cais1.gif (153930 bytes)

CAIS Persian Text.gif (34162 bytes)


The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

 Persian Section.PNG (9914 bytes)


About CAIS


Daily News

News Archive


CAIS Seminars

Image Library





Contact Us


Facebook-Button.jpg (107165 bytes)

Iranian Religions: Manichaeism

An Introduction to Manichaeism


By Prof. Mary Boyce

Extracted & Edited from:

"A reader in Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian"



Abstract: Manichaeism is a Gnostic religion that originated in Persian-Babylonia in the 3d century AD. Its founder was a Persian of noble descent called Mani (or Manes), c.216-c.276. Manichaeism was long treated as a Christian heresy, but it is more clearly understood as an independent religion, drawing on the diverse resources of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.




Manichaeanism_text1_CAIS.jpg (128636 bytes)

Manichaeanism_text_CAIS.jpg (139103 bytes)

Manichaeanism_text3_CAIS.jpg (66806 bytes)

  Number of Manichaean folio written in Pahlavi (Click to enlarge)


The Sasanian dynasty ruled over Iranian world for more than four centuries (224-651 CE) to all outward appearance with great splendour and glory. Yet when the Sasanian Empire came to grips with the desert Arabs, inspired with the new faith, the whole of this vast and splendid fabric crumbled to pieces within a short time. There was something essentially wrong in the body-politic of Iran from the very commencement of Sasanian rule.

Hidden underneath the outward splendour and the vast military achievements of the Sasanians there lurked the germs of decay. All through the four centuries of Sasanian rule Zoroastrianism continued to be the "official state religion", but historians have also spoken of several "heretical sects". Apparently these were suppressed, but "we lack here the material necessary for forming a judgment because the triumph of the orthodox doctrine doomed to oblivion most of the views that deviated from it". In spite of this outward triumph of Zoroastrian orthodoxy, the fact remains that quite a number of "heresies" were formulated from time to time and two of them actually found a very considerable response among the masses. One such heresy was promulgated by Mani at the very beginning of the Sasanian era and another was the "heresy" preached by Mazdak almost at the end of the rule of the Sasanians. "It may be suggested that the simple fact of the existence of such heretical movements as Manichaeanism and Mazdakism is an indication of the presence of those germs of decay which foreshadowed the final downfall of the national faith in Persia".

The Sasanian Dynasty was established by Ardashir Papakan of the house of Sasan in the year 226 CE Ardashir headed the national revolt against the fratricidal struggles and the irreligious misrule of the Arsacid (Parthian) rulers of Iran. The Arsacid rulers were Zoroastrians in name, but they thought more Arsacid rulers were Zoroastrians in name, but they thought more of their own power and position than of their country of their religion. Politically the nation had suffered in the eyes of all the world, for the national capital had been taken and sacked by the Romans no less than three times within the course of one hundred years. Added to this shame were the "irreligious" and unorthodox ways of the Arsacid rulers, which gave mortal offence to Ardashir and his zealous followers. Ardashir headed the national movement against the Arsacids, who, the people believed, had led the country to the brink of utter ruin. The province of Pars (Persis) over which Ardashir had been ruling was the centre and rallying point of whatever was left alive of the ancient Zoroastrian Faith. Ardashir and his followers believed that it was only by the restoration of the ancient religion that a stable rule could be established and the people made content. Fired by this enthusiasm Ardashir led the double movement for the restoration of the ancient Faith of Zoroaster and for the establishment of the pure Aryan form of government in the land. Ardashir himself was a priest, and his priesthood had been inherited from a long line of ancestors. The whole nation rose to his call, and Ardashir was wholly successful in both his objects. And when he died in 242 CE he left his newly founded empire to his son Shapur I. And whit it he left the following "testament" for his son to follow:

"When monarchs honour
"The Faith then it and royalty are brothers,
"For they are mingled so that thou wouldst say:-
"'They wear one cloak'. The Faith endureth not
"Without the throne nor can kingship stand
"Without the faith; two pieces of brocade
"Are they all interwined set up
"Before the wise....
"Each needeth other, and we see the pair
"United in beneficence".


Believing in this Ardashir had established a full-fledged theocracy in Iran. Himself a priest he followed strictly all the complicated ceremonial prescribed by his Faith, and like an enthusiastic and sincere believer he built up his empire upon the solid foundations of religion. This is clearly depicted on his coins, as also on all the coins minted throughout the Sasanian period. On the reverse of each coin we see a fire-altar flanked on either side by a human figure fully armed. One of these represented royalty, the secular power; and the other represented the Dasturan-Dastur (the High-Priest of the Empire), representing spiritual might. These are the "two brothers".


In this theocratic state established by Ardashir I there lurked already concealed the germs of decay. Such a theocratic constitution would naturally give special weight to the priesthood of one particular religion, and give special importance to one particular set of beliefs and dogmas. The Achaemenians had ruled over an empire much more extensive than that of the Sasanians, but their religious policy had been throughout one of tolerance toward all the various faiths of their subjects. The Sasanians, on the other hand, sought to achieve solidarity and unity through uniformity of belief (at least for the majority of their subjects) and in definitely assigning a higher position in the state to one particular Faith and to one set of religious practices and dogmas. This favoured position granted to Zoroastrianism naturally led the Zoroastrian clergy to think themselves as a sort of "chosen people" of God and slowly but surely worked into them a spirit of intolerance for all other beliefs.


It is indeed quite significant that the very first announcement of the new eclectic Faith of Mani should have been made on the very day that Shapur I, the son and successor of the founder of the Sasanian house, was crowned at Ctesiphon (20th March, 242 CE)


In Mani's own lifetime and in the country of its origin this new faith was "combated and execrated as violently by orthodox Zoroastrianism as it was by orthodox Christianity when it spread westward into the imperial domains of Rome". Until the beginning of the present (20th) century of Christ all the information we possessed about Mani and his teaching was from these two sources and we had nothing more. The Zoroastrian priesthood called him "the fiend incarnate" and "the crippled devil" (for he was lame), and Christian writers were equally abusive.


In 1902-1903 the first expedition to the Turfan region in Central Asia was sent from Berlin and it was led by Gruenwedel and Huth. This was followed by the second one in 1904 led by Le Coq, and by a third one led by Le Coq and Gruenwedel. This last carried on the work from 1905 to 1907 and it resulted in bringing "a veritable treasure trove" of Manichaean Fragments to Berlin. These documents from Turfan include fragments from the original works of the Manichaean Faith, and considerable portions of a once extensive Manichaean literature. These are in a dialect of Pahlavi, in Sogdian, in Old Turkish and in Chinese. All these have been deciphered and skillfully edited and translated, and they have shed considerable light on Mani's life and teachings. From these we can conclude that "Manichaeism was not only an offshoot of Zoroastrianism in a way, and the parent of various heretical movements in Christianity, but was also a factor for centuries in the religious life of Central and Eastern Asia".


Mani was a Iranian by birth and was probably also brought up as a Christian. His father was a well-to-do man of considerable learning and with distinctly eclectic tendencies in matters of religion and his mother of noble Parthian descent whose name variously is given as Mes, Utâchîm, Marmarjam, and Karossa. 


Mani was born about 216 CE At the age of about twenty he had a spiritual vision and inspired by divine revelation he came forward as a new prophet. His endeavour was to make "a synthesis of elements from various existing religions to form a new religion, eclectic in character, and inspired by the favour of his own idealistic enthusiasm, one that should not be confined by national borders but be universally adopted. In other words, Mani's aspiration was to bring the world, Orient and Occident, into closer union through a combined faith, based upon the creeds known in his day".


Mani's teaching is designedly a synthesis. He has specially acknowledged his indeptedness to Zoroaster, buddha and Jesus, whom he regarded as "poineer revealers of truth which he came to fulfil". From Zoroastrianism he took the doctrine of the fundamental struggle between Spirit and Matter as the basis for the solution of the problem of Good and Evil. In the teachings of Buddha he found the essential lessons for the conduct of life which should be accepted by all men everywhere. And in Jesus he recognized "the verified ideal of Life". He supplemented his teaching by incorporating the doctrines of Hinduism, and the old Babylonian beliefs which had survived to his days. And in his teaching we may also trace a strong admixture of Gnostic, Neo-platonic doctrines. This eclectic character of Mani's teaching made it easier to be adopted by any person professing any faith, for they would pass themselves off as a sect of their original creed. As it was Mani's teaching was received kindly at first, and even King Shapur I became his friend and protector.


But this new teaching did not quite suit the orthodox and narrow-minded Zoroastrian priesthood. Opposition to Mani's views grew stronger daily and at least Shapur I had to advise Mani to leave the country and to go into exile. Mani thereupon left Iran and for many years wandered about all over Central Asia, penetrating as far east as China. It was during these years of wandering that he gave final shape to his teachings, which were then committed to writing. His creed spread rapidly throughout Central Asia and he had a considerable number of followers among the Chinese. His faith continued in the East till about the 17th century of Christ.


Mani remained in exile till the death of Shapur I in 272 CE He came back to Iran and was well-received by Shapur's successor Hormazd I. But when Hormazd I died after a very short reign (272-273 CE) his successor, Bahram I, showed his strong dislike for Mani by putting him to a horrible death. His followers were cruelly persecuted and the Faith of Mani was banned throughout the whole Iranian Empire. So his followers migrated westward and southward. Passing through Egypt the religion spread all along the northern coast of Africa and from there it penetrated to Sicily and to Spain and thus spread all over Europe. For several centuries it continued active all over Europe disguised as various "heretical" sects of Christianity. One very notable Manichaean was St. Augustine, who was brought up in this Faith in his youth before he took up his active work for the Church of Christ. In Bulgaria Manichaeism appears as the sect of the Bogomil (beloved the God), in Italy it appeared as the Cathari, another "heretical" sect. The last record of this religion is found among the Albigensis in southern France, who were ruthelessly massacred by the orthodox Catholics there.


In the East the stranghold of the Manichaeans was the kingdom of the Uigurs, and there they flourished in peace until the Uigurs themselves lost their kingdom. In China they seem to have faded out gradually.


The main teaching of Mani concerned the struggle between Good and Evil. This is due, according to him, to the existence of the Twin Principles from the beginning and the struggle is to go to all eternity. Mani taught that Light was Spirit and hence "good" and that Darkness was Matter and consequently "evil", Mani recognized three principal "Ages". The first "Age" was before this visible universe came into being, when the Two Principles were entirely separated. In the second "Age" our present age, Darkness burst through the dividing partition into the region of Light, and this resulted in universal conflict. The third "Age", which will see the final consummation, will bring the final triumph of Truth and Light and the complete separation, as in the first "Age", of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness.


Sketch of Mani's life and the growth of his church

Mani_CAIS.JPG (48056 bytes)

  Mani - Artist impression

(Painting by Jan Valentin Sæther)

(Click to enlarge)


Mani was born on 14 April, A.C. 216, in northern Babylonia, which then formed part of the province of Asoristan, in the Parthian empire. His father, Patteg or Pattig, is said to have come from Hamadan. His mother, Maryam, was of the family of the Kamsaragan, who claimed kingship with the Parthian royal house, the Arsacids. Mani's own name, a fairly common one, is Aramaic and not Iranian. 

According to Ibn an-Nadim, Patteg left Hamadan for al-Madain in Babylonia. One day, in a temple which he frequented there, he heard a voice from the sanctuary summoning him to renounce wine, meat, and intercourse with women. Obeying this call, he left al-Madain to join a sect known as the "Mughtasila" ("those who bathe themselves"). The Mughtasila appear to have been baptizing gnostics, probably followers of Elchasaios. Mani himself was apparently brought by his father as a child of four to live among them.


According to his own account, preserved by Ibn an-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received, while still a boy, a revelation from a spirit whom he called the Twin, who taught him the diving truths of his religion. This was probably in 228, early in the reign of the Persian Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians. During the last years of Ardashir's reign, some twelve years later, the Twin appeared again to Mani and summoned him to preach the truth he had learnt to mankind. Mani first expounded these to his own father and the elders of his family; and thereafter set out by sea on a missionary journey to India, that is, to Turan and Makran (modern Baluchistan and Sind). Here he met with success in that he converted the king of Turan and the number of his subjects. Probably in 242, the year of the accession of Ardashir's son, Shapur I, Mani returned by sea to Pars, and travelled through it on foot, preaching but meeting with hostility. From Pars he reached Mesene, the little kingdom at the mouth of the Tigris, and thence returned home to Babylonia. He travelled through Babylonia, preaching, and back to Pars, and into Media, arousing much opposition; but at some point he suceeded in converting to his faith Peroz, bother of Shapur, who, according to Ibn an-Nadim, procured him audience with the king. According to the Manichaean Kephalaia, Shapur summoned Mani thrice from Ctesiphon, and on the third occasion accepted him as a member of his own court and gave him leave to preach his religion without hindrance throughout his realms.


According to Alexander of Lycopolis, Mani, as a member of Shapur's court, accompanied the king on one of his Roman campaigns, either against Gordian III (242-44) or against Valerian (256-60). According to the Kephalaia, Mani spent many years in attendance on Shapur, and many years preaching "with good harvest" in Persia and Parthia, and up to Adiabene and the lands bordering on the frontier with Rome. It appears that, as well as preaching, the prophet practised medicine and healed the sick. At some time before A.C. 262 he converted another of Shapur's brothers, namely Mihrshah, king of Mesene.


Between 244 and 261, at a time when Mani himself was in Weh-Ardashir (a part of al-Madain), he sent a mission to Egypt under Adda and Patteg, who had earlier been to "Rome". (It seems probable that this Patteg was Mani's own father.) This mission, which met with considerable success, reached as far as Alexandria. Another mission, sent out by the prophet from Hulwan (on the highway from Babylon to Hamadan) was led by Ammo, who was accompanied by an Arsacid prince. Ammo penetrated to the far north-east of the empire, to Parthia and Marv and beyond. There he founded communities, and converted the ruler of Waruch (modern Gharch). A third mission, led by Adda and Abzaxya, in 261-62, made converts among the Christian in Karkuk. There were doubtless many other missions of which no record survives.


By the time of Shapur's death, probably in A.C. 273, Manichaeism appears to have been well established in his realms, although the state religion continued to be Zoroastrianism. Mani withdrew to Babylonia during the brief reign, lasting one year, of Shapur's son Hormizd I; but some time after the succession of Hormizd's brother, Vahram I, he travelled down the Tigris, visiting his communities, and having reached Hormizd-Ardashir (Ahwaz), intended to set out for the north-eastern provinces of the empire. This was forbidden him, and he turned back to Mesene, whence he travelled up the Tigris again to Ctesiphon. From there he visited Kholassar, where he was joined by the vassal-king Bat, another of his royal converts. There a summons came to him to attend Vahram's court at Beth-Lapat (Gundeshapur). Here he encountered the hostility of Zoroastrian priests, and after a harsh audience with the king was imprisoned, in heavy chains. He died after 26 days in captivity, probably in A.C. 277.


The further history of the Manichaean church in Iran and the east

After Mani's death, the leadership of his church was in dispute between two of his followers, Sisinnios and Gabriabos. The former was successful, and led the community until his martyrdom in 191-2. His successor, Innaios, appears to have won tolerance for the Manichaeans, which lasted until new persecutions broke out under Hormizd II. Little is known of the church during the rest of the Sasanian period, except that it endured many bloody persecutions at the hands of the Zoroastrian, and that its main strength gradually became concentrated beyond the Oxus, over the north-eastern border of Iran. Towards the end of the 6th century the transOxian community claimed independence, under Shad-Ohrmizd, from the Babylonian Leader. Under the name of the Denawars, they maintained their autonomy until the early 8th century, when this administrative schism was healed, the rule of the Babylonian Leader Mihr (c. 710-40) being accepted in Central Asia.


Although the Manichaean community beyond the Oxus was reinforced by refugees (Persians and Parthians) from within the borders of Iran, most of its members were Sogdians, an eastern Iranian people inhabiting those regions.


The Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century gave a brief respite from persecution to the Manichaeans there, and some even returned from beyond the Oxus to their homes. Under the 'Abbasids harsh persecutions began again. Nevertheless the church maintained itself in Bagdad until the 10th century, when the seat of the Leader was transferred to Samarkand. After this century the Manichaeans virtually disappear from Iranian records.


From at least 692 (when, after a troubled period, the Chinese reopened the silk-routes across Central Asia), Manichaeism penetrated eastward through Sogdian merchant-colonies, strung out along the caravan-roads between the Sogdian city of Samarkand and China. A Manichaean missionary reached the Chinese court in 694; and in 732 an imperial edict gave permission for foreigners resident in China to practise this religion there.


In the 8th century a vast area of Central Asia was conquered by the Uigur Turks; and in 762 one of their rulers adopted Manichaeism, which became the state religion of this huge kingdom until its overthrow by the Kirghiz in 840. Manichaeism probably survived in Eastern Turkistan till the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, maintaining itself most strongly in and around Qocho (near modern Turfan), which remained a petty Uigur principality. In China the religion was proscribed in 863, but although persecuted it survived there at least until the 14th century.


Mani's teachings

Mani taught a strict dualism of spirit and matter. He held that good and evil are in essence and in origin separate and opposed, and that they became mixed in this world through the act of the evil principle (Matter or Darkness). Salvation lies in the release of goodness (Spirit or Light) from Matter, and its return to its original state of separation. This teaching Mani set out in an elaborate mythology, harmonized deliberately from different elements.


The myth: In the beginning the Paradise of Light stretched unbounded upwards and to left and right (or, northwards and to east and west). Below, or southwards, lay the Hell of Darkness. The land of Paradise is uncreated and eternal. Its substance is the Five Light Elements: Ether, Air, Light, Water, and Fire. It is ruled over by the Father of Greatness, and is inhabited by countless Aeons. A goddess, the Great Spirit, is as it were the Father's consort.


Hell is divided into five kingdoms, each of the substance of one of the Five Dark Elements. These are sometimes given the same names as the corresponding Light Elements (i.e. Air standing also for Dark Air) or sometimes the exact opposite (i.e. Darkness for Light). Sometimes, however, they are given other names, i.e. instead of Water, Poison, or Brine. The five infernal kingdoms are inhabited by five kinds of devils, two-legged, four-legged, winged, swimming, and crawling. Each kind is divided into two sexes, and lives in perpetual lust and strife. The Devil, or Prince of Darkness, king over all, combines in himself features of all five species of devil, namely demon, lion, eagle, fish and dragon. He is treated sometimes as the personification of Matter, sometimes as its chief manifestation.


By chance the Devil came to the boundary between hell and heaven, and saw, desired, and invaded the Light. To protect his realm, and to preserve its eternal peace, the Father of Greatness evoked by word Emanations of himself, to do battle with the powers of Darkness. These Emanations are the gods of Manichaeism. Being essentially the same, they are distinguished from one another mainly by their functions.


There are three separate "Creations" of gods. Those of the First Creation are the Mother of Life, who evokes in turn her "son", the First Man; and he evokes as his "sons" the Five Light Elements, from the substance of the Paradise of Light. With these he goes forth to do battle with the devils, the first warrior of Light. The Light Elements are also called his "armour", and his "bait", which, overwhelmed by the powers of Darkness, he is forced to throw them to distract them from Paradise. The devils swallow the Light Elements, are appeased, and cease their invasion. By this act a part of the Light has become absorbed in Darkness. This lost Light is smothered by the Matter which has devoured it, suffers, and forgets its divine nature. Matter itself rejoices in the Light it has obtained, and grows to depend upon it.


The First Man overwhelmed in the deeps of hell, remains unconscious on the battlefield. Recovering his senses, he cries out for help; and his Mother, hearing him, pleads with the Father of Greatness, who evokes the Second Creation of gods for his aid: the Friend of the Lights (whose function is obscure), the Great Builder, and the Living Spirit with his five Sons, the Keeper of Splendour, the King of Honour, the Adams of Light, the King of Glory, and Atlas. The Living Spirit goes to the edge of the abyss and utters a call, and the First Man answers from the depths. Call and Answer themselves are made gods, the Sixth Sons of the Living Spirit and the First Man respectively. They symbolise the yearning of the gods for the defeated Light, and the response of that Light to their summons. The rescue of the first Man is a pattern for the redemption thereafter of all individual souls; for, awakened from his unconsciousness, he rises up from the pit, and is led back to Paradise by the Mother of Life and the Living Spirit.


The creation of the world: The Living Spirit then attacks and defeats the powers of Darkness. From the bodies of the demons he has killed he makes 8 earth, from their skins 10 skies. Other, their chiefs or Archons, he fetters, living, in the firmament. From a portion of the swallowed Light that is still undefiled he makes sun and moon, and from Light that is slightly defiled, the stars, which are set in an eleventh sky, i.e. the one which is seen from this earth. For the redemption of the Light retained by Matter he makes Three Wheels, of Fire, Water and Wind, controlled by the King of Glory. The Keepers of Splendour holds up the 10 heavens from above, and Atlas, standing on the fifth earth, supports on his shoulders the three upper earths.


The process of redemption: The world at this point is motionless and without life, the sun standing still in the sky. The Father then evokes the Third Creation, that of the redeeming gods. The first of these is the Third Messenger; he evokes in turn the Maiden of Light (who sometimes also appears as the Twelve Maidens). The two divinities show themselves naked to the Archons chained in the sky. Beholding them, the males ejaculate, and with their seed there falls to earth the Light in their bodies. Part of the seed falls into the water and becomes a huge sea-monster, which is overcome by the Adamas of Light. Part falls on land and forms the trees and plants. The female devils, pregnant from unions in hell, miscarry, and their abortions, containing less Light than the male semen, fall to earth and people it with the five kinds of living creatures, which correspond with the five species of demons.


The Great Builder (from the Second Creation of gods) then makes the New Paradise or New Aeon, which is of the same substance as the Paradise of Light, and also eternal, but which has a separate existence during the time of mixture; its function is to be a home for the gods and for the redeemed Light, so that the Eternal Paradise may remain remote and untroubled during the struggle. The ruler of the New Paradise is the First Man.


The third god of the redeeming Creation is the Column of Glory, who is both a god, and the path by which the redeemed Light ascends to the sky (its visible appearance is the Milky Way). By this path the souls pass to the moon at its time of waxing, and thence to the sun, from which they go to the New Paradise. The sun and the moon are variously described as "ships" and "chariots", and also as walled "fortresses", containing the thrones of the gods. The other gods of the Third Creation, in order of evocation, are Jesus the Splendour, the Great Nous (or Great Mind), and the Just Justice. The Great Nous has as his five "limbs" the five powers of the mind, which make up the being of god, and of the soul: Mind, Thought, Reflection, Intelligence and Reason.


The thrones of the chief gods of all three Creations are distributed as follows between the sun and moon.




Third Messenger

Jesus the Splendour

Mother of Life

Maiden of Light

Living Spirit


The sun and moon are set in motion by the Third Messenger, and with the change of seasons there begins the physical redemption of Light, through dew, rain etc. 

The creation of man: To defeat this process of redemption, Matter (personified as Greed or Desire) prompts two great demon-animals to devour the offspring of the other animals, and thus to absorb into their own two bodies all the Light which they possess. The pair then mate, and produce Adam and Eve, in the form of the gods (the Third Messenger and the Maiden of Light) seen by their parent-devils in the sky. The accumulated Light in their bodies is transmitted to the first human pair, and forms their souls. Imprisoned with the Light Soul in the human body is the Dark or Material Soul, made up of lust, greed, envy, hate etc. Lust ensures that humanity propagates itself, and so makes an enduring prison for a part of the swallowed Light.


The god Jesus the Splendour descends and awakens Adam to knowledge of the soul's origin. Adam resolves on chastity; but Eve, in whom there is less Light, is seduced by a demon, to whom she bears Cain and Abel. Later, having lain with Adam, she bears Seth. The human bondage of Light is thus perpetuated.


Individual salvation: The Light which makes up the human soul cannot be physically redeemed. Its salvation depends on a conscious effort for virtue by each individual. The Great Nous sends prophets to mankind, who bring gnosis to Adam's descendants, as Jesus the Splendour had done to Adam himself. With knowledge comes the will for redemption; but Matter always seeks to submerge the soul in oblivion, the "sleep of drunkenness". The unawakened soul Mani termed the "Old Man", the awakened soul, the "New Man" (the image is taken from St. Paul). Being itself of Light, and therefore essentially good, the soul can sin only through forgetfulness, by which it loses the strength to withstand the Dark Spirit with which it is shut into the "corpse" of the body. The atonement for sin is contrition, and a renewal of awareness and resolve.


Fate of the individual soul at death: Mani taught that the soul may be incarnated many times before it attains release through perfected virtue. There exist two accounts of its fate at death: 1) the soul goes before the Just Justice, and having been judged takes one of three paths, to "life" (the New Paradise), to "mixture" (back to the world) or to "death" (hell): 2) the righteous soul, leaving the body, is met by one of the redeeming gods, accompanied by three angels who bear the insignia of its victory, namely a garland, a diadem, and a heavenly robe. Having received these it ascends to the New Paradise by the Column of Glory, the moon and the sun. Sometimes the redeeming god appears in the form of a Maiden of Light, reminiscent of the Zoroastrian daena.


End of the world: The end of the world will be presaged by the Great War, a time of conflict and bitterness and waning faith, since by then most of the Light will have been drawn out of the world. There will follow the Second Coming of Jesus, who will establish his judgment-seat and separate the righteous from the sinners. Thereafter the gods supporting the cosmos will abandon their tasks, the heavens and earths will collapse, and the Great Fire will break out, in which the last particles of Light will be freed and will ascend to the New Paradise as the Last God.


Matter will be imprisoned, and the prison will be sealed with a great stone; and finally the New Paradise will be joined again to the Paradise of Light, and its inhabitants, gods and the redeemed, will behold once more the face of the Father of Greatness, hidden from them since the struggle began.


The gods of the Manichaean pantheon: It was the custom among Manichaean missionaries (originating evidently with Mani himself) either to translate the Aramaic names of the divinities of his faith into the local language, or to identify these divinities with the divine beings of the dominant local religion, which in Iran was Zoroastrianism. The following are the English renderings of the names of Mani's gods (which have mostly come down to us in their Latin forms), with the Persian and Parthian translations and equivalences, as far as these are known. Mani may himself have been responsible for choosing the Persian ones, but the Parthian terms and identifications were presumably selected by Mar Ammo and his fellow-missionaries to the north-east of Iran.


Sasanian Pahlavi

Parthian Pahlavi

The Father of Greatness

Pid i wuzurgi, Zurvan, Wahisht(aw) shahriar

Pidar wuzurgift, Pidar roshn, Pidar hasenag, Sroshaw Yazd

The Great Spirit

Waxsh zindag, Waxsh yozdahr



The First Creation


The Mother of Life

Madar i zindagan, Zindagan Madar, Ohrmizdbay Mad

Mad ziwandag, Ardawan Mad, Mad roshn, Ohrmizdbag Mad

The First Man


Ohrmizdbag, Mard hasenag, Mardohm naxwen

His five Sons (the five Elements)


Panj roshn



ardaw frawardin













His sixth Son, the Answer-God


Padwaxtag Yazd

The Living Self (made up of the five Elements)

Griw zindag, Griw roshn

Griw ziwandag, Griw roshn


The Second Creation


The Friend of the Lights

Roshnan xwarist

Frih roshn

The Great Builder



The Living Spirit

Mihr yazd

wad ziwandag

His five Sons


Panj puhran

The keeper of the Splendour



The King of Honour



The Adamas of Light

Wisbed, Taskirbyazd


The King of Glory




Manbed, Parmanagen Yazd


His sixth Son, the Call-God


Xroshtag Yazd


The Third Creation


The Third Messenger

Narisah Yazd, Roshnshahryazd, Zenares bay

Narisaf Yazd, Mihr Yazd, Roshnshahryazd

Jesus the Splendour

Yosho ziwa(h), Yisho ispixtan, Xradeshahryazd

Yisho Ziwa(h)

The Maiden of Light

Kanig roshn

Kanig roshn

The Coloumn of Glory

Srosh-ahray, kishwarwaryazd


The Great Nous

Wahman (wuzurg)

Manohmed roshn

His five Limbs


















The Just Justice



The Last God


Istomen yazd



































Jesus in Manichaeism: Mani appears to have recognized three entities under the name of Jesus: 1) Jesus the Splendour, the redeeming god; 2) the Suffering Jesus, the name given in western Manichaeism to the Living Self, i.e. to the sum of the Light suffering in Matter, "crucified" as Jesus was crucified on the cross; 3) Jesus the Messiah, prophet and "son of God", who had taken on the appearance of man, and had seemed to suffer death on the cross. (Mani, with his abhorrence of matter, rigidly opposed the doctrine of the real incarnation of Jesus and his actual crucifixion.) The three conceptions of Jesus are not always kept wholly distinct.


The prophet Jesus was regarded by Mani as his own immediate forerunner, whose apostle he himself was. Mani also honoured the Buddha and Zoroaster, but there is no evidence that he was directly familiar with their teachings in his formative years.


The Manichaean ethic

Mani taught that virtue lay in saving the imprisoned Light in the world, and in avoiding any injury to it. This doctrine he applied on both the moral and the physical plane. The Light which made up the soul could be redeemed through the virtues of brotherly love and faith, patience, wisdom, truth, peace and joy, kindness, temperance, chastity. The last was an essential virtue, since to perpetuate the human race was to perpetuate a prison for the Light. To eat meat was also wrong, since animals contained little Light, and their bodies were gross with Matter. Further, to kill an animal, or even to cull a plant, was a sin, for this gave pain on the physical level to such Light as was within them. Therefore, thought the eating of vegetables was enjoined, since these contained more Light than animals (which would then accrue to the soul of one who are ate them in reverence and virtue) yet even this act was not free from wrong-doing.


Strict virtue for the Manichaean therefore involved necessarily withdrawal from the world. The community was accordingly divided into two groups: the Elect, who embraced a rigorous rule, and the Hearers, who led a more normal life and supported the Elect both by works and alms. Their charity to the Elect, termed in Middle Persian ruwanagan "that which concerns the soul", brought merit to the Hearers themselves. The Hearers took part in religious worship and observances, but also commited the necessary sins of tilling the earth, harvesting the corn, and preparing food. They were permitted to marry (monogamously), and might in certain circumstances eat meat (but not themselves take life). Only the Elect could, therefore, expect to attain Paradise at death. The Hearers could ordinarily hope for salvation only after re-incarnation as one of the Elect. The Elect, on the other hand, remained capable of sin; perpetual vigilance was necessary for them also.


The community

At the head of the Manichaean community was its Leader, Mani's successor, with his seat in Babylon. Under him were five grades: 12 Teachers, 72 Bishops, 360 Elders, the general body of the Elect (to which women were admitted), and the Hearers. There were other distinctions among the Elect, such as that of preacher or scribe. The Elect, who were "sealed" with the three seals of mouth and hands and breast (ensuring virtue of speech and act and feeling), lived in monasteries, but also went on journeys to spread and strengthen the faith, travelling on foot, preaching. They ate only once a day, a meal of vegetables taken after nightfall; and might possess food only for a day, clothing only for a year.


The cult

The essentials of the Manichaean cult lay in prayers, the singing of hymns, subjugating the body by fasting, and the confession of sins with penitence. Seven daily prayers were enjoined on the Elect, and four on the Hearers, to be uttered facing toward the sun by day, the moon by night. In these prayers were invoked, as well as the individual goals, the fourfold Manichaean unity of God, Light, Power and Wisdom.


Five fasts of two days' duration were observed during the year. The fourth and fifth fell during the same month, on its 1st-2nd and 27th-28th days. During the intervening period the Hearers observed the rule continually obligatory on the Elect, of eating only one meal a day, at nightfall. This time of general abstinence is thought to commemorate the 26 days which Mani suffered in prison, the final two-day fast being in memory of his actual death. On the last (30th) day of this same month the feast of the Bema (or "Throne") was held. At this feast, which was the greatest occasion of the Manichaean year, an empty raised seat was set for Mani in the face of the congregation, and a portrait of the prophet was placed upon it.



The Manichaean scriptures

The canon

The canon of the Manichaean scriptures was made up of seven works composed by Mani in his mother-tongue, an East Aramaic dialect. These were held, in part at least, to be inspired by the spirit he called his "Twin". Their names as follows: 

 English (Translation)

Middle Persian

1. Living Gospel

ewangelyon zindag

2. Treasure of Life

niyan i zindagan

3. Treatise


4. Secrets


5. Giants


6. Epistles


7. Psalms and Prayers








In addition, there were the Shabuhragan, in which Mani summarised his teachings in Middle Persian for Shapuhr I; the Ardahang, apparently his drawing of the cosmos, with a commentary, the Ardahang Wifras; and the Kephalaia ("Discourses"), the words of the prophet collected after his death, among which is some apocryphal matter.


Many fragments of these works survive in translation among the Iranian mss., but in most instances it is not possible to tell from which book each fragment comes. Not a line of the original Aramaic is preserved in the Turfan material.


General religious writings

The non-canonical works include a relatively small number of prose texts. Among these is a church-history, of which fragments are preserved in all the three main Iranian languages. There are also homilies and prose treatises, some containing parables.


The bulk of the secondary literature is however in verse. The Middle Persian and Parthian hymns appear to be composed in the same ancient tradition as the Avestan Yashts, modified slightly by contact with Semitic verse. The metres are qualitatives, not quantitative, and there is no rhyme. Each metre is chiefly distinguished, it seems, by the number of stresses to the line; and the number of syllables fluctuates freely within certain fixed limits. The subtleties of Western Middle Iranian metrics still however largely escape analysis. Most verse-texts are written in continuous paragraphs, like prose; but with one group of hymns it is particularly easy to establish the verse-pattern. These are abecedarian texts, which follow a Semitic pattern in that each verse (or sometimes even each line) begins with a successive letter of the abgads. Usually (through not always) the invented Iranian letter j appears in the alphabetic series; and by a curious and unexplained convention it is usual to finish such a text with one or even two verses beginning with the letter n (in addition to the n verse which appears in its proper place). Abecedarian hymns have therefore generally 23-25 verses; but few survive entire. Not infrequently antiphonal verses, outside the alphabetic series, are inset, especially between the first and second verses.



The Manuscripts

All the surviving Iranian Manichaean mss. (manuscripts) were discovered this century among the sand-covered ruins of Manichaean monasteries in Chinese Turkestan. Most were found in ancient Qocho (by modern Turfan). They are written in three Iranian languages, Middle Persian, Parthian and Sogdian, of which the two first were church-languages for the Sogdians of Central Asia. There is one fragment in Bactrian, which like Sogdian is an Eastern Iranian language. Both Middle Persian and Parthian belong to the Western Middle Iranian group.


The texts are usually written in ink on paper, although a few are on leather. The Middle Persian and Parthian mss. are written in the characteristic "Manichaean" script, which is akin to Syriac Estrangelo, and was evidently the form of writing used in Mani's homeland. The Sogdian mss. are written partly in this script, partly in a script that is known either as "Sogdian", or as "Uigur" (from its adoption by the Uigur Turks); this, like the Pahlavi script, is an adaptation of the Achaemenian chancellery script, deriving from Aramaic.


Most of the mss. are beautifully written, and a number are illuminated. All, however, have been badly mutilated, either by the action of the elements, or deliberately, in the past, by Buddhist or Muslims. Very few single pages even survive intact, and most of the material is in small, damaged fragments. There is little evidence by which to date individual mss.; a few show consistent evidence of late pronunciation, but most maintain the orthography established in the 3rd century. The scribal tradition is almost uniformly excellent. The bulk of the Iranian Manichaean material was found by German expeditions, and is preserved in Berlin.





Top of Page


my_Iran.jpg (13682 bytes)

"History is the Light on the Path to Future"


Persian_NOT_Farsi_by_Shapour_Suren-Pahlav_3D2.gif (177309 bytes)


Encyclopaedia Iranica

BIPS.jpg (15695 bytes)

The British Institute of Persian Studies

"Persepolis Reconstructed"

Persepolis_reconstructed2.jpg (36944 bytes)


The British Museum

The Royal

Asiatic Society

Persian_Gulf_Facebook.jpg (1935028 bytes)

The Persian Gulf

Facebook Page

Please use your "Back" button (top left) to return to the previous page

Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)