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Mandaeans

During this vigil the priests are not idle. They consult the Sfar Malwasha and make predictions about the New Year, its good or bad weather, its chances of disaster or good fortune. Laymen keep themselves awake by playing games and reciting stories. If a beast, bird, reptile, or large insect (such as a hornet) touches food or drink it cannot be consumed; and if a person is touched by beaat, bird, reptile, large insect, or Gentile, he is seriously polluted and must purify himself later by baptisms. Should he be bitten by a dog or reptile, or stung by a bee or hornet, he incurs sixty baptisms. Flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and lice are not, however, counted, as they are regarded as unavoidable and naturable conditions. It is possible that in earlier times there were regulations about these lesser evils, for I was told that the extremely pious sometimes retired for the period into a reed-hut covered entirely by mosquito-netting.

The reason given for these precautions against pollution is this: New Year's Day commemorates the Creation, for Mana Rba Kabira, the Great Mana, the Lord of Greatness, completed his work of creation on this day. Therefore, all the spirits of light, wherever they may be, leave their posts and go to visit him and pay their compliments. Abathur 'closes his door', Nidbai and Shilmai forsake their guardianship of the running waters; Hibil, Shitil, and 'Anush depart; the dwellers in Mshunia Kushta with Adam Kasia at their head and their guardian spirit Shishlam Rba (the dmutha of Hibil Ziwa)- all rise into the infinite worlds of light. Swiftly as these creatures of light move, the long journey takes them twelve hours. They reach their goal at the dawn of the New Year and spend that day in the bliss of contemplating perfection. The journey back covers the next night.

But what of the world thus left undefended? The powers of evil and death are unrestrained. Even the waters of river or spring are dangerous and must not be approached or touched. If a man but dips his hand into the river, he is 'cursed with the curse of Shishlam Rba'. Trees, usually magically beneficent, become harmful. People wrap matting round trees growing in their compounds lest children should touch them inadvertently. In short, Mandaeans take care to protect themselves from pollution because if pollution endangered them physically and spiritually while the natri or guardian spirits were present, it has thousandfold power to harm them during their absence.

On the second day of the year all the Mandaeans come out, visit each other, feast, and make merry. The first visit is to the ganzibra, who tells them the portents for the year. Individual forecasts of good or bad fortune may be obtained from the priests, and af unfavourable the inquirer is advised to order the writing of a qmaha or zrazta. It is a time of rejoicing, but no baptisms, slaughterings, or any other religious ceremony except funerals-and these must be supplemented at Panja as said above-may be performed until the fourteenth day and the night which follows it are over. (The Mandaeans count the twenty-four hours of a day and night as beginning at dawn, i.e. Tuesday is followed by Tuesday night: 'the night of Tuesday' to an Arab, on the country, means the night preceding Tuesday.)

The 6th day of the first month is called Nauruz Zota or Little New Year, and this and the 7th day, are called the Dehva d Shishlam Rba, or, in one of the holy books, the Dihba d Shushian. The night between these two days is called 'the night of power', and then, if a man is pious, the Gate of Abathur is opened to him in a vision and he obtains whatever he may ask. As, however, if he is really pious he dos not ask worldly favours but freedom from sin and spiritual gifts, the result is not immediately seen. All lights and fires must be extinguished for this feast and food is distributed to the poor. The Mandaean priests visit their flocks and hang on the lintel of every house a wreath of willow and myrtle, which remains there till the next year and is thought to protect the inmates from harm. For this service the priests receive a small fee. At the hanging, they recite this prayer:

Bshma d hiia rbia nhar gufnia bgu mia u'tqaiam kabiria byardna nighdia anatum rauzia shganda lhakha aithilkhun yahbinalkhun 'l 'uthria saghia gadlilkhun umathnalkhun bbab d hilbunia kth asa d marba yanqia gadlilkhun umathnalkhun alma lkimsat almia brakhinun yardnia saghia brakhtinkhun masbuta d labatla mn rish brish.

As I doubt the correctness of this text, which a priest wrote from memory, I prefer not to venture a translation. Priests say that the wreaths thus hung up secure the blessings of fertility and good health.

On the 15th of the month Mandaeans are allowed to slaughter and are permitted to eat meat. It is a cheerful feast, but the 22th is an unlucky day, and no enterprise should be undertaken or religious ceremony performed, for it is mbattal (useless, inauspicious). If a man dies on a mbattal day, a zidqa brikha must be performed for him on his substitute at Panja. The 25th day of the next month, Nuna, is also mbattal. The month of Umbara has no particular feast or day of ill-omen. The first four days of Taura are mbattal. The 18th of Taura is the Dehwa Hnina, or Little Feast, sometimes called the Dehwa (Dihba) Turma. In 1932 and 1935 this feast fell on November 23rd and presumably in 1933, but I did not then note it down. The feast lasts for three days and baptisms should take place and the dead be remembered by lofani or ritual meals for the dead. Dehwa Hnina celebrates the return of Hibil Ziwa from the underworlds to the worlds of light. This feast seems a curious repetition of the death or incarceration with subsequent return or resurrection motives of the New Year Feast, and later of the Panja festival. I suggest that the reason may be that all three were once New Year feasts, and fell at the spring of the year. The root-ideas of the mourning and rejoicing at this season are found at a very early date both in Babylonia and Persia. The priests assure me that Panja (which certainly correspond to the neo-Babylonian New Year's feast in the month of Nisan) has fallen, from time immemorial, at the season of the melting of the snows and the consequent rising of the rivers. But they seem ignorant of any method of correcting the calendar by such a system as that of the intercalary month after each 120 years employed by the Old Persians, although one priest told me that in the past, when priests were wiser, such corrections had taken place. One thing is certain: the most important feast of the Mandaean year at present is, not the so-called Great-Feast at the so called New Year, but the spring-feast of Panja, which I shall presently describe.

I was invited lately to a Mandaean house for the feast of Dehwa Hnina. Contrary to religious precept, the women wore jewellery and were clad in silken raiment of bright hue. One or two of them danced to the clicking of fingers and rhythmical clapping of hands and the singing of dirge-like wedding songs in Persian.

In the month of Silmia there is no day of note. In Sartana the first day is called Ashuriah, which commemorates the drowning of the Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea. Special lofanis are eaten for the Egyptians who are considered to have been Mandaeans. The 9th, 15th, and 23rd days of this month are mbattal. Qam Aria is a good month and lucky for those born in it, but it is forbidden to marry during that month. The last five days of Shumbulta (the Ear of Corn, Virgo) are mbattal, for they are dedicated to the five lords of the underworld, Shdum, Hagh and his consort Magh, Gaf and his consort Gafan, Zartai-Zartani, and Krun, the Mountain-of-Flesh. These five mbattal days, given over to the Darkness, necessitate the reconsecration of the manda, or cult-hut, during the five ensuing days of light. These are the five intercalary days of Parwanaia, or Panja, the happiest time of the whole year, during which the great baptismal river feast is held. It falls at the time when the river is swollen by melting snows from the north, i.e. during the first warm days of spring. In 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 Panja fell on April 5th but in 1936 it fell on April 4th. Each of the five days is dedicated to a spirit of light and, as the doors of the world of light are open during Panja by night as well as by day, prayers may be offered at night. On other nights of the year no prayer may be said after sunset. One night during Panja is an especial night of grace, like the night of Dehwa d Shishlam Rba, and any right petition made to the lords of light will be granted.

Panja is a religious festival rather than a season of carnival, and Subba who live far from a priest travel long distances in order to be baptized as many times as their means allow, and join in the lofanis, zidqa brikhas, and dukhranas for the dead. The dead, assembling at the sacred meals and summoned by the mention of their names in the ritual, are refreshed by the spiritual double of the foods, and bless the living. The uneasy souls of those delayed upon the road to the worlds of light because they died an unclean death, or on a mbattal day, or without the proper death-ceremonies and clothing, are represented by proxies at the ceremonies of ahaba d mania and others, and clothed, purified, and sustained are furthered on their way through the mataratha. Families save up to pay the fees necessary for these ceremonies; indeed, they regard the barriers between them and their dead relatives, back to distant ancestors and the spirits of light who begot them, as down during the five days of holiness. The soul of a person who dies during this period, when it emerges from the tomb on the third day, passes without hindrance through the mataratha, and the costly death-masiqta is not necessary for such a one. Hence relatives of a person dangerously ill long that he should die at this time, and I have noted that in a small hamlet three persons died of different diseases in one year at this season. No doubt, if a person is dangerously ill, a baptism in the river might be expected to produce the desired result. The patient himself is anxious to leave the world at this season, for no demons or wild beasts (zangoyi) will have power to harm his soul on its journey, and it accomplishes the long and difficult journey to the Gate of Abathur in a single day.

Abstracted from : Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, E.S. Drower, Leiden, 1962

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