Mani and Manichaeism

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Mani, "the apostle of God," founder of one of the most widely influential religions of the ancient world, was born in southern Babylonia about 216 CE. Little is definitely known of his birthplace and parentage, since some statements should probably be discounted as malicious reports from his adversaries. He seems to have been of Persian descent and related, at least on his mother's side, to the royal house of Parthia, which was overthrown in 226 by the Sassanid Ardashir I. He is said to have received his first revelation at the age of twelve, but he did not receive his formal call to apostleship until he was twenty-four. His public activity began with a journey to India, where he founded his first community.

Upon the death of Ardashir in 241, Mani returned to Parthia, where he was welcomed by Ardashir's successor Shapur, for whom he wrote a book, the Shapurakan. When Shapur died thirty years later, Mani also enjoyed the favor of his successor, but when Bahram came to the throne in 272 the situation changed. Throughout Mani's career the Magian priests had been his most deadly enemies, and they now secured his impeachment and condemnation. He was executed about 276 CE, and his death apparently was followed by persecution of his adherents.

At least seven works have been ascribed to him, including the Shapurakan, another work titled "The Living Gospel," and the Epistula Fundamenti, which, on the evidence of Augustine, was used by north African Manichaeans as a handbook of doctrine. To these some Western authorities add the Kephalaia, which is extant in Coptic. Resources for the study of Manichaeismonce limited to the information supplied by such opponents as Augustine and Titus of Bostra and to excerpts in the works of Theodore bar Konai, in Hegemonius's Acta Archelai, and in such Arabic sources as the Fihrist of En-Nadimhad in the twentieth century been enriched by discoveries of original Manichaean documents in Turkestan and Egypt. The fragments discovered at Turfan include texts in several Iranian dialects, Turkish, and Chinese, while the Egyptian discovery includes Coptic versions of the Kephalaia, a psalmbook, and a collection of homilies.

The System of Mani

The chief characteristic of Mani's system is a consistent dualism that rejects any possibility of tracing the origins of good and evil to one and the same source. Evil stands as a completely independent principle against Good, and redemption from the power of Evil is to be achieved by recognizing this dualism and following the appropriate rules of life. The opposition of God and Matter is seen in the realm of nature as the conflict of Light and Darkness, Truth and Error. The present world, and man in particular, presents a mixture of Good and Evil, the result of a breach of the original limits by the powers of evil. The whole purpose of the founding of the universe was to separate the two principles and restore the original state of affairs, rendering Evil forever harmless and preventing any future repetition of the intermingling.

It is the special task of the Manichaean, the man who has been brought to the light, to collaborate in this separation. Through the God-sent mind that is in him and that sets him apart from the other creatures, he must become aware of the mixture present in all things. He must thus discover the true meaning and significance of the world and conduct himself accordingly, in such a way as to avoid any further contamination of the light and promote its release from its mixture with the darkness. The death of the body is thus redemption; and true life is the release of the soul, which is light, from its imprisonment in the body and its return to its true abode.

The Manichaean myth begins with the two primal principles of Light and Darkness, each dwelling in its own realm, coeternal but independent. Perception of the Light excites envy, greed, and hate in Darkness, and provokes it to attack the Light. In response the Father of Greatness calls forth the Primal Man, who arms himself with five powers and descends to battle with the Darkness. He is defeated, however, and the five powers of Darkness devour a part of his light and thus bring the mixture into being. In some versions this is explained as part of a deliberate plan to satisfy the powers of Darkness temporarily by the cession of a portion of the light and thus to prevent further attack. The captive portion of light, the armor of the Primal Man, is identified with the soul, which thus becomes subject to the affections of Matter.

The Primal Man appeals to the Father of Greatness, who sends the Living Spirit to deliver him. The archons, or powers of Darkness, are now overcome (although they do not lose their power of action), and heaven and earth are made from their carcasses. From the purest part of the Light in the archons the sun and moon are formed, but even so only a small part of the Light has been delivered. A fresh appeal from the powers of Light leads the Father of Greatness to send a Third Messenger, whose appearance inspires the Darkness to produce Adam and Eve in the image of his glorious form and to enclose in them the Light still at its disposal. The creation of Eve has a special purpose, in that she is more subservient to the demons and serves as their instrument for the seduction of Adam. Procreation serves the ends of Darkness, since each birth means a further dispersal of the Light, another subject for the realm of Darkness, and a prolonging of the captivity of the Light. The powers of Light accordingly send Jesus on a mission of revelation to Adam, who is still innocent but subsequently disobeys, is seduced by Eve, and so sets the chain of reproduction in motion. This protracts the drama of salvation, and with it the mission of Jesus, into the history of humankind. In one age the revelation comes to India through the Buddha, in another to Persia through Zoroaster, in a third to the West through the historical Jesus, and in the last age it comes through Mani himself, the apostle of the true God.

Manichaean Ethics

The cosmogonic myth provides the basis and substructure for the Manichaean ethics and hope of redemption. The ethics are rigorously ascetic: Since procreation only prolongs the reign of the powers of darkness, marriage must be rejected. The Manichaean must abstain from all "ensouled" things and eat only vegetables, so as to avoid, as far as possible, any injury to the Light. The full rigor of Manichaean ethics is reserved for the Elect, and the mass of adherents, the Hearers or Soldiers, are allowed to live under less rigorous rules. Correspondingly there is a difference in their destiny after death: The Elect pass at once to the Paradise of Light, but the Soldiers must return to the world and its terrors until their light is freed and they attain to the assembly of the Elect. The third class of men, the sinners who are outside the Manichaean religion, are doomed to remain in the power of Evil.

Manichaean Gnosticism

It is clear that Manichaeism may be regarded as a form of Gnosticism. Indeed, it has been called "the most monumental single embodiment of the gnostic religious principle, for whose doctrinal and mythological representation the elements of older religions were consciously employed" (Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, pp. 207f.). It differs, however, from such older forms of Gnosticism as Valentinianism in that here the dualism is from the beginning an integral part of the myth, and not the result of a development in the myth. In Jonas's words, "the tragedy of the deity is forced upon it from outside, with Darkness having the first initiative," whereas in the other type of Gnosticism, Darkness is the product of the divine passion, not its cause. Any attempt to identify the sources upon which Mani drew for the construction of his system is, however, fraught with difficulty, and it would be dangerous to try to establish any genetic relationship. For example, attempts have been made, on the basis of the statement that his father belonged to a Baptist sect, the Mugtasila, to forge a link with Mandaeism; but although Mandaean elements have been found in the Manichaean psalmbook, the identity of the Mugtasila with the Mandaeans, or of either with some still older Jewish or Jewish-Christian Baptist movement, is still a matter of debate.

Another possible link is with the Zervanite heresy in Zoroastrianism, but here again caution is necessary. (On this whole subject, see Carsten Colpe, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sec. 5.) In a general way, it may be said that Mani incorporated Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian elements into his religion, but Manichaeism seems to have adapted itself to the dominant religion of a particular area. Moreover, it has been held that he had little more than a hearsay knowledge of Christianity, although he had some acquaintance with the heresies of Bardesanes and of Marcion. It appears that he intended to found not merely a sect but a new religion that could embody the best of the older faiths, fusing elements from Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism with his own teaching.

His success is evident from the fact that Manichaeism survived so long and for a time was a serious rival to Christianity. After Mani's death it spread through Syria into the West and spread eastward deep into central Asia. Centuries later Manichaean ideas were current among the Bogomiles in the Balkans (see Dmitri Obolensky, The Bogomils ) and among the Albigenses and Cathari in Provence (see Steven Runciman, The Mediaeval Manichee ). There may be debate as to the historical connection of these later movements with the original Manichaeism, but some influence appears beyond dispute. Nor should it be forgotten that Augustine himself was for a time an adherent of Manichaeism. A religion that could arouse the interest of such later thinkers as Pierre Bayle, David Hume, and Voltaire must be regarded as one of profound significance for the history of thought.

See also Augustine, St.; Bayle, Pierre; Buddhism; Christianity; Evil; Evil, The Problem of; Gnosticism; Hume, David; Valentinus and Valentinianism; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Zoroastrianism.


texts and translations

Allberry, C. R. C. A Coptic Manichaean Psalm-Book. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1938.

Asmussen, Jes. Xuāstvānīft. Copenhagen: Prostant apud Munksgaard, 1965.

Boyce, Mary. The Manichaean Hymn Cycles in Parthian. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Clark, Larry. "The Manichaean Turkic Pothi-Book." Alt-orientalische Forschungen 9 (1982): 145218.

Gardner, Iain. The Kephalaia of the Teacher. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Gardner, Iain, and Samuel N. C. Lieu. Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. Gnosis on the Silk Road. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Koenen, Ludwig, and Cornelia Römer. Der Kölner Mani-Kodex. Opladen: Westdeutscher, 1988.

Polotsky, Hans Joachim. Manichäische Homilien. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1934.

Schmidt-Glintzer, Helwig. Chinesische Manichaica. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. 1987.

Sundermann, Werner. Der Sermon vom Licht-Nous. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1992.

Sundermann, Werner. Der Sermon von der Seele. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1997.


BeDuhn, Jason David. The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000.

Bryder, Peter. The Chinese Transformation of Manichaeism. Löberöd: Plus Ultra, 1985.

Gulácsi, Zsuzsanna. Manichaean Art in Berlin Collections. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, 2nd ed. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1992.

Mikkelsen, Gunner. Bibliographia Manichaica. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1997.

Obolensky, Dmitri. The Bogomils. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Pedersen, Nils Arne. Studies in the Sermon on the Great War. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1996.

Reeves, John. Heralds of that Good Realm. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Runciman, Steven. The Mediaeval Manichee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947.

Widengren, Geo. Der Manichäismus. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1977.

Wurst, Gregor. Das Bemafest der ägyptischen Manichäer. Altenberge: Oros, 1995.

R. McL. Wilson (1967)

Bibliography updated by Jason BeDuhn (2005)