Philologastry

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

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…

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