets, the Sabians were an adornment to Arab civilization and
helped to found its fame.
- Cosmogony, Astrology, and Holy-Days
In the Ginza there are no less than seven accounts of the Creation, viz. in Fragments 1, 2, 3, 10, 13, 15, and 18, and these are far from agreeing. The Supreme Being is named variously Malka d Nhura (King of Light), Mara d Rabutha (Lord of Greatness), Mana Rba (The Great Soul)
from whom the First Life and then the Second Life proceed-in the fifteenth fragment the Great Life seems to procede the Mana, Pira Rba (The Great Fruit), &c. Whether these are epithets or separate conceptions is open to debate.
In the fifteenth fragment the Life is shown in the World of Light and produces, first Water; from Water, Radiance (Ziwa); from Radiance, Light; and from Light, 'uthri, the spirits whose function it is to govern
Similarly, there are assistants or agents in the work of Creation, Hibil Ziwa, Abathur, and Ptahil. Their roles and characters vary. In Fragment 1 Gabriel is the sole agent. In 2, Hibil Ziwa forms the World of Light but Ptahil does the actual work of creating the physical universe.
In 3 Ptahil is identified with Gabriel and makes the world with the help of the planets but cannot furnish man with a soul. Adakas Ziwa, or Adam Kaisa, or Manda d Hiia provide a soul for Adam. In 10 Ptahil is again the actual creator (here he is called 'son of Manda d Hiia'), and
Abathur fetches the soul (mana kasia) for Adam because Ptahil's creature cannot stand upright. In 13 (as in the Diwan Abathur, which also has a creation story) Abathur orders Ptahil to create the world, but when the latter is unsuccessful, an appeal to Hibil Ziwa completes
the task. Here Abathur and Hibil Ziwa are treated as separate beings. In Fragment 15 none of these personages appear (see above).
What modern Mandaeans make of this confusion will be seen in the Legends, pp. 251 ff. Present idea will be seen to be equally confused, especially about Adam and his relations with his light-double, Adam Kaisa.
Mandaean estimates as to the age of the world and world-periods are also contradictory. According to one account, the melki measured the existence of the world into epochs, or ages. 'From Adam to the end of the world is 480,000 years.' Each of these epochs is governed by a
sign of the Zodiac. To Umbara, a period of twelve thousand years was assigned; to Taura, eleven thousand; to Selmi (Silmia), ten thousand, and so on.
The sign of the Zodiac and their numerical values are as follows:
Umbara (New Year), Lamb or Ram
Silmia, Scales (Gemini)
Shumbulta, Ear of Corn
Arqba (pron. Arqwa), Scorpion
Gadia, Kid or Goat
Daula, Camel (or bucket?)
Each day is governed by a planet. The day is divided into two parts of twelve, twelve day-hours and twelve night-hours. Certain melki also govern the days, and hence have a planetary character, for instance, Sunday, which is governed by Shamish, is also associated with the
personified Habshaba, First-Day-of-the-Week, a malka who is sometimes identified with other saviour-spirits. He 'takes purified souls in his ship to Awathur and to the World of Light. The gate of the World of Light is ajar on this day and Hoshaba (Habshaba) takes the souls
by means of electricity into the midst of the world of light.'
I was told that 'Hoshaba' descends into Mataratha (Purgatories) on Sunday, returning with seven Mandaean souls to the world of light.
'The revolving wheels of light whirl more swiftly on this day, thus assisting the souls in their ascent.'
The story is based on the prayer for Sunday, uqarqil shibgh, &c., the qarqil taken as meaning revolution of a wheel.
Writings preserved by the priests enumerate the planetary aspects not only day by day but hour by hour, so that life may be conducted successfully. To quote from one:
'The Day of Habshaba. The First Hour is of Shamish. Favourable (shapir) for building a new house, going on the road, putting on a new garment, eating bread, approaching kings and governors, drinking wine, and buying and selling. The Second Hour is of Libat (Venus). Sit in thy
own city. Favourable for being with thy wife, eating new bread, riding horses, visiting physicians,' &c.
Not every hour of Sunday is good, for instance, on the sixth hour of Sunday night a traveller is likely to fall amongst thieves; for Nirigh (Mars) governs this hour, although the general aspect of the day is sunny.
Monday (Trin Habshaba) is governed by Sin; Tuesday (Thlatha Habshaba) by Nirigh; Wednesday (Arba Habshaba) by 'Nbu; and Thursday (Hamsha Habshaba) by Bil (Bel), also by Melka Ziwa 'from the morning of Thursday till Friday noon, when Liwet has power'. Friday (Yuma d Rahatia) is the
day of Libat, and Yuma d Shafta or Saturday is the day of Kiwan. Friday afternoon and night are supposed to be unlucky and under the general influence of the King of Darkness.
Although, throughout the Ginza Rba, the planets are represented as being harmful to mankind, modern Mandaean conception and magic use attribute beneficence to some and maleficence to others.
The Sun, Shamish, who, like other planetary spirits, rides across the firmament in his boat is friendly. That he is regarded as a power for good rather than evil is often apparent in Mandaean writings. Moreover, the Mandaeans have a solar
year, solar numbers are sacred, and the sun disk is employed in the alphabet. He seems to equate with Yawar Ziwa, prayers to whom have a very solar character. Tradition assigns him a crew of ten light-'uthri, though in the Diwan Abathur picture there are only four figures
beside Shamish in the sun-boat. The names of the crew are differently given by Mandaeans, and I suspect that they were originally twelve and represented the twelve light-hours. A priest told me they were 'Zuhair and Zahrun, Buhair and Bahrun, Tar and Tarwan, Ar and Sivyan, Riwia and
Talia'. A ganzibra was doubtful, but his list was, 'Sam Ziwa, Adonai bar Shamish, Liwet (Libat) whose other names are Simat Hiia, Kanat Izlat, Anhar, Samra d Izpar, and Gimra Bellur Dakia; Ruha and Samandri'il. Below, I quote a yalufa of learned priestly family. The light
of Shamish's banner, he said, came from the four 'uthri of the Polar star:
'From these four come the strength and light of Shamish. Thus the sun gets its light and strength from Melka Ziwa. Just as a mirror reflects a face, it reflects Melka Ziwa. Shamish is lord of all the melki of the material world. The pure soul can hear the prayer of Shamish. He
prays thrice a day, 300 butha in all, whilst the northern stars pray 12 butha and the other stars seven daily.
'Shamish has with him ten spirits ('uthri) of power and brightness. These ten 'uthri see what everyone in the world is about-nothing is hid from them. With Shamish in his boat are three others, one of the principle of darkness and two light melki, Sam Mana and Ismira
(Smira). Were one to see clearly-and the Nasorai are able to see thus sometimes-one would behold in the sun-boat the flaming dravsha (drabsha, banner), upon which are, as it were, three responsible for the evil sometimes done by the sun's rays. He is called Adonai. From his
eyes dart rays which sear and burn, and his gaze causes 'cupboards of air' (i.e. whirlwinds).
'But the flaming standard of Shamish, his dravsha, throws out beneficent rays and gives forth light and life and electricity. The melka of darkness sometimes succeeds in bringing something before the dravsha, so causing an eclipse. Sam Mana and Ismira counteract the
evil effects of the efforts of the Darkness.
Fig.1 The Sun-Ship (with Libat(Venus)above to lef)
'The ten 'uthri who are with the sun are called Zuhair, Zahrun, Buhair, Bahrun, Sar, Sarwan, Tar and Tarwan, Rabia and Talia. These ten do not work only with Shamish but they come to Sin. On the 14th night of the moon they are all with Sin. The light they give is the radiancy of
Melka d Anhura, not of Melka Ziwa, whose light is like that of the sun above the horizon-the noonday. They come to him (Sin) gradually and leave him gradually, and when he is without them, Melka d Hushka (King of Darkness) and the shiviahi have power to work them mischief.'
|A.The crew of ten 'uthri in the sun-boat
||B.Light symbol in the dravsha
||C.Dravsha (drabsha) of Shamish
Fig. 2. Left-hand top: the arc or boat of Shamish, with the ten 'uthris. Shamish hold the mast, or dravsha pole. Upon this banner, Hirmiz says, 'wheels of light appear'. See B. C represents the dravsha itself. Drabsha (plu. drabshia) means 'ray, beam', (something
which streams forth?) and the Persian drafsha (a 'flag' or 'standard') may have become associated with the word by the Mandaeans.
Shaikh Dukhayil, describing the sun-boat, said that the dravsha was 'flaming like letrik wires'. He continued 'the light of the sun comes from the drafsha and is of Alm d Anhura. At the end of the world, the planet will be burnt up with the rest of the material world.
The heat and cold(!) of the sun are of the Darkness. The sun lights four of the seven worlds, the other three being illuminated by the world of light.'
'Shamish has a female aspect, not a spouse, but a dmutha (complement, likeness). She is the mother of all the melki, is in likeness female rather than male, and, in my thought, the sun is in this form (i.e. female form) of Malka Ziwa's power, and the universe proceeds from her.
Her name is Simat Hiia (pronounced Haiy or Hei), Treasure of Life.'
The moon (Sin) appears to be regarded as a sinister influence. The informant quoted above says:
'The face of Sin, the Moon, is like a cat, animal-like and black, whilst the face of Shamish is like a wheel of light' (he drew a swastika). 'With Sin in the moon-ship is the King of Darkness also. He (Melka d Hshukha) pulls men towards the earthly and gross, towards the dark and evil. He does
this because he must, though he was created by and serves God, for there must be darkness and light and day and night. He is ordered to this by the Lord of Greatness, who has a myriad names and created all beings, visible and invisible, of the created worlds.
The light-melki in the moon prevent Sin and the King of Darkness from bemusing the children of men. Under the influence of those two, men do deeds of madness and shame that they would not wish to perform by day; and without the counteracting influence of the ten, men's moral sense would
disappear. But Melka d Hshukha cannot harm a man who rules himself and has a firm faith. A man must not doubt: his faith and his purity must be strong, for then he sees melki and can communicate with Shamish. He must not say 'I fear there are not', he must say, 'There are!'. If a man says,
'There is no God, no spirits', he is entirely in the power of the King of Darkness and it is harmful even to sit with such a one.'
Fig. 3. The Moon-Ship
The distorted figure on the right of the mast is Sin
In the Diwan Abathur the stern of the moon-boat is decorated with leafy twigs (see above, Fig. 3), but Sin who is considered responsible for abortions and deformities, is a malformed figure.
Venus, Libat, or Dilbat, is more favourably regarded. The form of the name is curious. The Sumero-Babylonian form Dil-bat had, Pallis suggests, long been obsolete at the period when the Mandaean scriptures were collected. He thinks that scribes, copying from earlier documents, took d for
the genitive particle and omitted it as unnecessary. In the Ginza occurs a passage describing a matarta in which are found those who go into the house of Tammuz (Adonis), sit there twenty-eight days, slaughter sheep, mix bowls and make cakes, 'mourning in the house of Dilbat'. Other
references in the Ginza are to 'Dilbat'.
The small planetary boat directly behind that of Shamish in the Diwan Abathur illustrations is said to belong to Libat, and one of the figures above it is labelled, 'This is the likeness of Libat: 'Sitting-on-the-mountain-of-Shamish' is her name: seven names she has'. Libat is often invoked in
sorcery. Her peculiar function is either to help in matters of love and generation or to give information about the unknown. Owing to her association with Zahri'il, spouse of Hibil Ziwa and protectress of women in childbirth, she is far from being regarded with aversion. A yalufa said:
'Those who wish to consult Liwet, take an istikan (tea-glass) and reverse it upon a slab of marble. Two people place their fingers upon the glass, one of them being a person who converses with the other world. Letters are placed round in a circle and the glass in the middle, and the glass
moves about and touches letters, spelling out answers to questions put to it. This is called 'ilm Liwet.
'Liwet controls inventions. The melka of this planet is female and beautiful. I have heard that there are people who put a boy or a virgin outside the town on Sundays in a place set apart for her veneration, and she descends into the boy or girl and instructs them so that they give information
about many matters.'
Magic dealings with her are frowned on by orthodoxy, but it was a priest who had copied a Libat incantation in my possession. The goddess is asked 'to make refulgent and beautiful my face' so that the supplicant and his beloved may 'glow with desire', 'their hearts are clothed with love', 'glowing
love and blind and glowing desire' is kindled in them. 'They shall not eat or drink until they possess each other.'
Mars (Nirigh) is the 'Lord of Clouds and Thunder, who makes rain and draws, together with Shamish, water from earth and sky'. The name is derived from Nirg-al the Babylonian deity. Pallis suggests that the scribes suppressed the al or el as this suffix is usually given to beings of divine
origin. Mandaeans, perhaps on account of his warlike and quarrelsome character, look on him as the protector of Islam.
Jupiter (Bil or Bel) is rarely mentioned except in exorcisms of disease-demons, such as the Pishra d Ainia. It is probable that his functions were gradually absorbed by such beings as Yawar Ziwa, Hibil Ziwa, and Malka Ziwa.
Mercury ('Nbu, Enwo), 'lord or writing and books', 'lord of wisdom and knowledge', and Saturn (Kiwan), appear little in magic except in exorcism rolls. Qmahia written in 'Nbu's name cure madness.
Every hour and every month has also its Zodiacal burj or house, the day being divided, as is said above, into two parts of twelve, twelve light hours and twelve dark hours. This brings me to the question of names, which are based on the numerical value of the signs of the Zodiac as given on this
page (above). Every Mandaean has two names, Malwasha, or Zodiacal name, and his laqab or worldly name. The latter is usually a Muhammadan name and is used for all lay purposes, the former is his real and spiritual name and is used on all religious and magic occasions. This spiritual name is linked
with that of the mother instead of the father, suggesting some period at which paternity was attributed to some ancestor on the female side, or a god. The religious name is of great importance, for if a man is drowned or burnt and the body not found, a man as a like him in circumstance as possible, and
bearing a name falling under the same astrological influences, must impersonate him at the reading of the zidqa brikha, a ritual meal which atones for the lack of death rites and burial. A person chosen as sponsor for a child unable to reply for itself at baptism should have astrological conditions
similar to those of the child, and his name will, therefore, fall into the same category of names.
Malwasha names have each an arbitrary numerical value. Letters themselves have no numerical value as in Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic, according to the priests, who keep lists of these names and suggest one to the parents when their calculations have been made. The names are not always drawn from religious
characters or from the holy books and amongst Malwasha appellations are such names as Yasman (Jessamine). I confess that I have been unable to discover why these names are selected, or why they have numerical values.
When an infant is to be named, the priest takes the Zodiacal sign of the month in which its birth occured, counts from it round the Zodiacal circle, and calculates from it the sign of the hour. The sign of the day does not matter. From the numerical value which results, they subtract the value of the
For instance, a male child is born at 11 am. in Awwal Gita, 1935, on February 4th. His mother's name is Sharat (numerical value 2). The sign for Awwal Gita is Aria. Starting at Aria on the circle but not counting it in, eleven hours gives us Sartana (numerical value 4). Two (for the mother's name) deducted
from four, leaves two. The name selected for the child, therefore, is Zahrun, one of the names with a numerical value of two. Thus the infant's full Malwasha is Zahrun bar Sharat, which adds up to four, the number of the Zodiacal sign Sartana.
For all astrological information the priests consult the astrological codex Sfar Malwasha, the 'Book of the Zodiac'. Mandaeans say that Hibil Ziwa gave Adam Paghra the Sfar Malwasha so that he might be able to foresee coming events in its pages.
Foreknowledge of coming events is claimed, not only by the priests who scan omens in the sky, clouds, birds, and interpret such events as eclipses (a recent eclipse was said to be 'blood on the moon' and a portent of war or massacre), but as a natural gift of clairvoyance peculiar to some priestly families.
My old friend Hirmiz bar Anhar claims that both he and his wife (a cousin) have this hereditary gift, and has given me several instances of second sight and premonition in their family.
Most of the leading events in a Mandaean's life are decided by recourse to the priests, who tell him the astrologically auspicious day on which to marry, or send his child to school, undertake a new enterprise, or set out on a journey. In cases of illness, cures and herbs fall under the influence of certain
planets and certain signs of the Zodiac, and a man should take only the medicament or cure which belongs to the sign under which he fell ill, i.e. the hour he sickened. In general the Subba refuse to drink any medicine, even when they have gone to a European doctor, though they have faith in ointments and do
not object to subcutaneous injections. The community presents problems to the health authorities. During a recent cholera epidemic a Government order forbad people to drink anything but chlorinated water from the town supply. It was impossible to enforce this order as far as the Subba were concerned, for the
only water that they regard as 'living' is water from the yardna, i.e. from a running river or spring, and water boiled or chlorinated has lost its 'life', so they will not drink it.
If a man falls sick on the 21st day of any month he has little hope of recovery, for that is a day on which the shiviahia (i.e. spirits of evil) have power. The 15th of a month is also inauspicious, and many Subba wear a special qmaha called 'Shalhafta d Mahra' to protect them against sickness
on this day. A Subbi told me that on these two days
'it is better for a man to remain in his house and not to undertake any business. Clothes should not be bought, no journey should be begun and it is dangerous to embark either on a ship or a new enterprise. Should a man fall sick on either of these two days, he is likely to die unless his nose bleeds. If this
happens, he will recover; but it must bleed of itself, and not be induced artificially. He must keep pure, for purification protects a man: it makes him white and clothes him in light so that the shiviahi cannot approach him.'
The Mandaean year is divided into twelve months of thirty days each, with five intercalary days named Parwanaia (pronounced sometimes Paranoia), or Panja, which fall between the 30th day of Shumbulta and the 1st day of Qaina. These twelve months are redivided into four seasonal divisions: Sitwa (winter), Abhar
(spring), Gita (Geyta) (summer), and Paiz (automn) which have lost connexion with the actual seasonal changes of hot and cold weather.
Each season is subdivided into three: First, Middle, and Last (Awwal, Misai, and Akhir or Khir). The twelve month are given other names also: Nisan, Ayar, Siwan, &c., but these do not correspond in season to their Jewish or Turkish namesakes.
||Awwal Sitwa (or Shetwa)
||Qam Umbara (Ambra)
| 9th ~
Each year is named after the day with which it began, e.g. the year of Habshaba, the Year of Sunday; or Year of Rahatia, Year of Friday. For instance, I write on January 29th, 1935, which, according to Mandaeans, is the 25th of Sartana or Tammuz, in the Akhir Abhar, the six month of the year of Arba Habshaba,
which is almost as if one said, 'the 25th of the Crab or August in the last of Spring, the 6th month of the year of Wednesday'. It will be seen that the calendar is a somewhat confusing subject.
The New Year's Day of the present Mandaean year, therefore, fell on August 8th, 1935, in the midst of the summer heat, Qam Daula the First of Winter. Dislocation in times and seasons is apparent, the reason being obviously that the calendar does not make allowance for the quarter day which has to be included to
make the solar year correspond with the seasons.
The name given to the New Year's Feast is Dihba Rba (Dehwa Rabba). Lidzbarski thinks the word dihba had an original meaning of 'slaughter', but Mandaean priests derive the words from dahba (zahba) 'gold', since slaughter is forbidden on most feast days, but particularly at the New Year. The Mandaean
also use the Persian 'Nauruz Rba' and this is the name given to the solemn festival in Alf Trisar Shiala. New Year's Eve is called 'Kanshia uZahla'. On this day sheep and chickens are slaughtered to provide a store of food, bread is cooked and brought into the house, kleycha (small festival cakes marked with
a cross) are prepared, dates and vegetables receive careful ablution and are stored within doors where they can suffer no pollution, and water is drawn in pots enough for thirty-six hours and covered in the house. All day, till evening (paina d Dihba Rba), the priests baptize the faithful. Cattle and poultry
must be shut up before sunset and entrusted to the care of Gentile neighbours or servants, for, during the ensuing thirty-six hours they may not be touched or milked by a Mandaean. Five minutes before the sun disappears, every man, woman, and child performs the tamasha (threefold ritual immersion) and the
women raise joy-cries. Then all retire into the house, where they must remain without going outside, no matter for what purpose, for the next thirty-six hours, i.e. the night before the New Year, the first day of the New Year, called the Day-of-Lacking, and the night which follows it. Laxer spirits go out of the
house to attend to a call of nature, but priests say that this is highly dangerous and arrangements are made within the house for the time. Vigil must be kept during the whole thirty-six hours: not an eye must be closed, though the sleep of children is excused because not preventable. On New Year's Day, or The-Day-
of-Lacking, no religious ceremony can take place. If a man chances to die during the thirty-six hours, he may not be buried. He is washed with water from the household store and clothed with his death-rasta, and when he has breathed his last he is covered with a white cloth and left as he is, until the dawn
of the second day of the New Year, when he can buried with the usual ceremonies. It is considered a disaster for the soul of the dead to have passed at such a time, and when Parwanaia (or Panja) comes, zidqa brikha and masiqta must be performed over a substitute.
During this vigil the priests are not idle. They consult the Sfar Malwasha and make predictions about the New Year, its good or bad weather, its chances of disaster or good fortune. Laymen keep themselves awake by playing games and reciting stories. If a beast, bird, reptile, or large insect (such as a hornet) touches
food or drink it cannot be consumed; and if a person is touched by beaat, bird, reptile, large insect, or Gentile, he is seriously polluted and must purify himself later by baptisms. Should he be bitten by a dog or reptile, or stung by a bee or hornet, he incurs sixty baptisms. Flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and lice are not,
however, counted, as they are regarded as unavoidable and naturable conditions. It is possible that in earlier times there were regulations about these lesser evils, for I was told that the extremely pious sometimes retired for the period into a reed-hut covered entirely by mosquito-netting.
The reason given for these precautions against pollution is this: New Year's Day commemorates the Creation, for Mana Rba Kabira, the Great Mana, the Lord of Greatness, completed his work of creation on this day. Therefore, all the spirits of light, wherever they may be, leave their posts and go to visit him and pay their
compliments. Abathur 'closes his door', Nidbai and Shilmai forsake their guardianship of the running waters; Hibil, Shitil, and 'Anush depart; the dwellers in Mshunia Kushta with Adam Kasia at their head and their guardian spirit Shishlam Rba (the dmutha of Hibil Ziwa)- all rise into the infinite worlds of light.
Swiftly as these creatures of light move, the long journey takes them twelve hours. They reach their goal at the dawn of the New Year and spend that day in the bliss of contemplating perfection. The journey back covers the next night.
But what of the world thus left undefended? The powers of evil and death are unrestrained. Even the waters of river or spring are dangerous and must not be approached or touched. If a man but dips his hand into the river, he is 'cursed with the curse of Shishlam Rba'. Trees, usually magically beneficent, become harmful.
People wrap matting round trees growing in their compounds lest children should touch them inadvertently. In short, Mandaeans take care to protect themselves from pollution because if pollution endangered them physically and spiritually while the natri or guardian spirits were present, it has thousandfold power to
harm them during their absence.
On the second day of the year all the Mandaeans come out, visit each other, feast, and make merry. The first visit is to the ganzibra, who tells them the portents for the year. Individual forecasts of good or bad fortune may be obtained from the priests, and af unfavourable the inquirer is advised to order the
writing of a qmaha or zrazta. It is a time of rejoicing, but no baptisms, slaughterings, or any other religious ceremony except funerals-and these must be supplemented at Panja as said above-may be performed until the fourteenth day and the night which follows it are over. (The Mandaeans count the twenty-four
hours of a day and night as beginning at dawn, i.e. Tuesday is followed by Tuesday night: 'the night of Tuesday' to an Arab, on the country, means the night preceding Tuesday.)
The 6th day of the first month is called Nauruz Zota or Little New Year, and this and the 7th day, are called the Dehva d Shishlam Rba, or, in one of the holy books, the Dihba d Shushian. The night between these two days is called 'the night of power', and then, if a man is pious, the Gate of Abathur is opened to him in a
vision and he obtains whatever he may ask. As, however, if he is really pious he dos not ask worldly favours but freedom from sin and spiritual gifts, the result is not immediately seen. All lights and fires must be extinguished for this feast and food is distributed to the poor. The Mandaean priests visit their flocks
and hang on the lintel of every house a wreath of willow and myrtle, which remains there till the next year and is thought to protect the inmates from harm. For this service the priests receive a small fee. At the hanging, they recite this prayer:
Bshma d hiia rbia nhar gufnia bgu mia u'tqaiam kabiria byardna nighdia anatum rauzia shganda lhakha aithilkhun yahbinalkhun 'l 'uthria saghia gadlilkhun umathnalkhun bbab d hilbunia kth asa d marba yanqia gadlilkhun umathnalkhun alma lkimsat almia brakhinun yardnia saghia brakhtinkhun masbuta d labatla mn rish brish.
As I doubt the correctness of this text, which a priest wrote from memory, I prefer not to venture a translation. Priests say that the wreaths thus hung up secure the blessings of fertility and good health.
On the 15th of the month Mandaeans are allowed to slaughter and are permitted to eat meat. It is a cheerful feast, but the 22th is an unlucky day, and no enterprise should be undertaken or religious ceremony performed, for it is mbattal (useless, inauspicious). If a man dies on a mbattal day, a zidqa
brikha must be performed for him on his substitute at Panja. The 25th day of the next month, Nuna, is also mbattal. The month of Umbara has no particular feast or day of ill-omen. The first four days of Taura are mbattal. The 18th of Taura is the Dehwa Hnina, or Little Feast, sometimes called the Dehwa
(Dihba) Turma. In 1932 and 1935 this feast fell on November 23rd and presumably in 1933, but I did not then note it down. The feast lasts for three days and baptisms should take place and the dead be remembered by lofani or ritual meals for the dead. Dehwa Hnina celebrates the return of Hibil Ziwa from the underworlds
to the worlds of light. This feast seems a curious repetition of the death or incarceration with subsequent return or resurrection motives of the New Year Feast, and later of the Panja festival. I suggest that the reason may be that all three were once New Year feasts, and fell at the spring of the year. The root-ideas
of the mourning and rejoicing at this season are found at a very early date both in Babylonia and Persia. The priests assure me that Panja (which certainly correspond to the neo-Babylonian New Year's feast in the month of Nisan) has fallen, from time immemorial, at the season of the melting of the snows and the consequent
rising of the rivers. But they seem ignorant of any method of correcting the calendar by such a system as that of the intercalary month after each 120 years employed by the Old Persians, although one priest told me that in the past, when priests were wiser, such corrections had taken place. One thing is certain: the most
important feast of the Mandaean year at present is, not the so-called Great-Feast at the so called New Year, but the spring-feast of Panja, which I shall presently describe.
I was invited lately to a Mandaean house for the feast of Dehwa Hnina. Contrary to religious precept, the women wore jewellery and were clad in silken raiment of bright hue. One or two of them danced to the clicking of fingers and rhythmical clapping of hands and the singing of dirge-like wedding songs in Persian.
In the month of Silmia there is no day of note. In Sartana the first day is called Ashuriah, which commemorates the drowning of the Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea. Special lofanis are eaten for the Egyptians who are considered to have been Mandaeans. The 9th, 15th, and 23rd days of this month are mbattal.
Qam Aria is a good month and lucky for those born in it, but it is forbidden to marry during that month. The last five days of Shumbulta (the Ear of Corn, Virgo) are mbattal, for they are dedicated to the five lords of the underworld, Shdum, Hagh and his consort Magh, Gaf and his consort Gafan, Zartai-Zartani, and Krun,
the Mountain-of-Flesh. These five mbattal days, given over to the Darkness, necessitate the reconsecration of the manda, or cult-hut, during the five ensuing days of light. These are the five intercalary days of Parwanaia, or Panja, the happiest time of the whole year, during which the great baptismal river feast
is held. It falls at the time when the river is swollen by melting snows from the north, i.e. during the first warm days of spring. In 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 Panja fell on April 5th but in 1936 it fell on April 4th. Each of the five days is dedicated to a spirit of light and, as the doors of the world of light are open during
Panja by night as well as by day, prayers may be offered at night. On other nights of the year no prayer may be said after sunset. One night during Panja is an especial night of grace, like the night of Dehwa d Shishlam Rba, and any right petition made to the lords of light will be granted.
Panja is a religious festival rather than a season of carnival, and Subba who live far from a priest travel long distances in order to be baptized as many times as their means allow, and join in the lofanis, zidqa brikhas, and dukhranas for the dead. The dead, assembling at the sacred meals and summoned by the
mention of their names in the ritual, are refreshed by the spiritual double of the foods, and bless the living. The uneasy souls of those delayed upon the road to the worlds of light because they died an unclean death, or on a mbattal day, or without the proper death-ceremonies and clothing, are represented by proxies
at the ceremonies of ahaba d mania and others, and clothed, purified, and sustained are furthered on their way through the mataratha. Families save up to pay the fees necessary for these ceremonies; indeed, they regard the barriers between them and their dead relatives, back to distant ancestors and the spirits
of light who begot them, as down during the five days of holiness. The soul of a person who dies during this period, when it emerges from the tomb on the third day, passes without hindrance through the mataratha, and the costly death-masiqta is not necessary for such a one. Hence relatives of a person dangerously
ill long that he should die at this time, and I have noted that in a small hamlet three persons died of different diseases in one year at this season. No doubt, if a person is dangerously ill, a baptism in the river might be expected to produce the desired result. The patient himself is anxious to leave the world at this season,
for no demons or wild beasts (zangoyi) will have power to harm his soul on its journey, and it accomplishes the long and difficult journey to the Gate of Abathur in a single day.
During Panja every true believer should dress completely in white (this
is not observed strictly), and should either wear sandals woven of grass
or go barefoot. The latter is usually the custom, though priests tell me
that in ancient times it was considered a sin to walk barefoot on the earth,
and that the real object of the injunction was that worshippers of the Life
should not wear upon their feet the skins of dead animals. No meat may be
eaten the flesh of sheep sacrificed in the ritual meals for the dead. Before,
its end, the consecration of the manda involves the sacrifice of
a sheep and a dove. This feast bring in much revenue to the priests.
Dogs of Nirigh -- Lions of Kiwan
Fig 4. The Zanghaiia
The next feast, which falls ninety days after Panja, on the first of
the month Hatia, is the Dehwa Daimana (Dihba Daima). This feast celebrates
the baptism of Adam, and pious Mandaeans should be baptized like their
ancestor. As Daimana now falls in the summer, it is a favourite occasion
for the baptism of young children. At this feast, a person baptized
in a new rasta acquires merit for sixty baptisms. On the day
following, it is forbidden to slaughter animals. Abstention from animal
food is the only form of Mandaean fasting. Mandaeans have told me that
they observe the Moslem 'Arafat as a fast, but it is not prescribed
by their holy books. All Moslem festivals are mbattal days for
In the last month of the year, Gadia, or Tabith, the three days before Kanshia uZahla at the end of the month are mbattal.
Before leaving this question of calendar it is interesting to compare Petermann's record. In 1854 he notes that Awwal Gita was on February 23rd, Awwal Paiz on May 28th, Awwal Sitwa on August 26th, and Awwal Abhar on November 24th. There is, therefore, a difference of nineteen days between the Awwal Gita of 1854 and that of 1935,
and the feasts are travelling slowly backwards. If Panja is to be kept at the flood-time a correction must be made before another eighty years shall have elapsed, or the feast will fall before the flood-time during the bitter cold.
Perhaps it is worth mentioning that a ganzibra told me that the length of the year is based on the time that a child takes to mature in its mother's womb (which period he estimated as nine month, nine days, nine hours, nine minutes, nine seconds and a half!) together with the forty-five days of her purifications, plus the
'time that the seed was in the loins of the father'. This is a typically Mandaean speculation, but I have not yet traced it in any of the holy books.
The history of Man on earth is divided by the Mandaeans into four epochs. At the end of each, mankind was destroyed with the exception of one human couple. From the creation of Adam and Eve to the destruction of the race by 'sword and plague' was a period of 216,000 years. One pair, named Ram and Rud (Sky and River), survived
disaster. Just as in the case of the first pair, a union took place between the male survivor and the light double of his spouse to ensure the continuance of the Mandaean race, whilst the rest of mankind proceeded from the ordinary union of the pair. After 156,000 years a second disaster resulted in the perishing of the human
family through fire. A second pair survived, Shurbai and Sharhabi'il (the word shurbai seems to mean a spreading out, or propagation-root shrb, 'to spread out'). The processes of reproduction of Mandaeans and Gentiles were repeated in the case of each successive couple. A hundred thousand years later the Flood again
obliterated the human race with the exception of Nuh and his wife Nhuraitha or Nuraitha. (The word Nuh comes from a root meaning 'the calming of tempest' and nhuraitha has, of course, a 'light' meaning.)
There is to be a fourth destruction of the world in the 791st year of the sign of the Fish (Nuna). This will be by 'wind' or 'air'. Some Mandaeans gaze at the aeroplanes which fly over their heads in modern Iraq, and ask themselves if the desctruction of man will come about in that manner. My silversmith friend, Hirmiz,
interprets, 'men will poison the air and so die', which may reflect coffehouse talk about poisons gas.
These Harranians may have secured for their brethren of the marshes, a simpler and more primitive people, some degree of toleration and fair treatment. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the glimpses that one gets of the Mandaeans show them harassed by persecution. One disaster in the fourteenth century left such a mark on their memories that they
still speak of it to-day. I came on a record of it at the end of a magic roll that I examined recently, and the same account is set in the tarikh at the end of a codex in Shaikh Dukhayil's possession. It tells of a frightful slaughter of Mandaeans in the Jazirah when Sultan Muhsin ibn Mahdi was ruler in Amarah and his son Feyyadh governor in
Shuster. The cause was a woman, a Subbiyah, who, going down to the river on the first day of the New Year, at a time when all Mandaeans keep within doors was seized by Arabs from a fleet of boats lying in the river. Fighting ensued, and war against the Subba was proclaimed. Priests, men, woman, and children were massacred and the community remained
broken and priestless for years.
'If oppressed (persecuted), then say: We belong to you. But do not confess him in your hearts, or deny the voice of your Master, the high King of Light, for the lying Messiah the hidden is not revealed.'
Such precepts from the Ginza Rba must, in the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese had a trading station in Basrah, have resulted in the Mandaean being taken for a peculiarly pernicious heretic. Urged by their clergy, the Portuguese authorities persuaded the Pasha to compel 'Christians of St. John' to come to church. Means were taken to convert them
by force; some were pressed into the Portuguese army. In the early seventeenth century a number of Mandaeans were Portuguese mercenaries.
In recent times the Turks showed more tolerance, for, as war and the shedding of blood are against Mandaean tenets, the Subba were permitted to pay fines instead of serving in the Ottoman Army. It remains to be seen what will happen when Iraq brings conscription into force. The position is no longer the same, however. The hold of the religion has
become so feeble that I met recently a young Subbi officer who had served in the campaign against the Assyrians, and several Subbi youths are cadets.
Indeed, modern methods, modern ways, nationalistic education, cinemas, cars, and all that make up the new Iraq, threaten the existence of this already dwindling community. In Government schools, boys conform to a pattern in dress, manners, and thought. Mandaean boys (including those of priestly caste) take to European dress and wear the sidarah
cap, and, when they return to their homes, neglect and slight the percepts of the priests. In the stress of school, or later business or office life, ceremonial ablutions are seldom performed, while sons of priests cut their hair and shave, and so become ineligible for priesthood. One by one, as priestly perquisites diminish and incomes lessen, the
calling becomes unpopular. If these conditions persist, the priesthood will gradually die out, and without priests to baptize, marry, and bury them, the Mandaeans as a sect must disappear, There is a further drain on the community in the shape of apostates. Subbiyah girls marry outside the faith and adopt their husbands' creeds, and youths forsake
a religion so incompatible with worldly advantage and town life. In big towns the publicity of the river-side makes the prescribed ablutions and baptisms all but impossible.
According to the last census (April 1932) the number of Subba in Iraq is given as 4,805. I incline to think this an understatement, which will be revised when we get the results of the new census recently taken by the Iraqi Government. Under the mandate, communities like those at Amarah and Qal'at Salih took on a new prosperity, and independent Iraq
promises protection and tolerance. The danger to the flock lies within the fold rather than from wolves without.