30 June 2011

Zenobia and the Manichean Convert

Rock Crystal Sasanian Seal: Mani and two of the Elect (priests).
The inscription reads, "Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ".

Mani, Apostle of Light

A new religion was founded in Mesopotamia in the third-century by the Persian prophet, Mani (216-277 CE).  Mani deliberately created a universal church that incorporated Christian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist concepts.    Previously considered by scholars to be a Christian heresy, Manicheism (as named after the 'apostle') is now properly understood as an independent religion in its own right. 
Glory and honour to the Paraclete!*  Victory and blessing to our lord [Mani], the Spirit of truth, this one from the Father.

Mani saw himself not only as the successor of previous prophets (Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ), but also as the incarnation of the saviour -- that is, both as Jesus the saviour and as Buddha Maitreya, the saviour.
Wisdom and deeds have always from time to time been brought to mankind by the messengers of god.  So in one age they were brought by the messenger called Buddha to India, in another by [Zoroaster] to Persia, in another by Jesus to the West.  Thereupon this revelation has come down, this prophecy in this last age, through me, Mani, the messenger of the God of truth. (Shabuhragân).
Also in the Shabuhragân (a summary of his teachings written for his great patron, the Sasanian King of Kings, Shapur I), Mani declares that he is the very Paraclete* announced by the Messiah and that he is the seal of the prophets.  This means that no further revelations and prophets were necessary, since Mani considered he had taken all precautions to ensure that his religion would not be corrupted and so would endure until the end of the world.

In Mani’s view, the greatest problem with other religions was that the messages of true prophets had become corrupted by later generations because the earlier apostles did not write down their own teachings as he himself did (his seven canonical works included the Treasure of Life, Living Gospel, Book of Giants, Book of Mysteries, Letters, Psalms and Prayers [all in Syriac Aramaic], and the Shabuhragân [in Persian]).  Jesus, he said, came to the West, and after his death his disciples wrote down his words. Zoroaster came to  Persia, but he did not write books, though his disciples remembered and wrote down his words after his death. And, when the Buddha came, he preached much wisdom and established churches, but he did not write anything, and, again, it was his disciples who wrote down his words after his death. 

That was one way in which Manicheism was thought to be superior to all the others. Just as important, Mani’s religion did not dismiss other religions as false religions; instead he accepted earlier religions and their prophets as carriers of parts of the truth. So, he incorporated elements of those faiths into his own great scheme of the world and mankind.

According to Mani, his new religion would not simply replace the previous religions, but rather represented the fulfilment of what the previous religions had promised but not been able to live up to. It was the same truth that had been revealed to the earlier prophets and was embedded in their religions, but, for various reasons, this truth had degenerated.  Earlier religions simply did not have the inherent power to withstand the attacks of evil -- and so they degenerated, and the truth they contained was spoilt.
The writings and the wisdom and the apocalypses and the parables and the psalms of all earlier churches were gathered everywhere and came to Mani’s church and were added to the wisdom which he revealed.... “As water will be added to water and becomes much water, so were the ancient books added to my writings and became a great wisdom the like of which was not proclaimed (hitherto) in all ancient generations.” (Kephalaia,** chap. 154)
This is also what Mani believed distinguished his church from all others.  But perhaps what made Manicheism really special (and Mani himself put this at the top of his list) was the fact that "The previous religions were only in one land and in one language, but Mani’s was taught in all lands and in all languages."

During Mani's lifetime, the religion had already moved east towards India and west into the Roman empire.  The gruesome death of the founder (recounted in Sassanian Stuff III) did not prevent the new religion from growing and spreading.  By the time the Sasanian Empire was overthrown by the armies of Islam in the mid-7th century, Manicheism had spread into Egypt and North Africa in the west, and to the borders of China and beyond in the east.  Thus, Manicheism reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans before it was eventually destroyed by the Catholic church in Europe and wiped out in the east by new conquerors.  So, at times, Manicheism was a veritable world religion -- as had been intended from the beginning.

So, one of the first things Mani did was to concern himself with missions. Not only did he send out missionaries, both east and west, as soon as possible, but he himself travelled extensively. From various sources we know that he visited many countries to the east of the Sasanian empire.  The most reliable report is from Ibn al-Nadim’s Fihrist, which tells us that Mani travelled from country to country for 40 years before he met with Shapur I, King of Kings, who granted him the right to teach his religion in the Persian empire.  Then, Mani settled near Ctesiphon, on the western bank of the Tigris and it was there, during 262-63, that he set down the tenets of his faith and organized the missions.  Throughout Shapur’s reign, for over thirty years, Mani and his followers were free to propagate their ideas.  And so it happened that, by 270, Mani’s religion had firm footholds throughout the vast Sasanian empire.

But that was not enough.  "All lands" meant the world outside Persian territory as well.  So Mani sent one of his closest collaborators, Mar Adda, who held the ecclesiastical rank of 'teacher', to carry the new religion to the west, i.e., to the Roman empire.  Several stories about Mar Adda's missionary activities are found in Manichean texts: for example, when Mar Adda was at Kirkuk (in the north-east of modern Iraq), Mani sent him three scribes who brought him the new gospel and instructed him to strive to spread the good word "like a merchant hoards up a treasure."  As the Prologue to the Kephalaia** reveals, Mani exhorted his disciples to record what he taught them, as "everything is explained fully and completely".

The Books of the Mysteries of the Truth

In 1929, a library of seven genuine Manichean Coptic texts were discovered in the ruins of an old house in Medinet Madi, to the south-west of the Fayyum, in central Egypt. The cache was said to have been hidden in a wooden chest found in the cellar by workmen digging for fertilizer.  They sold the papyri, all bound with wooden boards, to an antique dealer for a trifle. And so the books reached the Cairo market.  A German scholar, Carl Schmidt, who was on his way to Palestine to collect manuscripts, was shown a papyrus entitled the Kephalaia of the Teacher.  By sheer coincidence, he had been working on a 4th-century text (Bishop Epiphanius' Panarion) that furiously denounced 80 different 'heresies', which just happened to cite the Kephalaia as a book of detestable Manichean lies. And then, when Schmidt read the characteristic phrase, Once more the Enlightener speaks to his disciples, he knew for certain that the text had originated from the innermost circle of the Manichean sect. As he read on, it became clear that the 2,000 leaves (= 4,000 pages) were a treasure-trove of original Manichean documents:
Glory and honour to our Father, the God of Truth.  Victory and
blessing to his beloved son, Jesus, and his Holy
Spirit, our Lord, the Paraclete, and all his holy Elect.
While the Coptic papyri were probably written down ca. 400 CE, they were undoubtedly translated from Syriac originals that reach back to Mani himself or to the first generations of the church. 

Mar Adda at Palmyra

Included in the Medinet Madi papryi is a fragment of Mani's Homilies, which mentions the Semitic name of Palmyra:(Thadamor).  While this suggests a lost history of Manichean settlements in Palmyra, the reference passed without comment until, almost sixty years later, spectacular new finds allowed scholars to put two and two together: Manichean documents from the Turfan oasis in Xinjiang (northwestern China) included an account of the missionary exploits of Mar Adda, one of the earliest Manichean missionaries sent by Mani to the west.  His first stop in the Roman Empire seems to have been at Palmyra, where, as healer and teacher, he came into contact with Queen Zenobia.

But Mar Adda and Zenobia will have to wait a bit. What was supposed to be a short introduction to the Turfan texts has turned into a post of its own.  My apologies.  I promise that Zenobia and the Manichean Convert II (the whole kit and kaboodle!) will follow very quickly.  

Part II: click here.

* Mani as the Paraclete (comforter) and Holy Spirit incarnate. Cf: ...the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14.26)

** Kephalaia, Greek for 'headings, central principles'.  Sacred Manichean text in which Mani discusses the basic tenets of the religion with his students: The whole revelation I have unveiled/and declared to the church. In your presence/I declare this revelation alone.

I am most grateful to Chris Bennett (whose website is a treasure trove, too, on the chronology of the Ptolemaic Dynasty) who brought the documents from Turfan -- and their implications for Zenobia's history -- to my attention.

Main sources for this post: I.M.F. Gardner & F.N.C. Lieu, From Narmouthis to Kellis: Manichean Documents from Roman Egypt, JRS 86 (1996) 146-69;  Prods Oktor Skjærvø, An Introduction to Manicheism, 2006; W. Barnstone & M. Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, Ch. 40: 'The Kephalaia', 598-615.


Upper left: Manichean rock crystal seal engraved with 3 profile busts; inscribed “Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ”. Bibliothèque nationale de France, INT 1384BIS. Via Encyclopaedia Iranica

Middle left: Manichaean Middle Persian manuscript (ink on paper). © Depositum der BERLIN-BRANDENBURGISCHEN AKADEMIE DER WISSENSCHAFTEN in der STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung.  Via IDP (International Dunhuang Project)

Lower left: pictorial insert in Manichean scroll in the Sogdian language from Turfan oasis in Xinjiang (northwestern China), preserved in the collection of the Turfan Antiquarian Bureau (81 TB 65:01); created between 7th and 9th century CE.  Via  Encyclopaedia Iranica


15 June 2011

The Underground Tomb of the Aureli (Multiple Updates)

However implausible it seems, we should pay attention when the Historiae Augustae tells us that the young emperor Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 CE), always up bright and early, piously went first thing in the morning to 
worship in the sanctuary of his Lares [guardian gods] in which he kept the statues of the deified emperors ... and also of certain holy souls, among them Apollonius of Tyana [Pythagorean philosopher and miracle-worker], and, Christ, Abraham, Orpheus, and others of the same character.... (HA XXIX2)
Jesus Christ!  And Abraham, too!  Next to Orpheus and Apollonius?  Why in heaven's name is a pagan emperor of Rome worshipping such a mixed bag of souls in his private chapel?  Utter nonsense, I would have thought, and typical of the unreliable Historiae Augustae at its most fanciful.

But, then, I had not reckoned with the Underground Tomb of the Aureli.  

For no sooner had Alexander Severus -- and his mother, Julia Mamaea -- been murdered by mutinous soldiers far away in upper Germany (that story ends my series of More Uppity Women) than a freedman named Aurelius Felicissimus began to build an elaborate and ambitious tomb for himself (235-240 CE) in Rome.   

The richly decorated tomb consists of three rooms, two of them underground, which were used for burials. A mosaic inscription in the floor tells us that he built the tomb for his sister Aurelia Prima (described as a virgin), his  two brothers, and for fellow freedmen ... fratris et conlibertis.  This suggests that the space was intended for use by a select group of religious 'brothers', seemingly some kind of alternative cult community.  Scholars have never been able to decide on the identity of this group.  Were they Gnostics, Pythagorian Gnostics, heretical Christians, or even a pagan syncretic burial club?  

Religious Syncretism in Third-century Rome

The thousand political, social, economic and military problems of the century were reflected in philosophic and religious thought combining Roman ideology with the new beliefs and faiths coming from the East.  The cult of Mithra, Judaism, Neo-Platonic philosophy, Orphism, Christianity and Gnosticism co-existed in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Rome, creating a complex layering of religious expression. The tomb of the Aureli expresses this complexity as the burial place of a family of a high and striving social class, perhaps members of the entourage of freed slaves who became part of the Emperor’s court, and who emulated their betters by creating monumental funeral displays.

The mural decorations in the tomb contained new iconographic images suspended between daily life and the tranquil, blessed world of the beyond, while maintaining elements of Greek culture and Roman tradition.

Two great themes are incorporated into the frescoes: philosophy, which depicts a group of intellectuals holding wands and scrolls of wisdom, and bucolic scenes, represented by a shepherd with his sheep (the Good Shepherd?).  A curious combination of the two themes may seen in a bearded character in the act of reading a scroll while a flock of sheep grazes at his feet, which perhaps refers to one of the Aureli buried in the tomb.  Nearby, we see scenes from the Homeric cycle representing Odysseus returning to Ithaca to find Penelope at the loom being pestered by a row of naked suitors. 

Shifting Scenes 

These are many such pagan scenes ... but are the Aureli pagans?  That depends on how we read the pictures.  For example, one scene that has long been interpreted as  Adam and Eve with the tempting serpent and fatal apples is thrown into doubt because the couple is shown without sexual shame; some scholars now think that it illustrates the pagan theme of Heracles and the apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

The recent restoration of  the frescoes, using a revolutionary laser technique, offers a closer reading of some images. Where, for example, scholars had previously seen (left) the home and the sheep of the father of Odysseus, overcome with grief at the absence of his son, it now seems clear that the fresco actually shows Aurelia Prima untieing her hair in grief at the loss of her two brothers who are lying on the funeral bed within the chamber. 

Under the sorrowful sister, another scene shows the moment when Odysseus  persuades Circe to undo the transformation of his companions, who had been turned into swine, and she witches them back into men. This story from the tenth book of the Odyssey is inserted into a funeral motif because it was Circe who indicated to Odysseus the way to Hades.  The new scenes are thus perfectly in line with the multi-religious system of the time and the elaborate syncretism of the Aureli.

Yet it is hard to imagine the strands of religious symbolism being woven together in this next scene (below).

A mythical hippocampus (a horse with fishy, coiling hindquarters) is seen devouring a small human figure while a naked man looks on, lying relaxed in a bower, a lamp at his side.  Hippocamps are a traditional pagan funerary motif (like the Cupids, birds, and peacocks that appear elsewhere on the walls) but one wonders if this creature is not confused with the sea-monster sent to devour Andromeda, which morphed, in turn, in Christian art, into the sea-monster devouring Jonah and then vomiting him up.  So, could this be Jonah after his miraculous deliverance from the fish's belly, seated in a booth in the shadow outside Nineveh while he waits to see if God will destroy the city (Jonah 4.5)?

That would make it an 'orthodox' painting; wouldn't it?  If so, it was not enough.  The Tomb of the Aureli, like other heretical Christian catacombs, was not listed in medieval pilgrimage guides.  And, still today, we don't really know who was initiated and buried there. Orthodox or not, I guess the medieval church knew better than we who and what had crossed the red line.

From Rome to Palmyra

The paintings in the Tomb of the Aureli depict scenes belonging to the pagan, Jewish, and Christian worlds (both orthodox and heretical).  Even taking into account the diverse multicultural nature of Rome in the 3rd century, the richness and variety of the frescoes are astonishing.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the immensely varied religious visual (and possibly mystic) experiences of Dura-Europos -- see my post Gods at the Crossroads -- before it was destroyed in 256 CE.  With its dozens of temples dedicated to Greek and Roman gods, Mesopotamian deities, Palmyran gods and gads, a Mithraeum, a frescoed synagogue and the earliest Christian house-church anywhere in the world, there was an inevitable and eclectic mixing of images from one religion to another.

Palmyra, too, knew many different forms of worship.  We'll have a look at one new religion that had recently arrived there in my next post, Zenobia and the Manichean Convert

Updated 24 June 2011

Wonderful new images from Rome Reports:

Updated 7 August 2011

See now the comments and excellent photographs on Dorothy King's PhDiva blog: The Aurelii and Third Century Rome

She suggests that the tomb's builder, the freedman Aurelius Felicissimus, might be the same as a Felicissimus who was in charge of the treasury at Rome in Aurelian's reign (mentioned in Historiae Augustae, Aurelianus, 38.2): "it not impossible that he was the same man, holding a high position towards the end of his life (AD 270), or his son."  If so, our tomb-building Felicissimus ended badly: a fantasy letter purportedly written by the emperor tells of the mint-workers revolt in 270-71 or 274, 
a most grievous struggle.  For under the leadership of Felicissimus the lowest of all my slaves, to whom I had committed the care of the privy-purse, the mint-workers have shown the spirit of rebellion.  They have indeed been crushed, but with the loss of 7,000 men.... 
That the tomb continued to be used into the next century makes me a bit sceptical of this identification.  Aurelian, notorious for his cruelty, would have left no heir alive.  It's possible, of course, that the cult community survived his downfall and continued to use the tomb.  But I rather suspect that all of the treasurer's close associates, more than likely also working in the treasury, would have met the same fate.

My thanks to David Meadows'blog (RogueClassicism) for alerting me to the newly restored frescoes from the Hypogeum of the Aurelii.

The main sources are the reports in Italian and English in L'Osservatore Romano, 'New discoveries in the hypogeum of the Aurelians, a funeral monument astride two worlds', 10 June 2011; and S. Swain, et.al. Severan Culture, Cambridge, 2007, 277-289.


Upper left: plan of tomb from Monumenti Antichi website

Upper centre: Dorothy King's PhDiva blog

Lower left:  L'Osservatore Romano

Lowest:Antike Fresken im Südosten von Rom freigelegt. Photo: © 2011 by Südostschweiz Medien

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