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Once considered a Christian heresy, Manichaeism is now regarded as a complex dualistic religion essentially

gnostic in character. Its founder, Mānī, Manes, Mάνης, Mανιχαíος, Manichaeus, was born in the year 527 of the Babylonian astronomers, and the year 4 of Artaban V, last of the Arsacids, probably April 14, a.d. 216. His father, Patek (Πατήκιος, Fātak, Futtak), who came apparently from Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana in Media, descended from the Haskanyas, a dynasty of the Arsacids, a Parthian stock. His mother, Mēis, Utākhim, Taashit, Karossa, or Maryam (the name best attested by the Arabic, Syriac, and Greek traditions) came from the family of the Kamsarakan, likewise a dynasty of the Arsacids. Mānī, of Armenian race and of aristocratic lineage, became a Babylonian through his place of birth. There are two traditions regarding its locality. The first and better tradition insists on Mardīnū, in the district of Nahr Kūthā in Northern Babylonia, a city situated on the canal that connects the Euphrates and the Tigris, south of Al-Madain (Ctesiphon-Seleucia) and Daīr-Qunna. The second tradition, represented by Theodore Bar Khonai (8th century a.d.), holds for Abrūmya near Gaukhai, in the center of Mesene in Southern Babylonia.

The father of Mānī, a religious man, had left his country as an émigré very probably after the decisive victory of the Sassanids over the Arsacids. He became a member of a baptist sect in Babylonia, the Mughtasilas. This sect, which abstained from meat, held views hostile to wine and marriage, and was, perhaps, related to the Mandaeans, made a definite impression on the young Mānī.

He owed his faith to a double revelation. According to the Arabic and Coptic traditions, in 539 and 551 of the Seleucid Era (a.d. 228229 and 240241), Mānī, at the ages of 12 and 24, respectively, received from the angel at-Taum, the messenger of the King of the Paradise of Lights, his mission as preacher of a gnosis, a definitive and ultimate divine revelation. At the age of 24 the preacher left Babylonia, the crossroads of the religions of East and West. He reached India by boat just at the end of the reign of the Persian King Ardashīr, when his son, Shāpūr I, conquered the banks of the Indus.

India, the farthest point of Mānī's first missionary journey, influenced the subsequent development of his thought. He returned by boat to Persia, from Persia he went to Mesene, then to Asōrestān (classical Babylonia), and thence to Media and Parthia. He sojourned also for some time at Karka at the head of the Persian Gulf.

After this great missionary tour, Mānī, now well known as a young religious reformer, was summoned to court by Shāpūr I, successor of Ardashīr in 553 of the Seleucid Era (a.d. 241242). In the same year Shāpūr declared war on Rome, against the Emperor Gordian III. Probably he saw in Mānī a man who, thanks to his power of synthesis and his talent as a religious leader, would be capable of serving his political designs toward the Roman Empire, and he took Mānī into his entourage. This circumstance marks the first expansion of Manichaeism in the West, and perhaps also the definitive synthesis of the Manichaean gnosis through the addition of the Christian element, after the missionary travels in Babylon and India.

Manichaean missionaries subsequently infiltrated the Roman Empire, especially Egypt, but they were harried and persecuted as enemies of the Roman people. Mānī continued his religious activity during 30 years, enjoying the protection of Shāpūr. This protection, combined with Mānī's unusual personality, explains the great expansion of the movement. In April 273, Hormisdas succeeded his father and likewise protected the prophet; from April 274, to July 277, Bahrām I, his brother, ruled the Persian Empire. Under Bahrām the leaders of Mazdaism assumed control, accused Mānī of heresy, and convinced the King of his guilt. The King ordered Mānī's arraignment. He was thrown into prison at Gundēshāpūr (Belāpāt), in Susiana, and, worn out, he died 26 days later, at the end of March 276 or 277. His head was exposed above the gate of the city. Later his disciples buried his remains at Ctesiphon.

Mānī had attained his 60th year. As the founder of a revealed religion, a book religion, a missionary religion, and as the prophet of Babylon, he attracted a large number of apostles and disciples who subsequently traversed the world, preached in the languages of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and made Manichaeism a universal religion, of which a few living vestiges remain in the 20th century.

Missionary Routes of the Religion of Light

"I have come from the land of Babel to make my cry heard throughout the whole world" (Frag. Turf. M4).

The Routes in Central and Eastern Asia. The sojourn of Mānī in India is attested by all the traditions. Archeological traces of the existence of his religion are found near the ancient Bāmiyan, on the confines of Bactriana, Persia, and India. Numerous influences on the religions of Tibet were noted by missionaries in the 18th century. At the beginning of the 20th century some thousands of fragments of Manichaean literature, found at Turfan in western China, furnished information on the spread of the religion in Asia. In 621 a Manichaean temple was erected at Singanfu in China. The king of the Uighurs, a Turkish people of Central Asia, in 762 accepted the Religion of Light as the official religion of his state. He became a proselyte and influenced some Chinese princes, so that in 768, an imperial edict gave the Manichaeans authorization to erect temples in China. When the Khirghiz came down from Siberia, and in 840 destroyed the kingdom of the Uighurs, the Manichaean missionaries took advantage of the situation, pushed into Siberia, and established themselves in the valley of the Yenisei River. The via Serica was the main route of their penetration from Persia into China. Under the pressure of the peoples of the North, the Uighurs fell back upon the Chinese Empire, bringing with them so many apostles of Manichaeism that an imperial edict of 843 made Manichaeism a forbidden religion. This was a signal for an emigration to the South, where, in the province of Fukien, traces of Manichaeism were discovered in the 17th century.

In Central Asia the Mongols of Genghis Khan definitely ruined the sect in the 13th century. However, it maintained itself in Manchuria until an edict of 1646 completely suppressed it. Recent discoveries, supplementing the ancient traditions, attest the presence of Mānī in India. He himself or one of his disciples sojourned in Christian communities of Malabar c. 270. Thus Babylon, for more than a 1,000 years, covered Asia with an unceasing flow of missionaries.

Routes to the West. Although driven from Babylonia by persecutors, the Manichaeans returned, as to their home port, in each period of calm. From Babylon their missionaries set out also for the West, where Mānī had made his first tour during the Persian Wars (242243). In any case, the route from Mesopotamia to the West can be clearly traced through the anti-Manichaean Christian and pagan polemics written to stem the spread of the doctrine of Mānī. Syria, which had been prepared by the gnosis of Bardesanes, was a fertile ground for Manichaeism, but the treatises of "Mānī, apostle of Jesus Christ," written in or translated into Syriac, met a formidable adversary in St. ephrem (d. 373). In his struggle against the heresy, Ephrem himself composed popular polemic songs or hymns. The existence of a flourishing Manichaean community at Edessa in the 5th century bears witness to the persistence of this teaching. The Acta Archelai [GCS] constituted in 325 a first anti Manichaean summa by Manichaeism's Christian opponents. This work and its MS tradition show that in the period of Constantine, 50 years after the death of its founder, Manichaeism had spread widely in the Roman Empire. titus, Bishop of Bostra (d. 371), read the "Mysteries of Mani" and wrote a refutation of it for the Christians of the Decapolis [Patrologia Graeca 18:10691264; R. P. Casey, Harvard Theological Review 21 (1928) 97111]. To combat the Manichaeans, Titus found it necessary also to compose a Christian commentary on the Gospel [Homilies on Luke, ed. J. Sickenberger (Leipzig 1901) Texte und Untersuchungen zur Gerschicte der altchristlichen Literatur 21].

In 390 at Antioch, john chrysostom fulminated in his powerful eloquence against Mānī ("Homilies on Matthew," Patrologia Graeca 58:9751058). About 348 cyril of jerusalem instructed catechumens who had renounced Manichaeism (Catech. 6, Patrologia Graeca 33:3311180). In 376 epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, devoted the largest section in his book against heresies to the Manichaeans [GCS].

Manichaeism entered Egypt very early. Already in 297, following a revolt against Rome in which the Manichaeans participated, a harsh edict of Diocletian had ordered the annihilation of the sect. The Manichaeans came from Mesopotamia by sea, disembarked on the shores of the Red Sea, and followed the route of merchants engaged in transporting goods from Asia. The center from which they spread was probably Hypsela, south of Assiut in the Thebaid. From Upper Egypt they went down the Nile to engage in their apostolate in the Mediterranean lands. At the end of the 3d century a bishop of Alexandria published a pastoral letter against them, which coincided in time with the edict of Diocletian [C.H. Roberts, Catal. Gk. and Lat. Papyri 3 (Manchester 1938) no. 469]. The 3,000 Manichaean leaves found in 1930 at Medīnēt-Mādi [C. Schmit and H. J. Polotzky, Mani-Fund (Berlin 1931)] prove that Diocletian's edict did not stop the new religion. About 339 serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, wrote a refutation of Manichaeism [ed. R.P. Casey (Cambridge 1931)]. In the same years a pagan, Alexander of Lycopolis, having given up Manichaeism, refuted it on the basis of reason [ed. A. Brinkmann, (Leipzig 1895)]. Like Serapion, Didymus of Alexandria, about the end of the 4th century, found it necessary to write a commentary on those sacred texts the Manichaeans were citing in support of their position (Patrologia Graeca 39:10851110).

From Egypt Manichaeism passed to Africa Proconsularis, and from 373 to 383 augustine was a Manichaean hearer. montanism had prepared the way for the new religion, and Africa, furthermore, was receptive to teachings from Asia. Following his conversion to Christianity, Augustine fought for some 15 years to save the Bible from Manichaean interpretation (J. Ries, RevÉt Aug 231243). After being driven from Africa, the Manichaeans went to Spain, where in 434 vincent of lerins attacked them in his Commonitorium (Patrologia Latina 50:637686). A formula of abjuration (Patrologia Latina 65:2328) from Lyons shows that Manichaeism was regarded as a danger to Christians in 526. In this period St. caesarius of arles denounced the immundissimi Manichaei to his flock.

Meanwhile, Rome and Italy were infected, and imperial edicts were issued against the sect by Valentinian I in 372 (Codex Theodosianus 16.5.3) and Theodosius I in 382 (ibid. 16.5.9). Theodosius II (408450), Anastasius I (491518), Justin I (518527), and Justinian (in 529) attacked the Manichaeans without mercy. From 440 on the Manichaeans, in fleeing from the Vandals, surged back into Italy. The letter of Pope leo i in 444, ad episcopos per Italiam, indicates that there were Manichaean infiltrations of the Catholic clergy. In the same year the Pope had the error condemned by a Roman synod. An inscription at Salonae in Dalmatia gives proof of the presence of Manichaean communities in the Balkans from the 4th century.

Secondary Routes. A later neo-Manichaean current came from Asia, perhaps from Armenia, where Bishop Eznik of Kolb opposed Mānī c. 441. The various new dualistic teachings called Paulicianism, Bogomilism, or Catharism were attacked as Manichaean doctrines by Christian polemical writers of Byzantium and the West from the 6th to the 15th century. Many doctrinal analogies and practices seemed to connect them with Manichaeism. These dualistic systems penetrated deeply into every social milieu of western Asia, the Balkans, Italy, and France. Their history is known in detail, but their direct connection with the doctrine of Mānī is far from established.

Here again the writings of Christian opponents make it possible to follow the expansion of the sects. The decree of Justinian (529) occasioned the dissemination of a Manichaean tract that led to a reply and refutation by zacharias the rhetor (d. 553), Bishop of Mytilene [ed. A. Demetrakopoulos, Bibl. Ecc. (Leipzig 1866) 1:118]. In the 9th century an important body of Byzantine literature attacked the dualistic heresy and reused certain documents of the 4th and 5th centuries. Peter Higumenos [Epitome, ed. J. C. L. Gieseler, in Appendix ad Petri Siculi historiam (Göttingen 1849)], George the Monk (Patrologia Graeca 110:883891), Peter of Sicily (History, Patrologia Graeca 104:130550), and Photius (Patrologia Graeca 102: 15264) strove to uproot the evil, while the Byzantine Church refined and imposed formulas of abjuration [G. Ficker, ZKirchgesch (1906) 27:443464].

In this period of Paulicianism at Byzantium, another neo-Manichaean movement was spreading in Bulgaria, namely, Bogomilism. Michael Psellos [101878 (Patrologia Graeca 122:818876)] and Euthymius of Zigabenos [early 12th century (Patrologia Graeca 130:305325)] wrote against it. But the heresy had a stubborn life and flourished in the Second Bulgarian Empire during the 13th century. The treatises of Cosmas the Presbyter [10th century, ed. H. C. Puech and A. Vaillant (Paris 1945)] and of John of torquemada [13881468 (ed. N. Lopez Martinez and V. Proaño Gil, Burgos 1958)] indicate that contemporaries were convinced that they were dealing with a form of Manichaeism. The history of the manuscript of the Acta Archelai is significant in this regard, and the Manichaean routes can be traced through this history alone. A Latin translation of the original text circulated in Rome and Africa c. 400. New copies existed in Italy in the 6th century, in the period of the condemnations by Gelasius I and Gregory the Great. From the 9th century copies of the MSS of the Acta Archelai were numerous in Francea sign that they were utilized against the albigenses and the cathari [L. Traube, Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenshaften zu München, (1903) 533539.

The doctrine preached by Mānī is not dead. The Swiss Rudolf steiner (18611925), founder of anthroposophy, attracted numerous disciples. Thus, having adopted Manichaean and Catharian teachings, they wish to unite again in an esoteric way with the prophet of Babylon who, according to them, is the true continuator of the message of Jesus.

The Elements of Manichaean Doctrine

These elements can best be analyzed and summarized under the respective headings given below.

Revealed Dualistic Gnosis. Like all forms of gnosis, Manichaeism has a dualistic conception of the structure of the world. It emphasizes this concept to the extreme, admitting from the very beginning of everything a radical duality and opposition, Light-Darkness, Good Evil. The origin of the material world, of evil, of sin, is found in this duality of the two uncreated principles, the central point in Manichaeism's doctrine. There was a first time, the initium, the time of the total separation of the two kingdoms, Light-Darkness. Following a struggle of Darkness against Light, a cosmogonic movement resulted in the mingling of the two substances. This is the medium or middle time, the present universe. Through the ambassadors of Light who have succeeded one another since Adam, the third time, finis, is being prepared, the eschatological age in which will take place anew the separation that existed in the beginning. These ambassadors are called Seth, Abraham, Sem, Enos, Nikotheos, Henoch, perfect men. Light's great ambassadors of the revelation of the kingdom of Light are Buddha, zoroaster, Jesus, and the final seal of all revelation, Mānī. The definitive revelation came to Mānī through the angel, at-Taum. All Manichaean texts exhibit a multitude of marvelous details as a kind of halo around the personality of the founder.

Totalitarian Gnosis. As a revealed religion and a dualistic system in its explanation of the beginning of the universe, Manichaeism proposes a tripartite conception of the world's history. Thus, totalitarian gnosis embraces all human knowledgetheology, theogony, cosmology, astronomy, geology, botany, anthropology, history, soteriology, and eschatology. The structure of the system is markedly intellectual and postulates knowledge and understanding as the first condition of salvation for its followers. Gnosis is a message destined for men, destined to make a redeeming church. It was necessary, therefore, to give it a popular aspect and make it acceptable to simple minds. It is in this popularizing that Mānī's personal work is so amazing; it gave his teaching the power to win the masses.

Living Gnosis. Mānī, endowed with the ability to make a religious synthesis and with a fertile imagination, worked out a series of cosmogonic and soteriological myths capable of arousing the enthusiasm of the West as well as of the East. He had the art of adapting these myths to the religious conceptions of the various peoples. There are two basic types of Manichaean myths. (1) The first describes a struggle between two trees, one of Good, the other of Evil. Titus of Bostra and Severus of Antioch especially have noted this presentation of the myth, and it is frequent also in the Coptic texts of the Fayum. This form, moreover, is mingled with the second. (2) The Manichaean cosmogony is presented, too, under the form of an epic in which the creation of the world is the result of a battle in three phases between the powers of Good and Evil, the celestial spirits and the infernal powers. This is the myth of the two kingdoms, each governed by a head, the Father of Greatness and the Prince of Darkness, respectively.

These two types resume the Biblical history from the creation of Adam and Eve, which is regarded as an element at the beginning of the second historical time. Each myth presents basic information intelligible to all, the antithesis Good-Evil, Light-Darkness. In brief: a very simple cosmic experience served as the foundation for a religious structure at once cosmogonic and soteriological.

Perfect Gnosis. Manichaean dogmatics is concerned with the explanation of these myths directed to a practical end: an attitude of knowledge, a grasp of the mysteries, a perfect gnosis (τέλεια γν[symbol omitted]σις)at once knowledge, acceptance, and moral conformity. Since humanity is living in the second historical time, the cosmogony of current development is already in part a soteriology, a process of salvation, and of liberation of Light, the prisoner of Darkness in Creation.

Manichaean ethic or morality is based on this dogmatic foundation. It too is a soteriology, but oriented entirely toward eschatology, to the liberation of light. Eschatology governs all moral life and gives the Manichaeans, in a perspective of hope, the strength to endure the difficulties and persecutions inherent in the missionary life imposed on the elect.

Duality, present everywhere in the visible world, dictates the moral attitude to be adopted in effecting a necessary division in daily realities. Light resides in knowledge, revelation, spirit, soul, heaven, the heights, repose, endurancein all that is characterized by the Good. Darkness is ignorance, matter, body, depth, unrestbriefly, Evil. The Manichaean learns to understand and adopt these antitheses, and he proceeds to salvation, to the kingdom of Light, which will be totally free after the final destruction of the cosmos by an eschatological fire.

Practical and Missionary Gnosis. Creation continues to take place. It is indispensable that salvation be accomplished even in the very process of creation. In other words, the cosmogonic myth and the soteriological myth compenetrate each other on this dualistic background. The whole cosmos is engaged in a struggle. Cosmic mechanisms, history, human life, religious messageall are found in the microcosm that is constituted by each man and that has to assume a twofold attitude. (1) Negative morality, abstention. This morality is dictated by the acute knowledge and consciousness of evil, of sin residing in matter as in its substance. This morality is a form of asceticism rather than an ethic: withdrawal, separation, abstinence from meat, wine, and sexual contacts; renunciation of property and work, frequent repose, war, hunting, business, and agriculture. The elect must live this ascetic life to the highest degree. (2) Positive morality. Manichaeism goes further. It wishes to give a consciousness of evil that impels to positive liberation and urges the need of redemption, the liberating action of the particles of Light. Every Manichaean is charged with this message of salvation. He must make known around him the method and the means of salvation. This method has its repercussions in all the details of daily life, even down to the menu of the disciple, who must distinguish luminous foods (melons, fruits) from dark foods (wine, meat). Manichaean gnosis makes its devotees carriers of revelation, conscious of their role in a dualistic world that is to be saved by them. The refusal to accept truthManichaean dualismis one of the greatest of human faults; it is the refusal of salvation and means certain damnation.

From all this it is easy to understand both the enthusiasm of the Manichaean church and its violent clash with other religions and, especially, with civil authority charged with the organization and regulation of social life.

The Principal Elements in the Manichaean Myth. The fundamental mythical element in the struggle of the two kingdoms, Primus Homo, Primal Man, is an emanation of the Father of Greatness, king of the Paradise of Light. Through the Great Spirit, the Sophia of the Father and Mother of the Living, the Father orders Primal Man to engage in battle against Darkness in its attack on the kingdom of Light. The Primal Man is clothed in an armor of five luminous elements: Light, Wind, Fire, Water, and Air. These five elements constitute his soul, his life. The struggle ends in the defeat of Primal Man. He is knocked senseless and lies unconscious in the midst of Darkness, which takes away his armor and swallows his soul, the five luminous elements. By this soul Darkness gives birth to matter, [symbol omitted]λη. On coming to himself Primal Man cries out and calls for help. When his cry is repeated seven times, it is heard in the kingdom of Light. This is the first cry of salvation that every Manichaean must repeat to the end of the second time. Through this cry salvation begins. The Father of Greatness, through the Mother of the Living, causes the emanation of a second luminous power and sends it forth, the Living spirit armed with his five sons. He reaches the frontier of the kingdom of Darkness and shouts out an appeal to Primal Man, who is a prisoner there.

The dark matter is poisoned and put to sleep by the five luminous elements taken from Primal Man, who hears the cry of the Living Spirit and replies. The cry and response, these two divine hypostases, meet and form the prototype of Manichaean salvation: message and acceptance. The Living Spirit, with the help of the Mother of the Living, gives his right hand to Primal Man and leads him back into the Paradise of Light. The savior is saved; he suffered, and he had need of salvation.

The Primal Man left his soul, namely, the five luminous elements, a prisoner of Darkness. These elements, too, must be freed and brought back to the Paradise of Light. This is again the work of the Living Spirit, who is charged with punishing the Archons of Darkness, with building a prison for them, and with liberating the particles of Light.

The Living Spirit seizes Light from Darkness; he thus creates the sun and the moon in order to make them two conveyors of Light. Then he tears off the skins of the Archons to spread out the ten firmaments. From their bones he makes the mountains, and from their flesh and excrement he makes the earth. The universe is arranged in eight regions and is the result of a mingling of Light and Darkness. As long as all the luminous souls are not liberated, it is necessary to mount guard in the universe. The Living Spirit gives this guard duty to his five sons: Splenditenens holds the firmaments; the King of Honor is charged with collecting again the particles of Light; Adamas, armed with sword and shield, holds back Darkness; the King of Glory keeps the vault of the sky turning; and Atlas, the Giant, bears on his shoulders the eight regions of the world. The Living Spirit creates also three giant wheels charged with effecting the ascent of the liberated particles of Light.

The Third Messenger. This myth describes the temptation of the Archons. The problem is how to liberate the luminous particles in this universe. The Father of Greatness sends a third emanation, the principal personage in which is called the Third Messenger, Tertius Legatus, the father of the 12 Virgins of Light (the 12 signs of the Zodiac). The Third Messenger puts in motion the three liberating wheels of Light and creates a luminous column (the milky way), which is to conduct the particles of Light to the Moon. The Moon will pour them into the Sun (lunar phenomena). During the work of putting the celestial machinery into operation, the bodies of the Virgins of Light appear to the Archons, who are both male and female. These, aroused by their concupiscence, let fall upon the earth their semen and abortions, respectively. Vegetation, trees, and fruits are the products of the demoniac semen of the male Archons. The abortions of the female Archons develop, become demons, devour the fruits, copulate, and give birth to the animals.

The Myth of Adam and Eve. The Prince of Darkness and the leaders of the Archons, always under the influence of their concupiscence for the Virgins of Light, try to collect all the light particles seized from their kingdom. The image of the Third Messenger has impressed them and will serve as a model for creating a living couple, male and female. Saklas and Nebroel, the chief pair of Archons, devour the demons filled with Light. They create a pair of dark origin but made to the image of the Tertius Legatus. This pair is Adam and Eve, and their first-born, Seth, will be the Father of the Human Race. Procreation, then, is of demoniac origin and has as its purpose the enslavement of the luminous particles. These myths of the temptation of the Archons and the creation of Adam and Eve are the basis for all the accusations of eroticism and immorality cast at the sect.

The Third Messenger has put in operation the liberating machine, salvation, while the struggle between Light and Darkness continues. Adam has already received a message from the Kingdom of Light. The prophets will follow and announce the mysteries of the universe and of redemption. After the three great messengers, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus, will come Mānī, charged with the last message, with the definitive teaching on origins and eschatology, and with the organization of the Church of Light. This world will last only for a time. Some day the five bearers, sons of the Living Spirit, will receive a signal from the Kingdom of Light, and they will let the universe fall. It will be destroyed in an infernal crash and will be consumed by a fire lasting for 1,468 years, after which all the luminous particles will have rejoined the Paradise of Light. This is the final stage in the Manichaean eschatology.

The Manichaean Church

The church Mānī founded has two aspects under which it can be considered, both stemming from the nature of its message.

A Missionary Church. The appeal of Primal Man, the reply to this appeal, the emanation of liberating powers of Light, and the necessity of continuing this liberation in this created world were the principles upon which Mānī founded his church. The need to transmit the message made it a missionary church, the heir of the prophets, especially Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus, and the announcer of the Paraclete and of the final seal of revelation, Mānī. Mānī completed the earlier messages before teaching the origins and the end, and he organized his church, which was charged with making the message known. His disciples were to go through the world proclaiming the revealed mysteries and establishing and maintaining everywhere the state of redemption and of liberation.

A Religion of the Word. The call to salvation occupied an important place in the life of the Manichaean. Teaching was given first in the assembly of the community of the brethren, where an exposition of the mysteries of the world and salvation was presented, interspersed with liturgical chants that are filled also with doctrinal content. The Kephalaia and euchology of Medīnēt Mādi shed a new light on these assemblies, which were very calm, pious, and mystical. The popular and animated theology and liturgy, inspired perhaps by the method of Bardesanes, must have made a deep impression upon the elect and the auditors during these assemblies, which were the real center of the missionary life of the sect. These assemblies were the whole secret of the expansion of Manichaeism, for the eschatological hope, renewed by each liturgical meeting, rendered members capable of enduring indifference, hostility, and even persecutions.

An Organized Church. It was a fully organized church with two categories of members, the elect (electi, fideles, the perfect) and the auditors.

The Elect. These were the liberators of Light. They lived the whole doctrine, traveled, and preached. Three principles of abstinence marked their lives: the signaculum oris, watch over the senses, avoidance of blaspheming, and abstinence from meat and wine; the signaculum manus, watch over actions, abstention from work and from destruction of plants and animals; signaculum sinus, abstinence from all sexual contact. The elect took a ritual meal every day. This meal was necessary for the liberation of the light particles contained in their food. It was taken in an atmosphere of prayers and chants after the auditors had brought the elect fruits and melons gathered by their hands. Some scholars have considered this meal the eucharist of the sect. Fasts were frequent; every Sunday and Monday and during the whole month that preceded the Manichaean Easter, the great annual feast of the throne of the Master, the Bēma, the high point of the Manichaean liturgy. This feast, a commemoration of the death, the staurōsis, of Mānī, by the magnificence of its liturgical pomp and by the consciousness of the invisible but real presence of the Master upon his throne, placed at the top of five steps, gave unquestionably a new "paschal stimulus" to the Manichaean Church. The elect members led a priestly life, with all nature and all the auditors in their service. They awaited death as liberation in the certitude that they were going immediately to join the Paradise of Light.

The Auditors, or Catechumens. They represented a lesser perfection and were much more numerous. One of their functions consisted in participating in the liberation of the Light by procuring for the elect the necessary foods for their daily ritual meal. The moral code for them was less strict. They had to fast one day a week, on Sunday, and to abstain from procreation. Marriage was tolerated, concubinage was permitted, but the procreation of children was to be avoided. This life, unlike that of the elect, was not free from sins. It did not prepare the auditor for immediate entrance into the Kingdom of Light. After his death, he entered into transmigration (Greek, μεταγγισμός; Syriac, taš pīkā ), a method of purification and means of liberation for the souls of auditors. By passing through a series of revolutionsmetempsychosis in the true sense of the wordand by reincarnation in the luminous bodies of fruits, especially melons, and finally in the body of an elect, the souls of auditors were gradually liberated. The rapidity of this liberation was directly related to their usefulness in the service of the Manichaean community. Men who refused to accept this dualistic system were reincarnated in the souls of beasts and ended finally in hell. For them no salvation was possible.

This church also had a hierarchy, although the texts give little information about it. A supreme head, the successor of Mānī, 12 magistri, and 72 bishops governed the whole church. Manichaean priests were in charge of the local communities.

A Religion of the Book. Mānī reproached the founders of religion for not having written their doctrine themselves. He wished to avoid this omission in the case of his own church, which was charged with transmitting the last revelation. He himself was its sole author or transmitter. To be such, he invented an alphabet, a Western Aramaic script very close to the Syriac of Edessa, the literary and religious language of the Sassanid Empire and of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. He translated his works himself, or had them translated, into the languages of the peoples evangelized. According to the best established tradition, he wrote seven works.

The Shāpūraqān was written in Middle Persian for King Shāpūr. Some fragments of this treatise on cosmogony and eschatology have been found at Turfan in Chinese Turkestan. All his other writings were probably composed in Syriac. The Gospel of Life, a doctrinal exposition in 22 chapters corresponding to the letters of the Syriac alphabet, was composed probably against the Diatessaron of Tatian, which enjoyed a wide dissemination in Babylonia. Some fragments of this work are found in the Turfan texts. The Treasure of Life, a treatise on anthropology and psychology, is known through some fragments preserved in the De fide contra Manichaeos of Augustine (Patrologia Latina 42:114344). A book entitled Pragmateia has not yet been found, and the same is true of the famous Book of Mysteries, which was written especially against the teachings of Bardesanes and seems to have been widely known in the Christian East. The Manichaean mythology is described in the Book of the Giants, of which a fair number of fragments were found at Turfan. There is also the precious corpus of the Letters of Mani. A collection of these in a Coptic version was discovered at Medīnēt Mādi and deposited in the Berlin Museum, but was carried off by the Soviets at the end of World War II. It seems definitely lost. Al-Bīrūnī (9731048) read these seven books of Mānī, which in his time were difficult to find.

The discoveries of the 20th century at Turfan and in the Fayum have cast a new light on the literary importance of the disciples of Mānī. The production and the ornamentation of the religious books were very noble activities in the Religion of Light.

Historiography of Manichaeism

The investigation of Manichaeism since the Renaissance can be divided into three main periods. It is only in the 20th century, however, that, owing in part to new discoveries, Manichaeism has become properly understood and evaluated not as a Christian heresy but as a complex gnostic religion.

Manichaeism, a Christian Heresy (16th to 18th Centuries). During the whole medieval period there was a tendency to apply the term Manichaean to every heretic. The various dualistic doctrines, from Mānī to the Cathari and the Albigenses, seemed to be branches of the same tree. Following the publication of Luther's teachings on sin and free will, Catholic opponents spoke of a Manichaeus redivivus. This led some Protestant historians to investigate the life and work of the reformer of Babylon in order to clear the Reform of such accusations. Protestant controversy thus gave birth to the study of Manichaeism.

During two centuries apologetic works, historical researches, and Catholic and Protestant polemical books followed and refuted one another. Thus the 17th century became the first important period in the publication of sources and in the knowledge of Manichaeism, and more precisely of its so-called Western sources. To the work of anti-Manichaean writers already known (Augustine, Pope Leo the Great, and Fabius Marius Victorinus) were now added important texts: the Acta Archelai, works of Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius of Salamis, Alexander of Lycopolis, Serapion of Tmuis, Titus of Bostra, Didymus of Alexandria, Zacharias of Mytilene, John Damascene, Photius, and Peter of Sicily; and some formulas of abjuration against Manichaeism. This copious documentation, coming from the great Christian adversaries of Mānī, permitted the development of a conception of the prophet's work in the perspective of Christian heresiology. Mānī, regarded as a Christian heretic, was repudiated by the Protestants, but in the eyes of Catholics he remained one of the founders of Luther's thought. From the end of the 17th century, however, investigation turned to other sources, especially Arabic and Syriac, which were independent of the struggle against Manichaeism.

In 1734 Isaac de Beausobre, a Calvinist historian, modified completely the Protestant concept of Manichaeism during the two previous centuries. He did his best to show that the teachings of Mānī were not the absurd collection of doctrines refuted by Western opponents, but constituted indeed, in the Church of Christ, a brilliant attempt at liberation, and that Mānī was a harbinger of the reform of Luther. His severe criticism of the Western authorities, his emphasis on the Oriental sources that were all but unknown, and his study on the use of the Apocrypha by the Manichaeans were all new elements that helped the subsequent research of the 18th century to disengage gradually the religion of Mānī from the simple cadre of Christian heresiology.

Manichaeism, a Great Oriental Religion (19th Century). In 1831 F. C. baur took a decisive step. He introduced Manichaean studies into the history of Oriental religions by presenting Mānī as the founder of a new faith. Baur gave full value to the known sources, Western as well as Oriental. Through these he got back to the origins of the dualism of the Babylonian prophet: Oriental forms of paganism, nature religions, and some traces of idolatry purified by contact with Parsiism, but especially the religion of India. According to Baur, Mānī took the essentials of his thought from Buddhism and later added some superficial elements from Christianity, especially his myth of a cosmological Jesus.

The research of Baur and his school was followed by the second important stage in the publication of sources shedding light on Manichaeism. The discovery of the Arab historians, and especially of the two great encyclopedias of the literature and religious ideas of the Orient, brought Manichaean studies into the sphere of Oriental studies. The two Arab authors who dominated this period of research were Sharastānī (a.d. 10861152) with his religious encyclopedia, Kital al-Milal wan-Nihal, and the historian an-Nadīm, whose Fihrist (a.d. 987) gives a long account of the religion of Mānī based on the prophet's books themselves. These two authors worked on original documents and were free from all polemics. According to them, Marcion and Bardesanes were among the spiritual masters of Mānī. The study of these documents led G. Flügel to propose a new hypothesis: Manichaeism was an Asiatic religion that had its origins in the teaching of Zoroaster and in the Sabaism of the Mughtasilas. Mānī seized upon these religious currents and turned them into Biblical channels.

Toward the end of the 19th century Assyriology furnished new orientations. K. Kessler claimed that the Manichaean synthesis contained a current going back to the ancient Babylonian religion. Mānī had wished to give the Iranian peoples a more perfect teaching than that of the Sassanid priests. He went back, therefore, to the source itself of Zoroaster's thought, the Chaldeo-Babylonian beliefs. His thought developed in a framework that was very close to Zoroastrianism. In his final synthesis of a new universal religion, Mānī adopted the moral teaching of Buddhism and some elements from Christian vocabulary. To all this, it was necessary to add an indispensable popular element, namely, a cult. The religion of Mithra was at hand for this purpose. Manichaeism presents itself, accordingly, as a gnosis born at Babylon, the cradle of all the Asiatic gnoseis. A. harnack and W. bousset adopted this hypothesis of Kessler.

The Great Discoveries of the 20th Century. The scientific expeditions of Grünwedel, Huth, A. von Le Coq, Sir Aurel Stein, É. Chavannes, and P. Pelliot, at the beginning of the 20th century, brought from the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan numerous Manichaean writings that were employed by Oriental communities in the 8th century a.d. The texts, written in Arsacid and Sassanid Pahlevi, in Sogdian, in Uighur, and in Chinese, shed full light on the beliefs and cult of the Manichaeans in Asia, which had spread from the center in the kingdom of the Uighurs (a.d. 762840). The manuscripts of Turfan furnish examples of the Manichaean form of writing, which was derived from a Palmyrian alphabet.

The essential texts from Central Asia have been published. The most important documents are: (1) the Khuastuanift (ed. A. von Le Coq), a formulary of confession giving the list of sins against the ten commandments of the Manichaeans and the ceremonies of their confession; (2) a dogmatic treatise in Chinese found at Tuen-Huang (ed. É. Chavannes and P. Pelliot), which is a kind of collection of extracts taken from the various works of Mānī and intended for the instruction of the community; (3) liturgical texts, among them several collections of hymns. F. C. Burkitt, E. Waldschmidt, and W. Lentz have demonstrated the marked Christian influence on these Asiatic Manichaean texts.

In 1930 Egypt made an important contribution through the discovery (made at Medīnēt Mādi, in the Fayum) of a Manichaean library containing about 3,000 leaves in Coptic and dating from the period of St. Augustine. These texts, written on papyrus and bound into codices, have cast a new light on the "Religion of the Book" and on the respect that the sect gave to its sacred texts. The texts were divided between London (Chester Beatty) and Berlin (Carl Schmidt).

These Coptic texts are the most precious sources to date for the knowledge of Manichaeism. The Kephalaia, or capitula, a collection of the utterances of the Master, are presented under the form of discussions between Mānī and his disciples, and they date probably from the first generation. A collection of homilies on the Gospel of Life and an important collection of hymns furnish information on the apostolic life and life of prayer of the Manichaean communities in Egypt. A historical work and a collection of the founder's letters were, unfortunately, in the Berlin group of texts.

The publication of these various texts employed by flourishing Manichaean communities in Asia and Africa, and a comparative study of the patristic and Arabic sources published in the 17th and 18th centuries, have made possible a more exact knowledge of the Religion of Light. The new documents of the 20th century complete and often confirm the data of the earlier sources. They have moved the study of Manichaeism into a new and decisive phase, and from this stage it will help to clarify the history of gnostic movements in the early Christian centuries.

Bibliography: g. bardy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 9 (1927) 184195. h. j. polotsky, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) Suppl. 6 (1935) 240272. c. h. beeson, Die grieschischen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipzig 1905). a. a. moon, The De Natura Boni of St. Augustine (Catholic University of America, Patristic Studies 88; Washington 1955) esp. xivxvi, 841. f. c. burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (Cambridge, Eng. 1925). a. v. williams jackson, Researches in Manichaeism (New York 1932). h. c. puech, Le Manichéisme (Paris 1949). g. widengren, Mani und der Manichäismus (Stuttgart 1961). p. alfaric, Les Écritures manichéennes, 2 v. (Paris 191819). j. ries, "Introduction aux études manichéennes," Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 33 (1957) 453482; 35 (1959) 362409, with bibliography. c. spangenberg, Historia Manichaeorum (Ursel 1578). i. de beausobre, Histoire de Manichée, 2 v. (Amsterdam 173439). f. c. baur, Das manichäische Religionssystem (Göttingen 1831; reprint 1928). g. flÜgel, Mani (Leipzig 1862). k. kessler, Mani (Berlin 1889). h. j. polotsky and a. bÖhlig, Kephalaia I (Stuttgart 1940). a. bÖhlig, Probleme des manichäischen Lehrvortrages (Munich 1953). t. sÄvesÖderbergh, Studies in the Coptic Manichaean Psalmbook (Uppsala 1949). m. bussagh and l. hambis, "Manichaean Art," Encyclopedia of World Art (New York 1959) 9:433443, plates 281287.

[j. ries]


views updated May 08 2018


Manichaeism is a now-extinct religious system characterized by dualism, asceticism, and an acute sense of worldwide mission. It originated in the teaching of Mani (216277 c.e.), a Parthian raised in Mesopotamia in an Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian community known as the Elchasaites. He experienced visions in his youth that made him aware of a pantheistic presence in the world that he felt called upon to help liberate from its suffering. He broke with the Elchasaites (c. 240 c.e.), visited India, and upon his return to Mesopotamia formed his own religious community. He proselytized throughout the Persian Empire, and sent his disciples further afield to India, central Asia, and the Roman Empire. By the time of his death as a prisoner of the Persian king, Mani had succeeded in establishing a well-organized institutional structure that spread and preserved his teachings for a thousand years, despite nearly constant persecution.

Manichaeism arose in a highly cosmopolitan culture, in full awareness of antecedent west Asian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and various pagan and Gnostic sects, as well as the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions of South Asia. According to Manichaean teaching, Mani was the last of a series of divinely inspired prophets that included Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ. These divine messengers were sent periodically to particular regions of the earth to reform the true message from the corruption of time, an idea found also in Islam and the Baha'i faith. Mani brought the latest restatement of truth, and took the novel precaution of committing it to writing himself, rather than trusting his disciples to hand it down correctly. The rich Manichaean literary and artistic tradition is now reduced to fragments discovered in the twentieth century in China and Egypt, precariously supplemented for the modern researcher by polemical accounts from the religion's enemies.


Manichaean doctrine is premised on a material and ethical dualism. The known cosmos is a mixture of two antithetical realms of being, originally separate and eternally incompatible. The realm of light is a wholly good, harmonious universe in which God, the father of greatness, dwells with innumerable light beings, which are one with him in substance and character. The realm of darkness is a wholly evil, chaotic universe dominated by a king of darkness and his female counterpart. At the beginning of time, the realm of darkness perceives and covets the realm of light and attacks it, unaware of the harm that contact with it will bring to itself. The prescient father of greatness fends off this aggression by putting forth a series of emanations to act out a strategy of containment and ultimate reseparation of light and darkness. In the primordial battle, one of these emanations enters into mixture with darkness, constraining it and forestalling a breach of the boundaries of the realm of light. This mythological background explains the evident condition of the known cosmos, in which everything is a mixture of conflicted substances and forces, engaged in a perpetual struggle for mastery. The point of Manichaean instruction is learning to identify oneself with the forces of light and goodness and striving for their ultimate reseparation from entanglement with darkness and evil.

Manichaeism is closer to Zoroastrian dualism than to Gnostic or Platonic varieties in that it avoids a spirit-matter dichotomy. Both light and darkness have material as well as spiritual properties, and even the most subtle forces are usually treated in materialistic terms. Manichaeism also shares with Zoroastrianism an activist mythology and ethic, rejecting the notion of a sinful "fall" of the soul in favor of the idea of a voluntaristic "leap" of the soul in the service of God's purposes. In other details, Manichaeism has greater affinity to Indian thinking, for example in seeing souls not only in human beings, but in all living things, even in rocks and dirt. For the Manichaeans, the soul is a collective entity, a consubstantial emanation of the deity, broken up into individuals only temporarily through mixture with evil. Humans are only one small part of a universal process of struggle and liberation of the world soul. This world soul carries with it all positive properties, such as life, growth, beauty, and brightness, whereas evil contributes to the mixture only death, decay, ugliness, and gloom. Whereas for Zoroastrians the goal is to expel evil from this world, the Manichaeans see this world as unperfectable, a temporary scene of conflict and suffering from which ultimate escape is envisioned. In this respect, Manichaeism has a common outlook with Buddhism and Jainism, as well as the more eschatological and ascetic strains of Christianity.

Based on these ideas, Manichaean practice entailed a rigorous behavioral code, designed to avoid harming the world soul in all things as much as possible, as well as ritual practices intended to aid the process of its liberation. Outbursts of anger, impatience, stupidity, greed, hatred, and violence attest to the mixture of evil with good in the human body. The evil elements must be identified for what they are, repented, resisted, and ultimately overcome by the Manichaean. Due to a number of adventitious factors, individuals have different capacities for this task, and consequently the community is divided into two grades. The first, that of the elect, was made up of those men and women willing and able to take on the most vigorous form of self-discipline, involving celibacy, poverty, and a wandering life preaching the faith. These had the ability to transmute material elements within their bodies, freeing soul fragments from the food brought to them, as well as the potential to achieve liberation at death. Those unable to adopt this life were called auditors, who remained engaged in hearth and home, but supported the elect while striving for advancement in the faith through moral growth and a better rebirth.

Later History

In the seventh century c.e., both the rise of Islam and the arrival of Manichaeism in China brought the religion into contact with new spiritual ideologies. Islam and Manichaeism had little in common doctrinally apart from minor elements of their shared west Asian heritage, which also contributed their common ritual patterns of prayer and fasting. Yet more speculative forms of Sufism and Shiism within Islam certainly drew on Manichaeism for ideas about the soul's affinity to God and transmigration. In China, Manichaean missionaries were able to draw upon, and perhaps help foster, developments within popular religion akin to Manichaean concepts. In Taoism, these included dualistic categorization of the cosmos and physiological alchemy, while in Buddhism they involved the ideas of a Pure Land (a realm of light and harmony as a goal of liberation from this world) and of Buddha Nature (an inherently pure nature in all things).

Manichaeism enjoyed a renaissance in west Asia under the tolerant Umayyad regime (661750 c.e.), while the conversion and sponsorship of the Uygur Empire and its successor states in central Asia (c. 7601100 c.e.) afforded secure conditions there, as well as within China, over which the Uygurs exerted strong political influence for a time. Such respites were short-lived. When public existence became untenable, Manichaeans found it convenient to take on the guise of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Taoists, while maintaining their distinct doctrines and practices in secret. The suspicion of secret Manichaeans within these other religions probably far exceeded their actual number, duration, or influence. But it is possible that lingering traces of Manichaean ideas and practices in popular religion contributed to sectarian developments within Christianity, such as the Cathars of Italy and France and the Bogomils of the Balkans, as well as within Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism. Nevertheless, the institutional structures and distinct identity of Manichaeism gradually eroded under relentless persecution, until the last remnant communities dissolved in southern China sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.

See also Asceticism ; Christianity ; Dualism ; Evil ; Good ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Jainism .


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

Gardner, Iain, ed. The Kephalaia of the Teacher: The Edited Coptic Manichaean Texts in Translation with Commentary. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

Koenen, Ludwig, and Cornelia Römer. Der Kölner Mani-Kodex: Über das Werden seines Leibes. Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher, 1988.

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

Ries, Julien. Les études manichéennes: Des controverses de la Réforme aux découvertes du XXième siècle. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Centre d'histoire des religions, 1988.

Sundermann, Werner. Der Sermon von der Seele (Berliner Turfantexte XIX). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1997.

Jason David BeDuhn


views updated Jun 27 2018


The dualism preached by the Iranian prophet Mani (lived 216–277 ce) was one of spirit (Greek: pneuma, Latin: spiritus), equated to light, versus matter (Greek: hyle, Latin: corpus), equated to darkness. Good was thought to be inherent in spirit and light; evil was believed to be inseparable from matter and darkness. Mani drew upon Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Hindu, and Buddhist doctrines, literature, and rituals to create a syncretistic faith that was intended to be open to followers of all social, economic, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and devotional backgrounds.

Originally preached in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) and Iran, it was spread by male and female missionaries to Egypt and North Africa, to the Roman Empire, to Central Asia, and to China. Manichaeism flourished in Egypt and North Africa into the sixth century ce before being eclipsed by Christianity, but nonetheless influenced dualist Christian heresies such as the Bogomils of the Balkans from the tenth through thirteenth centuries and the Cathars (also known as the Albigensi) of Western Europe (especially Provence) in the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Manichaeism became the religion of the Uighur state in Central Asia from 762–840. It continued to be practiced by Central Asians of Iranian and Turkic backgrounds, especially in monasteries along the Tarim Basin, until the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. The religion was recognized officially in China from 732 until 863 and continued to have a following there into the fourteenth century.


Distinct in both origin and essence, according to Manichaean cosmogony, spirit and matter or light and darkness became mixed in the world through a sequence of violent events set into motion by the devil, or Evil Spirit, known as Ahriman, who left his residence in the material hell of darkness to attack the spiritual heaven of light. Salvation was thought to occur, at the end of time, through the final reseparation of the good spirit, or light, from evil matter, or darkness. The realm of light was supposed to be ruled by a god known as the Father of Greatness, or Pid i Wuzurgih (known in Latin as Benignus Pater); he is also known as the Father of Light, or Pidar Roshn and as Time, or Zurwan. So, for Manichaeans, the primordial universe was divided between two masculine spirits, equally powerful but diametrically opposed to each other. The Father of Greatness had as his consort the Holy Spirit, or Wakhsh Yojdahr, a female entity about whom few details has survived. The Father of Greatness was surrounded by his twelve sons, the Aeons, in the spiritual heaven of light. The Evil Spirit, who was both the personification and prime manifestation of matter, dwelt in hell with a host of demons and demonesses.

As his first act of creation, it is believed that the Father of Greatness evoked the Mother of Life, or Madar Zindagan, also known as the Mother of the Righteous, or Ardawan Mad. She, with aid from the Father of Greatness, then created through divine words a spiritual son known as the First Man. In Iranian sources the First Man was referred to as Ohrmizd—drawing upon Zoroastrian belief in a god (Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd) by the same name—and, by extension, his mother was referred to as the Mother of the God Ohrmizd. The First Man was overwhelmed by the forces of darkness in battle, was imprisoned by Ahriman in hell, but succeeded in calling to his mother for help. The Mother of Life turned to the Father of Greatness for her son's salvation. The maternal image of intercession and assistance became a powerful indicator to female devotees of an important religious role within the community and within their own families. The Mother of Life, like the Father of Greatness, did not, however, create the First Man—and other divinities male and female—through a physical or sexual process. Her creations, like those of the Father of Greatness, supposedly were evoked or summoned forth in absolute chastity and purity—that is, creation by divine word rather than actions, from piety rather than sexuality. As such, she would have been a powerful image to the Elect or clerical members of Manichaean congregations, men and women for whom the third religious seal and one of the five religious commandments—complete abstinence from sex, marriage, and procreation—was prescribed as a prerequisite for salvation. Influence of the emerging veneration of Mary the Mother of Jesus in Christianity should not be overlooked when assessing the rise of the Manichaean Mother of Life as an ideal, even stereotypical, model each female votary was supposed to emulate to achieve salvation of her spirit from her material body.

In stark contrast to the Mother of Life stood the demonic female spirit Az or Concupiscence. Az was feared as the diabolic feminine manifestation of insatiable lust and avarice. Az was coupled with the Evil Spirit and other ghouls in phrases such as "Concupiscence, the Evil Spirit, the demons, witches, demons of wrath, giants, and archfiends" (Manichaean Middle Persian or Parthian Text 487 b I). This demoness was deemed, by Manichaean doctrine, to have produced male and female human bodies as well as sexual intercourse to serve as material prisons for the spirit or light of god—traps that were multiplied across the world and through time through sex and childbirth. She had "to be cast off" by members of both strata of the Manichaean community; Hearers, or laypersons; and Elect, or clerics, for their spirits to escape the material confines of their bodies and return to the realm of light (M 505a). At the end of time Manichaeans hoped Az would be defeated and bound with her paramour Ahriman in an eternal prison. Devotees were told that Az was assisted in her quest to enslave the divine spirit present within human bodies by desire, hunger, thirst, pain, disease, famine, and torment, much like her Zoroastrian demonic counterpart. Az's direct evil connection to women was established by scriptural passages in which it was claimed that Concupiscence modeled the first mortal woman's physical form as a parody on the spiritual image of a benevolent female divinity called Kanag Roshn, or Maiden of Light. Menstruation, because it was associated with the reproductive cycle, was said to have been generated by Az in women as a form of "filth of the female demons" specifically for polluting women and transmitting impurity to men so that they would not be ritually pure for religious duties (Sogdian Text 9 R II).


All members of Manichaean communities were enjoined "to fight lust and evil" by focusing on the spiritual realm rather than the corporeal one (M 49 II). Manichaean communities followed a sectarian social order composed of Hearers, or auditors whose ranks included all individuals who performed secular occupations, and Elect, or clergy whose ranks included elders, bishops, and religious teachers. Men and women could belong to both segments and all ranks within each community.

Manichaeans, owing to the dark corporeality ascribed to Ahriman and the lewd insatiability ascribed to Az, viewed procreation as a means whereby the spirit from god was entrapped in each human's body and polluted through physical impurities. Therefore, they despised the human body as "a prison" (S 9 R ii 30). Manichaean theologians seeking to ensure every portion of divine spirit or light could be saved were compelled to conclude, despite the close connect they perceived between Az and women through sexuality and menstruation, that the spirit trapped within female bodies could be salvaged when women cast off their material desires or affiliation with Az, became members of the Elect, and sought salvation beyond matter and darkness. Hymn cycles often were cast in the style of praise uttered by the souls of nuns gazing down upon the corpses and mortal desires they had abandoned at death. So, although still only Hearers, women were instructed to serve the community and restrain their sexual desire and greed—thereby ensuring that they presented no danger and temptation through thoughts, words, deeds, and physical form to the male members of the Elect. Such circumspect behavior, it was thought, would result in those women or "sisters perfecting themselves with fulfillment" so that they could become "holy virgins" as the female Elect or clerics were called (M 36).

Given such negative perceptions of the feminine as a major source of lust and greed, it is hardly surprising that all members of the Elect, both men and women, were expected to remain chaste. Elect individuals were expected to practice celibacy, monasticism, and proselytism because they had "abjured the whole world," including secular careers and pleasures (M 8251 I). The residences of those clerics were monasteries, their family included other bearers of faith, or Dendaran, and each individual cleric depended on "a hearer who brings alms" (M 221). Lay persons or hearers, called Niyoshagan, could live within family units but were encouraged to disavow that social arrangement in favor of an austere life focusing on the spirit. Hearers were urged to renounce sexual intercourse if at all possible so as to separate themselves from sin. However, the clergy recognized that sexuality and women were required for the bearing of children so souls yet in metempsychosis could be redeemed. Hence, sexual intercourse was permitted among the laity or Hearers, who could marry and have children. Yet, as a token of faith, they too were required to abstain from all material acts, including sex, for 1 day each week.

Manichaean women were expected to be particularly cautious not to spread ritual pollution to the community while menstruating nor to sexually arouse men by their appearances and actions. The best women were said to be "holy virgin sisters," or elect women (M 801). The worst women, like their male auditor counterparts, were those who could not obey the injunction to "keep away from lewdness and fornication" (M 49 I). Consequently, physical beauty was not accorded praise by Manichaeans, whereas temperate behavior was extolled. Ultimately, the purpose of life was supposed to center around the need to liberate—through abstinence, celibacy, purification, and attaining of mystical religious knowledge or gnosis—the spirit or light trapped by the evil spirit, Ahriman, within the darkness of matter and passed through cycles of human birth by the demoness Az.


Asmussen, Jes P. 1975. Manichaean Literature. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints.

BeDuhn, Jason D. 2000. The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. 2001. "Dualism of the Feminine in Manichaeism: The Mother of Life and the Demoness of Concupiscence" In Third International Congress Proceedings. Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 1985 "The Manichaean Commandments: A Survey of the Sources." In Acta Iranica, vol 25: Papers in Honor of Professor Mary Boyce, ed. A. D. H. Bivar and J. R. Hinnels. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

                                      Jamsheed K. Choksy


views updated May 17 2018

Manichaeism. Religion founded by Mani in 3rd-cent. Iran and later very widely established.

Mani was born in 216 near Seleucia-Ktesiphon, the Iranian capital. At the age of 12 he had his first vision of his heavenly twin (identified later with the Paraclete), who instructed him. Thereafter he disputed with the community, and after a second vision, calling him to be an ‘apostle’, he separated from them, with his father and two disciples, sometime after the age of 25. Mani's later life is not well known. After preaching in India he returned to Iran c.242 where his patron was the new Sassanid ruler Shapur I. His religion prospered until the accession of Bahram I (274–7), who at the instigation of Kartir imprisoned and executed him in 276.

Although suppressed in Persia, Manichaeism spread west and east. In central Asia it had more lasting success, even being made the state religion of the Turkish Uigur Empire in 762. It also reached China in 694 where, known as the ‘religion of light’, it seems to have persisted, in spite of official opposition at various periods, almost down to modern times.

Mani's teaching was fundamentally gnostic and dualistic, positing an opposition between God and matter. There was an elaborate cosmological myth: this included the defeat of a primal man by the powers of darkness, who devoured and thus imprisoned particles of light. The cosmic process of salvation goes on as the light is delivered back to its original state. Saving knowledge of this process comes through ‘apostles of light’, among whom Mani, a self-conscious syncretist, included various biblical figures, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus. He himself was the final one.

The Manichaean ‘church’ was divided into the ‘elect’ (or ‘righteous’) and ‘auditors’ (‘hearers’). The burden of Manichaean ethics, to do nothing to impede the reassembly of particles of light, was on the elect. Obviously the elect, not even able to harvest their own vegetables, could only survive with the support of the auditors. These could apparently lead quite unrestricted lives. The calendar contained one major festival, the Bema feast on the anniversary of Mani's ‘passion’. Fasting was enjoined on two days each week, plus a whole month before the Bema feast.


views updated May 29 2018


MANICHAEISM , a system of religious beliefs and doctrines named after Mani or Manes (c. 215–275), who lived and taught in Persia. In his youth he seems to have associated with Jewish-Christian (Elchasaite) sectarians. Manes was put to death for his heretical doctrines, but his teachings spread from the Middle East to Rome and to North Africa where they had numerous adherents in the fourth century. Manichaean documents have also been found in Chinese Turkestan. A curious mixture of diverse gnostic, Persian-Zoroastrian, and other dualistic doctrines (see *Dualism), Manichaeism preached a severe asceticism, including vegetarianism, and survived in small and often clandestine sects into the Middle Ages.

Several heretical movements in medieval Christianity are thought to have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Manichaean sects. Manichaean doctrines seem to have been very influential also during the first centuries of Islam, as witnessed by the anti-dualistic polemics of orthodox apologists and theologians. Dualistic attacks on traditional teachings appear in the ninth and tenth centuries and had to be countered by a polemic reminiscent in some ways of the early rabbinic polemic against gnostic dualism (shetei rashuyyot). Saadiah argues against dualism both in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions and in his polemical tract against Ḥiwi al-Balkhi. The dualism, however, which he attacked was not just of the Zoroastrian type but seems to have been indebted to contemporary Manichaeism.


G. Widengren, Mani and Manichaeism (1965); J. Darmesteter, in: rej, 28 (1889), 1–15; H. Puech, Le Manichéisme (1949).

[R.J. Zwi Werblowsky]


views updated May 23 2018

Manichaeism Religious teaching of the Persian prophet Mani (c.216–c.276) based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. The Manichaean sect, influenced by Zoroastrianism and Christianity, spread rapidly to Egypt and Rome, where it was considered a Christian heresy, and eastward to Chinese Turkestan, where it survived probably until the 13th century.


views updated May 18 2018


views updated May 23 2018

Manichaeism a dualistic religious system with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements, founded in Persia in the 3rd century by Manes (c.216–c.276). The system was based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. It spread widely in the Roman Empire and in Asia, and survived in Chinese Turkestan until the 13th century.