Manichaeism as a Religious Community

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Manichaeism as a Religious Community


Manichaeism as a syncretic dualistic doctrine and a specific religious community dates back to the period of Roman Late Antiquity; however, nowadays there is not much evidence testifying to its existence. Basic information on Manichaean religious practices in the Roman Empire comes from a variety of sources — literary texts, as well as documentary evidence. Manichaean literary texts include the fourth century Coptic Medinet Madi library recovered from the ruins of a private home in the Fayum region of Egypt, several literary fragments in Syriac and Coptic from private homes in Kellis in the Egyptian Dakhkeh Oasis, the Latin Tebessa Codex from Algeria, and, most important, the Greek Cologne Mani Codex from an undetermined location in Egypt which contains the description of characteristically Manichaean practices of the late antique period. Although, basically, the contents of these texts reflect their original non-Roman composition, nevertheless, they provide information of what was being copied and read by Manichaeans inside the Roman domains, and reflect Manichaean ideas in local terms and languages.

As for documentary evidence, first of all, it is necessary to mention a mid-to-late fourth century multi-generational Manichaean community, located at the site of Kellis. In addition to that, Manichaean religious rivals, such as the former member of the community, Augustine of Hippo, had left some polemical accounts of Manichaean religious practices. Anti-Manichaean legislation, issued by the Roman government, may also be regarded as one of the sources.

Evidently, it is possible to treat Manichaeism within the Roman Empire as a cultic association largely confined to the domestic sphere, lacking any civic or public component. According to the documentary evidence, there were few Manichaean churches, sacred places, processions, or pilgrimages. The domestic character of Manichaeism can be partly explained by legal proscriptions against the religion, starting from the moment of its introduction from beyond the eastern frontier. At the same time, it is known that there were a number of «manistans» — special religious centers for Manichaean meetings — established outside of the Roman state. However, generally, Manichaeans preferred to gather in private homes rather than these meeting places, and it was largely proved by the Roman laws targeting estates on which the Manichaean were allowed to meet.

Thus, let us turn to consideration of the major aspects of this domestically-bound religion to understand the distinctive characteristics of Manichaeism as a lived community, and its participation in a larger religious and secular culture. The first is the structure of Manichaean community, the role of the Elect and the Auditors in its formation. The second is the place of texts (read, recited and copied) as instruments of the inscribing of Manichaean identity on the individual believer.

1. The Structure of Manichaean Community

A traditional Manichaean community may be presented as a two-unit whole that consists of itinerant holy persons — the Elect — forming its core, and the Auditors — laypeople. A small network of family and friends closed the religious bond, as laypeople were supposed to sponsor the Elect besides their other social and business links that connected them. The relative intimacy of these groups provided a private, small-scale social reinforcement of their commitment to the religion, which in its often illicit character in turn fostered the bonds of the group. Careful organization and communication was necessary to prepare for the arrival and hosting of an Elect, and is attested by the documents from Kellis. The Elect depended entirely on the ordinary adherent for safety, housing, food, clothing, and other supplies necessary to the Manichaean mission. These responsibilities continued to some extent even after the Elect had departed, as the Manichaean families would continue to provide needed items as requested by letter and messenger.

Thus, as it follows, the Elect as a mobile holy person became the center of religious authority and practice in late antique periods. In other words, there was a tendency in the Roman society according to which more fixed institutional forms, such as Christianity, were displaced by itinerant religious authority. Of course, there had always been unofficial representatives of this or that religious form, including shamans, wonder workers, and diviners alongside of the temple-based cults. Yet Roman policies that undermined and compromised the standing and functioning of the temples in their local context contributed much to the appearance of secret communities, centered around «the holy man»; namely, Manichaean association.

Another factor, adding to the transition from the institutionalized priesthoods to separate figures, is the anthropological one: «Rather than a sacred place, the new center and chief means of access to divinity will be a divine man, a magician, who will function, by and large, as an entrepreneur. Rather than celebration, purification and pilgrimage, the new rituals will be those of conversion, of initiation into the secret society or identification with the divine man. As a part of this fundamental shift, the archaic language and ideology of the cult will be revalorized — only those elements which contribute to this new, anthropological and highly mobile understanding of religion will be retained» [2, p. 187−188]. J.Z. Smith’s major idea, concluded in this statement, is the so-called «spiritualization of the cult», in which feeding and supplying the holy person is believed to generate the sort of spiritual capital, formerly associated with the sacrificial rite. Thus, Manichaean community appeared as a result of shifts in cultic practices, serving as an alternative to altar-based practices.

The figure of the Manichaean Elect deserves special attention. This person can be called a true versatile taking on various sorts of ascetic and purificatory disciplines that ordinary people wouldn’t be able to perform. Augustine of Hippo compares such people to the glorious Greek «athletes» who had achieved spiritual victory by their own heroic efforts. The Elect offered in his or her own person a living example of ideal embodiment, displaying the proven possibility of overcoming the evil forces embedded in all humans. Consequently, the Elect was treated as a living saint, not to say, a divine being. That is why when a Manichaean Elect stayed in a home, the hosts felt like taking part in an important sacred mission that added the cultural prestige of hosting guests. Feeding guests was a holy act of the utmost merit, and was conducted as a formal ritual once each day. As long as the Elect remained, the laypeople who fed him or her were active participants in a mystery that served towards the liberation of their own souls, as well as the souls of all living beings. Angels literally filled the room where such a sacred meal was occurring, activating a portal between sacred and profane dimensions of reality. Other acts of support to the Elect, such as an annual bestowal of new clothing or the designation of a member of the household to be a traveling companion, were regarded as high honors for the donor.

Among the main duties of the Elect were instruction, moral counseling, assessment of the spiritual condition of the members of the local cell, initiation of new converts or additions to the family, and blessings or protective magic for individuals and households. Wooden «flip-cards» of theological content that were discovered at Kellis serve as direct evidence of these instruction practices. Augustine mentions hymn-singing as one of the forms of religious instruction, and wooden boards were supposed to aid the memory of singers in performance. In addition to that, the program of spiritual development included the formal practice of confession and absolution as its central point. The initial confession of a new convert provided an opportunity to review past conduct not just for personal sinfulness, but for evidence that confirmed the Manichaean view of the nature of evil. Then, after initiation, confession continued to be a regular part of Manichaean practice, both in its individual and collective forms, on the occasion of community meetings. The ritual of confession performed two main functions: first, it served as a means of expiating spiritual guilt and pollution; and second, it was believed to support the regime of personal transformation. Through both individualized confessional dialogues and communal recitation of confessional formulas, laypeople received, internalized, and became transmitters of Manichaean ethical paradigms and models of self-understanding. Thus, it offered a concrete means of constantly shifting one’s character and identity in order to distinguish and positively reinforce those traits indicative of the good true self, while drawing attention to those other traits indicative of evil within that must be isolated and eradicated.

Therefore, the Manichaean system of practice seems to present perfectly conformed and ritualized embodiment. Manichaeans were taught to put into action specified modes of thought and behavior in order to defeat the evil in their bodies. Laypeople were supposed to follow the rule of the so-called «Three seals» (mouth, hand and heart) that presupposed non-violence, regulation of desire, right speech, right diet, abstinence from alcohol, etc. The discipline within the community was based on the two-sided control: on the one hand, laypeople were enjoined to always act as if the Elect were present and observing; on the other hand, the Elect were subject to the scrutinizing gaze of the laypeople. The intimate domestic sphere of the relations binding together the Manichaean community meant for either class of believer that there was no place to hide. Consequently, in case there was a conflict between the Auditors and the Elect, the Elect might be dismissed.

Another important aspect that touches upon daily life of the community includes some magical rites and rituals, performed by the Elect. First of all, the Elect held prayers for the physical well-being of addressees, invoking the blessings of the divine forces on their life, as well as the occasional spell for the use of the recipient in quite mundane matters. The spiritual part of the rituals was supported by the manufacture and use of various types of amulets. Similarly, in Mesopotamia just beyond the Roman frontier Manichaeans were involved in the preparation and ritual installation of magic bowls intended to safeguard the domestic space from harmful spirits. In another vein, it was important to involve the Elect in the funerary rites when a Manichaean died by sponsoring a sacred meal ritual, at which one or a number of Elect recite specific prayers for the dead.

The Manichaean cultic association gathered as a community for certain holy days, involving fasting and the observance of vigils. Once per year the religion’s entire ritual repertoire was deployed at the springtime Bema festival. Following a month-long lenten fast, all of the Elect and laypeople in an area assembled for a commemoration of Mani’s ascent to heaven, with confession, hymn-singing, a bit of high liturgical ceremony, and, of course, a sacred meal. This annual observance was the closest thing Manichaeans had to a public component to their religion. Hymns were composed especially for the occasion. The Manichaean calendar was based upon how many annual Bemas had been celebrated since the death of Mani. Even if the Elect made only periodic appearances in a given community, at least one of them must have been present annually for this symbolic renewal of the cultic association.

When an Elect moved on from one community to the next, the way was prepared by networks established among the Auditors. Those left behind shifted to alternative modes of activity by which they maintained their Manichaean identity and practice. Certain practices were suspended without an Elect present to play an essential role. Other activities filled the gap, by which the local cell became the sustainers of their own identification with the elusive world Manichaean organization and world mission. They maintained their prayers, their hymn-singing, their reading, and the production of all the supplies and instruments of religious life — most of all the texts by which Manichaean discourse was perpetuated even without the living voice of its authoritative representatives.

2. The Book as a Religious Instrument in Manichaean Culture

There has been enough evidence that allows to ascribe Manichaeism to a book-culture. The new material, found at Kellis, served a starting point to a long debate in modern scholarship over just how much laypeople seemed to be involved in this cultural aspect. That evidence shows a local group of Manichaeans, engaged in copying books, and learning all the skills required for that task, including not only book-making techniques and scribal art, but even the learning of foreign languages. Laypeople appear to have been encouraged to become literate, and to deliver their children to the Elect for tutoring. Further on, to develop their skills at writing, parents used to write letters to their children while they were staying with the Elect.

Returning to furthermore, it is important to note that, besides reading, Manichaeans gave much attention to translation which was an essential condition of conversion of the laity into Manichaeism. This hypothesis was proved by a number of historians. Hense, if reading had remained the exclusive purview of spiritual elite, as it did in Medieval Europe, it was possible to expect a conservative maintenance of a holy language in its original form. Instead, as the evidence shows, Manichaeans rendered their texts into local vernaculars, even introducing scripts to formerly predominantly oral cultures outside the Roman Empire. Even when especially reverenced texts were copied and read out in their original (or presumed original) language, parallel and interlinear translation into the vernacular was typically provided. It was essential to their formative role in the life of the Manichaean that the texts be understood, and engage the conscious mind, so that they could inscribe particular patterns of thought within the adherent. Manichaeans quickly adapted from their original Syriac to Greek, Coptic, and Latin in the west, and to Parthian, Persian, Turkic, and Chinese in Asia. Nor was this simply a matter of linguistic adaptation. Manichaean missions systematically appropriated existing local religious and philosophical concepts to convey essential Manichaean ideas to new populations.

The centrality of books to Manichaean identity also manifested itself in the production of miniature books for ease of transport and concealment. Several of the smallest manuscripts in the world are Manichaean. The Cologne Mani Codex, at 4.5 cm by 3.5 cm, is comparable to other examples known from Central Asia of roughly the same period. Nothing else this small is found before the age of the printing press. Other Christian groups in Egypt also made use of miniature codices, although none at the extreme of the Cologne Mani Codex. As reported by the researchers, more than two dozen books in Coptic of less than 10 cm on a side from the fourth through the eighth centuries are known. The suggestion that such miniature books were used as amulets rather than reading texts reflects assumptions from other, less-literate religious traditions. None of the Manichaean miniature manuscripts show the degradation of the text or script often seen in amulets. Nor does their content correspond to the prayer formulas or other short passages typical of amulet texts. The Cologne Mani Codex, of course, is a 192 page book. It is quite clear that we are dealing with books for private devotion. Reading to oneself or to the family served an important role in filling one’s head with Manichaean thoughts, in a manner closely paralleling the development of the reading of the Bible and devotional literature in lay Christian families in the late medieval and Reformation period.

However, the history of religion lacks specifics on the ritual framing of reading texts in the home. There was no reference to formal opening or closing prayers, or prescriptions for handling the manuscripts. Nevertheless, some researchers managed to find various markers of organizing texts for collective recitation, such as dividing them into reading portions, formatting hymns and prayers in antiphonal structures for performance between a leader and respondents, or between Elect and laypeople, using prompt boards providing the first words of each verse in a hymn for group performance, etc.

Hence, it is possible to dwell on the role of reading and copying of texts in the development of the Manichaean. The Manichaean case, first of all, touches upon the shift from oral to written religious culture. In other words, writing provides for private, individualized spiritual development, for the permanent access of the individual to religious instruction even in the absence of religious authorities and professionals. The written text offers a means of remembering, and the Manichaean emphasis on reading seems to be aiming at saturation in discourse that makes the person a product of the sanctioned memory. Just as the writing of a text reduces, limits, and fixes the unfettered flow of discourse in an economy of focused attention, producing canonical discourse — so the constant and repeated reading of text works towards canonical thinking, setting limits to the disordered congenital mind and self and bringing into existence a conformed content of thought. All of the references to reading or copying texts in the Kellis documents seem to assume private study, and the late antique world fully appreciated the self-formative power of reading.

The well attested obligation of the Manichaean to read or recite Manichaean texts is only the most evident stage of a process intended to implant in the individual the «mind of light» directly from Mani’s revelatory discourse. The written word is the marvelous instrument of the letter from heaven, able to make present to the reader the distant authoritative mind. Even though the perfect understanding of the truth occurred in Mani’s mind, he has rendered and reduced it first to discourse, and then to text. And even though that text is an impoverishment of what Mani knows, it is sufficient in its codified, translated content to provide the material to be recited as an illocutionary obligation by the Manichaean adherent, which in turn is intended to yield, as a perlocutionary consequence, the fixation or inscription of the text within the readers' psyche as the content of their thoughts.

In this way, the disjointed and conflicted thought of the individual is brought into alignment and conformity with true Manichaean selfhood by a process of entextualising the self. Reading, therefore, becomes a key ritual activity of the Manichaean Auditors in the absence of the Elect, by which they maintain exposure to the authoritative voice of the tradition, and in this way work upon themselves the religion’s project of bringing themselves into identification with and conformity to its discourse.

manichaeism doctrine community book


Manichaeism as a religious community presents a well-organized domestic setting, designed to saturate and invest the individual with a delimited set of thoughts and behaviors that become the Manichaean self, identity. By its domestic location, this system of practice does not allocate religious performance to a public sphere where the broader society’s gaze plays a role in affirming a selfhood in conformity to social norms. On the contrary, the confinement of Manichaeism to the domestic sphere marks a division and separation of the Manichaean from that social gaze and norm, into a more intimate sphere of affirmation and reinforcement in the close-knit family or even in the private space of the individual alone with him / herself between contacts with visiting Elect. One’s religious identity, then, cannot be dissociated from oneself in time and place as mere convention or as part of public role playing. If there is Manichaeism present, it is private and personal, permanent and ever-present, with no space into which one may withdraw and remove religious commitment as a performative mask. It is a voluntary self-subjection in which one forms a power relationship with oneself, which by that fact provides the system with greater access and ability to penetrate and permeate one’s identity.

This certainly looks to be a very effective means of inculcating religious identity within the person, and may explain the dogged persistence of Manichaeism in the face of a nearly perpetual state of persecution. And yet, in the end, the disconnection between the private and public spheres of identity eventually did its corrosive work, as attested in the case of Augustine. While the unbeliever appears able to easily assume the public role of the believer for a few hours a week as a social nicety with no great strain on his or her identity, perhaps the true believer labors under different psychic pressures, and cannot long sustain the same sort of double life. Even being able to publicly express difference from the social norm seems to work just fine. So we are not talking simply of the pressure to conform. Instead we are dealing with something about the integration of private and public identity somehow essential to religious commitment. And this seems to be the specific feature of Manichaeism.


1. BeDuhn J.D. The Domestic Setting of Manichaean Cultic Associations in Roman Late Antiquity // Archiv fьr Religionsgeschichte, 10. Band, 2008. — P. 259−274.

2. Smith J.Z. Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, 1978. — P. 187−188.

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