Manichaeism: The Ancient Religion that Rivaled Christianity
Manichaeism is a multi-faceted religion that was founded by Iranian prophet Mani. After a revelation with the angel Eltaum, Mani prepared for 12 years to proclaim himself to the people. Manichaeism was developed in Mani’s several writings, which depicted a battle between forces, and a creation of man and the universe which was founded on the conflict between light and dark. For several centuries, Manichaeism spread far and wide, at one point being considered a main rival to Christianity.
Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation, Cathayan/Chinese Manichaean silk painting, 13th century. ( Public Domain )
Who was the Founder of Manichaeism?
The story of Manichaeism prophet Mani was largely biased by the religion’s detractors until a Greek parchment was discovered in 1969. The document dates to 400 AD and is known as the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis. With that codex, researchers have now gained better insight into who Mani was and his teachings.
Mani was born in 216 AD in Mesopotamia to parents who were members of the religious sect of Elcesaites. Mani’s father, upon worshiping in a temple, claimed to have heard a voice that urged him to abstain from wine, women, and meat. To obey the voice, Mani’s father emigrated south, with Mani, to join the Mughtasilah, or Mandaean Baptists.
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Detail of Mani's Birth, showing the newborn has emerged from the chest of his mother. ( Public Domain )
At this time, Mani had his first revelation. The angel Eltaum appeared before him and told him to leave the Mandaeans, live chastely, and to proclaim himself to the people after the passage of 12 years’ time. He proclaimed himself on Sunday, March 20, 242 AD, saying to the people: “As once Buddha came to India, Zoroaster to Persia, and Jesus to the lands of the West, so came in the present time, this prophecy through me, the Mani, to the land of Babylonia.” Mani spoke as the “Apostle of the true God.”
As he developed Manichaeism, Mani composed seven writings, including the Shabuhragan. His teachings focused on the origins of evil and taught a “dualistic” view between good and evil . These appeared to reflect several religions - including Babylonian, Buddhist, Chaldean, Judaic, Christian, Iranian, and Zoroastrian dualism.
At first Mani had little success and was forced to travel abroad to spread Manichaeism to Turkestan and India. He presented one of his seven writings to the King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur I, who did not follow Manichaeism, but tolerated it and did not inhibit its spread.
Illustration depicting Mani the Prophet. ( Great Thoughts Treasury )
The Universe’s Three Phases of Creation in Manichaeism
Under the beliefs of Manichaeism, there existed a powerful good force, ‘God’, which opposed a semi-eternal evil force, ‘Satan’. Manichaeism is a Gnostic religion that focuses on salvation by knowledge. The battle between God and Satan created humanity, the world, and the soul as a byproduct.
Humans serve as the battleground, as the soul is believed to contain both the light of God and the dark of Satan. The collision between the light of God and the dark of Satan is the main conflict of Manichaeism. This all is said to begin with the creation of the universe in three phases.
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The “First Creation” began with a world in which good and evil existed separately. Good was found in the World of Light. The World of Light was ruled by the Father of Greatness and five divine attributes of light called Shekhinas. Evil resided in the World of Darkness , ruled by the King of Darkness.
Over time, the World of Darkness became aware of the existence of the World of Light. The World of Darkness became jealous and greedy and attacked the World of Light. The Mother of Life sent her son, Original Man, to fight off the attacking powers of Darkness and the Demon of Greed.
Manichaean Diagram of the Universe, depicting the Manichaean cosmology. ( Public Domain )
The five Shekhinas provided the Original Man with five shields of light, which were used to trick the Darkness. The Darkness defeated the Original Man, swallowing as much of the light from his shields as possible, and entrapped him within the World of Darkness.
The “Second Creation” began when the Father of Greatness sent a call to the Living Spirit and to the Original Man. The Original Man answered the World of Light. The call and answer both became Manichaean deities. Together, the Living Spirit, his five sons, and the Mother of Life used the bodies of evil from the World of Darkness, and the light they had swallowed, to begin creating the universe .
The mixtures of darkness and light were used to create 10 heavens and eight earths. The light was used to create the sun, the moon, and the stars. As the moon became full, it filled with light which passed to the sun, through the Milky Way , to the World of Light.
The New Aeon and Liberation of light, that is, triad of the Sun, Moon, and a third divine figure between them. ( Public Domain )
The “Third Creation” began as demons were hanged over the heavens. From the male and female evil beings, light was drawn and they became sexually aroused in greed. As the light was expelled from their bodies, evil attempted to consume as much of the light back into their bodies as they could.
After swallowing large quantities of light, the evil beings copulated and created Adam and Eve . Radiant Jesus was sent by the Father of Greatness to awaken Adam and to teach him of the source of light within his body. However, Adam and Eve ultimately copulate and produce more humans, each with the light trapped within their human body.
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10th century Manichaean Electae in Gaochang (Khocho), China. (PHGCOM/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Spread of Mani’s Teachings
Mani’s teachings were recounted through his books. Six of the original books were written in Syriac Aramaic . These original books have since been lost, but not before being widely translated to help spread the religion of Manichaeism. Translations included Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, Tocharian, Uyghur, Chinese, Greek, Coptic, and Latin.
Manichaeism spread very quickly through the Syriac Aramaic region, ultimately becoming one of the most widespread religions in the world. It’s most prosperous time was between the third and seventh centuries, before it faded away in the 14th century. It was considered the main rival to Christianity at one point.
To many, Manichaeism was the only true combination of all religions known at the time; combining Babylonian, Buddhist, Chaldean, Judaic, Christian, Iranian, and Zoroastrian dualism. With such a combination of religions , it is easy to see how Manichaeism would have appealed to a great many people. The classic focus on light versus dark is a theme that prevails in many major religions even today.
Cao'an Temple in Jinjiang, Fujian, considered "the only extant Manichean temple in China". ( Zhangzhugang/CC BY 4.0 )
Top Image: Detail of a scene from the book ‘Work of Religion,’ a text used in Manicheanism. Source: CC BY SA 2.5
By M R Reese
Manichaeism – New Advent. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09591a.htm
The Prophet Mani and his Universalist Faith – Macrohistory and World Timeline. Available at: http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch22.htm
Manichaeism and true Christianity – Truth for Today. Available at: http://www.tecmalta.org/tft323.htm