The adherents of Manichaeism taught that evil was eternal and co-equal with good and that the visible world had been created not by the supreme God, but by a lesser deity, or even by Satan. They supported their cosmogony with an elaborate mythology drawn from pre-Christian and non-Judaic sources. The discovery in 1929–1930 in Egypt of a handful (probably seven; the number is not yet certain, owing to the dispersion of the manuscripts and the vicissitudes of war) of Coptic manuscripts with Manichaean texts, probably in the ruins of ancient Narmuthis, near Medinet Madi in the Faiyum, caused great and justified sensation. They contain many important texts not known in other languages, and they reveal an aspect of Coptic literature not previously known.

This is not the place to deal with the vicissitudes of the codices after discovery, although they justify the fact that some of the texts are still unpublished; that we cannot even draw a detailed list of the codices and of the works they contained. Before discovery they had already suffered very much during more than thirteen centuries of storage in a cellar, where they had become almost carbonized. As a result, we will never recover the texts in their entirety. What was saved, or may in future be recovered, is of great value for our knowledge of Manichaeism and of the Manichaean communities in Egypt. Only a small part of the text was published between the date of the discovery and World War II; after a long pause, work has been resumed on the edition of what did not perish during the war (notably, a facsimile edition of the part in Dublin), but the material is very fragmentary. The codices are difficult to date; Polotsky proposed the fifth century CE. They are very precisely executed, with “inscriptiones,” “subscriptiones,” current titles, and decorations, as was customary in the Manichaean community.

Other invaluable information on Egyptian Manichaean communities comes from the documents and artifacts found in the extraordinarily rich excavations of the village of Kellis, where one such community lived. In this case, however, the archeological work is still in progress, so I will make only brief remarks on this material after my discussion of the Faiyum documents.

The Coptic Manichaean codices of the Narmuthis find contained, from what is actually known, the following works. The Codex of the Psalms, now in Dublin, has been published only in part in the edition by C. R. C. Alberry under the title A Manichaean Psalm-Book (Stuttgart, 1938; Manichäische Handschriften der Sammlung A. Chester Beatty, vol. 2). This is a huge volume (more than 500 pages) of psalms—that is, liturgical hymns—which are combined in a number of groups, with a complete index of incipits (first lines) at the end of the volume. The groups were as follows (cf. Krause, 1991): group 1, twenty-five psalms, title lost; group 2, psalms 26–33, entitled “of Herakleides”; group 3, psalms 34–82 (not certain), entitled “Synaxis”; group 4, psalms 83–105, “of the Soul”; group 5, psalms 106–118, title lost; group 6, psalms 119–130, “for Sunday”; group 7, psalms 131–135, “of father Herakles”; group 8, psalms 136–149, title lost; group 9, psalms 150–154, “of the Passover”; group 10, psalms 155–162, “Various”; group 11, psalms 163–164, title lost; group 12, psalms 165–170, title lost; group 13, psalms 171, “of lord Syrus”; group 14, psalms 172–199, “various”; group 15, psalms 200–205, “of the night”; group 16, psalms 206–217, “of Herakl[es or -ides]”; group 17, psalms 218–241, “of the Bema”; group 18, psalms 242–276, title lost (called “of Jesus” after their content); group 19, psalms 277–286, “of Herakleides”; group 20, psalms 287–289, “various”; group 21, psalms 290–297, title lost; group 22, psalms 298–333, “Sarakoton”; group 23, psalms 334–340, “of Herakleides”; group 24, psalms 341–360, “of Thomas”; and last (ungrouped) psalms. The accurate systematic organization of these poetic compositions shows an important aspect of the activity of the Manichaean elite in liturgy and in literature, and also (as is well known) in the accurate making of the codices; the same may be said for the Kephalaia.

Two huge volumes contain the famous Kephalaia, or part of them. These are texts that relate the discourses of Manichaeus (this appears to be the form of the name used in Egypt) to his disciples, but they were not written by him. One of the volumes is now in Berlin (one folio is in Vienna) and has been published for the most part by Hans J. Polotsky and Alexander Böhlig as Manichäische Handschriften der Staatlichen Museen Berlin, vol. 1. Kephalaia (Stuttgart, 1935), and vol. 2, Lieferungen 11/12 (Stuttgart, 1966). The other manuscript volume is now in Dublin and is still unpublished; therefore, information on its content is not certain.

The Kephalaia are a group of anecdotes that report discourses by Manichaeus to his disciples during their meetings. Their character and contents vary. Some are historical narratives: Keph. 1, on the advent of the apostles from the beginning to Jesus and Manichaeus; Keph. 17, on the three ages of the world (the first man, his advent, and the destruction of the idols); Keph. 18, on the five wars of good against evil; Keph. 76, on the mission of Manichaeus; and Keph. 77, on the four kingdoms. There are numerous descriptions of the heavenly personages of Manichaen mythology: Keph. 7, on the the five fathers; Keph. 10, the fourteen aeons; Keph. 11, the Fathers of light; Keph. 16, the five greatnesses; Keph. 20, the name of the Father; Keph. 21, the Father of greatness; Keph. 26, the first man and the envoy; Keph. 28, the twelve riders of the Father; Keph. 38, the light-nous; Keph. 46 and 66, the envoy; Keph. 50, the words God, rich, and angel; Keph. 51 and 53, the first man; Keph. 55, 57, and 64. Adam; Keph. 56, Saklas; Keph. 60, the four Fathers; and Keph. 67, the Illuminator. Comments on religious behavior include Keph. 79 and 81, on fast; Keph. 81, judgment; Keph. 87 and 93, charity; and Keph. 88 and 91, catechumens.

There are detailed explanations of Manichaean imagery: Keph. 2, on the similitude of the tree; Keph. 4, the four great days and great nights; Keph. 5, the five hunters of the light and the four of the darkness; Keph. 6, the five treasures; Keph. 8, the fourteen vehicles; Keph. 29, the eighteen thrones of the Father; Keph. 30, the three vestments; Keph. 36 and 49, the wheel of the king of honor; Keph. 42 and 43, the three vehicles; Keph. 45, the vehicles; Keph. 61, the vestment of water; Keph. 62, the three stones; Keph. 72, the vestments; Keph. 85, the cross of light; Keph. 90, the fifteen ways; and Keph. 95, the cloud. Explanations of concepts are found in Keph. 3, on happiness, wisdom, and force; Keph. 9, the kiss of peace; Keph. 14, silence, fast, peace, day, and stillness; Keph. 19, the five departures; Keph. 31, the call; Keph. 34, the ten works; Keph. 35, the four works; Keph. 39, the three days and two deaths; Keph. 41, the three battles; Keph. 47, the four great things; Keph. 63, love; Keph. 78, the four works; Keph. 80, righteousness; and Keph. 84, wisdom. Explanations of natural elements include Keph. 37, on the three zones; Keph. 44, tides; Keph. 59, the elements which wept; Keph. 65, the sun; Keph. 68, fire; Keph. 69, the zodiac and the stars; Keph. 71, the elements; Keph. 73, the envy of matter; Keph. 74, the living fire; and Keph. 94, the purification of the four elements.

A third codex was divided between Dublin (about fifty sheets, published by Hans J. Polotsky as Manichäische Homilien [Stuttgart, 1934; Manichäische Handschriften der Sammlung A. Chester Beatty, vol. 1]) and Berlin (an unconserved block, now probably lost). It contained an interesting collection of four texts, dealing with the vicissitudes of Manichaeus and his disciples, both in the historical past and in the apocalyptic future. Despite Polotsky's title Manichäische Homilien, they are not homilies in the current sense of the word. The first of the four is the logos of the prayer—that is, a lamentation in the form of a prayer for the death of Manichaeus, probably written by his disciple Salmaios. The second is the logos of the great war, an apocalyptic narrative of the persecutions of the Manichaeans, their triumph with the reestablishment of the Manichaean church, and finally the coming of Jesus and the final judgment, the return of Jesus to the realm of the light, and the destruction of the material world; this text was possibly written by the disciple Kustaios. The third is a narrative of the persecution of Manichaeus by Bahram I and Bahram II, and his crucifixion. Finally, there is an apotheosis of Manichaeus, of which only a few pages remain, very damaged.

All the other texts of this cache are unpublished. Much was lost around 1945, so we have only some preliminary accounts made before the war. They comprised a Synaxeis manichaeorum, partly in Dublin and partly in Berlin; an Opus historicum manichaeorum, codex in Berlin and mostly lost; and the Epistulae Manichaei, codex in Berlin and mostly lost.

The Kellis documents (from the name of a village in the Dakhla Oasis, now called Ismant el-Kharab) are still being found in excavations in progress from 1987. They include codices on wooden boards, papyrus and parchment codices, private letters, and inscribed wooden boards. The languages are Greek, Coptic, and Syriac; the texts are mostly nonliterary, but there are many “classical” texts, liturgical and religious (Manichaean) texts, and translation tools providing equivalence of vocables, and other linguistic evidence. The date is probably mid-fourth century CE, and the owners probably belonged to a missionary cell of the first stage of Egyptian Manichaeism.

A last important document is the impressively small Greek codex now at Cologne University (Inv. 4780), a wonderful work in miniature that contains the life of Manichaeus from childhood to youth. It illustrates the origins of Manichaean ideas in an environment surprising for scholars. Its religious-historical implications have been widely investigated.

The Medinet Madi codices, together with the new documents, are important sources for the history of Manichaeism in Egypt. According to one Middle Iranic document, around 250 CE, Manichaeus sent his disciple Adda to Egypt with some scriptures, to preach the new religion. Other important persons mentioned in our sources (notably the Acta Archelai) are Pappos, Thomas (possibly the author of some psalms), and especially Skythianos. The last, a rich Saracen merchant, settled in Egypt to found Manichaean communities, coming from the Red Sea caravan route to the city of Hypsele, not far from Siout (Assiut). It is notable that the Medinet Madi texts are written in what appears an Assiutic dialect.

Manichaeism spread very fast in Egypt, as in other countries of both the east and the west. When Diocletian issued his famous edict of 31 March 297, he happened to be in Alexandria; a papyrus fragment dated to the late third century (P.Ryl. III 469) warns people against Manichaean propaganda. In about the same epoch, Alexander of Lykopolis wrote his tractate Against the Manichaeans, and later the bishop Serapion of Thmuis, a friend of Athanasius, wrote another.

Interesting features of the Manichaean organization in Egypt (as elsewhere) are the very active role of women, and the possibility (though recently rejected) that the electi resided in monasteries of a sort, possibly providing an example to Pachomius for the creation of monastic communities. Recent studies have pointed to the proximity of the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts to parts of Manichaean doctrine, which surely was born in a Gnosticizing (partly Christian) environment. Several late documents, the last from the seventh century CE, testify to the existence of so-called Manichaeans in Egypt until the Arab invasion of the mid-60s. It is uncertain whether real Manichaean communities were meant, or whether this was simply a scornful name applied to any isolated heretic groups or persons.


General works

  • McBride, D. “Egyptian Manichaeism.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquity 18 (1988), 80–98.
  • Polotsky, Hans J. “Manichäismus.” In his Collected Studies, pp. 699–714. Jerusalem, 1971.
  • Ries, Julien. Les études manichéennes: Des controverses de la Reforme aux decouvertes du XXe siècle. Louvain-la-Neuve, 1988.
  • Tardieu, Michel. Le Manichéisme. Paris, 1981.
  • Vergote, Jozef. “L'expansion du manichéisme en Égypte.” In After Chalcedon, edited by Van Roey, pp. 471–478. Leuven, 1985.

On the Medinet Madi Codices

  • “Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis.” In Atti del Simposio Internazionale, Studi e Ricerche, Cosenza. Cosenza, 1986.
  • “Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis.” In Atti del Secondo Simposio Internazionale (Cosenza, 27–28 Maggio 1988). Cosenza, 1990.
  • Giversen, Søren. The Manichaean Coptic Papyri in the Chester Beatty Library, vol. 1: Kephalaia: Facsimile Edition. Geneva, 1986; vol. 2: Homilies and Varia: Facsimile Edition. Geneva, 1986; vol. 3: Psalm Book, Part I: Facsimile Edition. Geneva, 1988; vol. 4: Psalm Book, Part II: Facsimile Edition. Geneva, 1988.
  • Krause, Martin. “Zum Aufbau des koptisch-manichäischen Psalmenbuches.” In Manichaica Selecta, edited by A. Van Tongerloo and S. Giversen, pp. 177–190. Leuven and Lund, 1991.
  • Robinson, James M. “The Fate of the Manichaean Codices of Medinet Madi, 1929–1989.” In Studia Manichaica, II. Internationale Kongresse zum Manichäismus, edited by G. Wiessner and H.-J. Klimkeit, pp. 19–62. Wiesbaden, 1992.
  • Schmidt, Carl, and Hans J. Polotsky. “Ein Mani-Fund in Ägypten: Originalschriften des Mani und seiner Schüler.” Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie (1933), 4–90.

On the Kellis Documents

  • Gardner, Iain. “A Manichaean Liturgical Codex Found at Kellis.” Orientalia Lovaniensa Periodica 62 (1993), 30–59.
  • Koenen, Ludwig. “Manichäische Mission und Kloster in Ägypten.” In Das romisch-byzantinische Ägypten, Akten Symposium Trier 1978, pp. 93–108. Mainz, 1983.
  • Koenen, Ludwig, and Cornelia Romer. Der Kölner Mani-Kodex: Abbildungen und diplomatischer Text. Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, 35. Bonn, 1985.
  • Koenen, Ludwig, and Cornelia Romer. Der Kölner Mani-Kodex: Über das Werden seines Leibes, Kritische Edition. Opladen, 1988.

Tito Orlandi