To my brother, my master; the loved one of my soul and my spirit. The child of righteousness, the good limb of the Light Mind. The name which is sweet in my mouth, my beloved brother Hor. It is I, Horion; in the Lord God, – greetings. There is no measuring the joy that came to me when I received your letter; all the more, for I learned about your health…. Greet warmly for me they who give you rest, the elect and the catechumens, each one by name.1
These lines constitute the beginning and end of a letter, written on papyrus in a dialect of the Coptic Egyptian language and dating to the middle of the fourth century CE.2 The letter would not have been known today had it not been discovered by excavators at Ismant el-Kharab, now a sand-covered ruin in an oasis west in Egypt, once a prosperous village named Kellis. The two men, Horion and Horos, were until recently unknown individuals. The rest of the letter content is not particularly striking at a first glance, but concerns a purchase of wheat and oil. Yet these greetings make us pause. What does the author, Horion, mean by phrases such as ‘limb of the Light Mind’ and ‘child of righteousness’? What does the division between elect and catechumen entail? How did he come to employ such terms?
These seemingly innocent questions are the subject of the present book. They go to the heart of our understanding of a now lost religion known as ‘Manichaeism’. Horion’s letter was found alongside literature belonging to this movement and echoes some of its vocabulary, and so it would seem that we could answer our questions simply by saying that Horion and Horos were adherents of this religion: that is, they were ‘Manichaeans’. Yet such an answer does not close the issue – quite the contrary. What it meant to be a ‘Manichaean’, in terms of everyday practice, is a issue and has become the subject of some debate. Scholarly opinion differs as to how organised adherents were, what beliefs they held, what rituals they performed, and how or indeed whether those whom we today label ‘Manichaean’ actually had a distinct identity as such in the Roman era. Our initial questions therefore have to be framed as part of a larger question: what was ‘Manichaeism’ to Horion, Horos, and other ‘children of righteousness’?
The current study approaches this issue through the lens of the papyri from Kellis. It does so in two steps: by exploring the social networks in which Horos and Horion were embedded, drawing on network theory, and by analysing the evidence for religious practice within the network, drawing on concepts from the field of symbolic interactionism. In turn, this approach builds on to two key assumptions. First, that we should not see the religious activity of the people of Kellis in isolation from other social activities. The site where Horion’s letter was found, a building complex known as House 1–3, yielded a wide array of documents: Manichaean psalms and prayers, but also declarations and petitions to the Roman government, and accounts, contracts, and private letters like those of Horion. The villagers to whom they belonged were not only ‘Manichaeans’. They were children and spouses, weavers and traders, patrons and clients, Romans, Egyptians, and/or ‘Kellites’. Although the object of investigation is Manichaeism, this material allows us to consider it from the ground-up perspective of these villagers. Only by properly situating religious practices within the nexus of their everyday concerns, their social world, can we begin to apprehend Manichaeism as a social phenomenon in the village.
Secondly, we cannot see religious practice in the village in isolation from wider historical developments. Manichaeism did not first appear in fourth-century Kellis. It was brought there by the caravans and other travellers who frequented the roads between the Oasis and the Nile Valley, having ultimately emerged in Mesopotamia in the mid-third century CE. When the movement arrived in Egypt, in the late third century, it was at a time of heightened religious competition. Temples of the Egyptian gods faced the growing influence of Christian groups, one of which won the backing of a Roman emperor in 314. The emergence of these religious movements heralded a shift in the very notion of ‘religion’, which took place in the ancient Mediterranean in the course of this and subsequent centuries – the period known as late antiquity. The community at Kellis must be seen in light of this wider transformation. At the same time, their papyri provide a lens through which we can glimpse the consequences of this shift on the ground.
This book, then, examines a specific community of Manichaeans, at a specific time and place, and its relationship to the larger phenomenon of ‘Manichaeism’. Chapter 1 introduces the debate surrounding Manichaean social organisation, and conceptual problems connected to the term ‘Manichaeism’ itself, as well as the theoretical perspectives and sources this study builds on. For those readers who are most interested in microhistory, the daily life in a fourth-century Egyptian Oasis, the chief point of interest of this study will be Part 1. It treats the socio-economic world of the people of House 1–3: their familial relationships, livelihood, and social networks. Chapter 2 introduces the Oasis, its geographical and social landscape, as well as the village of Kellis, its layout and socio-economic character. Chapter 3 presents the social circles and prominent actors of the papyri from the richest find spot, House 3, and the familial and economic activities that bound these circles together. Chapter 4 situates the House 3 circles in relation to other villagers: neighbours, colleagues, and social superiors. It concludes Part 1 with a social network analysis of the papyri from the village.
The main focus of the study, however, is Part 2, which deals with the role of religious identity and practice within this network, and their implications for our understanding of ‘Manichaeism’. Chapter 5 analyses the religious language in a selection of private letters from House 3, and explores their Manichaean background. Chapter 6 builds on the prosopographic work from Part 1, discussing the extent of Manichaean presence in the village and the networks through which Manichaean affiliation spread. Chapter 7 examines the literary texts from the site, both their content and their usage within the network. Chapter 8 examines how practices played out in the documentary papyri; in particular, the reciprocal relationships between laity and Elect. Chapter 9 discusses the nature of the organisation of the Elect that the previous chapters have uncovered. Finally, the concluding chapter situates the Manichaean community of Kellis in a broader context, discussing the implications for the issue of Manichaean identity, for our understanding of lived religion in late antiquity, and for how we conceptualise the wider shift in ‘religion’.