The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Fallujah, under the Seal of Solomon

Tractate 20 of the Book of John, about John’s conversation with the Sun, is one of the shortest compositions in the entire text, but what it lacks in length, it makes up in the richness of its detail concerning the lives of ancient Mandaeans.

Since much of this text concerns the Sun, the reader is confronted immediately with references to the Mesopotamian cosmology:

Šamiš etib bṣurta /  usira etib btalia

arba ziqia ḏbaita / lagṭia ganpaihun / ahdadia ulanašmia

The sun sat in seclusion / and the moon sat in an eclipse.

The four winds of the House / grasped their wings / one to another and breathed not.

The word I have translated here, ṣurta, literally means a drawing, but in Mandaic it has come to mean the ritual barrier that is created to separate the pure from the impure, and by extension those who are enclosed within it (such as menstruating women) and the period during which they are so isolated. All three are known as a sorthe even today.

Similarly, the word I translate here as “eclipse,” is actually a proper noun, ˀāṯallyā, which derives from Akkadian attalû, the dragon that swallows the sun and the moon to create an eclipse. Thus, the very first line is extremely rich in metaphors to which my English translation does no justice.

The description of the Four Winds grasping their wings one to another brings to mind Pazuzu, lord of the Four Winds, whom the ancient Mesopotamians depicted as a winged demon (as you can see in the image in that blog post). It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that the passage hearkens back to these depictions. Then the sun speaks directly to John in Jerusalem:

etlak atlata tikia / taga ḏšauilẖ lkulẖ alma

etlak mn mašklil / spinta ḏradia haka biardna

etlak plugta rabtia / ḏhaka radia binia mia lmia

kḏ tizal lbit rbia / qudam rbia adkar elan.

You have three halos, / a crown worth the whole world.
You have from mašklil / a boat that travels here in the Jordan.
You have a great canal / that goes here from water to water.
When you go to the House of the Great / remember us before the Great.

The word mašklil is a hapax legomenon; could be related to Syriac mǝšaḵlal “perfect,”or perhaps it is related to meškā “skin.” Lidzbarski suggests some kind of wood. For my money, though, this is not the biggest mystery in these lines. What is this great canal (or division) that runs from water to water? It is called plugta in Mandaic, which just happens to be the etymon of the present name for Pumbeditha, namely Fallujah, so-called because of its strategic location at the nexus of the canal network. That is to say, Pumbeditha was informally known as plugta, “the canal,” and that is the name that stuck.

For most of the first millennium, Pumbeditha was one of the most important centers of Jewish learning in the world. This may be significant, because Mandaeans identify the Jewish god, Adonai, with the sun—particularly in the texts about John, of which this is one. Thus a reference to a major center of Jewish learning in a text that is ostensibly about the sun would not necessarily be unexpected. Is there any other evidence of Jewish themes in this text?

John attributes his three wonders to Life, like a good Mandaean. When he gets to the third, plugta, the text takes a turn for the strange:

hatma ḏmalka matna elẖ / ḏgaira bšumak / uazla lbit qiqlia

qarba mn zaua ḏnapšẖ / baiia bnia lamaška

kḏ šalmu nidrẖ unapqa / lašiha lbit hiia / ulamqaima ldaura taqna

The king’s seal was placed upon her / so that she cavorts in your name / and goes to the house of dunghills.
She fights with her own spouse / she seeks her sons but does not find them,
When her vows were completed and she left / she was not worthy of Life’s House / and was not raised to the everlasting abode.

Apparently John has anthropomorphized the plugta, which is feminine in Aramaic, and likens it to a wife who has strayed from her family. The symbol of this transformation is the hatma ḏmalka, “the king’s seal,” which is almost certainly a reference to the famous ring of Solomon, described in the Bavli (Tractate Gittin 68a) and in both Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowl texts as proof against demons. In the latter, it is explicitly described as a seal, using this word. In later centuries, perhaps as late as Islamic times, this term became associated with the Magen David, as a symbol of Judaism. Scholem (1949, p. 246) suggests that its identification with the seal of Solomon first arose in medieval times, but its potential appearance in the incantation bowls and now here, within a Jewish context in the Book of John, suggests that it may be much earlier—potentially even pre-Islamic.

The language of this line differs greatly from the others. The participle gaira could potentially come from two roots: g-w-r, which means “to commit adultery, and g-y-r, a denominative root from the Hebrew word giyur, “conversion (to Judaism).” It is entirely possible that both meanings were intended, in precisely the sort of double entendre for which Mandaean texts are famous (I’ve tried to capture some of this double entendre in my translation). As for the “house of dunghills,” bit qiqlia, while this at first sight appears to refer to some region, and Lidzbarski interprets it to be a bordello, this word can also mean ruins, and indeed one the Jewish temple is explicitly identified as a קיקלתא in one of the Jewish Palestinian piyyutim published by Sokoloff and Yahalom (1999, 21:12). The Temple looms large in this portion of the text, where it is elsewhere described as baita nsisa “the disturbed house.”

To recap, the debate between John and the sun in Jerusalem immediately puts us into a Jewish context. The reference to “the King’s Seal” only confirms this impression, and encourage us to read further meaning into what appears, at first glance, to be a nonsensical text about a canal cheating on her husband. What emerges is a thinly veiled polemic against Pumbeditha (or, to use its modern name, Fallujah) as a major center of Jewish learning.

Reading Paul out of the Book of John

A few years back (December of 2011), James McGrath asked me whether the phrase mšiha paulis, which Lidzbarski renders “Christus-Paulis,” might have anything to do with the Persian word bolūs meaning a “deceiver” or “flatterer.” At the time, I could find little to support this interpretation, and much against it. The whole passage reads, according to Lidzbarski,

Den Jordan, in dem Christus-Paulis getauft wurde, habe ich zur Traufe gemacht. Das Pihtfi, das Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Sakrament” gemacht. Das Mambuha, das Christus -Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Abendmahl” gemacht. Die Kopfbinde, die Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Pfaffentum” G gemacht. Den Stab, den Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum Dreck  gemacht.

Christus-Paulis! How could these foolish people make such a mistake? Clearly they must be completely ignorant of the Christian faith (said the New Testament scholars, and particularly those who sought to deny any relevance or antiquity to the Mandaean texts). This is certainly the tone adopted by Lietzmann (p. 601), who concludes, “in several passages here, we find word of Christ-Paulis, where the name of the Apostle Paul is thrown together with Christ. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of these people. This whole piece stems from the Arab period.”

Now that I have dedicated some time to reconstructing the meter of the text, I can say it should read something like this:

iardna ḏeṣṭbabẖ mšiha / paulis kuhrana šauitẖ

pihta ḏnasib mšiha / paulis qudša šauitẖ

mambuha ḏnasib mšiha  / paulis qurbana šauitẖ

burzinqa ḏnasib mšiha / paulis kahnuta šauitẖ

margna ḏnasib mšiha / paulis mahrunita šauitẖ

That is to say, mšiha “the Christ” and paulis (var. palus, pulis) don’t even belong to the same hemistich. Instead, each line parallels the symbols of the Mandaean religion with those of the Christian religion, with a surprising degree of familiarity of these institutions, stating quite clearly that the the former were the basis for the latter.

The Jordan in which the Christ is baptised / I have made a paulis of the font (Syr. gūrnā)

The morsel (pihta) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. quddāšā)

The spring-water (mambuha) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. qurbānā)

The turban (burzinqa) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the priesthood (Syr. kāhnūṯā)

The staff (margna) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the crozier (Syr. mōrānīṯā)

Now, before we condemn the Mandaeans for their ignorance of Christianity, we have to explain their surprising familiarity with technical terms like “font,” “Eucharist,” and “crozier.” What is the possibility that someone sophisticated enough to draw a connection between the Mandaean margna and the Christian crozier, would not know the difference between Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul? I think we can safely rule this interpretation out, and with it, the basis for Lietzmann’s verdict that the Mandaeans only knew Christianity via the intermediary of Islam.

That leaves us with a problem: how to explain paulis? Lidzbarski suspected that it was of foreign origin, possibly Iranian, but the ending –is suggests either Latin or Greek to me. Are there any Latin or Greek loanwords in Eastern Aramaic that fit the bill? There is the JBA pūlsā, which ultimately derives from the Latin follis, a large bronze coin (and the ultimate origin of the Arabic word fulūs, which means money). It doesn’t necessarily always mean money in JBA, however; in the Bavli (Tractate Šabbat 65a(32)), it refers once to an unstruck blank, the unmarked basis on which new coinage is stamped.

If we translate paulis as “blank,” then the passage suddenly becomes clear. The Jordan is the basis of the gūrnā (which, according to Lietzmann, some adherents of the Church of the East do indeed call the Jordan). The pihta is the basis of the quddāšā. The mambuha is the basis of the qurbānā. The burzinqa is the basis of the kāhnūṯā. The margna is the basis of the mōrānīṯā. Ruha has taken all of these Mandaean symbols, and overstamped them with a Christian meaning, just as a blank is stamped with the die to become a coin. Lidzbarski and Lietzmann may have concluded that the Mandaeans were confused between Christ and Paul, but it appears that the confusion was entirely in their own minds. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of early 20th century scholarship on the Mandaeans.

A Note on Mšunia Kušṭa

The phrase Mšunia Kušṭa Məšonni Košṭa has occasioned the spillage of considerable ink, at least relative to the degree to which that commodity has been spilled in the service of Mandaic Philology. Although it appears for the first time outside of the Mandaean scriptures in Petermann’s collection of Mandaic folktales as meschunne kuschta, a Mandaean paradise, it should not surprise us that the first word on the origins of this phrase come from Noldeke, who considers it a vestigial Hebrew-style D-stem passive (or pual) participle:

Vielleicht giebt es daneben noch Reste von Passiv-Participien nach hebr. Art (wie מְפֻעֵּל). So liesse sich wenigstens zur Noth fassen מוליא “Hochland” I, 282, 25 = מְעֻלְּיָא und der Name des mand. Paradieses משוניא כושטא „das Entrückte der Gerechtigkeit“ (מְשֻׁנֶּה) I, 302, 18 (meschunne kuschta nach PETERMANN); damit hängt aber am Ende משאוניאת עשאתא etwa „wunderbares Wesen des Feuers“ I, 87, 9; 295, 13 zusammen, dessen Form ganz unklar (p. 132).

Lidzbarski (1915, xviii), even went so far as to declare this putative Hebrew pual form as evidence for Palestinian substratal influence from  upon Mandaic. On this basis, both men parse it as an otherwise unattested passive participle, “transferred, removed (=sublimated).” Is this accurate, and need we look so far to find its origins and meaning? Is it at all possible that it might derive from a more proximate source, and mean something completely different?

A Hebrew-style pual participle of the root š-n-y “to be different” is not attested anywhere else in Aramaic, Western or otherwise, but Kaufmann (Akkadian Influences upon Aramaic, 73) connects this form to a JBA lexeme məšonnitā, found in the Bavli, Tract. Ta‘anith 23a(46): איהדרא ליה משוניתא ואיכסי מיע<י>נא ‏ “a məšonnitā encircled him, and he was hidden from sight.” This word apparently derives from a D-stem participle, albeit an Akkadian one rather than a Hebrew one, namely mušannītu “diverting,” from Akkadian reflex of the same root (šanû). The participle refers explicitly to the sort of earthworks that divert water into channels, a common and useful feature of the Mesopotamian landscape. Unsurprisingly, a similar form of what appears to be the same root also appears in Arabic, musannātun (pl. musannayātun) “dam,” even though this root is no longer productive in Arabic.

Lane derives from a separate root, *s-n-y meaning “to water.” No such root is attested in the related languages, but *s-n-y “to be different” is indeed reconstructable to Proto-Semitic, and has left other lexical traces in Arabic itself. Logically, it makes more sense for the Arabs to have borrowed technical terminology relating to waterworks from the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, rather than the reverse. Unfortunately, not all three of these terms can be reconstructed to a single proto-form, giving us the by-forms *musanniyat– in Akkadian and Aramaic, and *musannayat– in Arabic, with the triphthong *iya collapsing to ī in Akkadian and Aramaic, as it is wont to do, and *aya collapsing to ā in Arabic, as it is likewise wont to do. Even so, the etymology seems sound.

This would make Məšonni Košṭa “Truth’s Barrier,” which is certainly consonant with the constellation of Mandaic metaphors drawn directly from life in the marshes of southern Iraq. It is also in keeping with the Mandaic literature, and particularly that about the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. GR 1.202, p. 29:18), in which this location can be accessed directly from this world, rather than being part of the geography of the world of light.

A parallel to the Mandaean tradition about the earthly paradise of Məšonni Košṭa is supplied by the Babylonian Talmud (Tract. Sanhedrin 97a), in the story of the death of Rabbi Tabuth’s two sons (I am indebted to Reuven Kiperwasser, who drew my attention to this parallel in a personal communication on 3/23/2014). According to this legend, R. Tabuth (or perhaps Tabyomi) lived in a “place called Truth (qušṭā),” in which no one ever tells lies (wə-lā məšanne bə-dibbūreho, literally “it did not change (məšanne) in its words”), and no man dies before his time. There, he married a woman, and she bore him two sons. One day, while his wife was bathing, a neighbor came looking for her, and out of his concern for etiquette R. Tabuth told the neighbor that she was not there. As a consequence, his two sons died, and the inhabitants of Truth drove him out of town for inciting Death against them. As a consequence, R. Tabyomi (or perhaps Tabuth) henceforth refused to say a lie, “even if he were given all the empty spaces of the world.”

Another possible connection to the Mandaeans lies in the nature of the people who lived in Truth. These people famously would not change their words. A similar claim regarding the Nazoraeans is frequently added to the colophons with which Mandaean copyists conclude their scriptures:

uzakia ama ḏnaṣuraiia ḏlašanun mindam ḏhiia paqid

May the people of the Nazraeans, who did not change (šanun) anything that Life has commanded, win.

Otherwise, the expression məšanne bə-dibbūreho “change in its words” or perhaps “distort its words” to mean “lie” is unusual—in fact, near as I can tell, it is restricted to this passage. As Kiperwasser has suggested (2014, 272), the fantastic setting of this story may reflect an Iranian motif, the fortress Kangdiz, in which the deathless hero Pešyōtan, son of Wištasp, waits with his hundred and fifty righteous men, until he may emerge and restore the religion of Ohrmazd, much like the 360 Nazoraeans who escape to Məšonni Košṭa in the Great Treasure. Kiperwasser likewise suggests that Məšonni Košṭa might be derived from the rabbinic tale of Truth, the town that does not change in its words, but if Kaufmann is correct and məšonni refers instead to some kind of barrier or obstruction, then perhaps məšanne bə-dibbūreho instead reflects a folk etymology for the name Məšonni Košṭa, the abode of the Nazoraeans, “who do not change anything that Life has commanded.”

This would make the Zoroastrian Kangdiz and the Mandaean Məšonni Košṭa close parallels, both in etymological terms as well as folkloristic ones. The name Kangdiz is a compound: Pahl. diz, which means fortress and is ultimately derived from the PIE root *dheigh– “to make, form (in this case, a wall),” also found in the Avestan word pairidaeza “enclosed garden,” the source of our word paradise, and the name Kang or Hang, from Avestan Hankana, an underground fortress built by Fraŋrasyan (Afrāsiāb), the name of which is ultimately derived from the root kandan “to dig.” Thus, both names refer to paradisaical locales protected by earthworks, to which an army of righteous men have retreated to await the millennium.

Famines, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, III

When evaluating chronicles such as Chapter 18 of the Great Treasure, nothing could provide better corroboration than an eclipse. We are thus fortunate that our text mentions just such an event:

ubiahria šabaṭ daula ḏ-mišanuiia barba habšaba zipa lšamiš nigaidẖ mhauai elẖ ḏ-malka ḏ-babil lbabil nitia uqiniana ḏ-babil lbabil nitia ubṭur anašia lagaiia lpadakšar nimṭun

And in the month of Shabāṭ (Aquarius), [Qam] Dawla [according to the style] of the Meseneans, on Wednesday, the overtakes the Sun. It is indicated that the King of Babylon comes to Babylon, and the possessions of Babylon come to Babylon, and the lagaiia overcome the Padishah (Phl. Padixšā) in the “Mountain of the People” (Phl. Turānšahr).

Here it is worth mentioning a few words about the Mandaean calendar. This entry comes immediately after the entry for Year 795 of Pisces, which is equivalent to 474 in the Gregorian calendar. According to Drower, the month of Shabāṭ is also known as Qam Dawla (hence the expression daula ḏ-mišanuiia), and colloquially known as Awwal Shetwa. It is the first month of the year, corresponding to the Pahlavi Frawardīn, so we have already moved into 796/475. Arba Habšaba simply means Wednesday. On this day, the Lie reaches the Sun, according to our text.

In his 1938 article on “An Ancient Persian Practice Preserved by a Non-Iranian People,” S.H. Taqizadeh (615) identifies this event as an eclipse, and notes that there was an eclipse on Wednesday, July 14, 622 (the 26th of Frawardīn). This is true, but it was only visible from Antarctica. Two years later, another eclipse occurred on a Thursday, June 21, 624 (the 4th of Frawardīn), but it was visible in southern Iraq only as a partial eclipse, starting just 23 minutes before sunset, and did not reach maximum eclipse until half an hour after sunset AST. Clearly neither of these are appropriate candidates to reflect the world’s falsehood overtaking the Sun.

On the other hand, if we look for an eclipse that took place on a Wednesday in the month of Frawardīn in 475, we conveniently find an annular eclipse on Wednesday, June 19, 475, which would have been visible throughout Iraq, dramatically reaching maximum eclipse at 12:12pm AST. Even more amazingly, if my calculations are correct, this would have occurred on or around the 1st of Qam Dawla/Frawardīn, which is Dehwa Rabba, the Mandaean New Year. An eclipse at noon on New Year’s Day! Clearly, this is the best candidate for the phenomenon described in the text.

What else happens in this year? There is a reference to ṭur anašia, literally “the Mountain of the People,” which I take to be an folk etymology of the Pahlavi Turānšahr, “empire of Turan.” A group of people described as the lagaiia overtake padakšar, which Lidzbarski derives from padixšāh “Padishah.” Instead of reading this passage literally, however, he translates Padishah metaphorically as Herrschaft “lordship,” and interprets it to mean that the lagaiia came into power, a concept that is elsewhere regularly rendered with the phrase qam bmalkuta.

Who are the lagaiia? Nöldeke (1875, 141, n.5) derives this hapax from a verbal root l-g-y, an otherwise unattested variant of  l-g-l-g, “to stammer,” making lagaiia the “stammerers” or speakers of an unintelligible language. Lidzbarski and all who follow him gloss this term as barbarians. In my opinion, these are none other than the Hephthalites or White Huns, who reappear in the account for 800/479, and who would eventually kill the Sasanid king Peroz I in 484 (AP 805). It was sometime around this very time (the mid-470s) that he led another campaign against them and was ignominiously captured by them, or quite literally “they overtook/attacked the Padixšāh in Turān.” Consequently, the Sasanids were forced to ransom the future Kavadh I, who was born in 794/473, giving us a terminus post quem for this incident. 475, the year of the eclipse, fits perfectly with this narrative.

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, II

A colleague writes to object strenuously that it would have been anachronistic to refer to the Lakhmids as malkia arbaiia “Kings of the Arabs” during the Sasanid era, as the Syriac term ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ˁarbāye is never applied to Arabs, the terms ܛܝ̈ܝܐ ṭayyāye and ܣܪ̈ܩܝܐ sarqāye being employed in its place. Therefore, the text can only date from a much later period, in which it became common to refer to the Arabs as ˁarbāye in Syriac.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that Mandaic is not Syriac, if we really want to know how the Lakhmids styled themselves, we need look no further than the 4th century funerary inscription of the Lakhmid king Imru’ al-Qays (r. 295-328) from al-Namāra:


Our inscription famously begins تي (هذه) نَفسُ (شاهدة قبر) امرؤ القيس بن عَمرو مَلِكُ العرب, “this is the funerary inscription of Imru’ al-Qays, son of Amr, King of the Arabs.” It provides us with a direct witness to the fact that the Lakhmids styled themselves the “Kings of the Arabs,” of which the Mandaic phrase malkia arbaiia is an obvious calque.

Why were the Lakhmids ˁarbāye and not ṭayyāye? They formerly inhabited the region known as Arbāyistān/Bet ˁArbāye in northern Mesopotamia (stretching from Nusaybin to the Tigris, from Cizre in the north to Jabal Shinjar in the south), until they were dislodged by the Sasanids and migrated south to the area in which they encountered the Mandaeans. It was there they founded al-Hira, and from there they ruled until they were briefly expelled by the Mazdakite al-Harith al-Kindi, only to return and reign for an additional 71 years—exactly according to the chronicle in the Great Treasure.

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs

The 18th chapter of the right-hand volume of the Great Treasure (ginza rba) represents a dramatic break from the rest of the text, no more so than in its genre. It’s a chronicle! Various scholars, including Lidzbarski, read references to Islam into its final pages:

This tractate is the only one whose date of completion can be narrowly isolated. On page 414, the duration of Arab rule is assumed to be 71 years, which cannot be said after the first years of the 8th century. The assumption of so brief a duration of the Arabian empire, for which the number 71, in addition to numbers 70 and 72, is adopted, is however more probable for the first years of Islam, so that the tractate ought to have been redacted around the middle of the seventh century.

At first glance, Lidzbarski’s argument seems logical enough, but it requires us to make the following assumptions:

  • In order to satisfy the expectations of their new Muslim rulers, Mandaeans redacted their texts into a new holy book (as reflected in JB 22: “Who is your prophet? Tell us whom your prophet is, tell us what your scripture is, tell us whom you worship”);
  • In this book (redacted explicitly to impress their new rulers), they insert a prophecy about the impending demise of said rulers;
  • This prophecy unfolds over a surprisingly short and specific time frame—possibly even within the lifetime of some of the redactors. Once this time frame concludes, they opt not to re-redact the prophecy from their text, but rather preserve it for all posterity.

On this same page (407), he presents (but seemingly discards) another possibility:

The “kings of the Arabs” are set before the fall of Sasanid rule. They are probably the Arab kings of al-Hira, on whose territory a portion of the Mandaeans dwelt.

Let us then assume that these “kings of the Arabs,” who reign for 71 years, are the Lakhmids of al-Hira and not Muhammad and his successors (who do not otherwise appear elsewhere in this chapter).  Nu’man III, the last ruler, was executed by Khusraw II Parviz in 602, whereupon the Lakhmid state was absorbed by the Sasanids. That brings us back to 531. What was happening in al-Hira at that time?

The Sasanian ruler Kavadh I passed away in 531, and with the ascension of a new ruler, Khosrow I Anushirwan, the Lakhmid ruler Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Nu’man was restored in al-Hira. Al-Mundhir had been briefly dislodged by al-Harith al-Kindi, likely at the behest of Kavadh, who was likely a devotee of Mazdak. His successor Khosrow, on the other hand, had Mazdak excecuted, and likely permitted al-Mundhir to reclaim al-Hira. Therefore, 71 years corresponds exactly to the rule of al-Mundhir and his Lakhmid successors over al-Hira.

The text shares with us some of the other events that were happening in the world at that time:

When the world is in Year 850 of the Fish, a great plague will occur. Then, after the Persian kings, there will be Arab kings. They will rule 71 years. In the years of those Arab kings, the world will be false.

To my mind, this immediately recalls the Plague of Justinian, which originated in China, and traveled thence to the Eastern Roman Empire, where it was first attested in 541 (specifically in Egypt). Could this be the earliest attested reference to the great plague, as it wended its way across Asia and arrived within the borders of the Sasanid empire? The source for its emergence in the West, Procopius, notes that it was preceded by strange weather, a year without proper sunlight:

And it came about during this year [536] that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.

In the entry for Year 803 of the Fish (presumably 484, if 531 is Year 850 of the Fish), two natural disasters are mentioned, book-ended by half a century. The first (803/484) is the flooding of the land of Babylon and the meeting of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which happened sometime in the second half of the 5th century (resulting in Ctesiphon becoming divided by the Tigris, and precipitating its decline). The second (853/534) is a famine in the land of Gaukai:

Concerning it [in Year 803 of the Fish], it is said that when Saturn is in Scorpio, and it emerges from Scorpio and enters Leo, the great Euphrates will overflow as far as the Tigris and in the land of Babylon, fifty years before the land of Gaukai goes to ruin. Were you to request a kapīč (1/10th of a peck, or about 873 grams) of grain in the land of Gaukai for five staters (roughly 43 grams of pure gold, worth about 1,775 USD today), we would look but it would not be found.

Citing al-Mas’udi, Michael Morony (2005, 137–38) notes, “This [Gaukai] had been one of the most fertile provinces of the Sawad before the lower Tigris began to shift away from its southeastern part in the mid-fifth century,” thus providing us with a terminus post quem for the situation described in the Great Treasure. The date of the famine fifty years later corresponds rather nicely to the year without sunlight recounted by Procopius and other authorities. These two dates also bookend the rise of a false messiah:

It is revealed concerning it that a false messiah will come, and he will become master of the whole world, sit on a great throne, and upon it deliver a judgment to cast out the judges. From the east to the west, he will come in one day, until the bricks of the walls bear witness to him.

Most who read this passage conclude with Lidzbarski that it refers to Muhammad (“This fits the simultaneous appearance of a false messiah, that is, of the prophet Muhammad”). It is all the more strange, then, that the author does not mention Muhammad by name, as he does elsewhere in reference to the prophet of Islam.The imagery used is quite clearly Christian, as would befit the Lakhmids. They were adherents of the Church of the East, and would naturally describe an anti-Christ by drawing directly upon accounts of Christ-like miracles, such as Matthew 24:27 (“For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”) and Luke 19:40 (“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out”). For the Lakhmids, the anti-Christ was, of course, Mazdak, whose rise to prominence began with the ascension of Kavadh I in 488, and ended with his execution in 529—a period that fits directly between the two historical events described in Chapter 18.

Lidzbarski himself notes the difficulty inherent in reconciling these events with the events of the first Islamic century (414, fn. 3). Once we remove Islam from the picture, the dates and the events that they describe correspond to those known from Western sources with a surprising precision.

Airships and Volapük

The final decade of the 19th century was marked by a rash of airship stories, similar in some respects to more recent tales of flying saucers and other UFOs. One distinctive motif separating those earlier tales from the contemporary ones is the frequent reference to Volapük, the constructed international auxiliary language, in connection with these airships.

The first such incident, an obvious hoax, allegedly occurred near Lanark, Illinois on April 9, 1897. According to the Freeport Daily Democrat, a local farmer, Johann Fliegeltoub reported that an airship spun out of control during a blizzard and crashed on his farm. Two of the occupants were killed, but Fliegeltoub pulled one injured pilot, dressed like the early Greeks, from the wreckage. A General F.A. Kerr, who was fluent in Volapük, reportedly conversed with the creature in that idiom, and thereby divined that he was from Mars. When his strength returned, he repaired his ship and left.

A scant few days later, on April 15, 1897, the Jefferson Bee similarly reported that an airship had crashed near Jefferson, Iowa on 10 April. A terrible sound was heard and the next day a craft was found. Armed with (of all things) a Volapük dictionary, the intrepid reporter entered the airship, which was discovered to contain four bodies mashed to a pulp. Despite this, it was ascertained that they had two faces, and two sets of arms and legs, and they were taller than Earth people. This too was subsequently acknowledged to be a hoax by the newspaper staff.

In the following year, the science journalist Garrett Putnam Serviss published his first pioneering effort in science fiction as a serial in the Boston Globe. This serial, an early space opera entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, includes some speculation on the Martian tongue:

It seemed a fair assumption that the language of the Martians would be scientific in its structure. We had so much evidence of the practical bent of their minds, and of the immense progress which they had made in the direction of the scientific conquest of nature, that it was not to be supposed their medium of communication with one another would be lacking in clearness, or would possess any of the puzzling and unnecessary ambiguities that characterized the languages spoken on the earth.

“We shall not find them making he’s and she’s of stones, sticks and other inanimate objects,” said one of the American linguists. “They must certainly have gotten rid of all that nonsense long ago.” […]

“I think,” said a German enthusiast, “that it will be a universal language, the Volapuk of Mars, spoken by all the inhabitants of that planet.”

Serviss’ words reflect a certain fin de siècle attitude towards natural languages and nature more broadly, namely that its ultimate fate was to be subjugated and tamed by man. Peculiarly, all of these endorsements of Volapük (if indeed they can be considered as such) were made well into the twilight of the language movement. The last Volapük congress was in 1889, the Kadem Volapüka that had been founded to promulgate the language had completely sidelined its creator Martin Schleyer in favor of developing a new competitor subsequently known as Idiom Neutral, and Volapükists were defecting by the thousands every year to the banner of the verda stelo. These were not the most auspicious of circumstances for the language. It would not be long before Charles Sprague, the foremost American Volapükist (and, incidentally, grandfather of the author L. Sprague de Camp), would declare Volapük to be a failure.

It is possible that news of the decline in Volapük’s fortunes had not yet penetrated Lanark, Illinois and Jefferson, Iowa, but I find it difficult to believe that Serviss, who was based in New York, was ignorant of these developments.

Printing at the Dawn of Writing

The Age’s Andi Horvath has written an article on a new text allegedly from the Indus Valley:

Dr Rick Willis acquired and studied a set of small copper printing plates from the Indus valley, in modern day Pakistan. Using his scientific research capabilities he studied these plates and investigated archeological evidence related to this region and era.

His conclusion is that these Indus valley copper printing plates are circa 2300 BCE which means they predate what is commonly thought of as the advent of printing using Chinese woodblocks developed around 600 to 700 BCE.

I’m skeptical, for several reasons. The article adumbrates the problems with drawing conclusions from unprovenienced artifacts, which these most definitely are, even if the source claims that they have an Indus Valley provenance. Effectively, the “chain of custody” is broken when you deal with artifacts from the antiquities market. This evidence wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law, so why should scholars hold it to any different standard?

That brings me to the next concern: these artifacts are, by the Dr. Willis’ own admission, undatable because they were modified to make them more saleable  (through immersion in an acid bath). Who knows how else they were modified? The Indian antiquities market is flooded with texts on copper plates from later periods, but a plate with an inscription in the Indus Valley script would be unique and therefore uniquely valuable. There is absolutely no way to know when the writing was added. It could have been added last Tuesday.

Finally, the evidence that these copper plates were used for printing (as opposed to simply being documents in themselves like the copper plates from later periods) is thin indeed. The article claims that the writing is “reversed,” but with a lack of extended texts in  Indus Valley script or any way to interpret what the text actually says, how can one tell what the directionality of the script was? Ancient scripts, and particularly those at the dawn of writing, were notoriously noncommittal when it comes to direction. They went left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and even boustrophedon (as the ox plows). Any argument that depends on the directionality of a text that may not even be an original part of the artifact  is baseless conjecture, and extraordinary arguments such as this one require extraordinary evidence.

The Peacock’s Lament

The Mandaeans and the Yezidis, two  groups that fascinated Stefana Drower and continue to fascinate the generations of scholars who have followed her, have recently made the news, but unfortunately not in a good way. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on Prayer 75 of the Doctrine of John, in which Ṭausa, the Peacock, laments how far he has fallen in the world. At first he is bitter and resentful for having been humbled and forced to guard the kimṣa, a somewhat contested term that is likely related to the Aramaic and Hebrew root קמץ, and evidently refers to a place.

Drower, Macuch, and Rudolph identify this term with the Gnostic πλήρωμα pléroma, the totality of the spiritual universe, as opposed to the material world, which is known as the tibil in Mandaic, and with which it contrasts in this text (šauiun naṭar kimṣa / alma ḏtibil baṭla, lit. “[The Great Life] made me guardian of the Kimṣa/until the Tibil perishes”). If this is accurate, then the Peacock stands not within the pléroma but rather on “our side” of the boundary, which is to say that he has been separated from the Godhead and exiled from the world of light.

Eventually, he acknowledges his own faults (chief among them his pride) for having brought him so low, at which point his father, the Great Life, sends him a “letter of truth” (engirta ḏkušṭa), which Sundberg identifies as a letter containing within it Gnostic truths, in his monograph on the word kušṭa. In it, the Peacock earns that his father is extending him the ritual handshake (also known as kušṭa), which is a sign of reconciliation. Relieved by this news, he praises his father wholeheartedly.

Although short, this is one of a very few passages to which scholars such as Drower point when discussing the shared traditions of the Mandaeans and the Yezidis, the two groups with which I began this entry. Our Peacock is identified by the Mandaeans with the lightworld being Yushamin who, just like the Peacock Angel of the Yezidis, is an emanation of the Godhead who defies Him out of pride and is exiled, but eventually becomes reconciled with Him and is redeemed. 

The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis is most frequently compared with the figure of Iblis in the Qur’an (7:11–13), but the obvious parallels between the Mandaic Ṭausa and the Yezidi Tawûsê Melek cannot be discounted. As all of the written traditions surrounding the Yezidis and Tawûsê Melek are comparatively late, this account (in the Doctrine of John) may well be considered the earliest surviving tradition about this enigmatic figure.

The translation follows.

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What’s in a Name?

Translation is fraught with many problems, of which the transcription of names is possibly the least. Even so, it is by no means trivial, but rather part and parcel of the larger issues that translators face, including:

  1. Function: What is the purpose of this translation? Should we privilege the source language or the target language? Can we strike a successful compromise between the two?
  2. Audience: Is this intended for a scholarly audience or a broader public? If a religious text, is it intended for the use of the religious community that composed and preserved it? Can a translation serve more than one public effectively?

Clearly, these two issues are related, and the decisions that arise from addressing them should govern the translation from the very start, in every respect, including the transcription of names. There are, of course, any number of ways to transcribe names:

  1. Direct Transfer: This privileges the source language by using a phonemic transliteration system to render the names exactly as they appear in the source language, with each phoneme mapped onto the corresponding phoneme in the script of the target language. Thus, Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes miriai. This is the method privileged by scholarly publications not intended for consumption by the general public or any other stakeholders such as religious communities, as scholarly transliterations can be jarring when encountered in context, particularly when the translation is otherwise fluid in the target language. Furthermore, these transliterations give no indication of how the name is pronounced phonetically. For example, one could possibly intuit that miriai is pronounced something like /mi:rijɛɪ/, but never that hibil is pronounced /hi:u̯ɛl/ or /hi:vɪl/.
  2. Substitution: This method privileges the target language, “naturalizing” the name by substituting the closest equivalent, often on an etymological basis. Thus Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes Mary, Miriam, or Maryam. In the case of religious texts, this raises issues of equivalence; is the Mandaean ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ indeed the same figure as the biblical Mary or Miriam, or the Koranic Maryam, and do we wish to imply this to our readers? Additionally, as in the case of ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ, there may be more than one equivalent, or in the case of other figures, no equivalent whatsoever. What principles should govern our selection from a variety of potential candidates, and what criteria should we use when confronted with a name that has no equivalent?
  3. Adaptation: This method privileges the source language, but meets the target language halfway by employing the spelling and pronunciation rules of the target language. Although a compromise of sorts, this is the method favored by religious communities, who generally preserve the original form of the name for their own purposes even when language shift has occurred, and often do not identify them with their equivalents in other languages and faith traditions.

I feel that using the third strategy offers translations the potential to provide maximum utility to the largest possible audience of readers. It is not without its own obstacles, however; can English, for example, be said to have a uniform standard for spelling and pronunciation rules? Certainly not, especially with regard to loanwords, which have entered the language at different stages of time, and whose transcription reflects their antiquity. Furthermore, as the examples of transliteration given in direct transfer indicate, each transliteration is a compromise. If it is fully phonemic, or etymological, it can obscure the pronunciation; if it is fully phonetic, on the other hand, it runs the risk of being incomprehensible to the lay reader. A compromise transcription system, such as those used in dictionaries or for the rendering of pidgins and creole languages, is a possibility, but such systems are often marked as low in prestige, which will undoubtedly affect the reception of the translation. For example, Miriyey and Heewel may be easy to pronounce, but they are jarring as names.

For my purposes, in translating the Doctrine of John, I need to employ a system that satisfies the following conditions:

  • one that is already in wide use for rendering foreign, and particularly Semitic, names in English;
  • one that enjoys relatively high prestige, relative to other transcription systems;
  • ideally, one that is associated with the formal orthography of religious texts.

In this regard, the obvious candidate is an adapted form of the system used to transliterate names from the Bible, originally employed by the translators of the Authorized Version (KJV) and preserved in most subsequent translations by dint of tradition. For example, the preceding names would be rendered something like Miriaï and Hiuel.

There are obvious disadvantages and advantages to this system. Let’s start with the obvious disadvantages.


  • the system was devised to reflect Hebrew and Aramaic, not Mandaic;
  • the system is pre-phonemic and reflects an outdated (early 17th c.) understanding of their phonologies;
  • the orthography and phonology of Early Modern English differ from those of contemporary English.

The last point may require further explanation. In Early Modern English, letters such as i/j and u/v reflect the same phonemes, and their distribution reflects orthographic considerations rather than phonetic ones (the second member of each pair is generally reserved for word-initial position). The letters y and w were not used to represent glides, as in contemporary English. Also, the orthography does not reflect the Great Vowel Shift, which means that some readers may be tempted to pronounce Hiuel as  /haɪu̯ɛl/.

That being said, this system is not without its advantages. By preserving the aesthetics of English orthography and not violating any obvious constraints, and hearkening back to the orthography of the Authorized Version, this system introduces foreign names to an Anglophone audience as if they were already familiar to the reader. Additionally, readers will immediately recognize the names as belonging to some foreign, possibly biblical language, which immediately imbues them with a higher level of prestige than those written in an ad hoc transcription system, such as that used for pidgins and creoles. Thus the names are simultaneously familiar and exotic.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to tackle this transcription system, mapping the Authorized orthography for Hebrew and Aramaic onto the sounds of Mandaic.

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