Mandaeans on Pluto
The bowl on this photo, which you can see in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is an ‘incantation bowl’. It is decorated with an almost endless, spiraling text that is supposed to protect the owner against a host of evil spirits. These bowls were made in Sassanian Mesopotamia and were used by every religious minority. There are Christian incantation bowls, but they were also used by Jews, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, and Mandaeans. I remember from my visit to the the museum that this particular bowl was Mandaean, but I cannot check it.
After all, what do I know about Mandaeans? Hardly anything is known about them. We know a bit of their theology: they are dualists who believe that the soul wants to be with God but is in exile on earth after a Great Cosmic Accident. However, there is secret knowledge that helps the soul return to its origin and destiny. This theology is not unlike the Gnosis of Antiquity and it is probably no coincidence that the name of this faith is derived from Aramaic manda, which means “knowledge”, just like Greek gnosis.
So, is it an ancient Greek religion? Probably not. The Mandaeans wear Iranian clothing. Their literature, on the other hand, is clearly inspired by Judaism, although the Mandaeans give different interpretations to the stories of the Bible. It doesn’t help that there are hardly any texts about the earliest Mandaeans. The often repeated theory that they are identical to the Sabaeans mentioned in the Quran is precisely that: a theory.
Besides, even if we understand the Mandaean origins and doctrine, we don’t know anything. It’s merely theoretical. If you read a catechism and a book on the history of the popes, you still don’t know much about Catholicism either. If you want to understand it, you’d better live with a Catholic family for some time.
One thing, however, we do know about the Mandaeans. They used to believe that the stars and planets influence human destiny. Now there are many people who believe in astrology, but the Mandaeans are in a specific Babylonian tradition, still using the millennia old Akkadian names of the celestial bodies. No Greek or Arabian origins here.
And that is quite interesting. It is nice that there is an initiative – you can read more about it on Facebook – to use a name from Mandaean mythology if the New Horizons probe discovers an interesting mountain on the dwarf planet Pluto. The proposed name is Krun, who is one of the five lords of the underworld and is nicknamed “mountain of flesh”. It’s a good name for a mountain on a planet that is named after the Roman god of the Underworld.
So, vote Krun! Go to this web page, select “Mythology of the Underworld”, go to the third page (“Mythological Beings”), and cast your vote.