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

Archive for the tag “Christianity”

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.

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.

The Blessed Saint Pazuzu, Protector of the Newborn

I’ve taken a brief break from the Mandaean Book of John to do some work on some other projects, including presenting on my research at the 41st annual meeting of the North American Conference on Afroasiatic Linguistics in New Haven and the 223rd meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland.

Chief among these other projects is my contribution to a new textbook on epigraphy, which consists of a chapter on the problematic Arslan Taş amulet. This amulet, which was first published by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in 1939, is made out of limestone (or possibly gypsum), shaped like a tablet, and perforated at the top, perhaps so that it could be hung on a doorpost. There are three figures carved upon it: a) a striding warrior wielding a double-headed ax, b) a winged sphinx, and c) a dog-like creature with what appears to be the tail of a scorpion, in the process of swallowing a human figure. The incantation inscribed upon the amulet calls upon one or more supernatural beings to protect the client from two or more maleficent beings. Presumably, these are the figures depicted on the amulet, but this is by no means certain.

The Amulet from Arslan Taş

The first being whose support is sought is identified as Ssm, son of Pdr. Both ssm and pdr are divine names known from other texts. Coincidentally, this same proper name (or at least its Aramaic form, ssm br pdr) also appears upon an inscription engraved upon the side of a bronze statue of Pazuzu at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, allegedly from the site of San el-Hagar (ancient Tanis) in the Nile river delta (you may remember Tanis from the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark).

If you think I'm bad, watch out for my wife...

Pazuzu is, of course, an Assyrian demon that represents “a ferocious wind that brings destruction to cultivated land, cattle, and humans.” Most people will be familiar with him from the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel The Exorcist and the 1973 horror film that was adapted from it. Representations of Pazuzu (in the form of amulets and figurines such as the one discovered at Tanis) were popular during the 7th and 6th c. B.C.E., because his image was used to ward off other demons, particularly the infanticidal female demon Lamaštu. Lamaštu is usually depicted as a dog-like figure, not unlike one of the two figures on the front of the Arslan Taş amulet.

Given that Pazuzu amulets and figurines generally include Pazuzu’s name, and the Ashmolean statue invokes the same figure as the Arslan Taş amulet for protection against a Lamaštu-like figure, F.A.M. Wiggermann identifies the Pazuzu with Ssm. Now here’s where things get a little bizarre.

The names “Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof” (סנוי סנסנוי וסמנגלוף) were traditionally carved upon cradles, bedposts, and amulets to protect newborn children from the infanticidal female demon Lilith. This is apparently a very ancient custom; forms of these same names appear in the Babylonian incantation bowls from Late Antiquity and even seal amulets from Parthian times. A medieval text, the Alphabet of Sirach, explains how these three angels became the protectors of newborn children (the story bears being reproduced in its entirety):

While God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ [Genesis 2:18]. He also created a woman, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘Sovereign of the universe!’ he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels [Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof] to bring her back.

“Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’ The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’

“‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.’

“When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.’ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

In the article I linked above, Martin Schwartz identifies ssm with a common Semitic word for “fruited branch of a date palm,” and suggests that this word also lies behind the names of the angelic triad. Furthermore, he sees this same word as the etymon of Sisinnios or Sisinius, the name of a celebrated warrior saint whose feast is celebrated either on the 23rd of November, or on the 29th of November together with St. Saturninus.


According to tradition, St. Sisinnios was born in Antioch and was martyred by the Roman emperor Maximian. The principal source for his life is another medieval legend, in which St. Sisinnios and his two brothers, Sinès and Sinodore, pursue an infanticidal female demon, and extract a promise from her not to approach any home on which their names and all of her secret names are written. For this reason, his legend was especially widespread throughout the eastern Mediterranean and as far south as Ethiopia, and he is frequently depicted as a “Holy Rider,” mounted on horseback, wielding a weapon and poised to strike a demoness, who is trampled beneath the front hooves of his mount. Beyond what is written in the legend of St. Sisinnios, nothing else is known about his life.

The legend of Sisinnios, Sinès, and Sinodore is rather obviously related to that of Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof in the Alphabet of Sirach. Less certain is Schwartz’s identification of this same figure with the Ssm of the Arslan Taş amulet, or Wiggerman’s identification of Ssm with Pazuzu, but the fact that all four (the saint, the angel, the god, and the demon) are depicted upon amulets explicitly to protect homes from infanticidal female demons should give us sufficient cause to consider the identification.

If the identification is justified, Pazuzu would not be the only unlikely figure from another religious tradition to be canonized as a saint, but certainly one of the strangest, comparable to the strange career of the Buddha, who was famously canonized as St. Josaphat.

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.

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