Yezidis and Mandeans 1

Continuing our series on obscure religions, we outline two contemporary Gnostic cults in the Middle East.

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The Yezidis [or Yazidis] worship  The Peacock Angel, Malak Taus. He’s identified by Muslims and Christians with Shaitan/Satan, so the Yezidis are held to be devil-worshipers. They are ethnic Kurds, most of them  settled in Mosul, Iraq. There are some in Iran, Kurdistan, Armenia, and the Caucuses. In all, it’s estimated, there are about half a million of them. Their cult is in part an offshoot of Sufism. with various accretions. They build small temples, shrines with conical white spires, and they keep sacred snakes. They practice circumcision. The colour blue is repulsive to them, and the eating of lettuce is forbidden. They have an hereditary  priesthood under a High Priest, and sacred books.

There is no need, they believe, to worship the Supreme God, because he is all good and so will never do you harm. The Peacock Angel, on the other hand, must be propitiated. He is capable of doing harm or good, and so must be won over to doing you good. Eventually he will be reconciled with the Supreme God, and that eventuality could come about at any moment.

In their cosmogony, the Supreme God created the world, which is watched over by 7 lesser divinities or “mysteries”, chief among whom is the Peacock Angel, Malak Taus. God created him first, out of his own light, and ordered him never to bow to other beings. Then God created the other six angels, and ordered them to make Adam out of the dust of the earth. God took the inanimate body of Adam and breathed life into him, and instructed the angels to bow down to him. Of course Malak Taus did not bow. “I cannot submit to him because,” he reminded God, “I am made of  your own light, while he is made of dust.”  This pleased God who then appointed him his vicar on earth. As its ruler, Malak Taus visits the earth on the first Wednesday of Nisan (March/April – roughly the same time as Easter), which is the Yezidi New Year’s Day, and the anniversary of the day on which God made the Peacock Angel. On that day they feast, make music, dance, and decorate eggs.

God made the earth by first making a pearl, which remained very small for some forty thousand years, and was then expanded and reworked into its present state. From time to time the 7 angels are incarnated in human form and dwell among the living on earth.  Their main annual festival is a week-long pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi, their founder, who they say was the incarnation of one of the 7 angels. The tomb is at Lalish, north of Mosul.

All Yezidis are descended directly from Adam, not through Eve. At first the sexual roles of Adam and Eve were not fixed. Each produced a seed which was was sealed in a jar. Eve’s seed bred creepy-crawly things, but Adam’s developed into a boy-child who grew up, married a houri, and fathered the Yezidis.

As Adam’s seed, they are different from all other peoples. They permit marriage only within the sect, and members of each caste of their social and religious hierarchy can only marry among themselves.

They pray five times a day facing the sun. Their holy day is Wednesday, but their day of rest is Saturday.

In 2007,  al-Qaeda suicide bombers drove oil tankers into two Yezidi communities  near Mosul which they exploded, killing more than 500 and injuring about 1,000 more. This sent thousands of Yezidis to the Syrian border to seek asylum.

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The Mandeans were also settled in Iraq, south of Baghdad. There are also some in Iran. The name derives from Manda, their word for the Gnosis.

They are called Sabeans by the Muslims, who have tolerated  them – under certain strictures – as one of the “Peoples of the Book”, a category that includes the Jews and Christians. They have 5 holy books, chiefly the Ginza, all written in a unique  dialect of Aramaic, and in a unique script.

Their main sacrament is baptism, and as they claim John the Baptist as a member (not founder) of their sect, they are also known as the Christians of St. John. The baptismal rite is not performed once and for all, but as regular ablutions. They do  not build temples. Their ritual baptism takes place in sanctified compounds (mandi) where in front of small cult-huts there are pools called “Jordans”, kept fresh by streams flowing in and out. After each baptism the priests hand out bread and water. On certain occasions they sacrifice doves and sheep. They do not practice circumcision.

Their cosmogony is great imaginative stuff, closely resembling in general form, though not in nomenclature and details, the cosmogonies of most Gnostic faiths.

Earth and Man were formed by a demiurge. The history of the universe unfolds in 7 stages, corresponding to the 7 planets. Like Gnostic cults in general, Mandeism is dualistic. Light and Darkness stand opposed to each other, Light to the North, Darkness to the South.

In the Northern World, or Kingdom of Light, the Highest Being is called the Great Life. He emanated the Mighty Spirit called the King of Light, and is surrounded by innumerable emanated beings  called the Uthri. With them, the King of Light made the Heavenly or Great Adam, who emanated the Second Life, Joshamin, who emanated the Third Life, Abathur, the Keeper of the Scales, who emanated the Fourth Life, Ptahil, who is the Creator God.

In the Southern World, or Kingdom of Darkness, the Spirit of Evil, who arose out of primeval chaos or dark water, emanated the King of Darkness, Rutha, who is surrounded by emanated demonic beings and phantoms. With them the King of Darkness made the 7 planets – which are also the 7 demons, the Archons who rule this world – and the 12 constellations of the Zodiac.

The two sides, right from the “beginning” which was (nevertheless) “before time”, are hostile to each other. But the lower Archons of the Kingdom of Light, including particularly Ptahil, tend towards the darkness, and they, with Ruha, and the 7, and the 12, created the material world, and formed the First Man, the earthly Adam. But the Rulers of the World of Light intervened, and sent a messenger, the Gnosis of Life, also called the Son of Life, who is the Redeemer. He brought the material body of Adam to life by endowing him with a soul, and he chained Ruha the Evil King, and punished Ptahil the Creator by exiling him from the World of Light until the end of the earthly world. The soul is called the Inner Adam.

The Mandeans name themselves the Race of Life. They claim descent from Adam and Eve. Their constant religious purpose is to save their light-sent souls from the prison of this material world, this creation of darkness, by means of the Gnosis and their sacred rituals.

The souls of the good, who are the chosen, will rise to the Kingdom of Light when they leave this life. The ascent is arduous but, being gifted with the Gnosis, they will know what magic spells and incantations to say, and they will  break certain seals, in order to pass the 7 planets, or demons, which will challenge them; and each will be helped by a Guide who is his soul’s spiritual counterpart, and by ceremonies and hymns performed by the Mandeans still on earth. But (as in Zoroastrianism) they have to see as they pass the stations of the demons, the sufferings of those who have not earned the right to rise to the Light. The  bad or unenlightened   souls – including all Christians – are caught in way-stations, where the Forces of Darkness punish them with chains, irons, cauldrons and ovens for as long as time lasts. Then they’ll be judged a second time, weighed in a scale, and if found wanting, will be confined forever in darkness.

Although in its own belief Mandeanism arose in ancient Judea – and has dietary laws like those of Judaism, and prohibits image-making – it owes more to Zoroastrianism (see our post Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009) than to Judaism or Christianity, and is probably a pre-Christian Gnostic cult. It differs from most other such cults by being neither ascetic nor libertine. It commands marriage, and approves the begetting of children, good works, and charity.

The Mandeans are pacifists, and at present fear annihilation by Muslim militants, who try to force them to convert to Islam under threat of massacre. Of an approximate 70,000 world wide, there are now only some 5,000 left in Iraq. A majority of the ancient Iraqi community have fled to Syria and Jordan, where they still feel unsafe, and hope (forlornly) to be granted asylum en masse in the West.

Posted under Articles, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Sunday, April 4, 2010

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  • NoCountryForYoungMen

    Interesting, I have never heard of these religious groups before… I am surprised they have survived this long in the Islamic middle east.