Philologastry

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

Archive for the category “Mandaeism”

Mandaeans and Tajiks

Lately, I’ve been engaging the centuries of scholarship (both Muslim and non-Muslim)  that defines Mandaeans as Sabians, and both as Chaldaeans. I’m fairly certain that the Mandaeans are a real people, practicing a real religion, at least as far as I am able to discern with my own eyes and ears; scholars who don’t work directly with the Mandaeans or read Mandaean texts aren’t so certain about them, at least not in the ways that really matter to them, and have spent the better part of the last 13 centuries measuring them against these other categories, and finding them lacking.

The question of the Sabians, and particularly how they relate to the Sabians of the Qur’an, is especially fraught. Suffice it to say that we have one extant group that identifies as “Sabians,” who are in turn acknowledged as “Sabians” by their neighbors, and by those scholars who have the privilege to work directly with them and have mastered their language so that they can read their texts, in order to learn more about the various ways in which they have identified themselves throughout recorded history, but there is a small group of revisionist scholars who are not so certain of the authenticity of Mandaean claims, and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us. For these scholars, the term “Sabian” has a kind of occult meaning, one that is not obvious to the uninitiated, but which can be discerned through careful analysis (of course, not of the texts of the Mandaeans themselves, who can safely be disregarded as self-interested, but rather of the famously disinterested accounts of Islamic and Christian theologians).

I find it instructive to compare both to the term “Chaldaean,” which has meant different things to different people at different times, but eventually acquired a kind of romantic significance in European scholarship, referring to a discrete nation (the “Chaldaeans”), living in a discrete territory (“Chaldaea”) who practiced a discrete religion (“Chaldaism”) and who spoke a discrete language (“Chaldaic”) before it was eventually retired in the first half of the 20th. This is, for example, the sense in which Adolf von Harnack uses the term.  The valence of this term is not quite so compact outside of European scholarship. “Chaldaea” is to some extent coterminous with Mesopotamia, which appears in the Chinese sources as 条支 Tiáo zhī, a land to the West of Persia either reached overland via the Silk Road or overseas via the Gulf. This term Tiáo zhī is apparently derived from the Middle Persian term Tāzīg, “Arab,” which today bewilderingly survives as the demonym of the inhabitants of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, at least the ones who aren’t Uzbeks and Turkmen and members of other national groups that emerged as a consequence of Soviet policy and the scholarship that informed it. In the geographic region in which scholars have situated this term, it today means “fresh,” an attribute of fruits and vegetables rather than people.

When Arabic and Syriac sources discuss “Chaldaeans,” on the other hand, they exclusively intend either the famous star-worshipping astrologers of yore, or those Christians who follow the East Syrian Rite, two groups that are apparently connected only by the different languages they speak, or in the case of the latter, in which their liturgy is preserved. For obvious reasons,  the inheritors of this scholarship tend to regard “Chaldaea” and the “Chaldaeans,” at least in the romantic national sense to which their intellectual forefathers referred, and painstakingly elaborated over course of several the centuries, to be as much of a fiction as “Narnia” and the “Narnians.” This is not unexpected, considering that socially constructed categories such as “Chaldaeans” and “Sabians” can be surprisingly evanescent, and require constant attention on the part of their communities to maintain. In the absence of this effort, the impressive edifice of scholarship on Chaldaism has completely collapsed, and ownership of the term “Chaldaean” has reverted to the one community still engaged in maintaining its identity, the Chaldean Catholic Church, descendants of those aforementioned Chaldaeans who follow the East Syrian Rite. The continued relevance of “Sabians” as a subject of discourse is ensured by their appearance in the sacred literature of Islam, and by the living example of the Mandaeans, even though the scholarly debate over their meaning in the former has brought the continued existence of the latter into question in a very real way.

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.

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:

dussad_namara1

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.

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.

Read more…

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation, Cont.

The aforementioned chronology in the Scroll of the Great Revelation might be easily dismissed, if it were not so congruent with much of what we understand about history. A closer reading of the text reveals an internal consistency that cannot easily be dismissed. With regard to the life and times of John the Baptist,

Forty-two years (he dwelt) therein, and then his Transplanter looked upon him and he arose with his Transplanter, praised be his name! […] and a time arrived, sixty years after Yahia-Yuhana had departed the body […] the Jews, just as their former strength (returned?) to Ruha and Adonai, who became arrogant […] Hence, after sixty years, Ruha and Adonai planned to erect […] the fallen House (Temple) and spoke to Moses the prophet and the children of Israel who had built the House (Temple).

Drower interprets the phrase baita napla “The Fallen House” as the Temple, but the text is by no means clear on this point. “The Fallen House” is a metaphor for the material world, not the Temple, and the verb ethašabat el misqẖ, here translated as “planned to erect,” means no such thing, but rather something like “plotted to rise […] up to the Fallen House, i.e. the material world” The G-stem infinitive misaq is not transitive, in any case.

Although the text is fragmentary, the narrative seemingly flashes back in time; anachronistically, the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra” are destroyed and every last Naṣorean is slaughtered; Ruha and Adunai scatter the Jews and deliver them across the Reed Sea/River, and then surround Jerusalem with walls. It is at this point that Anuš-’Uthra and Hibil Ziwa act to destroy Jerusalem and utterly defeat the Jews until the end of time.

This event is conventionally identified with the Great Revolt of 66–73 CE and the destruction of the Temple, but if we add the tallies of years given in the text together (42 years + 60 years + 60 years), we come to the beginning of the 2nd century, or around the time of the Third Jewish Revolt in 132–135 CE, which was indeed about six decades after the Great Revolt. Could this be the intended reference? In the text, the Jews are routed and scattered, and Jerusalem is destroyed, but there is no mention of the destruction of Temple, even if Drower and others have attempted to read its destruction into the account.

Following the routing of the Jews, Anuš-’Uthra establishes the seven guards at the “seven corners of the House,” in order to “crush the power of Darkness and to establish the Call of the Life and to make void the rebellious outcry.” The names of these guards and their assigned domains are as follows:

  • Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, in Baghdad
  • Papa bar Guda, on the Tigris and at the mouth of the Karun
  • Anuš bar Naṭar, on the Karun
  • Anuš Saiar bar Nṣab, on the Euphrates
  • Brik Iauar, at Pumbeditha
  • Nṣab bar Bihram, at the mountains of Glazlak
  • Ska Manda, at the tail end of the Parwan range

Buckley has identified the names of some of these figures with Mandaean riš amia or “ethnarchs” from the 3rd century, who appear both in the Abahatan prayer in the CP and in the chains of copyists. While the identities of the last two locations are still very much under debate, the text identifies these figures as being situated at the “seven corners of the House,” suggesting that these seven points represented the limits of the Mandaean world. The first ascended to his fathers, presumably without offspring, while the following six sent their descendants into the world.

The text then tells us that 280 years have passed since some of these “sons of the disciples of John” go forth, and the evil spirit Ruha perverts their teachings. If we continue with the same chronology, this would place us in the 5th century. Indeed, we then read that specifically 86 years before the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” and therefore sometime in the 6th century, there was a major schism within the Mandaean community, the schism of Qiqil. Dirk Kruisheer, in his important article on Theodore bar Konai’s important account of the Mandaeans, relates these to the three specific and related groups mentioned by him. That still leaves a gap of roughly a century, presumably between the Third Jewish Revolt of 132–135 CE and the ethnarchs identified by Buckley, who flourished at the tail end of the Arsacid period and the beginning of Sasanid rule in 224 CE.

Perhaps coincidentally, the narrative backs up a bit once more and returns to this very period, chronicling the downfall of the Arsacid dynasty, the rise of the Sasanids (hardbaiia) and their reign (which according to it lasts “360 years,” a nice round number even if the reality is closer to 427 years), concluding with the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter.” According to this account, a figure named Anuš bar Danqa approaches “Muhammad son of ‘Abdallah, Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” in Baghdad. This event and the figure at the center of it can be dated through Ramuia son of Eqaimat’s colophon to the first portion of the Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans, which assigns to it the year 638 CE (another anachronism, as Muhammad had died six years earlier). If the schism of Qiqil occurred 86 years earlier, then it must have happened around 552 CE. The colophon also mentions that Zazai ḏ-Gawazta, whom Buckley identifies with Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, had copied this same manuscript 368 years earlier, or ca. 270 CE, which is almost exactly 280 years before the schism of Qiqil. With the exception of the century-long gap between the Third Jewish Revolt and the rise of the Sasanians, which might very well lie in one of the numerous lacunae that riddle this text, the chronology is internally consistent.

In closing, I’d like to suggest a possible chronology for the legendary events mentioned in the Great Revelation, along with some of the historical events to which the text alludes:

  1. Beginning of Babylonian Captivity (597 BCE)
  2. John the Baptist “arose with his Transplanter” (ca. 41/42 CE)
  3. The Great Revolt (66–73 CE)
  4. Massacre of the Naṣoreans
  5. Third Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE)
  6. Anuš-’Uthra destroys Jerusalem
  7. Zazai bar Hibil-Eutra and six other guards appointed to various posts
  8. Fall of Arsacids; Rise of the Sasanids (224 CE)
  9. Zazai of Gawazta copies the Canonical Prayerbook (ca. 270 CE)
  10. Schism of Qiqil (ca. 552 CE)
  11. Capture of Ctesiphon (637 CE)
  12. Anuš bar Danqa and the Ethnarchs provide a copy of the book to the Arabs (638 CE)

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation

The “Scroll of the Great Revelation” (diuan ḏ-galalta rba), also called “Inner Harran” (haran gauaita) on the basis of the words with which all surviving copies of the text begin, is a work of Mandaean legend that addresses the birth, infancy, and career of John the Baptist (iahia iuhana), the destruction of the Temple, the rise of the Sasanians (hardbaiia), and the rise of Islam, among other historical events. Rudolf Macuch famously declared that the text must be taken seriously, even if only five percent of it were historically valid, but it is not immediately apparent from the text what might be considered history, and what might be considered legend.

The text is chiefly known from Stefana Drower’s translation, based upon the eighth portion of a diwan of the 1012 Questions, represented by Drower Collection (DC) MS 36 in the Bodleian; her only other manuscript, DC 9, appears to have been detached from another such scroll. The former was copied in 1088 AH (1699/1700), and all other copies consulted by Drower trace back to this same manuscript, the colophon of which mentions that it was copied from only one exemplar. On these grounds, she concludes that by 1700 “only one imperfect and ancient copy” remained. That text was apparently very fragmentary, as indicated by the numerous lacunae, particularly at the beginning of the text, which were indicated by small circles in the copies that she consulted. It is for this reason that the text begins, in medias res, “and Inner Harran received him and that city in which there were Naṣoraeans, because there was no road for the Jewish rulers.”

As Jorunn Buckley notes in her Great Stem of Souls (2010, 305), the portion concerned with the birth and infancy of John seems to share certain elements with the Protevangelium of James (which has been dated to the mid-2nd century), specifically the motif of John the Baptist being born, carried into the safety of the hill-country, and watched over by heavenly beings.

Then […] when the boy was born Anuš-‘Uthra came by command of the great Father of Glory and they came before Hibil-Ziwa by command of the great Father of Glory and travelled over deserts towards Mount Sinai and proceeded […] towards a community called Ruha’s that is situated near the place where the Ark was built […] and she will be a deliverer (midwife?) to the child […] into Parwan, the white mountain, an earthly place. And (in?) that place the fruit and sky are large. There […] (groweth?) the Tree which nourisheth infants. And they took back Ṣufnai the lilith to a place so that when they should perform a living baptism to purify the child, the apostle of Kušṭa, Yahia-Yuhana […]

The text here mentions Mount Parwan, which Drower identifies with Kuh-e Parou near the city of Tafresh in Markazi provice, Iran, more or less due east of Hamadan and southwest of Tehran. Intriguingly, the infant John appears to be guarded by a lilith in the Mandaean account (an intriguing inversion of the lilith’s usual role), whereas in the Protevangelium of James, the guardian is merely an unnamed “angel of the Lord”:

But Elizabeth when she heard that they sought for John, took him and went up into the hill-country and looked about her where she should hide him: and there was no hiding-place. And Elizabeth groaned and said with a loud voice: O mountain of God, receive thou a mother with a child. For Elizabeth was not able to go up. And immediately the mountain clave asunder and took her in. And there was a light shining always for them: for an angel of the Lord was with them, keeping watch over them.

The following section contains numerous references to the “Fallen House.” Drower took this phrase to mean the Temple of Solomon, but elsewhere it is generally a metaphor for the material world. There is confusion over which is intended here, and the ambiguity may be the result of word-play. At the very beginning, we read that the Jews attacked the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra, the Head of the Age,” and massacred all the Naṣoraeans. Incidentally, while the word Naṣoraeans (naṣoraiia) traditionally refers to the initiated members of the Mandaean community, with the term “Mandaeans” (mandaiia) reserved for the laity, the term here appears to apply to the community as a whole, just as it does in the account of Theodore bar Konai, “Mandaeans” appearing nowhere within.

Immediately afterwards, we find Jews on the run from something, taking flight across the Suf Zaba (that is, “reed of river” or “end of river” which is traditionally identified with the Shatt el-Arab but here probably refers to the Yam Suph of the Exodus account) and then a detailed account of the building of Jerusalem. I am not at all convinced that this is sequential. It seems to me that this account of the flight of the Jews and the building of Jerusalem (which Drower takes to have been the “new Jerusalem”) is actually copied from one or more fragments that have fallen out of place, or that the copyist has attempted to harmonize fragments from several manuscripts and failed to do so.

After Jerusalem is built, Hibil Ziua approaches Anuš-’Uthra and tells him to bring seven guardians from Mount Parwan. These guardians are armed with seven magic bows that shoot flaming arrows, and chartered to destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. It is not Anuš-’Uthra or his seven guardians who are credited with accomplishing this, but rather Hibil Ziua, who destroys Jerusalem and brings an end to 800 years of Jewish rule in “Baghdad,” by which the text likely intends Babylon (Baghdad is an obvious anachronism, as the present city was not founded until the 8th century). The section concludes,

Thereupon Anuš-’Uthra, changed nothing of that which they commanded him (to do), and Hibil-Ziwa came and burnt and destroyed Jerusalem and made it like heaps of ruins. And he went to Baghdad and killed (there) all the cohens and took away government from them and pounded (to) dust every city in which there were Jews. Moreover for the eight hundred years that their government [malkutun] was in Baghdad they exercised an autonomy amongst themselves [dabarbun malkuta] – four hundred rulers [malkia] – (for) the duration of a Jewish autonomy [malkutun] in Baghdad was eight hundred years; four hundred rulers [malkia] from the Jews (Jewish community) wielded kingly office.

Thus the House of the Jews came to naught and met its end, and the Host of darkness became powerless.

It would seem that this would be the most appropriate place for our narrative to fade to black and roll the credits. The language is more characteristic of an eschatological context, rather than a historical one, for at none of the times in which this text is set or in which it could have been composed could any of these things be said to be true, although they do have the appearance of an end-times prediction. Furthermore, if we take this chronology at face value, starting from the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity, we find ourselves at the end of the turn of the third century, which precisely the time that the first references to the Exilarchate or Reš Galuta first appear. The tradition that the Exilarch had been reigning continuously in Babylon from the time of the captivity of Jehoiachin is a specifically Jewish tradition, appearing in the 9th century Seder Olam Zuṭa and nowhere else, at least not to my knowledge.

If the Mandaeans were in contact with the Jews, as they undeniably were, and familiar with their traditions, as this text seems to suggest, why would they write that the Exilarchate was destroyed at precisely the time that it is first appearing in the historical record and being institutionalized by the Sasanids? They could not have been unaware of the continued existence of the Exilarchate, but perhaps they had reasons to consider it illegitimate. Regardless of the historical value of the tradition, its appearance here alone raises other issues.

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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