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

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

The Mandaean Ashura

Tomorrow (the first day of the month of Sarṭana, also known as Axir Abhar, or the final month of spring, and apparently equivalent to the month of Tammuz, according to Drower) is a unique day of remembrance in the Mandaean calendar.  Drower mentions this holiday in her Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran only in passing:

In Sarṭana the first day is called Ashuriyah, which commemorates the drowning of the Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea (see Book II, p. 265).17 Special lofanis are eaten for the Egyptians who are considered to have been Mandaeans.

The endnote reads:

Al-Biruni, p. 328, mentions that the Jews kept the 10th day of Muḥarram (ʻAshūrā) [sic] holy because ‘on this day God drowned Pharaoh’.

By contrast, the online Mandaean calendar offers this brief explanation:

Ashoriya – Abu al Haris: The day of remembrance – Dokhrany and Lofany is prepared from grain, cereals (rice, wheat, etc) for the drowned people of Noah’s Flood.

Typically, the lofani (the word means “uniting” or, as Drower translates it, “communion,” and refers to a ritual meal eaten for and in remembrance of the dead) consists of  flat loaves of bread, baked fish, roast morsels of fat from the tail of a slaughtered sheep, roast dove meat (called in Mandaic the ba), coconuts, long almonds, walnuts, pomegranate, quince, onion, grapes or raisins, and salt.  This is the only occasion in the entire year on which a meatless lofani may be eaten.

The centerpiece of this particular lofani meal is a kind of porridge known as harīs (in Arabic,  هريس) made from seven different grains. It appears to be a meat-free version of the same dish that is enjoyed by Arabs as well as Armenians (հարիսա harissa), not unlike the Turkish aşure or Noah’s Pudding, which is perhaps not coincidentally served on the day of ʻĀshūrā’, the 10th of Muḥarram (which fell on the 25th of November this year). According to my chief informant, Nasser Sobbi, this lofani was first made by Noah after the great flood, to commemorate those who had died; because he had preserved only two of each species of animal, he could not afford to slaughter any more animals for the lofani, and hence a meatless substitute was made.  The number of grains (seven) is apparently significant, referring to seven parts of the lofani, but I am not sure to which parts of the ritual or meal the number refers.  The preparation for the meal began this Saturday night, and the meal itself will be eaten tomorrow on Monday.

Clearly much is going on, here.  The Turks have an almost identical tradition, but outside of the Turkish context, the identification of the holiday with ʻĀshūrā’ is puzzling. Equally puzzling is Drower’s anecdote about the holiday, which Nasser Sobbi rejects outright, although Dr. Sinan Abdullah informs me that while all Mandaeans recognize that the holiday commemorates those who are drowned, some identify “the drowned” with those who were drowned by the great flood and others identify “the drowned” with Pirun Malka ḏ Miṣraiia (Pharoah) and his soldiers, who were pursuing Moses and were drowned in the Red Sea.  In connection with the holiday, Drower relates a fuller version of this legend, which she collected from her chief informant, Hirmiz bar Anhar (pp. 264-265).

In addition to this legend and the name of the being Ptahil, the Fourth Life, the word ba is one of a small number of Mandaean traditions that point to Egypt.  This word, which refers to the dove that is roasted for the regular lofani meal, certainly calls to mind the Egyptian   ba, or soul, which is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird, flying forth from the tomb.  The character that depicts the ba, or ba-bird, appears not to be a dove, but rather a stork:


Admittedly, this similarity might easily be attributed to coincidence. Yes, it is true that the word refers to a type of bird in both languages (the dove on the one hand and the stork on the other) but to draw a connection between the soul of a deceased person and an animal sacrificed to commemorate a deceased person would require quite a semantic leap of faith. As Mark Rosenfelder reminds us, chance similarities between unrelated languages are not at all uncommon.


Aeon vs. Avatar

Thus far, I’ve been translating the Mandaic word eutra (usually rendered by Drower as uthra, and pronounced something like /ɛθræ/ or /ʌθrɔ/ by Iraqi and Iranian Mandaeans, respectively) using the word aeon, reflecting the reflexes of these distinctive beings in other Gnostic traditions. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this translation because the word aeon is not any more recognizable to most readers than the native Mandaean term, and the use of the Greek term may appear to privilege the Greek sources and the traditions reflected within them over the Mandaean sources. Wherever I cast about for a more recognizable term, however, I find dead ends, as the concept itself is rather esoteric.

Drower and Macuch note that Noldeke identified the word with Syriac and BTA ʿuṯrā  “wealth,” which unfortunately does not help us any. W.B. Henning once compared the Aramaic ʿuṯrā with the Iranian bāgā, which may likewise be derived from a root meaning “riches” on the basis of a possible cognate in Sanskrit. This etymological speculation is intriguing, but gets us no closer to understanding how the Mandaeans understood these beings, much less to how we might classify them in English using comprehensible language. Ultimately Drower and Macuch leave the word untranslated in most contexts, and define it simply as “heavenly spirits; generic name given to spirits of life.”

In Book 15 of the right-hand volume of the Great Treasure, the Great Life is shown in the light world, where it produces water (mia); then, from water, radiance (ziua), then, from radiance, light (nhura); and finally from light, the eutria, whom Drower identifies in this particular context as “the spirits whose function it is to govern natural phenomena.” In the folktales that she collected from the Mandaeans, the eutria are “good spirits” that “dwell in the sun” and bring “growth, color, and scent” from the light world to plants, among other functions. Additionally, the word eutra is often used as an epithet for the final two of the four emanations of the Great Life, Abatur Eutra  and Ptaheil Eutra, as well as numerous heavenly beings that intercede in the lives of mortals, such as Anuš Eutra.

In essence, then,

  • The term eutra corresponds to emanations or manifestations of the Supreme Being (much like the aeons), as well as created beings that govern natural phenomena (unlike the Gnostic aeons).
  • The eutria all appear to shuttle between the light world and the material world at will, connecting the two (unlike the aeons, which are purely immaterial and dwell exclusively in the Pleroma).
  • Furthermore, few are named, and Great Treasure identifies them as countless in number, whereas the aeons are all named and only a limited number of them exist within any given Gnostic belief system (although the authorities disagree upon the exact number of aeons).

Clearly, the application of the term aeon to the eutria is slightly misleading.

There is, however, a term in relatively common usage among English speakers that corresponds to the Mandaic eutra, even more closely than the term aeon: the word avatar, which is Sanskrit in origin. Google Dictionary defines the word avatar thus:

av·a·tar /ˈavəˌtär/ Noun

  1. A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth.
  2. An incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea: “he set himself up as a new avatar of Arab radicalism”.

In Sanksrit, the term avatar corresponds even more neatly, as it does not necessarily convey the same qualities of corporeality as the English loan word, and the beings belonging to this category are innumerable, according to the Bhagavata Purana.

Any debate over the ability of speakers of English to recognize the word avatar was likely ended by James Cameron’s 2009 film of the same name, which remains the highest-grossing film of all time to date. The chief deficiency of the word, as I see it, is paradoxically one of its most attractive qualities: it slightly resembles the Mandaic word, especially in the (unattested) absolute state *eutar, which will undoubtedly lead some of my philological colleagues to believe that I making an etymological argument connecting the two words, for which there is absolutely no proof, and pillory me accordingly, given the well-documented aversion that some philologians have toward interpreting one another’s arguments charitably…

Checking In

I’ve been away for a while, but I’ve been working this entire time.

I’ve since returned to my research, but what occasioned this blog post today was the announcement of a new digital research resource on the Hugoye list, namely Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals. This is an online repository for (currently) 51,892 articles from 206 academic peer-reviewed journals produced by 35 institutions in Iraq.  Among these 51,892 articles was one on the Mandaeans, entitled “الزي الديني لطائفة الصابئة المندائيين في البصرة” (“The religious garb of Sabian-Mandaeans in Basra”), written by Abd al-Latif Hashem of the Basra Studies Center.

You can read the full article here.


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