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Manichaeism (/ˌmænɪˈkiːɪzəm/; [17] in Modern Persian آیین مانی Āyin-e Māni; Chinese: ; pinyin: Jiào) was a major religious movement that was founded by the Iranian [18] prophet Mani (in Persian: مانی, Syriac: ܡܐܢܝ, Latin: Manichaeus or Manes; c. 216–276 AD) in the Sasanian Empire. [19]

Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process that takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. Its beliefs were based on local Mesopotamian gnostic and religious movements.

Manichaeism was quickly successful and spread far through the Aramaic - Syriac speaking regions. [20] It thrived between the 3rd and 7th centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire. It was briefly the main rival to Christianity in the competition to replace classical paganism. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in southern China, contemporary to the decline in China of the Church of the East during the Ming Dynasty. While most of Manichaeism's original writings have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived.

An adherent of Manichaeism is called, especially in older sources, a Manichee, or more recently Manichaean.


Life of Mani

Mani, an Arsacid Persian by birth, [17] was born in 216 CE in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), which was ruled by Persia, [22] then within the Sassanid Empire province of Asuristan. According to the Cologne Mani-Codex, Mani's parents were members of the Jewish Christian Gnostic sect known as the Elcesaites. [17]

Mani composed seven writings, six of which were written in Syriac Aramaic. The seventh, the Shabuhragan, was written by Mani in Middle Persian and presented by him to the King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur I. Although there is no proof Shapur I was a Manichaean, he tolerated the spread of Manichaeism and refrained from persecuting it within his empire's boundaries. [17] According to one tradition it was Mani himself who invented the unique version of the Syriac script called Manichaean script, which was used in all of the Manichaean works written within the Persian Empire, whether they were in Syriac or Middle Persian, and also for most of the works written within the Uyghur Empire. The primary language of Babylon (and the administrative and cultural language of the Sassanid Empire) at that time was Eastern Middle Aramaic, which included three main dialects: Judeo-Aramaic (the language of the Talmud), Mandaean Aramaic (the language of the Mandaean religion), and Syriac Aramaic, which was the language of Mani, as well as of the Syriac Christians.

While Manichaeism was spreading, existing religions such as Zoroastrianism were still popular and Christianity was gaining social and political influence. Although having fewer adherents, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures. With the assistance of the Persian Empire, Mani began missionary expeditions. After failing to win the favour of the next generation of Persian royalty, and incurring the disapproval of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I. The date of his death is estimated at AD 276–277. [22]


Yüen dynasty silk painting Mani's Birth.

Mani believed that the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus were incomplete, and that his revelations were for the entire world, calling his teachings the "Religion of Light". [22] Manichaean writings indicate that Mani received revelations when he was 12 and again when he was 24, and over this time period he grew dissatisfied with the Elcesaite sect he was born into. [23] Mani began preaching at an early age and was possibly influenced by contemporary Babylonian-Aramaic movements such as Mandaeanism, and Aramaic translations of Jewish apocalyptic writings similar to those found at Qumran (such as the book of Enoch literature), and by the Syriac dualist-gnostic writer Bardaisan (who lived a generation before Mani). With the discovery of the Mani-Codex, it also became clear that he was raised in a Jewish-Christian baptism sect, the Elcesaites, and was influenced by their writings, as well. According to biographies preserved by Ibn al-Nadim and the Persian polymath al-Biruni, he received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin (Aramaic Tauma (תאומא), from which is also derived the name of the apostle Thomas, the "twin"), his Syzygos (Greek for "partner", in the Cologne Mani-Codex), his Double, his Protective Angel or Divine Self. It taught him truths that he developed into a religion. His divine Twin or true Self brought Mani to self-realization. He claimed to be the Paraclete of the Truth, as promised in the New Testament.

Manichaeism's views on Jesus are described by historians:

Jesus in Manichaeism possessed three separate identities: (1) Jesus the Luminous, (2) Jesus the Messiah and (3) Jesus patibilis (the suffering Jesus). (1) As Jesus the Luminous... his primary role was as supreme revealer and guide and it was he who woke Adam from his slumber and revealed to him the divine origins of his soul and its painful captivity by the body and mixture with matter. Jesus the Messiah was a historical being who was the prophet of the Jews and the forerunner of Mani. However, the Manichaeans believed he was wholly divine. He never experienced human birth as notions of physical conception and birth filled the Manichaeans with horror and the Christian doctrine of virgin birth was regarded as equally obscene. Since he was the light of the world, where was this light, they asked, when he was in the womb of the Virgin? (2) Jesus the Messiah was truly born at his baptism as it was on that occasion that the Father openly acknowledged his sonship. The suffering, death and resurrection of this Jesus were in appearance only as they had no salvific value but were an exemplum of the suffering and eventual deliverance of the human soul and a prefiguration of Mani's own martyrdom. (3) The pain suffered by the imprisoned Light-Particles in the whole of the visible universe, on the other hand, was real and immanent. This was symbolized by the mystic placing of the Cross whereby the wounds of the passion of our souls are set forth. On this mystical Cross of Light was suspended the Suffering Jesus (Jesus patibilis) who was the life and salvation of Man. This mystica cruxificio was present in every tree, herb, fruit, vegetable and even stones and the soil. This constant and universal suffering of the captive soul is exquisitely expressed in one of the Coptic Manichaean psalms. [24]

Historians also note that Mani declared himself to be an "apostle of Jesus Christ". [17] Manichaean tradition is also noted to have claimed that Mani was the reincarnation of different religious figures such as Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, and Jesus.

Other than incorporating the symbols and doctrine of dominant religious traditions, Manichaeism also incorporated the symbols and deities of indigenous traditions, in particular the Hindu deity Ganesha into its fold, demonstrated by the image available in the article, "Manichaean Art and Calligraphy" by Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Mani was claiming to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, Lord Krishna, Zoroaster and Jesus depending on the context in which he was carrying out his preachings. Such strategic claims fostered a spirit of toleration among the Manichaeans and the other religious communities and this particular feature greatly assisted them in gaining the approval of authorities to practice in different regions along the Silk Road. [17]

Academics also note that since much of what is known about Manichaeism comes from later 10th- and 11th-century Muslim historians like Al-Biruni and especially Ibn al-Nadim (and his work Fihrist), "Islamic authors ascribed to Mani the claim to be the Seal of the Prophets." [18] In reality, for Mani the expression "seal of prophecy" refers to his disciples, who testify for the veracity of his message, as a seal does. [18]

Sermon on Mani's Teaching of Salvation, 13th century Chinese Manichaean silk painting.

Another source of Mani's scriptures was original Aramaic writings relating to the Book of Enoch literature (see the Book of Enoch and the Second Book of Enoch), as well as an otherwise unknown section of the Book of Enoch called the " Book of Giants ". This book was quoted directly, and expanded on by Mani, becoming one of the original six Syriac writings of the Manichaean Church. Besides brief references by non-Manichaean authors through the centuries, no original sources of "The Book of Giants" (which is actually part six of the Book of Enoch) were available until the 20th century.

Scattered fragments of both the original Aramaic "Book of Giants" (which were analyzed and published by Józef Milik in 1976) [18] and of the Manichaean version of the same name (analyzed and published by W. B. Henning in 1943) were found with the discovery in the twentieth century of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert and the Manichaean writings of the Uyghur Manichaean kingdom in Turpan. Henning wrote in his analysis of them:

It is noteworthy that Mani, who was brought up and spent most of his life in a province of the Persian empire, and whose mother belonged to a famous Parthian family, did not make any use of the Iranian mythological tradition. There can no longer be any doubt that the Iranian names of Sām, Narīmān, etc., that appear in the Persian and Sogdian versions of the Book of the Giants, did not figure in the original edition, written by Mani in the Syriac language.

By comparing the cosmology in the Book of Enoch literature and the Book of Giants, alongside the description of the Manichaean myth, scholars have observed that the Manichaean cosmology can be described as being based, in part, on the description of the cosmology developed in detail in the Book of Enoch literature [18]. This literature describes the being that the prophets saw in their ascent to heaven, as a king who sits on a throne at the highest of the heavens. In the Manichaean description, this being, the "Great King of Honor", becomes a deity who guards the entrance to the world of light, placed at the seventh of ten heavens [18]. In the Aramaic Book of Enoch, in the Qumran writings in general, and in the original Syriac section of Manichaean scriptures quoted by Theodore bar Konai, he is called "malka raba de-ikara" (the Great King of Honor).

Mani was also influenced by writings of the Assyrian gnostic Bardaisan (154–222), who, like Mani, wrote in Syriac, and presented a dualistic interpretation of the world in terms of light and darkness, in combination with elements from Christianity.

Jesus Christ as a Manichaean prophet, the figure can be identified as a representation of Jesus Christ by the small gold cross that sits on the red lotus pedestal in His left hand.

Noting Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, Richard Foltz postulates Buddhist influences in Manichaeism:

Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha. [18]

The Kushan monk Lokakṣema began translating Pure Land Buddhist texts into Chinese in the century prior to Mani arriving there, and the Chinese texts of Manichaeism are full of uniquely Buddhist terms taken directly from these Chinese Pure Land scriptures, including the term " pure land " (淨土 Jìngtǔ) itself. [18] However, the central object of veneration in Pure Land Buddhism, Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, does not appear in Chinese Manichaeism, and seems to have been replaced by another deity.


Manichaeism spread with extraordinary speed through both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by 280 CE, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. It was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades.

In 291, persecution arose in the Persian Empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In 296, Diocletian decreed against the Manichaeans: "We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures." This resulted in martyrdom for many in Egypt and North Africa (see Diocletian Persecution ). By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern Gaul. In 381, Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. Starting in 382 the emperor issued a series of edicts to suppress Manichaeism and punish its followers. [18]

10th century Manichaean Electae in Gaochang (Khocho), China.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, in the year 387. This was shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree of death for all Manichaean monks in 382 and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire in 391. Due to the heavy persecution, the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the 5th century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the 6th century. [28] According to his Confessions, after nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of "hearers", Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism (which he expressed in writing against his Manichaean opponent Faustus of Mileve), seeing their beliefs that knowledge was the key to salvation as too passive and not able to effect any change in one's life. [19]

"I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner." [19]

Some modern scholars have suggested that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine's ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity, and his dualistic theology. [19] These influences of Manichaeism in Augustine's Christian thinking may well have been part of the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, a British monk whose theology, being less influenced by the Latin (Roman) church, was non-dualistic, and one that saw the created order, and mankind in particular, as having a Divine core, rather than a 'darkness' at its core.

Akshobhya in his Eastern Paradise with Cross of Light, a symbol of Manichaeism.

How Manichaeism might have influenced Christianity continues to be debated. Manichaeism could have influenced the Bogomils, Paulicians, and Cathars. However, these groups left few records, and the link between them and Manichaeans is tenuous. Regardless of its accuracy, the charge of Manichaeism was levelled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to make contemporary heresies conform to those combatted by the church fathers. Whether the dualism of the Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars and their belief that the world was created by a Satanic demiurge were due to influence from Manichaeism is impossible to determine. The Cathars apparently adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization. Priscillian and his followers may also have been influenced by Manichaeism. The Manichaeans preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that would otherwise have been lost.

Manichaeism maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, and flourished for a time in Persia and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet. While it had long been thought that Manichaeism arrived in China only at the end of the 7th century, a recent archaeological discovery demonstrated that it was already known there in the second half of the 6th century.

The spread of Manichaeism (300–500 CE). World History Atlas, Dorling Kindersly.

Some Sogdians in Central Asia believed in the religion. [19] [19] Uyghur ruler Khagan Boku Tekin (759–780) converted to the religion in 763 after a 3 days discussion with its preachers, [19] [19] the Babylonian headquarters sent high rank clerics to Uyghur, and Manichaeism remained the state religion for about a century before the collapse of the Uyghur empire in 840. In the east it spread along trade routes as far as Chang'an, the capital of the Tang dynasty in China. [35] After the Tang Dynasty, some Manichaens groups participated in peasant movements. The religion was used by many rebel leaders to mobilise followers. In the Song and Yuan dynasties of China remnants of Manichaeism continued to leave a legacy contributing to sects such as the Red Turbans. During the Song Dynasty, the Manichaeans were derogatorily referred by the Chinese as chicai simo (meaning that they "abstain from meat and worship demons"). An account in Fozu Tongji, an important historiography of Buddhism in China compiled by Buddhist scholars during 1258-1269, says that the Manichaens worshipped the "white Buddha" and their leader wore a violet headgear, while the followers wore white costumes. Many Manichaeans took part in rebellions against the Song government and were eventually quelled. After that, all governments were suppressive against Manichaeism and its followers and the religion was banned by the Ming Dynasty in 1370. [36]

The Manichaeans tried to assimilate their religion along with Islam in the Arab Islamic empires. [37] Relatively little is known about the religion during the first century of Islamic rule. During the early period of the Arab Islamic empire, Manichaeism attracted many followers. It had a significant appeal among the Muslim society especially among the elites. Due to the appeal of its teachings, many Muslims adopted the ideas of its theology and some even became dualists. An apologia for Manichaeism ascribed to Ibn al-Muqaffa', defended its phantasmagorical cosmogony and attacked the fideism of Islam and other monotheistic religions. According to some accounts, even the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid II was a follower of Mani. The Manichaeans had sufficient structure to have a head of their community. Under the 8th-century Abbasids, Arabic zindiq and the adjectival zandaqa could denote many different things, though it seems primarily (or at least initially) to have signified a follower of Manichaeism however its true meaning is not known. [38] In the ninth century, it is reported that the Muslim Caliph Al-Ma'mun tolerated a community of Manichaeans. [40] During the early period of Abbasids, the Manichaeans underwent persecution. The third Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi persecuted the Manichaeans, establishing an inquisition against dualists who if being found guilty of heresy refused to renounce their beliefs, were executed. Their persecution was finally ended in 780s by Harun al-Rashid. [41] During the reign of the Caliph Al-Muqtadir, many Manichaeans fled from Mesopotamia to Khorasan from fear of persecution and the base of the religion was later shifted to Samarkand. [28] [42]

Manichaeism claimed to present the complete version of teachings that were corrupted and misinterpreted by the followers of its predecessors Adam, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. Accordingly, as it spread, it adapted new deities from other religions into forms it could use for its scriptures. Its original Aramaic texts already contained stories of Jesus. When they moved eastward and were translated into Iranian languages, the names of the Manichaean deities (or angels) were often transformed into the names of Zoroastrian yazatas. Thus Abbā dəRabbūṯā ("The Father of Greatness", the highest Manichaean deity of Light), in Middle Persian texts might either be translated literally as pīd ī wuzurgīh, or substituted with the name of the deity Zurwān. Similarly, the Manichaean primal figure Nāšā Qaḏmāyā "The Original Man" was rendered Ohrmazd Bay, after the Zoroastrian god Ohrmazd. This process continued in Manichaeism's meeting with Chinese Buddhism, where, for example, the original Aramaic karia (the "call" from the world of Light to those seeking rescue from the world of Darkness), becomes identified in the Chinese scriptures with Guan Yin (觀音 or Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, literally, "watching/perceiving sounds [of the world]", the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion).

Persecution and extinction

Manichaeism was repressed in Persia by the Sassanids. [37] In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In AD 296, the Roman emperor Diocletian decreed all the Manichaean leaders to be burnt alive along with the Manichaean scriptures and many Manichaeans in Europe and North Africa were killed. This policy of persecution was also followed by his successors. Theodosius I issued a decree of death for all Manichaean monks in 382 AD. [43] The religion was vigorously attacked and persecuted by both the Christian Church and the Roman state. (Augustine of Hippo, one of the early Doctors of the Catholic Church was a Manichaean until his conversion to Catholicism in 386 A.D. He was never persecuted for this and he freely converted to Catholicism.) Due to the heavy persecution upon its followers in the Roman Empire, the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the 5th century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the 6th century. [28]

In 732, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang banned any Chinese from converting to the religion, saying it was a heretic religion that was confusing people by claiming to be Buddhism. However the foreigners who followed the religion were allowed to practice it without punishment. [44] After the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in 840, which was the chief patron of Manichaeism (which was also the state religion of the Khaganate) in China, all Manichaean temples in China except in the two capitals and Taiyuan were closed down and never reopened since these temples were viewed as a symbol of foreign arrogance by the Chinese. Even those that were allowed to remain open did not for long. The Manichaean temples were attacked by Chinese people who burned the images and idols of these temples. The Manichaean priests were ordered to wear Chinese dress. In 843, Emperor Wuzong of Tang gave the order to kill all Manichaean clerics as part of his campaign against Buddhism and other religions, and over half died. They were made to look like Buddhists by the authorities, their heads were shaved, they were made to dress like Buddhist monks and then killed. [35] Although the religion was mostly forbidden and its followers persecuted thereafter in China, it survived till the 14th century in the country. Under the Song dynasty, its followers were derogatorily called by the Chinese people and the authorities as chicai simo (meaning that they "abstain from meat and worship demons"). Many of the followers of the religion took part in rebellions against the Song dynasty. They were quelled by the Songs and were suppressed and persecuted by all successive governments before the Mongol Yuan dynasty. In 1370, the religion was banned through an edict of the Ming dynasty, whose founding emperor had a personal dislike for the religion. [35] [36] [45] Its core teaching influences many religious sects in China, including the White Lotus movement.

The religion survived in the Uyghur Kingdom of Qocho of Kumul until the Mongol conquest of the kingdom in the 13th century. [28]

The Manicheans also suffered persecution for some time under the Abbasid Caliphate of Bagdad. In 780, the third Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mahdi, started a campaign of inquisition against those who were "dualist heretics" or "Manichaeans" called the Zindīq. He appointed a master of the heretics (Sahib-az-Zanadiqa), an official whose task was to pursue and investigate suspected dualists, who were then examined by the Caliph. Those found guilty who refused to abjure their beliefs were executed. This persecution continued under his successor, Caliph al-Hadi, and continued for some time during reign of Harun al-Rashid, who finally abolished it and ended it. [41] During the reign of the 18th Abbassid Caliph Al-Muqtadir, many Manichaeans fled from Mesopotamia to Khorasan from fear of persecution by him and about 500 of them assembled in Samarkand. The base of the religion was later shifted to this city, which became their new Patriarchate. [28] [42]

Later movements accused of "Neo-Manichaeism"

During the Middle Ages, several movements emerged that were collectively described as "Manichaean" by the Catholic Church, and persecuted as Christian heresies through the establishment, in 1184, of the Inquisition. They included the Cathar churches of Western Europe. Other groups sometimes referred to as "neo-Manichaean" were the Paulician movement, which arose in Armenia, [46] and the Bogomils in Bulgaria. An example of this usage can be found in the published edition of the Latin Cathar text, the Liber de duobus principiis (Book of the Two Principles ), which was described as "Neo-Manichaean" by its publishers. As there is no presence of Manichaean mythology or church terminology in the writings of these groups, there has been some dispute among historians as to whether these groups were descendants of Manichaeism. [47]

Present day

Some sites are preserved in Xinjiang and Fujian in China. [48] [49] The Cao'an temple is the only fully intact Manichaean building, [24] :256–257 though it later became associated with Buddhism. [51] Several small groups claim to continue to practice this faith. [52] [53] [54]

Teachings and beliefs


Mani's teaching dealt with the origin of evil, [22] by addressing a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the omnipotence of God and postulating two opposite powers. Manichaean theology taught a dualistic view of good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that the powerful, though not omnipotent good power (God), was opposed by the semi-eternal evil power (Satan). Humanity, the world and the soul are seen as the byproduct of the battle between God's proxy, Primal Man, and Satan. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the soul defines the person, but it is under the influence of both light and dark. This contention plays out over the world as well as the human body—neither the Earth nor the flesh were seen as intrinsically evil, but rather possessed portions of both light and dark. Natural phenomena (such as rain) were seen as the physical manifestation of this spiritual contention. Therefore, the Manichaean worldview explained the existence of evil with a flawed creation in which God took no role in forming but rather was the result of Satan striking out against God.


St. Augustine was once a Manichaean.
A 13th-century manuscript from Augustine's book VII of Confessions criticizing Manichaeism.

Manichaeism presented an elaborate description of the conflict between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. The beings of both the world of darkness and the world of light have names. There are numerous sources for the details of the Manichaean belief. There are two portions of Manichaean scriptures that are probably the closest thing to the original Manichaean writings in their original languages that will ever be available. These are the Syriac-Aramaic quotation by the Nestorian Christian Theodore bar Konai, in his Syriac "Book of Scholia " (Ketba de-Skolion z, 8th century), and the Middle Persian sections of Mani's Shabuhragan discovered at Turpan (a summary of Mani's teachings prepared for Shapur I). These two sections are probably the original Syriac and Middle Persian written by Mani.

From these and other sources, it is possible to derive an almost complete description of the detailed Manichaean vision (a complete list of Manichaean deities is outlined below). According to Mani, the unfolding of the universe takes place with three "creations":

The First Creation: Originally, good and evil existed in two completely separate realms, one the World of Light, ruled by the Father of Greatness together with his five Shekhinas (divine attributes of light), and the other the World of Darkness, ruled by the King of Darkness. At a certain point, the Kingdom of Darkness notices the World of Light, becomes greedy for it and attacks it. The Father of Greatness, in the first of three "creations" (or "calls"), calls to the Mother of Life, who sends her son Original Man (Nāšā Qaḏmāyā in Aramaic), to battle with the attacking powers of Darkness, which include the Demon of Greed. The Original Man is armed with five different shields of light (reflections of the five Shekhinas ), which he loses to the forces of darkness in the ensuing battle, described as a kind of "bait" to trick the forces of darkness, as the forces of darkness greedily consume as much light as they can. When the Original Man comes to, he is trapped among the forces of darkness.

The Second Creation: Then the Father of Greatness begins the Second Creation, calling to the Living Spirit, who calls to his five sons, and sends a call to the Original Man (Call then becomes a Manichaean deity). An answer (Answer becomes another Manichaean deity) then returns from the Original Man to the World of Light. The Mother of Life, the Living Spirit, and his five sons begin to create the universe from the bodies of the evil beings of the World of Darkness, together with the light that they have swallowed. Ten heavens and eight earths are created, all consisting of various mixtures of the evil material beings from the World of Darkness and the swallowed light. The sun, moon, and stars are all created from light recovered from the World of Darkness. The waxing and waning of the moon is described as the moon filling with light, which passes to the sun, then through the Milky Way, and eventually back to the World of Light.

Amitābha in his Western Paradise with Indians, Tibetans, and Central Asians, with two symbols of Manichaeism: Sun and Cross.

The Third Creation: Great demons (called archons in bar-Khonai's account) are hung out over the heavens, and then the Father of Greatness begins the Third Creation. Light is recovered from out of the material bodies of the male and female evil beings and demons, by causing them to become sexually aroused in greed, towards beautiful images of the beings of light, such as the Third Messenger and the Virgins of Light. However, as soon as the light is expelled from their bodies and falls to the earth (some in the form of abortions – the source of fallen angels in the Manichaean myth), the evil beings continue to swallow up as much of it as they can to keep the light inside of them. This results eventually in the evil beings swallowing huge quantities of light, copulating, and producing Adam and Eve. The Father of Greatness then sends the Radiant Jesus to awaken Adam, and to enlighten him to the true source of the light that is trapped in his material body. Adam and Eve, however, eventually copulate, and produce more human beings, trapping the light in bodies of mankind throughout human history. The appearance of the Prophet Mani was another attempt by the World of Light to reveal to mankind the true source of the spiritual light imprisoned within their material bodies.

Outline of the beings and events in the Manichaean mythos

Manichaean cosmology.

Beginning with the time of its creation by Mani, the Manichaean religion had a detailed description of deities and events that took place within the Manichaean scheme of the universe. In every language and region that Manichaeism spread to, these same deities reappear, whether it is in the original Syriac quoted by Theodore bar Konai, or the Latin terminology given by Saint Augustine from Mani's Epistola Fundamenti, or the Persian and Chinese translations found as Manichaeism spread eastward. While the original Syriac retained the original description that Mani created, the transformation of the deities through other languages and cultures produced incarnations of the deities not implied in the original Syriac writings. This process began in Mani's lifetime, with "The Father of Greatness", for example, being translated into Middle Persian as Zurvan, a Zoroastrian supreme being.

The World of Light

  • The Father of Greatness (Syriac: ܐܒܐ ܕܪܒܘܬܐ Abbā dəRabbūṯā; Middle Persian: pīd ī wuzurgīh, or the Zoroastrian deity Zurwān; Parthian: Pidar wuzurgift, Pidar roshn)
  • His Five Shekhinas (Syriac: ܚܡܫ ܫܟܝܢܬܗ khamesh shkhinatei; Chinese: wǔ zhǒng dà, "five great ones" ):
Shekhina: Reason Mind Intelligence Thought Understanding
Syriac ܗܘܢܐhaunâ ܡܕܥܐmadde´â ܪܥܝܢܐreyana ܡܚܫܒܬܐmahšabtâ ܬܪܥܝܬܐtar´îtâ
Parthian bâm manohmêd andêšišn parmânag
Chinese xiāng, "phase" xīn, "heart" niàn, "idea" , "thought" , "meaning"
Turkic qut ög köngül saqinç tuimaq
Greek νοῦς (Nous) εννοια (Ennoia) φρονησις (Phronēsis) ενθυμησις (Enthymisis) λογισμος (Logismos)
Latin mens sensus prudentia intellectus cogitatio
  • The Great Spirit (Middle Persian: Waxsh zindag, Waxsh yozdahr; Latin: Spiritus Potens)

The first creation

  • The Mother of Life (Syriac: ܐܡܐ ܕܚܝܐ ima de-khaye)
  • The First Man (Syriac: ܐܢܫܐ ܩܕܡܝܐ Nāšā Qaḏmāyā; Middle Persian: Ohrmazd Bay, the Zoroastrian god of light and goodness; Latin: Primus Homo)
  • His five Sons (the Five Light Elements; Middle Persian: Amahrāspandan; Parthian: panj rošn)
    • Ether (Middle Persian: frâwahr, Parthian: ardâw)
    • Wind (Middle Persian and Parthian: wâd)
    • Light (Middle Persian and Parthian: rôšn)
    • Water (Middle Persian and Parthian: âb)
    • Fire (Middle Persian and Parthian: âdur)
    • His sixth Son, the Answer-God (Syriac: ܥܢܝܐ ania; Middle Persian: xroshtag; Chinese: 勢至 Shì Zhì "The Power of Wisdom", a Chinese Bodhisattva). The answer sent by the First Man to the Call from the World of Light.
  • The Living Self (made up of the five Elements; Middle Persian: Griw zindag, Griw roshn)

The second creation

  • The Friend of the Lights (Syriac: ܚܒܝܒ ܢܗܝܖܐ khaviv nehirei ). Calls to:
  • The Great Builder (Syriac: ܒܢ ܖܒܐ ban raba ). In charge of creating the new world that will separate the darkness from the light. He calls to:
  • The Living Spirit (Syriac: ܪܘܚܐ ܚܝܐ rūḥā ḥayyā; Middle Persian: Mihryazd; Chinese: 淨活風 jing huo feng; Latin: Spiritus Vivens ). Acts as a demiurge, creating the structure of the material world.
  • His five Sons (Syriac: ܚܡܫܐ ܒܢܘܗܝ khamsha benauhi)
    • The Keeper of the Splendour (Syriac: ܨܦܬ ܙܝܘܐ tzefat ziwa; Latin: Splenditenens; Chinese: 催明). Holds up the ten heavens from above.
    • The King of Glory (Syriac: ܡܠܟ ܫܘܒܚܐ melekh shubkha; Latin: Rex Gloriosus; Chinese: 地藏 Dì Zàng "Earth Treasury", a Chinese Bodhisattva).
    • The Adamas of Light (Syriac: ܐܕܡܘܣ ܢܘܗܪܐ adamus nuhra; Latin: Adamas; Chinese: 降魔使). Fights with and overcomes an evil being in the image of the King of Darkness.
    • The Great King of Honour (Syriac: ܡܠܟܐ ܪܒܐ ܕܐܝܩܪܐ malka raba de-ikara; Dead Sea Scrolls Aramaic: מלכא רבא דאיקרא malka raba de-ikara; Latin: Rex Honoris; Chinese: 十天王 Shi Tian Wang "Ten-heaven King"). A being that plays a central role in the Book of Enoch (originally written in Aramaic), as well as Mani's Syriac version of it, the Book of Giants. Sits in the seventh heaven of the ten heavens (compare Buddhist division of ten spiritual realms) and guards the entrance to the world of light.
    • Atlas (Syriac: ܣܒܠܐ sabala; Latin: Atlas; Chinese: 持世主). Supports the eight worlds from below.
    • His sixth Son, the Call-God (Syriac: ܩܪܝܐ karia; Middle Persian: padvaxtag; Chinese: 觀音 Guan Yin "watching/perceiving sounds [of the world]", the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion). Sent from the Living Spirit to awaken the First Man from his battle with the forces of darkness.

The third creation

  • The Third Messenger (Syriac: ܐܝܙܓܕܐ īzgaddā; Middle Persian narēsahyazad, Parthian: hridīg frēštag; Latin: tertius legatus)
  • Jesus the Splendour (Syriac: ܝܫܘܥ ܙܝܘܐ Yisho Ziwa ). Sent to awaken Adam and Eve to the source of the spiritual light trapped within their physical bodies.
  • The Maiden of Light
  • The Twelve Virgins of Light (Syriac: ܬܪܬܥܣܪܐ ܒܬܘܠܬܐ tratesra btultē; Middle Persian kanīgān rōšnān; Chinese: 日宮十二化女 ri gong shi er hua nyu ). Reflected in the twelve constellations of the Zodiac.
  • The Column of Glory (Syriac: ܐܣܛܘܢ ܫܘܒܚܐ esṭūn šubḥa; Middle Persian: srōš-ahrāy, from Sraosha; Chinese: 蘇露沙羅夷, su lou sha luo yi and 盧舍那, lu she na, both phonetic from Middle Persian srōš-ahrāy ). The path that souls take back to the World of Light; corresponds to the Milky Way.
  • The Great Nous
  • His five Limbs
    • Reason
    • Mind
    • Intelligence
    • Thought
    • Understanding
  • The Just Justice
  • The Last God

The World of Darkness

  • The King of Darkness (Syriac: ܡܠܟ ܚܫܘܟܐ melech kheshokha; Middle Persian: Ahriman, the Zoroastrian supreme evil being)
  • His five evil kingdoms Evil counterparts of the five elements of light, the lowest being the kingdom of Darkness.
  • His son (Syriac: ܐܫܩܠܘܢ Ashaklun; Middle Persian: Az, from the Zoroastrian demon, Azi Dahaka)
  • His son's mate (Syriac: ܢܒܪܘܐܠ Nebroel)
    • Their offspring – Adam and Eve (Middle Persian: Gehmurd and Murdiyanag)
  • Giants (Fallen Angels, also Abortions): (Syriac: ܝܚܛܐ yakhte, "abortions" or "those that fell"; also: ܐܪܟܘܢܬܐ arkhonata, the Gnostic archons; Greek, Coptic: ’Εγρήγοροι Egrēgoroi, "Giants"). Related to the story of the fallen angels in the Book of Enoch (which Mani used extensively in his Book of Giants), and the נפילים nephilim described in Genesis (6:1–4).

The Manichaean Church


The Manichaean Church was divided into "Elect(i)" –who had taken upon themselves the vows of Manicheaism- and "Hearers" – those who had not, but still participated in the Church. The terms for these divisions were already common since the days of early Christianity. In the Chinese writings, the Middle Persian and Parthian terms are transcribed phonetically (instead of being translated into Chinese). These were recorded by St Augustine.

  • The Leader, (Syriac: ܟܗܢܐ; Parthian: yamag; Chinese: 閻默) Mani's designated successor, seated as Patriarch at the head of the Church, originally in Ctesiphon (Babylonia), from the ninth century in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Two notable leaders were Mār Sīsin (or Sisinnios), the first successor of Mani, and Abū Hilāl al-Dayhūri, an 8th-century leader.
  • 12 Apostles (Latin: magistri; Syriac: ܫܠܝܚܐ; Middle Persian: možag; Chinese: 慕闍). Three of Mani's original apostles were Mār Pattī (Pattikios; Mani's father), Mār Zaku and Mār Ammo.
  • 72 Bishops (Latin: episcopi; Syriac: ܐܦܣܩܘܦܐ; Middle Persian: aspasag, aftadan; Chinese: 薩波塞, 拂多誕; see also: Seventy Disciples). One of Mani's original disciples who was specifically referred to as a bishop was Mār Addā.
  • 360 Presbyters (Latin: presbyteri; Syriac: ܩܫܝܫܐ; Middle Persian: mahistan; Chinese: 默奚悉德)
  • The general body of the Elect(ed) (Latin: electi; Syriac: ܡܫܡܫܢܐ; Middle Persian: ardawan, dēnāwar; Chinese: 阿羅緩, 電那勿)
  • The Hearers (Latin: auditores; Syriac: ܫܡܘܥܐ; Middle Persian: niyoshagan; Chinese: 耨沙喭)

Religious practices

The most important religious observance of the Manichaeans was the Bema Fest, observed annually:

The Bema was originally, in the Syriac Christian churches, a seat placed in the middle of the nave on which the bishop would preside and from which the Gospel would be read. In the Manichaean places of worship, the throne was a five-stepped altar, covered by precious cloths, symbolizing the five classes of the hierarchy. The top of the Bema was always empty, as it was the seat of Mani. The Bema was celebrated at the vernal equinox, was preceded by fasts, and symbolized the passion of Mani, thus it was strictly parallel to the Christian Easter.

While it is often presumed that the Bema seat was empty, there is some evidence from the Coptic Manichaean Bema Psalms, that the Bema seat may have actually contained a copy of Mani's picture book, the Arzhang.

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