Philologastry

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

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:

hiero_G29

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.

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