Are the Mandaeans Sabaeans?

Based on their own false understanding of Ethel Stefana Drower’s book “The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran,” (published in 1937), in 1969 CE., the Mandaeans of Iraq began to call themselves Sabaean-Mandaeans, causing annoyance and anger to Gnostic researchers in East and West alike.  The reason for that is: the new name is worse than the previous one (Sabaeans), since it is by no means true and, moreover, is historically and etymology rootless.

Ironically, there is no mention of the term ‘Sabaeans’ in any Mandaean codex, scroll (diwan, with or without drawings), or Mandaic incantation bowl.  In contrast, the words ‘Mandaeans’ and ‘Naşoraeans’ appear in some books and diwans.  As any reader can ascertain, even in the colophons this word does not appear, because the Mandaeans have nothing to do with the Sabaeans of Harran, neither in the past nor in the present.  (I am even suspicious of the designation “Sabaeans” in the Quran; did it really apply to the Ancient Mandaeans?  I am not convinced of that, since ancient Mandaeans were known to the whole population of the town Ţib (Jews, Nabataeans, and all other sorts of Pagans) even before the third century under their other name: Naşoraeans.

Therefore, I do not believe that the Mandaeans lived in Harran, though one of their important historical books, ‘Haran Gawaita’ bears the name of this ancient town.  For apart from this name we possess neither descriptions nor documents about their settlement there.  According to Rudolf Macuch: “the Mandaeans must have encountered the Harranians.  This assumption, which has been supported by their shared personal names, is confirmed by our legendary documents.”1 This point of view cannot be met with a denial, but certainly, this must have occurred in Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasid Dynasty (Caliphate), where some of the Harranians had lived, worked and even became famous in some occupations such as poetry, philosophy and translation.  As for the Mandaeans, they had many reasons to adopt some Arabic names in order to hide their identity.  (See Riccoldo Da Montecroce, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq, p. 227.)

A – Who are the Sabaeans?

Moses Maimonides or rather Moses ben Maimon (1139-1204 CE.) was born in Cordova (Spain).2 Like his contemporary Arabic writers, he saw the Sabaeans to be mere pagans, that is to say: people accustomed to worshipping the heavenly stars, for he said that:

1.“It is well known that the Patriarch Abraham was brought up in the religion and the opinion of the Sabaeans, that there is no divine being except the stars.

2. “All the Sabaeans believed in the eternity of the universe (sic!), the heavens being in their opinion God (sic!).

3. “Adam was in their belief a human being born from male and female, like the rest of mankind; he was only distinguished from his fellow-men by being a prophet sent by the moon (sic!); he accordingly called men to the worship of the moon; and he wrote several works on agriculture.

4. “In accordance with the Sabaean theories images were erected to the stars; golden images to the sun; images of silver to the moon, and they attributed the metals and the climates to the influence of the planets, saying that a certain planet is the god of a certain zone (sic!).

5. “The Sabaeans had written their religious doctrines in the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’, translated by Ibn Wahshiyya. This book speaks of talismans, the means of directing the influence of the stars, witchcraft, spirits, and demons that dwell in the wilderness.”3“Some sects among the Sabaeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats (sic!), and called them therefore ‘goats’.  This worship was widespread.  For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats’ flesh.”4

6. In addition, Drower writes: “Maimonides says, ‘the Sabaeans regarded blood as something most unclean, but ate it (sic!); nevertheless, because they held it for the food of demons, they believed that, through partaking of it, a man entered into relationship with the demons, so that they visited him and unveiled for him the future.’ He says further, that others could not bring themselves to drink the blood, but collected it in a vessel and ate the flesh of the animal slaughtered, sitting around the blood.  Thus, they sat in friendly fellowship with the demons who drank the blood and then, they imagined, the demon would appear to them in a dream and discover the future for them and instruct them usefully’.”5

7. “It is stated that on certain occasions they [i.e., the Sabaeans] offered to the sun, their greatest god, seven beetles, and seven mice and seven bats. This alone suffices to show how disgusting their practice must be to human nature.”

B – Who are the Mandaeans?

Svend Aage Pallis writes in his ‘Essay on Mandaean Bibliography’ that: “The name Mandaeans, which has become the generally accepted designation since the publication of the large standard editions of the Qolastā and the Ginza by Euting and Petermann in 1867, and since the appearance of Nöldeke’s grammar in 1875, is already met with in the very earliest period of Mandaean study.”7

In fact, this accepted designation is of fundamental importance for the Mandaeans themselves, for not only was this name for their sect brought out of its prolonged self-imposed isolation, but it also opened a path of recognition for their religion without religious discrimination.  In my opinion, it is a path with varied approaches and actions.  Mandaeans should deny what clearly stands in their holy book ‘Ginza Rba’: that they are neither Sabaeans of the Quran nor those of the ancient Harran, but truthfully Mandaeans.  Additionally, the accepted designation is very important, firstly for the history of the Mandaean people and their original homeland, secondly for New Testament research (including Gnosticism and missionary activity), and lastly for the history of the religions of the Near East. The following reasons are relevant to this issue:

1.As is well known, the Sabaeans of Harran as a nation were famous for their generous sacrifices of domestic animals in honour of their numerous pagan deities and heavenly bodies. For it was their biggest concern to please their gods and always to remain on good terms with them.  From this simple fact, the annual offering was a duty to them.  In contrast, the Mandaeans were not accustomed to sacrifice to any god, because they do not worship the planets or the stars.

2. Let me remind you, that the Mandaeans have guarded their inherited manuscripts secretly from ancient times until now and bore all kinds of oppression and persecution to keep themselves safe and far from the hands of radical Muslims, who wanted to take hold of them and destroy them. That might be one of the reasons that they hid themselves for a long time in the unhealthy marshes and adapted themselves to a hard life.  It was really an example of self-sacrifice.  On the other hand, owing to this care and effort Mandaeans have no interference in their scriptures from foreign ideas and theories.  The scrolls and collections of hymns and homilies handed down have been proven by Western experts and academics to have been transmitted first by oral traditions, with the earliest written texts on lead sheets.

3. Neither the ancient Egyptians8 nor the Mandaeans have labelled the moon deity ‘female’. The moon god was always masculine in both nations.  To this day the Mandaeans confer the name ‘Sin’ upon the moon, a designation which they took over from the Babylonian and Assyrian respectively.  In the Ginza Rba we also find the names Sira (Syriac Sahrā: Moon; the Goddess Selene),9  Agazīil, and Șaurīil as male names for the moon; but they did not decorate the moon with Greek or Roman names such as Selene, Helene, Semele, or Luna.  In fact, it was the Sabaeans of Harran10 or a certain circle among them who bestowed the female gender upon the moon deity.11

4. As far as we know, the Mandaean community lived a very isolated existence; they lived mostly on the fringes of provinces or towns, because they are excessively strict in religion as well as in moral matters.12 They looked for purity everywhere, in ritual and in waters. So, how could they then worship Selene, the Greek goddess who, as they said in their mythology, appears to her worshippers in a chariot and was described by Robert Graves as being orgiastic goddess,13 and by Plutarch as being Hermaphrodite, namely: “She was called Hermes and Hecate together; male-female scion”? 14

5. I think these are the best proofs that the Mandaeans are not Sabaeans. It is wrong to envisage them as such.  Hence,  Mandaeans and Sabaeans do not belong to one another.  It is also wrong to reconcile paganism with its sexual misbehaviour with the puritanism of the Mandaeans.  It appears from the related literature about the first and second centuries CE., that there was a cult of the female Venus star and a cult of the male Venus star, which both existed side by side in Edessa.15 According to Gregory Abul Farage who was also known by the Jewish name Bar-Hebraeus, that Bardaişan, who had been accused of forming and organizing the thirteenth heresy in Edessa along with his three children: Abgarun, Hasadu and Harmonius “who stuck to his doctrine,”16 has given to the moon deity the female gender, saying, “And he [i.e., Bardaişan] said that, just as the Moon takes off her garments each month (sic) and enters the Sun’s chamber, likewise also the Mother of Life takes off her garments and enters the Father of Life’s chamber, and has intercourse with him and gives birth seven times.”17  However, the account of ‘Michael the Syrian’s Biographical’ has somewhat different expressions.  He states that, “And as the Moon takes off her light every month (sic) and enters the Sun’s chamber, in the same way the Mother of Life takes off her garments and enter the Father of Life’s chamber every month, couples with him and generates seven children, which are eighty-four every year.  These are Bardaişan’s deities.”18 In addition, to show that both cities Edessa and Harran possessed a common cult, Drijvers, in his book Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, draws our attention to a statue on an intaille in a private collection at Aleppo, “the reverse side of this intaille bears the busts of Sol [the sun-god by the Romans] and Luna [the Moon-goddess in the Roman mythology].19 (one can see the image of this intaille in the same book on Plate XXXIV, 3).  Besides, Jorunn J. Buckley writes: “To me, the Turkish city Har[r]an as a Mandaean site is unconvincing.”20  From all these reasons we may deduce that the Mandaeans had never dwelt in Harran, where in late antiquity the moon deity was worshipped as “the king of all gods.”21

Carlos Gelbert, July 2023


  1. See Macuch, Rudolf, Anfänge der Mandäer, p. 118.
  2. See Chwolson, Daniel, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus, vol. I p. 690.
  3. 3a. See Maimonides, Moses, Guide for the Perplexed, p. 260 to 268.
  4. Ibid., p. 304.
  5. See Drower, Ethel S., the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, vol. I p. 57; See also Maimonides, Moses, Guide for the Perplexed, p. 307.
  6. See Gelbert, Carlos, An Authentic Collection of Mandaean Stories and Fairy Tales; p. 288; see also Maimonides, Moses, Guide for the Perplexed, p. 268.
  7. See Pallis, Svend Aage, Essay on Mandaean Bibliography, p. 24.
  8. See Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, chapter 44 – p. 465.
  9. See Browning, Robert, Julian the Apostate, p. 161; where it states: “Carrhae (Harran) was only forty miles to the southeast from Edessa – it was the centre of an astral religion stemming ultimately from Babylonia.” See on the Syriac Sahrā: Moon who stands for the goddess Selene; see Adolf Rücker, Des Heiligen Ephraim des Syrers Hymnen-Gegen-Die-Irrlehren, vol. II, p. 39.
  10. See Green, Tamara M., The City of the Moon God, p. 27; where it states: “Herodian reports that Caracalla was on his way back from the temple of Selene when he was assassinated, and Ammianus Marcellinus maintains that it was to Luna that Julian offered his prayer, adding that the moon was especially venerated in that region. (…..). It has been suggested, however, that there were at least three moon temples, including two outside the city itself; one of which may have in fact been devoted to a female deity.”  In addition, we read in the book ‘the Last Pagans of Iraq,p. 139 - the following passages: “Adam is quoted as having called the sun: our Father and the Father of all Fathers; whereas the Moon is here called: our Mother; usually though, the Moon is addressed in the masculine, which is the grammatical gender of the Moon in Arabic.”  Apparently, these passages remind us of the words of the Edessan philosopher of the second century CE., Bardaişan, who “Looked at the Sun and the Moon, with the Sun he compared the Father, with the Moon the Mother.”  See Tamara M. Green, The City of the Moon God, p. 28.
  11. See Graves, Robert, the Greek Myths, p. 207–208.
  12. See Riccoldo Da Montecroce, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq, p. 227; see also Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans, the Last Gnostics, p. 63 to 67.
  13. See Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, p. 465, where it states: “The Egyptians did not envisage Isis as the moon, their moon-gods being male, but the Greeks often did so, identifying Isis with Selene.”
  14. Ibid., see Chapter 44, p. 565 - where it states: “the Greek Goddess Selene being regarded as Hermaphrodite; she is called Hermes and Hecate together, male, and female scion.”
  15. See Drijvers, H. J. W., Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, 176 where it states: “The cult of the female Venus star actually comprises the worship of al-‘Uzza and all lascivious practice connected with it.” See also on the same page about the cult of the male Venus star; where it states: “The cult of the male Venus star appears in the twin gods Azizos and Monimos the accompanying escorts of the sun, who belong to the religious inheritance of the Arab desert population.”
  16. See Ramelli, Ilaria L. E., Bardaişan of Edessa, p. 352.
  17. Ibid., p. 358. 8d. Ibid., p.352.
  18. Ibid., p. 352.
  19. See Drijvers, H. J. W., Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, p. 32.
  20. See Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen, the Great Stem of Souls, p. 325.
  21. See Pritchard, James B., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 560; see also p. 533 where it states: “Sin [the moon deity] who dwells in Harran.

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