Philologastry

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

Archive for the tag “astrology”

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.

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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.

Progress Report 7

Chapter 12 of the Doctrine of John, which is the second of two parts on the Good Shepherd, is now available at the project website. This chapter begins on p. 45, ln. 11, and continues to p. 49, ln. 5.

The chapter begins with an eutra exhorting someone (presumably the believer) to become a “shepherd’s helper” and aid in tending the flock. The respondent has reservations; first, he argues that the world is full of thistles and thorns, but the eutra offers a pair of everlasting radiant sandals to protect his feet from the thistles and thorns. He then lists a series of seven possible ways he could lose sheep (respectively, lions, wolves, thieves, fire, muck, water, and ‘remaining behind in the fold’), which the eutra associates with the worship of different entities, starting with the Sun, the moon, and the planet Mars.

While this was one of the easier chapters to translate (due, in no small part, to the amount of repetition within it), it was not without its challenges. I’ve already written about the phrase rahim raia, “a shepherd’s friend,” which perplexed Lidzbarski. The seven sects that claim members of the flock are also not explicitly identified, save for one (Christianity, which here represented by muck). The first three are associated with three of the visible planets (the Sun, the moon, and Mars), following the order of the week (Sunday is governed by the Sun, Monday is governed by the moon, Tuesday is governed by Mars, and so forth). I do not feel that this order is coincidental, so I collated the seven threats with the seven planets:

lion Sun Judaism?
wolf Moon ?
thief Mars Islam?
fire *Mercury *Zoroastrianism?
muck *Jupiter *Christianity
water Venus ?
gudibna Saturn ?
agambia gudibna Ruha ?

I am not certain whether the thief (the worshippers of Nirig, or Mars) represents the threat posed by Islam. Certainly, in post-Islamic texts, Mars represents Islam, but I haven’t established to my satisfaction that this section is indeed post-Islamic.

The fourth and fifth threats are fire and muck, representing the worshipers of fire and the worshipers of the Mšiha or “anointed one” (i.e. Christians), respectively, and the forth and fifth planets are Enbu or Mercury and Bil or Jupiter. Jupiter (or Ohrmazd in Pahlavi) is identified with the god of the Zoroastrians, thus suggesting that the “worshipers of fire” are to be identified with them, which is by no means an exclusively Mandaean trope. As for the Christians, Drower and Macuch (1965, 280) note that the Mšiha is explicitly identified with Mercury. The identification of the followers of the Mšiha with muck likely represents yet another Mandaean word play—the Messiah is anointed with muck, not fine oils, just as his followers are baptized in turbid waters, not the flowing, living waters of the heavenly Jordan. Strangely, though, these two planets are switched with respect to the religions that they usually represent.

I am not certain to whom the sixth and seventh threats refer, but the final two planets in this sequence should be Dilbat Venus and Kiuan Saturn. Death by drowning is the punishment for the worship of the seas, and the threat of “remaining behind in the sheep-fold” is the punishment for the worship of the Ekuria, those of the É.KUR or “mountain house,” the chief temple of Nippur. While I cannot make a case for associating the seas with Venus (apart from the obvious Greek myth about the birth of Aphrodite), the patron deity of Nippur was Enlil, whose role as chief of the divine pantheon was assumed by the god El in the West. According to the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, the Phoenicians identified El with the planet Saturn (in Mesopotamia, Saturn was associated with Enlil’s sun, Ninurta), thus connecting the gods of the É.KUR with Saturn (and possibly even Kevin Bacon, by extension, within six degrees).

The worshipers of Gudibna “in-the-sheep-fold,” on the other hand, is another mystery. This word doesn’t appear in Drower and Macuch, and its sole appearance seems to be within this very chapter. On the face of it, it is appears to be a compound of gu “in” and dibna “sheep-fold,” and therefore it may represent some kind of wordplay on the threat (of “remaining in the fold”). Lidzbarski suggests translating it as a “fold spirit,” so I have somewhat whimsically taken the liberty of creating a portmanteau word, foldergeist, from “fold” and “poltergeist.”

The eutra‘s response adds an eighth threat: agambia gudibna “beside in-the-sheep-fold,” who represents the Evil Spirit, Ruha ḏ-Qudša. As the Evil Spirit is the mother of the planets, I am all the more convinced that we are in an astrological context.

In his analysis, Lidzbarski identifies some sections which are extraneous to the sequence, and appear to be glosses that were later incorporated into the text (I have placed these “glosses” between {brackets}). This “corruption” might also explain why the fourth and fifth threats are switched, at least from the perspective of the planets, and together with the sing-song, repetitive nature of the composition, it leads me to suspect that this text may have been transmitted orally prior to being committed to writing.

Progress Report 6

The eleventh chapter of the Doctrine of John, which is the first of two sections that Lidzbarski termed “The Good Shepherd,” is now up at the project website. This consists of the better part of six manuscript pages, from p. 40, ln. 6 to p. 45, ln. 10 in the 1915 edition.

I’ve been documenting my progress thus far with this chapter, so it really needs no introduction at this point. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to outline the passage briefly. “The Good Shepherd” is an extended allegory involving several elements:

  • a shepherd figure (who likely represents Hibil Ziua or Manda ḏ-Hiia);
  • his flock (which likely represents the Mandaeans);
  • various threats such as wolves and thieves (these are explicitly identified with the seven planets and the twelve signs of the Zodiac);
  • a storm of some sort (which some scholars have identified with Islam).

I dealt with the question of whether this passage addresses the Islamic conquest in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced. The passage usually adduced as an oblique reference to Islam (p. 45, lns. 1-2) doesn’t withstand the light of critical scrutiny. Subsequently, the passage does mention “those living at the tail end of the Age of Mars (nirig),” which might be such a reference. Mars is sometimes identified with “Abdallah the Arab,” the name by which the Prophet Muhammad is known to the Mandaeans, or as having descended alongside Muhammad, as in the Scroll of Inner Harran. Then again, Nirig is, of course, the Mandaean form of the name of Nergal (compare the Arabic name for Mars, مريخ marīḫ), the chief deity of Kutha, who was at times also associated with war, disease, and the underworld, any of which could naturally fit this reference. While this could therefore be an extremely oblique reference to Muhammad, the fact that Nirig/Nergal predates Muhammad by a considerable period of time (several thousands of years) requires us to be somewhat cautious about drawing such a conclusion.

The fact that the “Good Shepherd” makes reference to the “tail end” of this period should also give us pause; assuming that this passage was indeed composed in the early Islamic period, what would make the Mandaeans of the time think that they were living in the end of that era? The right half of the Great Treasure contains a similar claim in Book 18, suggesting that these two works might be coetaneous, if indeed the “Age of Mars” can be identified with the Islamic period. I have my doubts. The Great Treasure, for example, never employs this term, but it does appear in Code Sabéen 16, which is a manuscript of the Thousand and Twelve Questions (the so-called Pariser Diwan): hṣilnin bdinba ḏ-dara ḏ-nirig “we reached the end of the Age of Mars.” It would be interesting to investigate what this reference meant to this copyist of the Thousand and Twelve Questions. I’m not sure I want to try contacting the Bibliothèque nationale de France again for a copy, as their bureaucracy could really give Rutgers a run for its money.

The question of the presence or absence of any reference to Islam is not the only contentious aspect of this chapter; immediately preceding the reference to the Age of Mars is a reference to what appears to be female priests:

ṭubaihun el tarmidiata
ḏmn qlalia ḏruha mitparqan
mitparqan mn ṭanputa
uqlala ušišilta ḏlašalma

Happy are the tarmidiata,
who are free from the snares of Ruha,
free ‎‎from the pollution, the snare,
and the never-ending chain.

At first glance, tarmidiata appears to be the plural of tarmidita, the feminine form of tarmida, which is the first grade of the Mandaean priesthood as well as a general term for priest. As the cognates in related languages attest, it originally meant a kind of student or disciple, but in Mandaean texts it consistently refers to priests. In his translation of the Doctrine of John, Lidzbarski is silent about the identity of the tarmidiata, which he translates as Jüngerinnen (female disciples), but in his translation of the Great Treasure he argues that as female priests do not (currently) exist among the Mandaeans, this term cannot refer to female priests. Q.E.D. Drower, deferring to Lidzbarski, bent over backwards to translate this term as “women of priestly family” or “caste,” even though there is no logical basis for this interpolation. While it is certainly true that there are no female priests today, Jorunn Buckley has amassed a considerable amount of textual evidence for the existence of female priests at some point in the distant past of the faith. Obviously this question is not going away any time soon.

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