Today, the concept of “Manichaeism” is perhaps one of the most frequently used in political and cultural debate. It means extreme dualism, radical division and polarization in which the forces of light are engaged in a death struggle with the forces of darkness. This is true, but only in part. The authors of articles and pamphlets, who so often use this term, miss fundamental things: the amazing humanistic nature of Manichaeism, its mysticism and depth of spirituality, surprising for other cultures.

Manicheans primarily differed in their extraordinarily careful, even touching, compassion for living life—not to kill a living being, not to cause pain to animals, and all the more not to torture or hurt one’s nearest and dearest. These are all characteristics of the Manicheans and after them the Paulicians, the Bogomils and the Albigensians too.

And therefore it is all the more important to remind, in our chaotic and cruel time, who the Manichaeans really were. 

Manichaeans: the Religion of the Call

The Prophet of Prophets in the Dwelling of Darkness

The American researcher of the Western philosophical idea, Crane Brinton, in his book Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought, calls the philosophers of the Syrian-Egyptian School ‘the intellectuals of late antiquity’. This definition hardly fits Manichaeans as representatives of the Persian Gnostic movement. Rather, they were mystics, the successors of an ancient myth, at the heart of which lay the eternal antagonism of good and evil; in other words, pure dualism. In their ideas, there was a lot less philosophy; instead, this was an incredibly harmonious and poetic mythology.

And if Gnostics (with the possible exception of Marcion) did not have any chance of prevailing over triumphant Church and its institutions, addressing the suffering and the feeble and an imperious and uncompromising dogma, Manichaeans did have this chance. But, gripped in a vice between organized Christianity spreading across the world and a harsh Zoroastrian priesthood, Maniachaeans were ground down and disappeared off the face of history having failed to pave the way for the idea of two incompatible and forever feuding worlds.

Mani, the founder of the movement, was born in the year 216 into a rich family in the capital of the Parthian Empire, Ctesiphon, located near Babylon, into a distinguished princely house. At twelve he received the divine revelation, and in the year 240, Mani was instructed to found a new religion and set about preaching. His first convert was his father. He called himself the last prophet, closing the succession of divine messengers from Adam to Zarathustra, Buddha, and Jesus. He demonstrated miracles at the court of a Shahinshah, and his successors went way beyond the Sasanian Empire and preached across the lands from Egypt to Central Asia, and from the Roman Empire to the Caucasus. (2) Mani showed himself not just as a religious prophet, but also as a man endowed with an incredible charisma and the gift of persuasion. He was also an artist, and the pictures he painted were the embodiment of Persian art over a long period of time. Mani’s disciples told about his love of music, which the prophet considered an ideal link between the divine essence of humankind and an ideal world of light.

When Shah Bahram I, who had staked all on dogmatic Zoroastrianism and the outspread of Avesta, (3) succeeded to the throne, Mani experienced a reversal of fortune. His end was terrible. According to one version, he was starved to death. Another reported that he was crucified, and a third maintained he was skinned alive.

It is difficult to find an ancient religion that he did not use for his doctrine. Buddha for him was an embodiment of the East; Zoroaster embodied Iran; Jesus embodied the West; and he himself embodied God’s lips for the whole world. A new thread borrowed from Zoroastrianism was the idea of two antagonistic origins—the idea of contraposition of light and darkness. From Buddhism he borrowed the idea of soul reincarnation and an acute, painful perception of human suffering. From Babylonian astrology he borrowed a complex system of the influence of zodiac signs, the stars and planets, on the world and the elements, teachings, and spiritual spheres. But the main influence came from Mandaeism—Gnosticism of a Persian kind in which the universal evil was not the result of divine collisions, but of an independent power, kingdom of darkness, spiteful and cunning, striving to subjugate light and spirit.

  1. The Parthian Empire, which was founded it in the middle of the third century BC, gave up to the Sasanians.
  2. The Sasanian Empire succeeded the Parthian Empire and was the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam.
  3. The collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism.

The Truth on the Brink of the Worlds

If Buddhism and Zoroastrianism became the topics of many books about Mandaeans, there are only faint echoes of ancient manuscripts and the testimonies of travellers and ethnographers of the more recent time who discovered this tiny sect in Mesopotamia. Nowadays, overswept by Islamic fundamentalism and political upheavals, it has disappeared from the face of the Middle East.

The origin of the Mandaeans is bleary and full of speculations (Mandaeans literally means ‘Gnostics’—the bearers of knowledge). Thus, according to one of the versions, the Mandaeans were the successors of John the Baptist, who moved to Mesopotamia and incorporated into their teaching Babylonian astrology and Zoroastrianism. Recognizing just Adam, Noah, and John the Baptist, they practiced the rite of ablution and rejected Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Being dualists, they shared the beliefs of the fire worshippers about the original and irreconcilable feud of light and darkness that resulted in the creation of humankind.

The she-ruler of planets, the sensual and cruel goddess Ruha, who created the cosmos, unlike her description by the Egyptian-Syrian school of monodualism, was not the ‘lowest, ignorant god’; rather, she was a demon, the enemy of the light origin. She was surrounded by dark forces, avaricious and envious, consciously challenging the virtuous God and catching in their nets human souls, which struggled in them in dirt, muck, and blood, suffocating from the lack of ‘heavenly air’.

The book of the Mandaeans, the Ginza Rba, tells of ‘the great first alien Life from the worlds of light, the sublime that stands above all works … a world of mildness without rebellion, a world of righteousness without turbulence, a world of eternal life without decay and death, a world of goodness without evil … A pure world unmixed with ill.’

This book tells of the drama that occurred through the fault of sinister forces. The soul, which had been taken captive, was doomed to endless torture and wandering. It was unaware of what was happening to it, what was happening to the world, why and who needed endless ties and sorrows which accompany it from birth to death. It was the hostage of its own body, which was in constant need of care in an imperious, demanding, and capricious way. It tore around, trying to avoid pain and death and only got further tangled in the snares set up by the dark deity. Subconsciously, humankind was striving to return ‘home’ to the higher dwelling, but did not understand it. ‘The way that we have to go is long and endless,’ as ‘How wide are the boundaries of these worlds of darkness!’

Why did ye carry me away from my abode into captivity and cast me into the stinking body?’ the cries of the captive soul ring. ‘Who has cast me into the affliction of the worlds, who transported me into the evil darkness?’

There is no limit to human pain and sadness which consumes hearts: ‘How long have I endured already and been dwelling in the world!’

The salvation comes from outside, from above. ‘Call of the great Life … stands at the outer rim of the worlds and calls to his elect.’

On hearing this call, Adam woke up and acquired inner sight. From that point on, he was able to see this life in its entirety—in its embroilment, chaos and pointlessness—as if rising above the world. He gravitated towards the desirable ‘home’.

In the whole world and its works

I have no trust in the world.

After my soul alone I go searching about,

which to me is worth generations and worlds.

I went and found my soul

what are to me all the worlds? …

I went and found Truth

as she stands at the outer rim of the worlds ….

Mani’s family belonged to the Mandaeans’ sect or shared its beliefs. Is it any wonder that the new prophet adopted the convictions of the Persian Gnostics?

Captured by the Abyss

Manichaeans, to a considerable degree, reproduced the Mandaeans’ ideas, but they put them into a strict religious system decorated by an exceptionally bright, colourful, and naturalistic mythological narrative. In its basis was the collision of two opposite, primarily hostile forces that did not come in contact with each other: light and darkness. Light was God; darkness was an evil inclination, matter, and chaos. They existed in their own right; each one was the kingdom with rulers, angels (demons), and the strength of power. ‘Two beings were at the beginning of the world, the one Light, the other Darkness,’ Mani began his narrative. (1)

The balance became disrupted when darkness embarked on the offensive. Intruding into the dwelling of light, it captured the significant part of the kingdom of the good and forced the Father of Light to accept the challenge made.

His son—the first man—had to rebuff the attack of darkness with his troops, but he failed to withstand the attack and was taken captive by the ruler of matter who was as cunning as the Mandaeans’ Goddess Ruha.

For his deliverance, the Father of Light sought help from Live Spirit, giving rise to the ‘calls’ following one another: Live Spirit, and after it the rest of the messengers of Light joined the battle in order to wake up and free the captives held by the forces of evil with the help of appeal (call). A summons from the mountain peaks to the first man:

Shake off the drunkenness in which thou hast slumbered,

Awake and behold me!

Good tidings to thee from the world of joy

from which I am sent for thy sake. (2(

The last messenger was Mani himself. He collected segmental sparks of light, after which a balance settled in the world. The particles of light rose to the sky to the kingdom of their father, and the demons together with matter vanished into non-existence. Darkness retreated to its confines.

Those human beings who lived in the epoch after Mani’s arrival should have realized that he was the bearer of light and should avoid any contact with the material world. Manichaeans were ascetic; they refused the pleasures of the flesh and any benefits. They were vegetarians. The shroud separating man from God was dark and heavy, but the desire of getting closer to Him urged humans to reject the physical: ‘Now, O our gracious Father, numberless myriads of years have passed since we were separated from thee. Thy beloved shining living countenance we long to behold.‘ (3)

The killing of animals and even fish was strictly forbidden as was the participation in wars and any other acts of violence. Moreover, people must constantly try to refrain from offending even a tiny living creature under their feet; broken blades of grass and insects crushed by their feet already constituted a sin against the Kingdom of Light.

Christianity, with all its hankering for otherworldly life, left people enough room for self-realization on earth and the desires of the flesh. Manichaeism deprived people of such a choice. Nevertheless, as not everyone was capable of surrendering to the foretaste of spiritual liberation, in their surroundings there formed two casts: ‘the chosen’ (priests) and the rest of the novices, known as listeners (warriors) who provided all that was necessary to the privileged class. Each cast had its own path: the gates of heaven opened up before the chosen ones, and the listeners suffered the succession of transformations whilst continuing to work off the debts in the kingdom of matter.

Manichaean communities were plunged into the world of mysticism and magic. Among them there were many hermits and wandering paupers, illusionists and magicians, conjurers and poverty-stricken preachers. As time passed, they became the prototypes of dervishes ‘intoxicated by the wine of the truth’ with their closed orders, demonstrative indifference to the temporal world, and their dances to the point of exhaustion inspired by exaltation. ‘Love not pleasant-smelling garlands and take not pleasure in a fair woman … Love not lust nor deceiving shadows,’ Manichaeans call after Mandaeans.

For a while it seemed that Manichaeism had become the dominant religion of Eurasia, having satiated its religious plot with miraculous images and allegories and painted it with all the possible assortment of colours the human fantasy was capable of, Manichaeans created a fairy-tale civilization, the heroes of which became not titans and saints but magicians, wizards, and fortune-tellers. In a short while, Manichaeans gained power over the souls of millions of people, from the eastern provinces of Byzantium to India and the Heavenly Empire where, under different guises, their schools ran even into the eighteenth century. Their missionaries, with an equal degree of success, preached in the Hellenized cities of Asia Minor, at the markets of Persia and Central Asia, in closed Roman circles, and among the nomads, the Galatians, in the Balkans. The tragedy of the Manichaeans, like that of the Gnostics before them, was in their inability and lack of desire to resort to violence and pay for the tortures and barbarities of their enemies with iron and fire. Their enemies both could and would do this. Byzantines burned Manichaeans who, according to the descriptions of chroniclers, were burning like ‘live torches’. Zoroastrian priests would throw them to be eaten by the wild animals.

Manichaeism failed, becoming a symbol of extreme dualism, uncompromising division for good and evil, a black-and-white world in which there was no room for shades and hues. It presented an attempt to combine the incompatible. It showed contempt and even repulsion for nature and flesh and remarkable care for everything that moved, grew, breathed and could suffer because of an awkward step. It demonstrated aspiration to affirm its religious system, but an unwillingness to fight for it. It showed hate for everything that was sensual; there was a special lasciviousness in the descriptions of demonic pleasures heating the imagination. It was a strange and immensely colourful system in which one could find the echoes of all the spiritual experiences of the humankind. It was incapable of withstanding this world’s earthbound materialism, and it disappeared having left in it only smouldering sparks scattered around.

  1. Fihrist, an Arabic source
  2. Turfan texts
  3. Turkish Manichaean text

Alexander Maistrovoy, author of “Gnosticism Through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or Between God and the Creator”

Pin It on Pinterest