Wednesday, 24 April 2013


Written by  Mandaean Society in America
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It is not easy to speak about the origin and the history of the Mandaeans, because it is hardly discussed at all in their literature. They themselves believe that, as their religion was founded by the World of Light, they were not concerned with the history of this world. Up to the present day only one Mandaean text has emerged which refers, but in a very confused manner, to their history. It is the "Diwan of the great Revelation, called ' Inner Haran'" ("Haran Gawaita").

In "Haran Gawaita" there is a description of the Nasoraeans staying in the "Median hills", where they escaped under king Ardban from the rulers. King Ardban has been identified with the Parthian king Artaban III , IV or V. This seems to point to the existence of a legendary tradition which describes how the community, or part of it, penetrated into the Iranian territory of that time, that is during the period of the later Parthian kings, in the first or second centuries A. D. This same text describes how a Mandaean community was established in Mesopotamia and discusses its further history under the Sassanian rulers.

This tradition also includes events of the persecution of the community in Jerusalem by the locals in the course of which the city was destroyed as a punishment; the reference is probably to A. D. 70.

The emigration of the early Mandaean community from the Jordan valley in Palestine into eastern territories, brought about because of persecutions by locals, must have taken place during the second century A.D. at the latest, because several Mesopotamian and Parthian elements presuppose a fairly lengthy stay in these regions. The emigrants went first to Haran , and the Median hills, and then entered the southern provinces of Mesopotamia .

In the third centry, Mani , the founder of Manichaeism, had connections with the Mandaean community and was probably influenced by it in his system. The Manichaean 'Psalms of Thomas' show clearly both the friendly and the hostile relations between the two rival religions. In the ninth book of the 'right-hand' Ginza , the Mandaean holy book, there are polemics against the followers of Mar Mani . The pre-Manichaeam existence of a Mandaean tradition is more than assured today.

'Haran Gawaita' attests to the foundation of a community in Baghdad , i.e. In Mesopotamia, and the appointment of Mandaean governors in this region. In contrast to the Parthian rulers, under whom the Mandaeans obviously prospered, relations with the Sassanians were bad. The same scroll refers to considerable reduction in the number of the Mandaean Temples at that time. It is also clear from the inscription of the Zoroastrian high priest Kartar that those practicing non-Iranian religions – and the Mandaeans were among these – were persecuted during the reign of King Shahpur I.

Islam renewed oppression, in spite of its toleration of the Sabians as a "people of the book". In this way, the afflicted community retired more and more into the inaccessible marshes of southern Iraq and the river districts of Khuzistan, where the Mandaeans are even now to be found.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the Mandaeans have returned again to the large cities ( Baghdad and Basra ), where they found opportunities to gain an education, earn money, and raise themselves socially.


The religious community of the Mandaeans today number, though difficult to determine, about 70,000 members who live in groups of varying size along the rivers of Iraq and Iranian Huzistan. Up into the 20 th century their range of distribution was predominantly in smaller market towns and villages of the marshland in southern Iraq , the Batiha, which corresponds to the ancient region of Mesene (Maisan). As a result of recent wars, political and religious persecution, some of them have chosen to live in other parts of the world. Their present-day centers are Baghdad , Basra , Nasiriya, and Ahwaz . Their Arabic neighbors call them "Subba", meaning "Baptists"; they call themselves "Mandaee" (Gnostics). What distinguishes them from the surrounding peoples is their religion and religious tradition, written in a sematic (East Aramaic) dialect with its own script.


We are indebted to T. Noldeke and M. Lidzbarski for the fundamental study of the language and literature of the Mandaean community. The former wrote the standard grammar (1875), the latter edited and translated the most important Mandaean works. Attempts were repeatedly made to gain access among the Mandaeans to better understand their texts. But it was the English scholar Lady Drower who was the first to succeed in opening up these almost inaccessible sources. By her exquisite skill and unceasing energy, she succeeded in taking exact notes of the cultural and religious manifestations of the Mandaeans. Also, she obtained and published a number of, up until then, unknown manuscripts, which were in part accessible only to the priests.


The extent of the Mandaean literature, considering the relative smallness of the community, is surprising; it forms a remarkable body of gnostic writings, the authors of which are not known to us by name. This extensive written tradition has a purely religious character. It comprises liturgies, prayers, hymns, commentaries, legends, theological-mythological tractates and priestly speculations.

The most important works of the Mandaean literature are the following:

The Ginza , which means the 'Treasure'. It is consisting of two main parts, the right Ginza and the left Ginza . The first part is a collection of eighteen tractates, predominantly preachy mythological and cosmological content. The second and smaller part consists essentially of the hymns for the mass for the dead. It is really a book which is devoted only to the soul and its ascent (masiqta) to the World of Light.

The Book of John (drasha dyahya), a mixed collection (perhaps a supplement to the Ginza ) of thirty-seven sections of varying size, chiefly mythological in content, among which are tractates about John the Baptist.

The canonical prayer book (Qolasta), which means 'collection', contains songs and prayers together with directions for religious ceremonies, above all for baptisms and masses for the dead.

Thousand and Twelve Questions ( Alf trisar shuiale ), a collection which consists of seven parts and is intended for priests only.

The chronology of the Mandaean literature is beset by difficulties, since it offers scarcely any specific historical references. However, some researchers can date it between the pre- Christian period and the third century A. D.


The Mandaean Community is divided into priests and laity. There are three different ranks of priests. They include ordinary priests (tarmide, 'disciples, pupils'), bishops or 'treasurers' (ganzibre) and the 'head of the people' (rishama). At the present time, Rishama Abdullah Negim of Baghdad is the only one that holds such an office. For a while, the number of priests seemed to be shrinking to half a dozen or less. However, in recent years, many young educated Mandaeans have entered the priesthood. The priest acts as the representative of heavenly messengers and angels (uthre) and thus he is equated with them repeatedly in the rituals.

The most important ceremonies, and also the oldest, are baptism (masbuta) and 'ascent of the soul ceremonies' (masiqta).

Baptism takes place on Sundays (habshaba), the first day of the week, which is for the Mandaeans, a holiday. Baptism consists of a threefold complete immersion in the white sacral robe (resta), a threefold "signing" of the forehead with water, a threefold draught of water and the crowning with a myrtle wreath. There follows on the bank an anointing of the forehead with oil, a simple communion of bread and water, and the handshake of "truth" (kushta). Baptism can take place only in flowing (=living) water, hence in rivers. All rivers fit for baptism bare the name Jordan (Yardana). It is believed that these Jordans are fed from the celestial World of Light. The chief purpose and significance of baptism is first that the Mandaean, by immersion in the Jordan , enters into close communion with the World of Light, thus receiving a share of salvation. And secondly, receives a purification from transgressions and sins. Thus as once in the primeval times beings of light first baptized Adam , the Mandaean believes that at his baptism the World of Light is present and takes an active part. Without baptism, no Mandaean (or his soul) may pass on to the next world.

The other important rite, the mass for the dead, or rather the ascent of soul to the World of Light. It is a characteristic feature of the Mandaean religion to resolve the problem of death by firm belief in the after life of the soul. For the Mandaeans, the fate of the soul is a chief concern. An extensive number of ritual performances are developed with this aim in view. These include, among few other rituals, certain ceremonial meals. Meals in memory of the dead, like baptism ceremonies, belong almost to every Mandaean feast and thus reveal an important side of the religion. The mass for the dead has a symbolic value in connection with the rebirth of the soul, and helps the soul in its dangerous journey through "places of detention" or purgatory (matarata) to the World of Light.


The Mandaean worldview is stamped by gnostic dualism. A World of Light (nhura) and a World of Darkness (hshuka) exist in mutual hostility. The World of Light is a world of light and brilliance, of goodness and truth, and eternity without death. Heading the World of Light is a sublime being, The King of Light "Life" (Haii). Countless number of light beings "angels" (uthra) surrounds this God. The World of Darkness is a similar construction to the World of Light, but it stems originally from the chaos or 'dark waters'. The World of Darkness is full of evil and falsehood. Hostile relations between light and darkness, life and death, good and evil have always existed. These relations led to the creation of the earthly world (Tibil). Earth was created as a result of joint actions from darkness and light. Basically, it was an evil act with the interference by the World of Light to tilt the balance in its favor. The Mandaean literature narrates different versions as to how this took place.

The high point of creation is the creation of the first man Adam , whose body ( adam pagria ) was produced by the evil beings, the wicked spirit-ruha- and the planets.

("We shall capture Adam and seize him And detain him with us in the world.

We shall install him in our assembly, We shall seize and lay hold of his heart.") ginza Rba-Right III

This purpose is prevented by the beings of light, in that they create for Adam a "companion", the soul or 'inner' (hidden) Adam (adam kasya), and impart to him the secrets of the world.

This event produces one of the major themes of Mandaean mythology. From the primeval couple Adam and Eve descend the Mandaeans; they comprise the 'family of Life' for their souls derive from the World of Light and ever since they have had to take up their residence in the 'darkness' or bodily (earthly) world.

The redemption of Adam is held to be a prototype of redemption in general. This event stands at the center of the Mandaean concern. After the soul's fall into the body of Adam, Manda dHaii – the 'Knowledge of Life' a personification of redemptive knowledge; gives the Ginza to Adam, revealing the 'mysteries' of cosmos to him. Adam is therefore assisted to knowledge and redemption. Redemption consists in the happy return of the soul to the World of Light, and every instruction has this object in view.


A few words may be devoted to the Mandaean ethics and morality. Unlike other gnostic sects they recognize no strict religious demands or for that matter free thinking. Monogamy and having children are directly prescribed, dispensing of alms (zidqa) is necessary for salvation, and also other works, observance of food laws, ritual slaughter, and rules pertaining to purification, to which belong the baptisms and lustrations. The Mandaeans are taught to love their neighbours. Among other things, a reservatio mentalis is sanctioned when oppressed by alien religions. A detailed 'moral code' is found in the first two sections of The Right Ginza.

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