Mani and Manicheism 22

Here’s another essay in our series on religions that are dead or obscure or just curious. This one is about Mani and his cult. I’ve made choices from various accounts of his life and teachings, not out of any conviction that these are the true or truer versions, but because I like their drama and colorfulness. Only fragments of Mani’s writings are extant, and what is known of his life derives from Christian and other writers who have quoted him, among them St. Agustine, and from a Greek codex found in Upper Egypt in 1969, and probably written more than 100 years after his death, which is rather too hagiographic to be considered authoritative.

Mani’s myths and beliefs were trusted by millions for hundreds of years, and however incredible they may seem now, they’re hardly more so than those of religions more familiar to us, that vast numbers of persons trust in our own day.


Mani was born about 216 C.E. in Babylonia. His father, it is said, was a Mandean [see our post Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010] or an Elcasaite. (The Elcasaites were one of the Jewish Christian sects called Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but not divine.) During his childhood, the Persian Kingdom passed into the hands of a new dynasty, the Sassanids, and under their rule Mani flourished for about thirty years from 241 C.E.

It was Mani’s intention to found a new universal religion, and in a way he did.

When he was a child, a spirit whom he recognized as his “twin”, or “Divine Self”, revealed holy mysteries to him. He developed them into a religion that eventually spread from the shores of the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, with Manichean churches concentrated in central Asia. There Manicheism survived for centuries after it was crushed in the West by the Catholic Church. So pernicious an infection did the Medieval Church consider Mani’s doctrine that the word “Manichean” became synonymous with “heresy”.

According to some accounts, Mani’s life ended in prison. But there is a persistent legend that, although his beliefs derived largely from Zoroastrianism (see our post Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009), he suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Zoroastrian state. Exactly how is disputed. Some say he was crucified, others that he was pegged out under the mid-day sun in the midst of a packed arena and skinned alive. Perhaps both methods were employed, one after the other, there being no limit to the zeal of those who would save mankind from false doctrine.

What Mani added to the wisdom of the ages was his own version of the Gnostic myth of the War between Good and Evil – alias Light and Darkness. Darkness encroaches on the Light, there is a cosmic battle, some of the Light is lost to the Darkness, and as part of the strategy of the Light to redeem what it has lost so that the universe can be restored to its proper order, mankind is created.

In Mani’s cosmogony there was no gradual decline of the spiritual and good into the material and evil as in the Gnostic sects that emerged north and south of the Mediterranean, such as those of Simon Magus [see our post The father of all heresy, February 21, 2010] and Marcion [see How a rich ship owner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010]. From the beginning they were both there, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness; side by side, two equal Kingdoms. There was no wall between them, only a space. Then a partial but catastrophic intermingling took place, and the right order was lost, only to be re-established when every scrap of the lost Light has been retrieved, literally redeemed, and put beyond the reach of Darkness.

It was a dramatic story, full of sex and violence in the heavens.

The Two Kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness, existed side by side. They had always existed.

Then, still before Time began, yet at some point of “time” before Time began, Darkness “encroached” on the Kingdom of Light.

It was a crisis that had to be remedied. The response of the Ruler of the Kingdom of Light was to create beings whose task it was to restore the separation of Light and Darkness. They would take immediate action.

This was the First Creation.

The Ruler of the Kingdom of Light, whose name was The Great Father called forth The Mother of Light, who called forth The Primal Man, who called forth five Sons named Gentle Breeze, Cooling Wind, Glowing Light, Clear Water, Quickening Fire.

The Mother of Light held out her right hand to Primal Man who, led by an Angel [of unexplained origin] spreading light ahead of him, advanced to the edge of the battlefield armed with his Soul (which is also called his ‘Maiden’), and supported by his five Sons, who commanded the legions of the Archons of Light, did battle with Primal Man’s counterpart from the Kingdom of Darkness called the Arch-Devil. (Called forth presumably by a Mother of Darkness, who was called forth by the King of Darkness.)

The Arch-Devil also had five Sons, Smoke, Consuming Fire, Sirocco Wind, Steam, Gloom. And his legions were the Archons of Darkness.

Primal Man used an astonishing tactic. He fed his five sons to the five sons of Darkness, and the Archons of Light to the Archons of Darkness, to “poison” them with Light. But the plan didn’t work. The outcome of the battle was an intensification of the disaster: Light mixed with Darkness.

Primal Man, defeated, was taken prisoner and dragged into the Kingdom of Darkness, where he was chained, and made blind and deaf, and deprived of understanding, so that he forgot the Kingdom of Light. Thus it came about that Good now shared in Evil – though concomitantly Evil was “calmed” [mitigated] by its dose of Good.

Although Primal Man could not remember the Kingdom of Light, he prayed to The Great Father, who heard his prayer, and in response created The Friend of Light, who called forth The Great Architect, who called forth The Living Spirit who called forth his own five sons.

This new party went to the edge of Darkness and looked down into the abyss of Hell, but could not see Primal Man. So The Living Spirit called with a loud voice, which cut through the darkness, and Primal Man heard him and answered the call. The Living Spirit held out his right hand to Primal Man and hauled him out of the pit.

The Call and The Answer [notice how a new noun cropping up in the story can be instantly personified] rose together, The Call to the Living Spirit, The Answer to the Mother of Light “for he was her beloved Son”.

However, the Soul of Primal Man was left behind in the Darkness. Further action was needed.

So now The Great Father created The Cosmos “to unmix what had been mixed”.

This was the Second Creation.

With the creation of the Cosmos, this World and Time began. The purpose of their creation was to “sift the Light from the Darkness”.

Heaven and Earth were made from the skins and carcasses of the Archons who had swallowed the Light. So they were made form the mixed parts of Light and Darkness, but by doing this the Great Father separated the mixed parts from the mass of the Darkness.

The Light that was easiest to extract was made into the Sun and the Moon, which are called the Two Ships, and the Stars. So while the Planets belong to the Archons of Darkness, the Stars are ‘fragments of the Soul’ and belong to the Kingdom of Light.

The Mother of Light, Primal Man, and the Living Spirit prayed to the Great Father to create a New God to redeem the Five Sons of Primal Man, the wind, water, and fire that belonged to the Kingdom of Light. The Great Father heard their prayer and called forth The Messenger.

The Messenger had two forms, one male and one female, both beautiful. [It’s not alleged that the two forms were the same as The Call and The Answer, but it’s a fair conjecture that they might have been.]

The Messenger immediately went about the task of “sifting” and saving the Light by setting the Two Ships in motion, the Sun and the Moon, and starting the revolution of the Zodiac.

He also called forth Twelve Virgins (named for peaceful virtues), who set up an engine of five buckets. The Zodiac, turning like a water-wheel, lifted the Light and poured it into the buckets, and they tipped it into one or other of the Two Ships, which carried it away to the Kingdom of Light and returned for more.

This the cosmic process of salvation was engineered with machines and processes to transport the Light upwards as it was redeemed from its entrapment in nature.

It happened that by the light of the Two Ships, the Sun and the Moon, the Messenger was revealed to the children of Darkness. Both his two forms, Male and Female, were made apparent to them. At once the Archons of Darkness lusted after them, the male Archons after the Female Form, and the female Archons after the Male Form. Their desire brought them to ecstasy, in the throes of which they released the light that had entered them when they had devoured the Five Sons of Primal Man. Their emissions were collected in the five buckets and the two Ships transported the recovered light back to where it belonged.

Unfortunately, a dark substance also “escaped from the male Archons”, and tried [it is instantly a thing with a will] to enter the ships along with the light. The Messenger, hiding himself again, did his best to sort out the good freight of Light from the evil cargo of Darkness. He succeeded by and large, sending the load of Light off through Heaven in the ships, and letting the Dark sink to the earth, where it formed all the flora rooted in our world. All vegetables, herbs, trees and flowers are creatures of Darkness, though they have minute fragments of Light still imprisoned in them.

The female Archons had managed to conceive in the throes of their ecstasy at the sight of the male form of The Messenger; but they miscarried, and their abortions are the animals that roam the earth.

Now the King of Darkness conceived the idea of creating Adam and Eve as copies of the Messenger’s two forms, which he too had seen and admired. He intended the man and the woman to be lock-boxes for holding Light. He threw a cosmic orgy, selected two of the embryos procreated by his demons, and shaped them into the beautiful Male and Female forms. Into them he poured all the Light – which is to say the Soul – that remained in his dwindling store. So the human body is a devilish thing of dark earth, imprisoning the redeemable soul, made of light.

This was the Third Creation.

From then on, the battlefield of Light and Darkness has been the human race. The souls of men and women are themselves the prize. But the more souls there are trapped in lusting bodies the better for the distribution and safe-keeping of the Light. The demons “gave Eve their concupiscence” so she would do her utmost to seduce Adam. They would have children, and generations would follow, more and more bodily prisons keeping the Light from its home. The Light within would try to keep the human creature from giving in to the lusts of the flesh. But they found the struggle to save themselves too hard to win. So the Mother of Light, the Living Spirit, and the Messenger sent Jesus to earth to save the human race, and to reveal knowledge to it.

Just as there was an archetype of Adam – the Primal Man – in the Kingdom of Light, there was also an archetype of Jesus. He was called the Luminous Jesus. He appeared on earth when Adam was made, advised him to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but not to let Eve seduce him. Adam took his advice, tasted the fruit, and resisted Eve – for a while. But he gave in, and the dire history of mankind began. After long ages Zoroaster was sent to help the human race, and ages later Buddha. Then the second Jesus came, the Passible Jesus – the Jesus who could suffer.

Finally here was Mani, the last best hope of mankind. He renewed the lost mission of the Luminous Jesus. He taught the race of men how to fulfil its part in the great mission – the redemption of the Light from the Darkness.

To do its great work, there were things human beings must do and not do.

They must abominate the Laws of Moses and all the scriptures of the Jews.

They should not copulate, because the begetting of children created more human bodies to lock up bits of the Light. (This command was not strictly obeyed, and many Manichean generations were born.)

There was to be no eating of meat because of the Soul-stuff in animals. Of course there was some Soul-stuff in vegetables too, but less, and unlike animals they did not suffer pain, so they could be consumed.

The good Manichean must not accumulate worldly goods. Poverty is good. You must keep yourself separate from the material world as far as possible. The fewer things you handle the better. You should not build a house to live in. You should not labour more than is necessary. Inactivity is better than activity. The less you move, the less you sin. Even breathing is sinful as it damages the air. You sin when you walk; you even sin when you sleep. All are sinners who live on earth, though with Light trapped in them.

However, you must not kill yourself. To let yourself starve to death would be tantamount to suicide, so either you must make some effort to keep yourself alive, or someone else must do it for you. Clearly, not all the followers of Mani could embrace the extreme that he preached. Those who did were the holiest. They were called the Elect. They lived apart and hardly stirred. Their needs were catered for by a rank of men below them in holiness, called the Hearers, or Soldiers. (St. Augustine was a Hearer for some nine years.) They lived and worked in the world, but care of the Elect was their life’s purpose. The rest of mankind were the Sinners.

At the end of time almost all the Light will have been separated from the Darkness, the remnant of creation will be consumed in a great conflagration, and the universe restored to its original order.

The salvation of Primal Man from the Pit of Darkness is the sign and guarantee of the ultimate salvation of the universe.

Jillian Becker   May 9, 2010

Posted under Articles, Gnosticism, Iran, Mysticism, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Sunday, May 9, 2010

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