War in the Heavens and Here Below

A new book revisits Manicheaism. Scott McLemee takes a look at the world religion that didn't quite make it.

February 18, 2009

The world, it is said, is made up of two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. The joke is too old to be funny, yet it has a point, even so. The impulse to dichotomize is not universal – but close enough. Some of us tend to think that the ability to distinguish shades of gray is a mark of progress. But the digital alternative of black and white tends to reassert itself from time to time. Maybe our brains are wired for binary oppositions, after all?

The fascination of Michel Tardieu’s book Manichaeism, just published in an English translation by the University of Illinois Press comes from watching the emergence and consolidation of the most emphatic possible variant of this tendency – from seeing it take a particular shape in a specific place and time.

The arrival of the prophet Mani (born in Persia in the year 216) falls almost exactly between the lives of Jesus and Mohammad. The religion he founded has died off. Until libraries of Manichean scriptures were unearthed over the past century or so, most of what we knew about the faith came via Christian and Muslim polemicists. But the Mani's vision is another matter. Manicheaism regards the world as a battlefield occupied by the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, with combat headed fast towards a final reckoning. This outlook is alive and well along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- not to mention certain holdouts in Thinktankistan, a province of Washington, D.C.

No such topical points are scored by Tardieu, who lectures on the religious syncretisms of late antiquity at the Collège de France. His book first appeared in 1981 -- then in a revised edition in 1997 -- as part of the “Que Sais-Je?” series of popular guides to scholarship. (Its format is somewhat reminiscent of Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions.) The approach here is, for the most party, strictly positivist – or, to put it another way, a bit dry, though that soon proves an advantage. For the history and doctrines of Manichaeism are more than imaginative enough in themselves. If the prophet Mani had not existed, I suspect Jorge Luis Borges would have needed to invent him.

His father Patteg, it seems, was a regular worshipper attending a house of idols in a city in what is now Iran. Or rather, he was one, until he heard a voice that commanded him to abstain from meat, wine, and sex. This went on for three days and made a big impression, as well it might. Patteg abandoned his pagan ways and joined a sect that combined elements of Christianity with its own rather more stringent gloss on Jewish dietary laws. Meat of any kind was forbidden, for example, and the faithful would baptize vegetables before eating them.

Mani was presumably conceived before Patteg's ascetic commandments took full effect. He grew up in the faith, but had his own set of visions when he was 12 years old -- the same age Jesus was when his parents found him arguing fine points of scripture with the elders at the temple. Tradition also has it that the prophet's his mother was named Maryam. (You can see where this kind of thing would annoy Christian heresiologists.)

In any case, when Mani proclaimed his own revelations in his early 20s, he challenged the idea that blessing your food while washing it made it pure. What came out of your backside was the same as if you had eaten something the law proclaimed unclean. As he continued to preach and draw followers, Mani made it clear that he recognized and respected the authority of three other prophets – Jesus, Zoroaster, and the Buddha. His own role was to complete their work. He would synthesize what they had revealed, and fulfill what they had left undone. Mani was “the seal of the prophets.”

It would be a mistake to think this amounted to some New Age, come-as-you-are brand of spirituality. Nor did his satiric jibes at food baptism mean that followers should eat just whatever they wanted. The revelations of Mani supplanted previous doctrines, and imposed a severe discipline on believers. The struggle for purity involved a lot more than washing your vegetables.

The demands on the Manichean faithful make the life of a Puritan seem like that of a libertine. Bathing was forbidden, for example, since it would be (1) an act of violence against the water and (2) a source of sensual pleasure. The clergy had to take vows of extreme poverty. Its members were supposed to eat only certain vegetables, and not many of them. But even that was forbidden during the periods of fasting, which were regular and frequent.

At an annual festival, lay believers presented a banquet of really good fruit to "the elect." By that point, the religious leaders were famished, but sufficiently pure for the task of harvesting the “particles of light” contained in their food. The particles had been scattered throughout the universe during the struggles between two eternal principles known as the Father of Greatness and the King of Darkness -- the forces of good and evil.

Mani explained that there had already been two cosmic battles between them. The conflict had generated a number of lesser gods and devils. Some of the demons had created Adam and Eve -- with Eve being particularly susceptible to their influence. Procreation was a diabolical means for further scattering the “particles of light” in the world. Funny how often these cosmic dualisms have a streak of misogyny in them, somewhere.

But happily Adam was approached by one of the three versions of Jesus. (Seriously, don’t ask.) And so mankind now has a role to play in the third war between Light and Darkness -- the final apocalyptic showdown between good and evil. The role of the Manichean religion was to help bolster the divine forces. Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity after a period as one of the Manichean laity, is quite sarcastic about this in his Confessions: “To those who were called ‘elect’ and ‘holy,’ we brought foods, out of which, in the workshop of their stomachs, they were to make us angels and gods, by whom we might be liberated.”

Plenty here for outsiders to ridicule, then. But the conviction that they were troops in a cosmic battle gave believers a certain esprit de corps that was hard to break. The faith also had a streak of self-conscious universalism that encouraged proselytizing. Mani himself went to India and converted some Buddhists to his revelation. As late as the 13th century, Marco Polo encountered Manicheans in China. And severe asceticism can exercise a fascination even on people who reject the doctrines behind it. Christianity and Islam did not so much wipe out Mani’s faith as, so to speak, absorb certain particles lodged within it.

In any case, Mani himself was clearly some kind of genius. Jesus and the Buddha left it to disciples to record their teachings. By contrast, Mani composed his own scriptures and even perfected an alphabet to make it a better medium for recording speech. He illustrated his complex history of warfare among superhuman forces with paintings that were remembered long after they were lost. “In the culture of Islamic Iran,” writes Tardieu, Mani’s name “has come to symbolize beauty of the most refined kind." (Although Tardieu does not venture this point, something about Mani's visions, with their bizarrely intricate mythology, call to mind Blake's prophetic books. The fact that both were lovingly illustrated suggests the parallel is not simply in the eye of the beholder.)

Mani took care to elaborate the rituals and organizational structure of his religion, instead of leaving this for later generations to suss out for themselves. It seems almost as if he’d read Max Weber on the routinization of charisma and put it into practice. He also tried to establish his faith as a new state religion by talking it up to various monarchs. The effort did not pay off. Indeed, it led to Mani’s execution at the age of sixty, from which he had the misfortune not to be resurrected.

One other circumstance may have been decisive in Manichaeism ending up as also-ran among the world religions. Treating procreation as an instrument of the Evil One tends to be bad for a creed's long-term viability. Tardieu is much too sober a scholar to speculate, but I feel pretty sure it was a factor.


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