Manichaeism was the religion founded by the Prophet Mani who was born in c. 217 CE near Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) just prior to the establishment of the Sassanid dynasty.
The Prophet Mani
Mani had a visionary experience at the age of twelve and was later instructed by an angel, at the age of twenty-four, to preach the truth in public (1). Mani obeyed and he spent much of his time fashioning his teachings in paintings and writings. He compiled a book called Images to communicate his doctrines. Mani also traveled after being given permission to do so from King Shapur. This allowed Mani to preach throughout the empire; his “missionary travels”, writes David Scott, “took him by sea to the North-western Indian area of the Indus valley during 241/2 [CE], with his overland return taking him through Turan (Baluchistan, Pakistan/Afghanistan), an Indo-Iranian vassal state under loose Sasanian control” (2). Mani believed that his religion was a suitable candidate for state religion of the Sassanid dynasty. However, after Shapur’s death in 270 CE Mani fell out of favour as others in the empire sought to re-construct Zoroastrianism. He was later opposed by the king Bahram I and imprisoned. Mani died in prison, probably as a result of torture, although Manichaeism lived on in the Roman Empire and into the time of Islam. Some scholars have suggested Manichaeism might still have existed in sixteenth-century China (3).
Universalistic and Syncretic
Mani proposed a universalist message that took inspiration from the teachings of Zoroaster, the Buddha, Hermes, Plato, and Jesus Christ. He claimed to be the final successor in the line of these figures and attempted to synthesize their teachings. Mani was convinced that these figures all communicated the same message of the same God to humanity. It was likely because of these universalist and syncretic tendencies, which brought together themes from different religions and important figures, that Manichaeism spread successfully despite persecution.
Mani was reared as a Christian, although many Christians would come to view Manichaeism as a heresy. However, the dominant theology underpinning Mani’s thought was influenced by Zoroastrianism, particularly in his separation of light and darkness, and good and evil. Manichaeism, like Zoroastrianism, is dualistic in that it posits a battle between two opposing forces that contradict and undermine each other (4). The two polar principles are light and darkness, both eternal and originally separate. The realm of light is ruled by Father of Light (or Greatness), a supreme god. According to Mani, the soul had fallen into the material world where it is now trapped in darkness. God will, however, send a saviour to awaken those who have fallen asleep in the darkness. The only means for attaining salvation is by knowledge and direct experience of the Light. Sex is thought to have a negative contributive role as it intends to produce as many bodies as possible to trap the light, which is why Manichees stressed refraining from sex and for married followers to observe strict monogamy. Manichaeism was also a salvation religion as it taught Light will win the battle in the end against the darkness.
Manichaeism’s Origin Story
Manichaeism’s origin story teaches that the Father of Light created spiritual beings, among them the Mother of Life, who brought forth a son, the Primal Man. The Primal Man was instructed by the Father of Light to descend into the realm of darkness with his five sons to battle the forces of evil. However, the Primal Man was defeated and the demons devoured the sons. Light and darkness had now mixed but needed to be disentangled. First, the Father of Light sent forth the Living Spirit to defeat darkness. It managed to kill some of the demons from which it created the cosmos. It also chained some of the slain demons to the heavens. The Father of Light evoked the Third Messenger and the Maiden of Light who exposed themselves to the chained demons. The male demons ejaculated and the females aborted, with the result that the light that they had devoured left them to fall to Earth. The sperm became plants and the aborted fetuses grew into new demons, two of which devoured all of the others. The two demons mated to produce Adam and Eve, onto whom they passed light. The Father of Light then sent Jesus Christ to awaken Adam’s soul and show him the light within, although Eve rejected salvation. Man now became the vehicle for redemption and who would go on to collect the light scattered in the world, which he united with his soul. This path will allow him to enter the paradise of light after the death of the body.
Ethics and Important Days
The ethics of the Manichees were strict and compassionate. No-one was to engage in violence and the laity was expected to give a tenth or a seventh of their earnings to the clergy. Confessing sins would be done weekly and annually in a collective ceremony. A time of importance for the Manichees was the annual Bema festival and celebration, which remembered the suffering and death of Mani. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica during this festival,
“The whole community of the elect and the laymen gathered together, and the principal ceremonies were a general confession said by the hearers and the elect, an absolution for all sins committed in the past year, and a quasi-sacramental meal in which the elect partook. Between or before these rites, vigil-keeping, hymn-singing, and recitation of canonical texts (such as Mani’s Seal Letter) were customary, and no doubt there were also sermons, catechism classes, and telling of parables.” (6)
The Bema festival was accompanied by an empty throne with Mani’s portrait. Mani himself was believed to come to this ceremony and sit on the throne. Some of the Manichees lived in monasteries and found support from the laity. The ideal for the clergy was to practice non-violence, celibacy, poverty, and avoid impure foods. It was also important to pray four times a day while meditation was also practiced. Meditation brought out the light from within the devotee and gave direct knowledge of the Light.
Certainly, the most reputable one-time adherent of this religion was St. Augustine (6). Although Augustine was attracted to Manichaeism, particularly because they felt at liberty to criticize Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, he would later convert to Christianity after an experience he perceived as a heavenly indication. Much of our knowledge of the Manichees comes from the polemical writings of Augustine, such as his Against the Manicheans.
1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 226-232
2. Scott, David. 2007. “Manichaeism in Bactria: Political Patterns & East-West Paradigms.” Journal of Asian History 41(2):107-130.
3. Kirwan, Christopher. 1998. “Manicheism.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
4. de Blois, François. 2000. “Dualism in Iranian and Christian Traditions.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 10(1):1-19. p. 1.
5. Encyclopedia Iranica. 1989. Bema. Available.
6. van Oort, Johannes. 2010. “Manichaean Christians in Augustine’s Life and Work.” Church History and Religious Culture 90(4):505-546