Sunday, September 07, 2014

AstroGnostic: The Mandaeans' Elusive Companions

There is a lot more going on in Iraq and Syria than almost unimaginable carnage and human suffering, from the looting of the Sumerian artifacts from the Baghdad museum in 2003 to a more current situation in which the Islamic Caliphate is blowing up ancient archaeological sites and shrines, a practice begun by the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

The world at large was introduced to the rich and ancient religious diversity of Mesopotamia during the Iraq War, to the ancient Gnostic sects that long predate Islam, even if only because these vulnerable people were being systematically wiped out by their Muslim neighbors.
The Yazidis became a cause celebre over the summer, putting a once-obscure sect onto the international headlines.  Some claim the Yazidis are the world's oldest extant religion, and their faith has been misunderstood and sensationalized as "devil worship," especially in the old pulp magazines.* The Yazidis are ethnic Kurds and many are now being trained to help resist the Islamic State's encroachments on Kurdish territories, reminding one of the Druze militias in Lebanon.

John the Baptist and Jesus
But I'm more interested in the Mandaeans (also known as the Nasoraeans, also known as the Sabians), the followers of John the Baptist who fled Palestine in the wake of the Judean Wars in the First Century CE and settled in modern day Iraq. 

We touched on at their history in the Knights Templar series as one of the many heterodox groups who came into context with the Templars and influenced what later became the modern Western Mystery Tradition.
In the wake of the carnage of Bush's (now Obama's) Folly, the Mandaeans fled to Syria, ruled by the Allawites, yet another heterodox group the Saudi-based Fundamentalist  cult known as the Wahabi are seeking to genocide out of existence (top-ranking Saudi officials are now speaking openly about eliminating all of the Shi'a as well). 

Because of this, many Mandaeans have now sought refuge in Western countries and Iran.
I can't quite parse what the end game here is but I'm reminded of the paragraph in Josephus, in which Disapora Jews blamed the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Third Temple on Herod's treatment of the Mandaean's direct ancestors: 
And so John, out of Herod's suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.
Is such a retribution in the cards for Islamic State and their paymasters? And as we'll see, the Mandaeans may have some interesting allies-- and have seen many a conqueror fail to ruin.

For their part, the Mandaeans predicted their own persecution in their holy text, The Haran Gawaitha:
And then Hibil-Ziwa - praised be his name! - taught Nasoraeans about the end of the last age. For evil will increase and pollutions will be many and abound in the world, since it is decreed that wickedness will increase and pollutions multiply greatly in the world; because it is destined in that age. So that of a great shekel of gold but half-a-draehma's weight will rise up to the Light; everything will sink down into Darkness. In that period and epoch - from the rule of the Arab Son-of-Slaughter unto the end of the worlds - persecution and tribulation will increase for Nasoraeans; purity will decrease and pollutions, adultery, theft and fraud will increase. 
And men will be polluted and during that period man will drink the blood of fellow-man. All that is fair (will disappear) , (but), amongst Nasoraeans, he that is steadfast in and holdeth to these teachings and this great revelation will rise up by the path of believers and will behold the great Countenance of Glory. 
I have no doubt that the psychotics of Islamic State have drunk quite a lot of blood by now; they seem to have indulged every other atrocity you can name.

Some of you might be saying that the Haran Gawaitha isn't much different than any prophetic tradition of an oppressed people, that one day the strong will be cast down and the weak will be raised up. And certainly you can find precedent for this kind of language in the Bible.
But what is fascinating to me is that the Mandaeans have survived a very long time in a very tough neighborhood. Not a mean feat for a modestly-sized group of pacifists. After all, the Caliphate isn't the first pack of kill-crazy psychopaths to run rampant across Mesopotamia since these Gnostics settled there, some two thousand years ago. 

And though the pundits are now writing their epitaphs, claiming the Mandaeans could survive Muhammed and the Mongols but they couldn't possibly survive modern secular culture, I wouldn't be so sure. 
The Mandaeans are not your usual Gnostics. As mentioned before they claim lineage back to John the Baptist himself, a claim many scholars take seriously. And their literature...well, their literature is interesting. It's some of the more compelling Gnostic literature you'll read, free of the kind of philosophical navel gazing that makes some of the Nag Hammadi material a tough sled.
And their texts lead me to wonder their survival may not be due in part to a relation with a companion race, an elusive companion race. Because not only is their literature more engaging than a lot of other Gnostic material, a lot of it reads more like The Secret Commonwealth than The Secret Book of John.

This Evangelical diagram clearly shows that the Biblical term "waters"
refers to extrasolar outer space, the "firmament" describing our solar system
Mandaean literature speaks of a race of luminous beings called Uthras, who protect and instruct these Gnostics. Their religious liturgies are also heavily focused on the "waters," the traditional Biblical term for the cosmos, or outer space. There is also a fascinating thru-line focusing on the planets and stars. Read this, from "Adam's Baptism":
The planets stand there, they are bound by fetters and say: When Adam fled from us our watch-houses were destroyed. When Adam rose from us, our radiance was soon taken away. He rose up and ascended to the House of Life; They, the uthras, washed him in the Jordan they placed their right hand on him. They baptized him with their baptism and strengthened him with their pure words. They washed him and protected him in the Jordan...
Here's a bit of Gnostic cosmology that seems to imply that the Uthras are scouts or representatives from the Mandaeans true, heavenly home: 
To your first earth, ascend, to the place from which you were transplanted, to the fine abode of the uthras.Bestir yourself, put on your garment of radianceand put on your resplendent wreath.Sit on your throne of radiance,which the Life set up for you in the Place of Light.Rise up, inhabit the skinas,among the uthras, your brothers.
Several verses in their texts speak of a "cloud of light" which will take the Mandaeans to the "Place of Light":
My vigilance and praisegiving
Are my ferrymen across (the waters of death);
A transformation brought me over,
A cloud of light took me over.
In purity shalt thou rise to the Place of Light.
The clouds of light should ring a bell with anyone familiar with UFOlogical interpretations of the clouds in the Book of Exodus and other sources. In the Mandaean context here there is a clear connection with the travel of the soul after death, but in other verses the connection isn't quite as clear. Especially when compared to the repeated references of "light ships" in the literature, flying luminous craft associated with divinity. 

Uthras aboard a Sun Ship

This particular writing-- "John's Light Ship" --is so similar to the "Masks" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its Solar/Lunar ritual dialogue, that I can't help but wonder if in fact the writer was influenced by it.:
 Yahyā proclaims in the nights, Yōhānā on the Night's evenings.  
YAHYĀ proclaims in the nights and says: "In the name of Him who is wondrous and all-surpassing! The Sun sat in his Court, and the Moon sat in the Dragon. The Four Winds of the House get them gone on their wings and blow not."  
The Sun opened his mouth and spake unto Yahyā "Thou hast three [head-] bands [and] a crown which equals in worth the whole world. Thou hast a ship of mashklil, which sails about here on the Jordan. Thou hast a great vessel which sails about here 'twixt the waters.
That may just be a bit of Astrotheology, or it may have been something else that evolved thereto (what I'm thinking). But this next writing, "The Light Ship of the Fisher", seems about as unambiguous as it gets- this is a space ship. Argue all you like about what the intent of this piece may actually be, but its meaning could not possibly be any clearer:
Life knotted for me a noose and built for me a ship that fades not,—a ship whose wings are of glory, that sails along as in flight, and from it the wings will not be torn off. 'Tis a well-furnished ship and sails on in the heart of the heaven. 
Its ropes are ropes of glory and a rudder of Truth is there to it. Sunday takes hold of the pole, Life's Son seized the rudder. They draw thither to the shekīnahs and dispense Light among the treasures. Thrones in them they set up, and long drawn out come the Jordans upon them.  
On the bow are set lamps that in the wildest of tempests are not put out. All ships that sight me, make obeisance submissively to me. Submissively they make me obeisance and come to show their devotion unto me.
This excerpt from "The Final Submission of the Evil Fishers" also makes mention of a space ship but uses a term that caught my attention immediately. See if you catch it:
The fishers see him, become scarlet for shame and remain standing in their places. They say to him: "Whence comes it that thou dost fish without finding? Thy ship is not like our ship; it shines by night like the sun. Thy ship is perfected in æther, and wondrous standards are unfurled above it. Our ship sails along in the water, but thy ship between the waters. 
Catch it? Try this:
A crown of ether-light shone forth dazzlingly from the House of Life. 'Uthras brought it from the House of Life and the mighty First Life established it in His shkintas. He who setteth it up shall be set up and he who uplifteth it shall be raised up into the world of light and he who establisheth it into the enduring Abode.
Ah yes- ether ships, a term from the deepest recesses of UFOlogy. How strange to see it here, in an ancient religious text. 

Or perhaps not. If you read my post "Astro-Gnosis Redux," you'd see how this kind of literal alienation was not unknown to the Gnostics, that it informed a text as central to Gnostic theology as The Hypostasis of The Archons. What is remarkable is to see it spelled out as clearly and as explicitly as we do in the Mandaean literature. 

What's more,  Meade Layne, who brought the term "ether ship" to UFOlogy, may well have been influenced by the Gnostics. He was no backwoods bubba- he was a professor at USC  and probably discovered the Mandaean literature through G.R.S. Mead, the Theosophist polymath who translated so much of it for English speaking readers. This is usually how these things work out, isn't it?

It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of influence the Mandaeans may bring to bear on their new homes. Sometimes the most momentous changes can emerge from the most unlikely places.