Here I present a short paper sent to me by Darren Worley, arguing for a Mandaean connection:
“I think that there is evidence of a Mandaean influence in the VM. I would suggest that the text might be Mandaic, a close-cousin of Syriac. This is the language of the Mandaeans.
The purpose of this posting is to describe in greater detail the similarities that I’ve found, and hopefully encourage others to find more, and test this hypothesis.
In brief, the Mandaeans follow an ancient Gnostic religion from Mesopotamia/Persia that continues to this day. Their origins are unclear; some sources suggest that they are descended from the Jewish tribes who remained in Babylon, and others suggest a link with the “Sabians of Harran”.
Not wishing to repeat what’s better explained elsewhere, these links give a good introduction to their faith and language.
At the very beginning of my VM research, purely from what I could determine from a visual inspection and from what I learnt from Prof. Baxs’ paper, I wrote a list of what I could assume about the community that created the VM. It was something like this:
- Belief in ritual cleansing/bathing
- Use of herbs in medicine
- Strong tradition in astrology, divination
- Likely Persian/Turkish/Caucasus/Arabic influence
- Absence of Christian iconography
- Peculiar interest in nymphs/angels
- Some catastrophic event occurred to the community resulting in their written dialect/language being lost (e.g. displacement, massacre, famine etc.)
When I started researching medieval Arabic alchemy and astrology I kept coming across repeated references to the Mandaeans (aka Sabians, or Mandeans) in the context of astrology and divination. In fact, these appeared so often that I started researching their history, customs and beliefs in more detail.
I was able to tick-off all my assumptions and identify additional similarities.
1) In Mandaic, the constellation of Taurus is known as Taura [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934]. In the VM f68r3 Taurus is also written as Taura [eva : doaro].
2) A peculiarity of Mandaean cosmology is that they believe all the stars rotate around the pole-star (Polaris). Mandaeans pray towards this star, and the dead are aligned towards it. Polaris is their most important celestial object.
The “Dictionary of Religions” vol3 (Forlong) p213, on Sabians, states : the pole star is the “central sun, the jewelled crown which stands before the door of Abathur” , who is the “father of the door”.
(In Mandaic, Baba = father and thur = door, or gate, probably from the Greek; thura; θύρα). I believe “thur” (Abathur) is synonymous with the pole-star, meaning gate, door or portal.
E.S.Drower in her paper (Mandaean Writings, 1934 p174) explains the use of an angelic or deity termination, -‘il or -‘iil, when a “son of Ur” is invoked. This is used when referring to a Deity in a cosmological context. Examples given by Drower are:
- Taura – > Tauriil or Tauril
- Libat (Venus) -> Zahril.
I would therefore expect “thur” (Abathur) to become “thur’iil” when used in a cosmological context.
I believe the text of on f57v at the 10o’clock position (EVA: dairol; th/o/u/r/a/l) signifies the “pole-star”. “thoural” is quite close to the predicted ““thur’iil”. (See my other discussion on the meaning of f57v).
The slight difference might be explained by (3).
3) Drower often bemoans the poor standard of manuscript copying by semi-literate priests. [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934, p178; A Mandaean Book of Black Magic p3]. One other thing to consider is that different sections of the VM might have been copied from earlier manuscripts from different sources and possibly generations apart in age. The spelling is likely to be inconsistent and sometimes illegible.
4) Drower mentions the delimiting of passages of text using an abbreviation and a religious formula. [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934 p172]. I think this might explain the frequent repetition of the “eva:dain” (th/u/ur) word in the VM. I think this relates to ‘Uthra which occurs frequently in Mandaean prayers.(Drower, Canonical Prayerbook)
5) Borrowings from Persian, Arabic should be expected [Drower. Mandaeans of Iraq & Iran, p37 gives examples].
6) Several researchers have identified St.Johns Wort as the first herb in the VM. (There is some textual evidence, as well as visual evidence, to support this attribution). An early name by which Mandaeans were known was “St.John Christians”. The Mandeans emphasized their links with the prophet, St. John, as it conferred special status with Islamic society and reduced persecution. This provides an explanation for why St. John’s Wort [Hypericum perforatum] possibly appears first.
1) One explanation for the disappearance of the written dialect/language is reported by (Drower: Mandeans of Iraq. p14). The end of one Mandaean magic roll records a horrible slaughter of the Mandaeans by the Arabs in the 14th century in Jazirah [….] This massacre left the community broken and with no priests for years, resulting in such an impression on the Mandaeans’ collective memory that they mentioned it as one of the biggest disasters of the community even centuries later.
2) As has been described elsewhere, the figure shown in f57 is believed to show an astronomical instrument (al-Bayda). This was first described by Al-Buttani, a Sabain/Mandaean astronomer in 911.
1) Mandaeans have a tradition of ritual cleansing/bathing/purification especially for women during childbirth and when menstruating [Drower. Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran. Chapter 7]
- They practice baptism, and hold special reverence for flowing water. Mandaeans call themselves “subba” or “sabba” this comes from the Arabic word “to plunge in, submerge”. [Drower, Meandeans of Iraq. p 16]
- It has been noted on this website that the word for flowing water has been suggested/identified in the VM
- Encyclopedia of Religions v3. Pg. 212 On Sabians reports that they “dip themselves into a river naked” cf. the naked figures in the VM
- The cult-hut (Manda, or mandi) (Drower, Mandaeans of Iraq, p126) look similar to the huts, next of the female figures, on the inner ring f70r
2) Use of herbs in medicine
- This is reported by Drower [Meandaeans of Iraq and Iran. p83.] cf. the herbal section of the VM
3) Strong tradition of astrology, divination
- This is reported by Drower [Book of the Zodiac p.56 / Book of the Stars] cf. the astrological section of the VM
- All Mandaeans have both a zodiacal name and a birth name.
- The importance of astrology in Mandaean culture is attested by the large number of astrological/magic texts. (Ref: Drower, Book of the Zodiac)
4) Arabic/Persian influence in VM
- Mandaeans originated in Mesopotamia/Persia and most continued to do so until fairly recently cf. several words of an Arabic origin have been identified in the VM. (see Prof. Bax paper)
Contents and Structure of VM – Similarities/Evidence
1) The VM is collection of separately themed manuscripts cf. Drower reports in the Book of Zodiac (p.1) that most of the longer Mandaic manuscripts [are] a miscellany, a group of manuscripts of varying source and date. If the VM does follow the structure of a Mandaean manuscript then last page probably contains a colophon describing the genealogy of the priests who wrote it.
2) The mythological section of the VM (f75 onwards) is possibly an illustrated version of a Mandaean religious text. Likely candidates are Book of Esdras, or Book of Enoch. These are apocryphal books from the Old Testament. Parts of the canon of Mandaean religious books include the “Book of John (the Baptist)” and the “Book of Adam”. Mandaeans also venerate biblical figures like Enoch and Noah. Perhaps the mythological section is another of these texts? (The Book of Enoch is an astronomical text describing the Babylonian calendar and associates stars with angels, whereas, Esdras is an apocalyptic book.)
- The association that Mandaeans make between stars and angels may also explain the appearance of the figures surrounding the zodiacal section of the VM (f70 – f73)
I should add that most extant Mandaean manuscripts date from C16th onwards and as far as I know, no earlier illustrated manuscripts exist. The iconography of the later manuscripts do not look like the VM, however the C14th massacre and the loss of the priestly class, described above, might explain why.
In summary, I believe –
1) The VM has a strong Mandaean influence. I believe it probably originated in a Mandaean community, or from a breakaway sect. They were a persecuted minority and it appears there have been several break-away groups and migrations in the past (the Yezidis, Parsees in India). So I concede that it may originate from one of these other sects that have retained some of their earlier customs.
2) The VM is probably a copy of an original text, since Mandaeans revered the cow/bull and they didn’t write on vellum (ref: uncertain.).
1) I would also expect to find frequent occurrences of the words for “Subba” (their word for themselves), and words associated with submersion, baptism and flowing water, and also words for their numerous Gods and Deities.
2) Close textual analysis may also reveal matches with extant manuscripts:
- Perhaps the mythological section can be matched against other known manuscripts (not all known Mandaean manuscripts have been translated yet)
- Maybe the text accompanying the “al-Bayda” astronomical instrument on f57v, can be matched against known Al-Battani (or similar) writings.
3) Expect to find a Babylonian influence within the astronomical/astrological sections. There will also be similarities with the Hebrew calendar as a result of their common Babylonian origin.
Most of the books I’ve referred to are freely available for download on the web. The books by Drower are all quite readable in their own right.
This website gives a good summary of the Drower books I used: www.farvardyn.com/mandaean.php
Finally, I just wanted to give some reasons why I rejected an alternate hypothesis that the VM is of early Jewish origin.
Many of the similarities I found could also apply to a Jewish community:
- There is a Jewish mystical tradition (Kabballah) with regional variation (eg. Chassidei Ashkenaz)
- The Jewish “Sefer Evronot” (Book of Intercalations) is a compilation on Hebrew calendars, for use in the planning of religious festivals.(similar to VM f57v)
- The “Book of Enoch” is an apocryphal Old Testament text.
- Jewish communities also have been subject to displacement and massacres
- Ritual purification exists within the Jewish faith
- The similarities of the VM with a Jewish midrash – a commentary on a book of the bible.
However, the textual matches, the possibility that the astronomical instrument (f57v) is of C10th Sabian/Mandaean origin and the possibility that the first plant is St. John’s Wort, leads me to believe that a Mandaean origin is slightly more probable.”
Thanks to Darren Worley. Any comments welcome.