Podcast episode

Episode 155: Charles Häberl on the Mandæans

[sorry about the power-saw in the background]

We are delighted to speak with Charles Häberl, a man who knows a thing or two about the Mandæans, an utterly-fascinating, living religious community autochthonous to the Iraqi and Iranian marshlands, but now largely living in a global diaspora since the region’s destabilisation under the U.S. invasion of 2003 and subsequent chaos. The Mandæans are a somewhat ‘closed’ tradition – they do not accept converts, nor can they marry outside the Mandæan community – and they have been the subject of study by a relatively-small group of western academics. In the course of this (shockingly-limited) study, it has emerged that the Mandæans can be properly described as the only living gnostic tradition with roots in late antiquity, yet they continue to be largely ignored in the study of ancient Gnosticism.

This madness stops now. We discuss, among other things:

• Who the Mandæans are, where they originated and where they are today in a global diaspora, and what Mandaic – their signature Semitic dialect – is,

• An outline of the Mandæan scriptural canon, with discussion of the fascinating scribal culture of Madæanism, which allows for unprecedented (but still problematic) dating criteria for these texts going back to roughly the third century CE,

• John the Baptist’s role as Mandæan holy-man, and possible origin-stories for John’s role in Mandæanism,

• The social structure of the Mandæan community, with its hereditary priesthood and lay majority, along with the enigmatic and important figure of Mary, a legendary Jewish convert to Mandæism who seems to become a canonical priestly figure despite the fact that nowadays only men can be Mandæan priests and it is impossible to convert to Mandæism anyway. This leads to some conversation about the prominent role played by women in our evidence for early Mandæism, discussed as a preface to our discussion of

• Mandæan beliefs. The scriptures tell of a first principle, the Great First Mana or Great Life (unless the Great Life is an emanation), who emanates forth subsidiary Lives, First, Second, Third, and Fourth. The First Life is the high god to which one would normally pray; he creates a perfect ‘Light World’, populated by quasi-angelic entities. There is a world of darkness (somehow – we’re not sure where it came from) which serves as the Light World’s counterpart. The Second Life is called Yoshamin; a proud entity, also known as ‘the Peacock’, he decides that he wants to do some creating on his own and starts a war in heaven. Yoshamin’s subsidiary creation involves emanating the Third Life, Awathur; he (or his double) descends into the World of Darkness and marries a demonic female entity, giving rise to The Fourth Life, called Iptahil, who, with Awathur, creates the physical world, composed of light and darkness in mixture.

• This world has a higher double, which is like our world, only perfect. We all have doubles of ourselves living there. The Light World is yet higher, and perhaps functions as the double of our world’s double. The Light World has a double in the World of Darkness. Adam has a higher double. There are a lot of doubles in Mandæan belief.

• Adam, the first human being, was created by Iptahil but, being created by an imperfect, demiurgic figure, he is malformed and basically dead. The higher beings decide to seed the lower world with the mojo of the higher realms, to deal with the problem of the imperfect, mixed sub-creation, so they send Mendotē, the saviour-figure, on a secret mission to ensoul Adam. More divine interventions in history follow, involving Adam’s children (or their Light World counterparts?), more from Mendotē, and a somewhat confusing cast of other characters.

• Given all these (and more) beliefs, which remind us of ideas found in many contemporary movements such as Valentinian Christianity, Manichæism, Late Platonism, Second-Temple Jewish apocalyptic ideas, and so on, we ask the long-standing question: Are the Mandæans Gnostics? The answer is that, given due care, it actually does make sense to describe this as a Gnostic movement. This is not only because of the beliefs we have just mentioned; they actually call themselves the Mandaic form of ‘Mandæans’, from the Mandaic word manda, referring to a special kind of sacred knowledge (i.e. they self-identify as ‘the knowers’, which is what anyone in late antiquity who called themself a Gnostic was also doing).

• Given these facts, Häberl outlines an ambitious scholarly programme: if we truly want to study Gnosticism, the study of the Mandæans, the living late-antique Gnostic tradition, must play a central role in that endeavour.

Interview Bio:

Charles G. Häberl is Professor of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures and Religion at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Drower, E.S., Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937).

Häberl, C.G. on Mandæan calendrical matters: see 2021 below.

Qūzī, Y.M., al-Suhayrī, Ṣ.M., and ʿAbd al-Wāḥid, ʿA.R., eds and trans, Kanzā Rabbā: al-Kanz al-ʿAẓīm, al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas li-l-Ṣābīʾah al-Mandāʾīyīn (Baghdad: al-Dīwān li-l-Ṭabāʿah, 2000).

Siouffi, N., Études sur la religion des Soubbas ou Sabéens (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1880).

Recommended Reading:

By our Guest

Academia page: https://rutgers.academia.edu/cghaberl

Häberl, C.G., ‘The Enclosed Nations of Mandaean Lore’, in Greisiger, L., Mein, A., and Tamer, G. eds, Gog and Magog: Proceedings of the Conference held on September 23–25, 2019, at Friedrich-AlexanderUniversität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – Tension, Transmission, Transformation [JCIT]; Berlin: De Gruyter, Forthcoming).

The Book of Kings and Explanations of This World: A Universal History from the Late Sasanian Empire (Translated Texts for Historians 80; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022)

— ‘Meryey, Standing at the Boundary’, in Zimrat JAH: A Tribute to Jo Anne Hackett, Jonathan Kaplan and Na’ama Pat-El (eds.), a special issue of Maarav: A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures 25.1–2 (2022: 65–89 (Rolling Hills Estates, CA: Western Academic Press).

— ‘Of Calendars—and Kings—and Why the Winter is Boiling Hot’, the Bulletin of the Royal Asiatic Society FirstView (13 January 2021), https: //www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiaticsociety/article/abs/of-calendarsand-kingsand-why-the-winter-isboiling-hot/074CF5A8A65C73265413E0A4F143D9D1 (accessed on 20 February 2021).

— ‘Incantation Texts in Mandaic Script as Witnesses to the Mandaean Scriptures’, in Wissa, M., ed., Scribal Practices and the Social Construction of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Leuven: Peeters, 2017), 143–160.

— ‘Tense, Aspect, and Mood in the Doctrine of John’, in Khan G. and Napiorkowska, L., eds, Neo-Aramaic in its Linguistic Context (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2015) 397–406.

— ‘Iranian Scripts for Aramaic Languages’, in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 341 (2006): 21–30.

—  The Mandaean Book of John: critical edition, translation, and commentary. Berlin: De Gruyter. (with James F. McGrath) 2009 [open-access version available on Häberl’s academia page].

The Neo-Mandaic Dialect of Khorramshahr. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz [published revision of Häberl’s 2006 doctoral dissertation].

— “Mandaic and the Palestinian Question”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 141 2021 (1): 171–184.

Secondary Literature Generally

Buckley, J.J., The Great Stem of Souls (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010).

Lupieri, E., ‘The Mandaeans and the Myth of their Origins’, in Voigt. R., ed., Und das Leben ist siegreich! And Life is Victorious. Mandäische und samaritanische Literatur / Mandaean and Samaritan Literatures. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008), 127–174.

The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics (Hindley, C., trans.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

Giovanni Battista fra storia e leggenda (Brescia: Paideia, 1988).

Petermann, J.H., Reisen im Orient, vol. 1 (Leipzig: von Veit, 1860).

Reisen im Orient, vol.2 (Leipzig: von Veit, 1861).

Petermann, J.H., ed. Thesaurus s. Liber magnus vulgo „Liber Adami” appellatus opus Mandaeorum summi ponderis, vols 1–2 (Leipzig: T.O. Veigel, 1867).

Rudolph, K., ‘The Relevance of Mandaean Literature to the Study of Near Eastern Religions’, ARAM Periodical 16 (2004), 1–12.

Der mandäische „Diwan der Flüsse“ (Berlin: Akademie, 1982).

Die Mandäer I: Das Mandäerproblem (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1960).

Rudolph, K., Duling, D. C., trans., & Modschiedler, J., trans., ‘Problems of a History of the Development of the Mandaean Religion’, History of Religions 8.3 (1969), 210–235.

van Bladel, K.T., From Sasanian Mandaeans to Ṣābians of the Marshes (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017).

Access to Mandæan Texts

Buckley, J.J. The Scroll of Exalted Kingship: Diwan Malkuta ‘Laita (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1993).

Burtea, B., ed. and trans., Haran Gauaita (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2020).

„Die Geheimnisse der Vorväter“: Edition, Übersetzung und Kommentierung einer esoterischen mandäischen Handschrift aus der Bodleian Library Oxford (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2015).

Das mandäische Fest der Schalttage: Edition, Übersetzung und Kommentierung der Handschrift DC 24 Sarh d-paruanaIIa. Mit einer CD der Handschrift (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005).

„Zihrun, das verborgene Geheimnis“: Eine mandäische priesterliche Rolle. Edition, Übersetzung und Kommentierung der Handschrift DC 27 Zihrun Raza Kasia mit einer CD-ROM der Handschrift (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008).

Drower, E.S., ed. and trans., The Thousand and Twelve Questions (alf trisar šuialia): a Mandaean Text (Berlin: Akademie, 1960).

Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1959).

The Haran Gawaita and the Baptism of Hibil-Ziwa (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1953).

Diwan Abatur or Progress through the Purgatories (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1950).

The Book of the Zodiac (Sfar Malwašia) D.C. 31 (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1949).

Häberl, C.G., & McGrath, J., eds and transs, The Mandaean Book of John: Critical Edition, Translation, and Commentary (Berlin & Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2020).

Lidzbarski, M., ed. and trans., Ginzā: das große Buch der Mandäer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1925).

Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer (Vol. 2; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1915).


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