The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Manichaeism
(216 - 276 CE)
By T. Apiryon
Also known as Mani or Manichaeus; Iranian philosopher and religious teacher, founder of the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism. Crowley's placement of Mani in this position is curious. Mani was a later teacher than Basilides, Valentinus and Bardesanes. Also, whereas these teachers considered themselves Christians, Mani was the founder of an entirely new religion, which claimed to be the culmination of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism. The reader who is unfamiliar with Gnosticism may benefit by reading the sections on Basilides, Valentinus and Bardesanes before proceeding with Mani.
Mani's Persian name was Shuriak, or Cubricus in Latin. He was born in southern Babylonia of noble Persian stock. His father, Patak, was from Ekbatana, and was a religious leader of a Jewish-Christian baptizing sect called the Mughtasilah, founded by a prophet known as Elchasai, and it was within the religious framework of this sect, and under the careful tutelage of his father, that Mani was raised. When he was twelve years old, he experienced a vision in which an Angel named At-Taum, "The Twin," instructed him to withdraw from the Mughtasilah and begin to purify himself with ascetic practices. The Angel returned to Shuriak the young man, and this second time, called upon him to preach a new religion.
In 242 e.v., he proclaimed a new, universal religion at the Persian court of Shapur I, proclaiming himself to be Mani, "The Vessel," the prophesied Paraclete, the divine helper of mankind, and the last of the great prophets. In his new religion, he consciously sought to reconcile the great religions of redemption, Christianity (Gnostic), Zoroastrianism (Zurvanite) and Buddhism (Mahâyâna), in a new Syncretism which also incorporated elements of Greek philosophy and Indian Jainism; while refuting patriarchal Judaism. He was not, at first, well received, and was forced to flee the country. He travelled to Trans-Oxiana (modern Uzbekistan), India and Western China, making converts wherever he went. He intended that his religion be a world-religion, in fact the first world-religion, and he consciously adapted his teaching to accommodate local beliefs and customs. He was regarded by his Christian adherents as the Paraclete, by his Persian followers as the Zoroastrian redeemer Saoshyant, and by his Buddhist disciples as the Avatar Maitreya.
In addition to an extensive body of anti-Manichaean literature in many languages, Mani and Manichaeism have themselves left us numerous texts in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Middle Iranian, Uighur, and Chinese. Manichaeism is, therefore, relatively well understood today. Among the extant Manichaean sacred texts are: The Living Gospel; The Treasure of Life; the Pragmateia; the Book of Mysteries; the Epistles; The Book of Giants; and Psalms and Prayers. These books were, at least in part, considered to have been inspired by Mani's Angel, At-Taum. There is also the Shahburagan, a summary of the Manichaean teachings prepared for Shapur I; the Ardahang, a picture-book illustrating Mani's view of the world; and the Kephalaia, a collection of the sayings of Mani.
Mani eventually returned to Persia, where his following had greatly increased. This time, he was favorably received by Shapur and by his successor, Hormisdas I. He was allowed to preach freely, and was even given a city in Khuzistan for his residence. He finally fell victim to the established Zoroastrian priesthood during the reign of Bahram I, the successor of Hormisdas. He was arrested at Gundev Shapur in 276 e.v. and thrown into prison in chains, where he died after 26 days. His corpse was flayed, and his skin was stuffed with straw and nailed to the gate of the city. His Persian followers were then subjected to severe persecution, but Manichaeism outside Persia flourished. Records show the Manichaean religion to have spread to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Dalmatia, Rome, Spain, Southern Gaul, Trans-Oxiana, Turkestan, India, China and even Tibet.
In the doctrine of Manichaeism, "The Teaching of Light" as it was called, the Universe was originally divided between two eternal, uncreated, and utterly irreconcilable principles: Light and Darkness. The Realm of Light was located in the North, tended upwards, and extended infinitely to the North, East and West. It was ruled by the Father of Greatness (identified with Zurvan in Persia), and was manifested as five "worlds": Nous (Mind), Ennoia (Thought), Phronêsis (Prudence), Enthymêsis (Reflection), and Logismos (Reason); which are surrounded by a great number of Aions. Twelve of these Aions, the "first-born," surround the Father, three to each quarter of the Heavens.
The Realm of Darkness (Hylê) was located in the South, tended downwards and extended infinitely only to the South. It was ruled by the Prince of Darkness, and was also manifested as five "worlds": smoke, fire, storm, mud and darkness. From each of these five worlds grew a tree, and from the Five Trees came the five species of demons. The demons were divided into two sexes, and their existence was characterized by constant warfare and procreation. Each world of Darkness was ruled by an Archon: a Demon, a Lion, an Eagle, a Fish and a Dragon. The Prince of Darkness combined within himself the attributes of all five Archons.
Due to its inherent restlessness, the Realm of Darkness was always approaching the borders of the Realm of Light and contending with its forces. Once, a chance shift in the battles within Darkness elevated the Prince of Darkness to the highest point of his realm, where he beheld the Light, and the magnificence of the Realm of Light bred in him the desire to possess it. He resolved to make war on the Realm of Light with his demons.
The Father of Greatness saw that it was necessary to meet the challenge of the forces of Darkness. But his Aeons were meant for peace, and they could not be sent to do battle with the demons; so the Father resolved to go to battle himself. To do this, He called forth three Evocations from Himself.
In the First Evocation, the Father called forth the "Great Spirit" or "Wisdom" (Sophia). The Great Spirit projected the "Mother of the Living," and the Mother of the Living projected the "First Man" (identified with Ohrmazd in Persia). The First Man, with his five sons, fire, wind, water, light and ether who composed his Soul and were also the "five garments of Light" which made up his armor, descended into the Realm of Darkness to do battle with the invading demons.
While battling the Demons in the Realm of Darkness, the First Man managed to sever the roots of the Five Trees of Darkness, thus preventing the further growth of evil. However, the demons eventually overwhelmed him. He sacrificed his Soul, composed of his five sons who were his five garments, to the swarming demons. The demons devoured his sons, his Soul, and left him lying unconscious on the battlefield.
Light, the substance of the Soul of the First Man, was thus engulfed by the Darkness of matter. Over time, this Light was poisoned by matter, and lost consciousness of its nature; but also matter was poisoned by the Light, and gradually became utterly dependent upon it for survival.
Eventually recovering consciousness, the First Man stirred himself on the battlefield and prayed seven times for help to the Father of Greatness. The Father heard his prayer, and responded by initiating the Second Evocation of Himself, in which He called forth "The Friend of the Lights," who called forth "Great Architect" who called forth the "Living Spirit" (identified with Mithra in Persia). The Living Spirit called forth five sons: "Bearer of Brightness," "King of Honor," "Adamas of Light," "King of Glory," and "the Supporter" (Atlas), who descended into Darkness to find the First Man.
The Living Spirit then sent out an awakening Call to the First Man below. The Call, together with the First Man's Answer, arose from the depths into the Realm of Light. The Living Spirit accepted the Call and donned it as a cloak; and the Mother of the Living accepted the Answer, and donned it as a cloak. The Living Spirit and the Mother of the Living then went down into the Realm of Darkness where the First Man and his sons were. "Call" and "Answer" together became personified as a divinity named "Reflection of Life" or the "Great Idea."
Encountering the First Man, the Living Spirit stretched forth his right hand to him, lifted him up from the Darkness, and led him back to the Light; but the Soul of the First Man, the particles of Light from his five sons, remained behind, submerged in Darkness, awaiting redemption. Reflection of Life strengthened the desire of the lost particles of Light for their Home in the North.
The Living Spirit then returned to the Realm of Darkness and made war upon the demons. He created the World from their bodies and the Light imprisoned therein. From their bodies he fashioned the eight earths, from their skins the ten heavens. He fastened the five Archons, living, in the firmament. He divided the Light which was within the Realm of Darkness into three parts, according to its degree of mixture with matter. From the remaining undefiled Light he created the sun and moon, from the remaining Light which had been slightly defiled he created the stars. He created three great Wheels for the redemption of that Light which was retained by matter: the Wheel of Fire, the Wheel of Water, and the Wheel of Wind; all under the control of the King of Glory. Bearer of Brightness was set to hold up the ten heavens, and Supporter was stationed to hold up the three upper earths. The Living Spirit had created the World as a vast mechanism for the Redemption of the Light-- all that remained was for the mechanism to be set in motion, a task to be accomplished by the Third Evocation.
At the entreaty of the Mother of the Living, the First Man and the Living Spirit, the Father of Greatness called forth the Third Evocation. The principle figure of the Third Evocation was the "Third Envoy," or the "God of the Realm of Light," who dwelt within the sun. The Third Envoy was of both male and female aspect, and engendered twelve daughters, the Maidens of Light, who represent the Zodiac.
Before the great universal machine could be set in motion, the Third Envoy had to create a pathway to the Realm of Light. This he did in the form of the "Pillar of Glory" or "Column of Light," also called the "Perfect Man." The Pillar of Glory can be seen in the night sky as the Milky Way. When the universal machine was set in motion, the purified particles of Light would ascend via the Pillar of Glory to the moon during the first fifteen days of each month. When the moon became full, it would empty its collected Light into the sun during the final fifteen days of each month, whence the redeemed Light would pass on to a place called the "New Aeon"-- a place designed by the Great Architect and ruled by the First Man. The New Aeon was consubstantial with the Realm of Light, but would remain apart from it until the Last Day.
Upon completion of the Pillar of Glory, the Third Envoy set the sun and moon and the Three Wheels of Fire, Water and Wind in motion. It was then necessary to deprive the Archons, suspended in the sky by the Living Spirit, of the Light they had consumed. To accomplish this task, the Third Envoy revealed his/her male and female aspects naked to the Archons. The male Archons, beholding the nakedness of the female aspect of the Third Envoy, the Virgin of Light, ejaculated. Their seed fell to earth, and with it the Light they had swallowed. A portion of their seed fell on the water, and became a huge sea monster which Adamas of Light attacked and defeated. The portion of the seed that fell on land became the five types of vegetable life. The female Archons, sickened by the turning of the wheel of the zodiac to which they were bound, aborted the embryos they carried as a result of their unions in Darkness. The abortions fell to earth and became demons which began to devour the plants and procreate, thereby producing the five types of animal life. Through the changing of the seasons and the cycle of life, the process of the redemption of the Light had been initiated.
The Prince of Darkness beheld the beginning of the process of Redemption, and feared the final loss of the particles of Light. In order to bind the Particles of Light to itself more closely, Darkness conceived of an Averse Creation. It conjured two demons, the male Asaqlun or Saklas and the female Nebroel or Namrael to devour the offspring of the other abortions, absorbing and concentrating their Light; they were then to unite and produce two children in the male/female image of the Third Envoy.
The Light collected by the two demons by devouring the other demons was passed on to their two children as the Soul, and the two children were named Adam and Eve. Imprisoned along with the Soul of Light in the demon-born bodies of the first human pair is the Dark Spirit, Az, composed of lust and greed, who was placed there by Darkness to ensure that the Light would continue to remain imprisoned in matter.
In a counter-maneuver, the Third Envoy called forth Yiso Ziva, "Jesus the Radiant" or "the Shining" to awaken Adam and enlighten him with respect to the divine origin of the Soul, and its imprisonment in the body. Jesus the Radiant took on material form, crucifying himself on the cross of matter, to confront Adam. Enlightened, Adam resolved upon chastity, renouncing the prolongation of suffering which was procreation. Eve, however, was seduced by a demon, and bore to the demon two children, Cain and Abel. The continued bondage of a portion of the Light was thus assured, and its ultimate redemption was considered the responsibility of Humankind.
To assist Humankind in its Work towards Redemption, Jesus the Radiant called forth the "Mind of Light," the Father of All Apostles (the Holy Spirit), to send prophets who would bring the Gnosis to the people and show them the Way to Redemption. The Mind of Light caused Adam and Eve to unite one time to bring forth the first such prophet, whose name was Seth. Later prophets were Noah, Shem, Abraham, Enosh, Nikotheos, Enoch, Buddha, Aurentes, Zoroaster, Jesus (whose crucifixion was the resolution of the earlier crucifixion of Jesus the Radiant on the cross of matter), Paul, and, finally, Mani, who was the "Seal of the Prophets."
With the Gnosis comes the will to redemption, and the Gnosis enables the Soul to withstand evil by clothing it in the five virtues of Love, Faith (or Law), Perfection, Patience and Wisdom. Religion is the weapon of the Gnosis in striving to keep the Soul awake and resolute against the attacks of Darkness which cause forgetfulness. When the individual dies, the body descends to Darkness. The Soul, if awakened, ascends the Column of Light to the moon, thence to the sun, and thence to the New Aeon. If asleep, the soul is reincarnated on earth.
The Last Day, the end of the World, will occur when the deliverance of the Light is nearly complete, and the World, being deprived of most of its Light, is in a degenerate state of materialism. The Last Day will be signaled by a great war, followed by the second coming of Jesus. Jesus will separate the remaining awakened souls from those remaining asleep, then withdraw himself with the last awakened souls to the New Aeon. Bearer of Brightness and Supporter will abandon their posts, and the great mechanism of the World, now useless, will collapse upon itself in a great fire which will burn for 1468 years, liberating the last remaining particles of Light from matter. These particles will gather together to form the "Last Man," or the "Last Statue," and ascend to the New Aeon. Darkness will collapse into a lifeless clod, which will be cast into the pit that was once its realm, and the pit will be sealed with an enormous stone. Having been deprived of the Light upon which it had become dependent, it will be powerless to ever again attack the Realm of Light. Finally, the New Aeon will be united with the Realm of Light, and the restoration of the Light will be complete.
The Manichaean Church had the task of caring for the Light that remained in the world, protecting it from injury, and attempting to purify it and lead it on to the path of deliverance. The means of accomplishing this task was strict ascetism, the reduction of all relations of life to a minimum.
In practice, such rigid ascetism can only be accomplished by a few; thus, the Manichaean community was divided into two distinct groups: the Electi, or "Perfect," who adhered to a rigid ascetism and who formed the real core of the Church, and the Auditores, or "Hearers," who gathered around the Elect to hear their teachings and to obtain merit by serving them. The church hierarchy, recruited only from the Elect, consisted of Mani's successor, the Head of the Church, called the Archêgos or Princeps, twelve master teachers called Magistri, 72 Bishops or Deacons, and 360 Presbyters or Elders. Women could become Elect but not officers.
The Elect were bound by the Three Seals: of the Mouth; of the Hand; and the Genitals. These Seals required them to abstain totally from meat and wine, lying and hypocrisy, work, sexual intercourse, ill-treatment of animals and plants, pollution of water, and the owning of personal property. They were allowed one vegetarian meal per day, and were required to fast every Monday and for two successive days five times each year. They were dedicated to contemplation, study and the translation of religious writings (the Manichaeans had developed their own script), and were enjoined to pray, by the singing of hymns facing the sun or moon, seven times each day. By adherence to this strict regimen, the Elect expected to achieve deliverance for their Souls at death.
Such a life could obviously not be led without external support, which was provided by the Hearers. The guilt incurred by the Hearers in performing the work necessary to support the Elect was absolved by the Elect, but nevertheless resulted in a delay of the deliverance of the Souls of the Hearers by a period of one or more incarnations. The Hearers were expected only to live by ten commandments: 1. to take but one spouse; 2. not to fornicate; 3. not to lie; 4. not to be hypocritical; 5. not to worship idols; 6. not to practice magic; 7. not to kill animals (though they were allowed to eat meat from animals killed by others); 8. not to steal; 9. not to doubt their faith; and 10. not to neglect their duties to care for the Elect. Four prayers per day were prescribed for the Hearers. They were expected to fast every Sunday. Once each year, for 30 days, they were expected to eat only one meal per day along with the Elect. Before his conversion to Christianity, Saint Augustine was a Manichaean Hearer for nine years. He later advocated the wholesale burning of all their books, regardless of their beauty.
The restrictions on ownership of personal property, although applicable to the individual Elect, did not extend to the Manichaean community as such. The accumulation of communal property was permitted, and many communities accumulated considerable wealth through money lending.
The Manichaeans rejected the Eucharist and most of the Christian sacraments, replacing them with their own ceremonies of prayer, recitation and reading of scriptures, music, singing, fasting and feasting, and weekly confession. The central ritual of the community was the Table-- the daily common meal-- in which the Hearers would ritually serve, and the Elect would ritually consume, such foods as were to considered to possess a high content of Light, such as cucumbers, melons, wheat bread and fruit juice. The Light would be absorbed into the bodies of the Elect, there to be retained until their deaths, when it would be delivered up the Column of Light with their souls. The Light contained within animals was considered to be too closely bound to matter for liberation through digestion.
The Manichaeans also celebrated the annual feast of the Bema, or the Master's Chair, each Spring. The Bema was a commemoration of Mani's death, and was the culmination of the 30 day fast enjoined on the Hearers.
Manichaeism ultimately failed in Europe and the Middle East by its inability to compete with Islam and Christianity. The rival faiths offered much easier paths to understand and to follow, were far more ruthless in their campaigns of conversion, and, unlike Manichaeism, threatened an afterlife of eternal torture for unbelievers. Perhaps even more significantly, both Muslims and Christians were allowed to become wealthy; which assured the support of the nobility and the merchant class.
Manichaeism continued to flourish in the barren plains of Central Asia, where it became centered at the city of Turfan in what is now northwest China. It even became the state religion of the short-lived Uighur Empire, until it was wiped out in the 13th century e.v. by the Mongol invasions. It survived in Southern China as the "Religion of the Venerable Light" until the 17th century e.v.
Even after its official demise in Europe in the 6th century e.v., a number of similar Christian sects arose from its ashes, persisting until well into the Middle Ages. The most important of these sects were the Bogomils of Bulgaria and the Cathars or Albigenses of the Languedoc region of Southern France. While these later sects were "Manichaean" only in the sense that they shared certain concepts and practices with the old followers of Mani, they were, nevertheless, as vigorously persecuted by the political-religious power structure as were the Manichaeans.
The Cathars were highly successful from about 1150
e.v. to 1209 e.v., and
helped to turn the Languedoc into a prosperous medieval center of learning and
culture-- the birthplace of the troubadours-- where Christian (Cathar), Jewish
and Islamic scholars freely intermingled and discoursed upon theology,
philosophy and science. The Cathars were probably highly influential in the
development of the traditions of the Holy Graal, and may also have influenced
the Knights Templar. Some scholars believe that what we know today as the Hebrew
Qabala was codified in the spiritual melting-pot of Southern France and Spain
during these times. Pope Innocent III proclaimed what came to be known as the
Albigensian Crusade against the "dangerous Cathar heretics" in 1209
e.v. During the 40 years of this infamous horror, many thousands of men, women
and children were brutally slaughtered and their cities pillaged; and the
Languedoc was reduced to rubble and barbarism.
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