On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean

letterguyugto-innocent-persianStudents of languages will know that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, one didn’t have to leave the west to hear Arabic spoken in daily life.  In Iberia and the Balearic islands it was in common use.

Nor did one have to go far to encounter eastern languages. Jewish scholars read and wrote Aramaic.  In 1241 Mongolian and the now-lost language of Cuman was to be heard less than 150 miles from peninsula Italy,  as Mongols and Cumans stood in Split, separated from Pescara by no more than the width of the Adriatic.

When Pope Innocent IV wrote to Guyuk Khan from Lyons in 1245, he wrote in Latin.  The reply which came the next year was written in Persian.[1]  International correspondence required a court to have resident translators.

At that time Mongolian was still written in a script derived from the form of Aramaic used in writing Syriac.

udhr_mongolian-traditionalTwenty years later, a new script known as Phagspa had been created and was rapidly employed throughout the Mongol territories, though the older type remained in use in less formal contexts.

Before the end of that century, paintings for the Franciscan church in Assisi see the painter attempting to write Phagspa as the script of  a book placed in the hands of St.Jerome, a tribute to the Franciscans’ having travelled as far as China.  This image (below) is not the only example of efforts to write Phagspa, others illustrated in an earlier post.  The book or at least the script has been turned at right angles here. Perhaps the painter was unaware that the script was written vertically; perhaps he felt it would look ‘wrong’ to the average viewer, or perhaps the Franciscans themselves had developed a practice in writing that script which they found more congenial to the style of the western manuscript.  Whatever the case, when the painting was made (c.1296-1300), the Genoese who had gone to Baghdad had died there and Montecorvino had been in Beijing for several years.


St.Jerome, Church of St.Francis, Assisi (painted 1296-1300)

Just for interest, here’s how the older Mongolian script would look if turned in the same way. udhr_mongolian-traditional-horizonal

Things Manichean.

Speaking of  Franciscans who reached China, another note about the tombstone supposedly erected for Andrew of Perugia.

The inscription’s beginning with a cross has been assumed proof of Christian character, but is not, in fact,  sufficient proof of it, for the ‘cross of Light’ was a current Manichean emblem, too.


When Willem van Ruysbroeck (William of Rubruck) was sent as emissary to the Mongol court at Karakorum, he met in Cailac an ‘idolator’ who, being asked if he were a Christian, had said that he was. The man had a ‘small cross on his hand’, perhaps as a tattoo.   Although most commentators suppose Rubruck was addressing a Buddhist, as later he did, there is a distinct possibility that the man with the cross on his hand was a Manichaean of the eastern type.   Mani had also called himself Christian.[2

What the Manichaeans were not, however, were monotheists of the Abrahamic tradition, and whether they are described by the Muslims or the Chinese, this group of ‘Christians’ is described as being ‘idolators’ – that is, apparent polytheists.  Given the universalist style of Manichean theology and teaching, and their practice of absorbing Buddhist terms and practices,[3] confusion is understandable.  Here’s how Rubruck describes the meeting:

In the said city of Cailac they had three idol temples… In the first one I found a person who had a little cross in ink on his hand, whence I concluded he was a Christian, and to all that I asked him he replied that he was a Christian. So I asked him: “Why have you not here the Cross and the figure of Jesus Christ?” And he replied: “It is not our custom.” … I noticed there behind a chest which served in the place of altar and on which they put lamps and offerings, a winged image like Saint Michel, and other images like bishops holding their fingers as if blessing. That evening I could find out nothing more, for the Saracens shun these (idolaters) so much that they will not even speak of them, and when I asked Saracens concerning the rites of these people, they were scandalized.[4]

In other words, the Saracens didn’t recognise them as Christians, either.

Now again in southern China, and according to il Milione, the Polos were informed by a ‘wise Saracen’ about a sect ..

.. whose religion nobody seemed to be able to identify. They neither worshipped fire nor Christ nor Buddha nor Muhammed. …the Venetian visitors were not deterred .. [but]…they were eager to impress upon them the Khan’s toleration in matters of religion. ..The barriers were soon lifted and the Polos were even allowed to inspect their wall-decorations and their holy books. With the help of a translator, visitors were able identify a Psalter. From this they concluded that the members of this unknown sect were Christians and they should send a delegation to the Khan to procure for themselves the privileges which were granted Christians. Two members of this so-called Christian sect duly arrived at the court of the Khan and made themselves known to the head of the Nestorian church. He took their case to the Khan and requested that these people should be granted the privileges which were due to the Christians. However, the head of the Buddhists argued that this sect should not be placed under the rule of the Christians as they were idolators and had always known to be idolators…. Bored by the arguments put forward by the religious leaders of both sides, Kublai Khan [1215 – 1294] summoned the delegation to his presence and asked them whether they would like to live under the law of the Christians or the law of the Buddhists. They replied that if it should please the Khan … they wished to be classed as Christians as their ancestors had been. Their wish was duly granted and Kublai Khan ordered that they should be addressed as Christians and allowed to keep the law of the Christians. Most scholars are agreed that the Polos had stumbled across a secretive group of Manichaeans. [5]

The tombstone supposed that for Andrew of Perugia was erected about forty or fifty years later. And if the cross on that tombstone whose inscription and script remain uncertain is no certain proof of Latin Christian belief, another detail offers positive suggestion of Manichaean custom – at least in imagery.

Above the inscription is the image of two angels and lotus, with a great figure who does not hold a child, but the small figure of a mature, wizened old man held as if he had been an infant and wearing a type of skull-cap also seen in Manichaean art.  It is, however, the headdress worn by the larger figure which argues against a western Christian tradition, and for the Manichaean.  We see the general type in an earlier Manichaean wall-painting, the detail included in the composite shown below.  Note how, within the crown carved in the stone, there is a detail formed like a toothed wheel or possibly a great star.(click to enlarge).


I’d suggest, in fact, that this soul-bearing figure is the same great angel which the west knew as  ‘Michael’ and that this similarity is why Rubruck also saw the figure in Cailac as “Michael” in 1252 or -3. In Manichean belief, this may have been known as  the “Twin”[6]

An image of a ‘Daquin’ [ = Daqin] or Christian  [7] from southern China [8] appears in a sixteenth century text and shows now a form of tiara that had been conventional in Mesopotamia from at least the time of Nabonidus (556–539 BC), being adopted by eastern Christianity as the bishop’s mitre.  Unlike that ordinary ‘tiara-mitre’, and unlike any other  Christian regalia of which I  find record – this once more shows that toothed wheel or ‘star’.


I’d suggest that after the time of Kublai Khan, Manichaeans in China had adopted Nestorian headwear, but maintained this emblem as sign of their being a distinct ‘Christian’ sect.

Connection to matter in Beinecke MS 408 is not only the eastern regions, nor the eastern Hellenistic environment current in the 3rdC AD when Mani lived, but the  five-element system depicted on folio 77r is an eastern system, and one present in Manichaean belief.  The image on f.77r was discussed in an earlier post. Influence from Manichaean practice is also one of several possible explanations for that deliberate and consistent distortion of the  figures commonly described as “nymphs” by Voynich writers, but which in the opinion of the present writer consistently refer to astronomical matters.

Manichaean beliefs about the stars were those older Mesopotamia, despite its being a ‘religion of light’.  That is, they did not regard the stars as  natural phenomena in the Greek way, nor as benevolent overseers as they were seen by the Egyptians regarded them, but as demons.

A Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia, quotes Mani’s teachings on this point. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to  five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly given that he lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’.

This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets] are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and he Scales belong to the World of Wind,  The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [ule?] or in the flesh.  Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.  The two Ascendants [anabibazontes][9] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. ..


(detail) folio 77r – modified.


[note – 1/11/2016 –  researchers should be aware that Pin Yin romanisation was made the international standard in 1982, but that earlier research in English generally used the Wade-Giles romanisation e.g.  ‘Da Quin’ or ‘Daquin’; Pin Yin form is “Daqin”]



[1] Letter of Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan, Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City, Inv. no. Reg. Vat., 21, ff. 107 v. – 108 r.

[2] “Of the Iranian people in Central Asia, it was especially the Parthians and Sogdians who were open both to Christianity in its Nestorian form and to its Gnostic Manichaean offshoot. Though regarded as a heresy by Christians, it [i.e. Manichaeism] understood itself as a fulfillment of the Christian message”. Hans-J. Klimkeit, ‘Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans in Medieval Central Asia’, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1 (1981), pp. 46-50.

[3] “Superficially Buddhist modes of spiritual practice were all right, as long as they were conducted within the official safeguards and correct interpretation of Mani and his later hierarchical successors”. David A. Scott, ‘Manichaean Views of Buddhism’, History of Religions, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Nov., 1985), pp. 99-115.  Thus in the ‘Great Hymn to Mani’ we find: “We, the miserable sentient beings . . came to see the Buddha-like Sun- God [i.e.,Jesus], equal to thee. Bound in fetters, enduring pain, we remain in this samsara..” ibid. p.49.

[4] from: William Woodville Rockhill (ed. and trans.), The journey of William of Rubruck to the eastern parts of the world, 1253-55, as narrated by himself, with two accounts of the earlier journey of John of Pian de Carpine, London: Hakluyt Society, 1900. Chapter XIII. (available online through the Silk Road Seattle site.)

[5] ‘as their ancestors had been’ – emphasis by the present writer.  passage quoted from Samuel N. C. Lieu, ‘Nestorians and Manichaeans on the South China Coast’, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 71-88.

[6] Aramaic Tauma (תאומא), from which is also derived the name of the apostle Thomas.

[7] ‘as Forte is at pains to demonstrate, before 745 Christianity was always known as ‘Bose jiao’, “the Persian teaching”  but thereafter it became ‘Da Quin Jiao’, adopting a geographical term already centuries old used to label our classical world of Greece and Rome as it appeared to Chinese eyes‘. T. H. Barrett, ‘Buddhism, Taoism and the Eighth-Century Chinese Term for Christianity: A Response to Recent Work by A. Forte and Others’,  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, [BSOAS] University of London, Vol.65, No. 3 (2002), pp. 555-560. (p.556)

[8] detail from an image from the Ming Dynasty encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui (The caption reads: The Country of Da Qin, is where western businessmen are gathering. The king wraps his head by cloth in pyramid shape. This land produces coral, gold, brocade with pattern, silk cloth (without pattern), pearls, etc.  The description appears to rely on earlier accounts describing Persia and Parthia, as the wiki author notes in the article ‘Daqin‘, from which I have the copy.

[9] “The anabibazontes are actually quite sober astronomical constructs which have become demonized. Anabibazon is the technical term for the ascending
node of the moon’s orbit. Its complementary twin, as it were, is the descending node, katabibazon. In fashioning their additional celestial evil-doers, the Manichees took the first of the pair and duplicated it. Thus we find two “uppers” and no “downer”. Roger Beck, ‘The Anabibazontes in the Manichaean Kephalaia’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 69 (1987), pp. 193-196. (p.

map Manichaean phases marked 3rd-17thC


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s