Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 4. "Earth & Sky: M" аn arbitrary selection of gods, humans and other unclassified beings


An Algonquin word for spirit or supernatural power. It was believed that everything had its own manitou; some were for man to dominate, such as those of the wood and fire and rock, whereas others man looked to for help, such as the manitous of the sun, wind, rain, etc. The Great Spirit, misrepresented by Longfellow in his epic poem "Hiawatha" as 'Gitchee Manitou,' is 'Kitcki Manitou’ the uncreated Father of Life and Light, above all powers. Most North American tribes had such a Supreme Being, although they were not monotheistic in the same way as Jews, Christians and Muslims. As an example of the ceaseless mutability of the world, and the human ability to see things from many points of view, the Shawnee tribe uses essentially the same word, 'manedo’, not for spirit but for snake, and in compound forms for evil, monstrous beings, and even for Satan.


One of the manifestations of the Adibuddha, that is, the primary, unoriginated, omniscient Buddha, source of the Buddhas of the various ages. Manjusri is the personification of the wisdom from which all Buddhas spring; he is traditionally portrayed seated on a lion, with a sword of vajra (as hard as adamant, as clear as emptiness and as powerful as a thunderbolt) which destroys all ignorance. Manjusri is better known in China and Tibet than among southern Buddhists, and in Nepal, he is considered the giver of civilization. He has many names; 'Manjughosa,' probably the most ancient, means 'pleasant voice.'


Following the period of Hammurabi's conquests, ca. 2000 BC, Marduk or Baal Merodach was the principal god of Babylon, god of the city of Babylon itself and the hero of the Akkadian creation myth. Marduk was tall, had four eyes and four ears, and fire came from his mouth. Tiamat, the dragon-mother of the gods, received a complaint from Apsu, the watery Abyss, that her children were too noisy, and so she determined to destroy them. The elder gods were afraid to confront her, but Marduk, the youngest of the gods, agreed to be their champion if he were given supreme authority. The council of the gods agreed, but to test him, they first placed a garment before him. By the power of his words alone, Marduk annihilated it, and then recreated it, perhaps because he spoke with a tongue of flame. In his ensuing battle with Tiamat, he was successful, throwing the four winds into her maw so that she was unable to swallow him, and then shooting an arrow through her open mouth into her heart. The victorious Marduk took the tablets of destiny from Tiamat's consort, Kingu, and thus became the most powerful of all beings. Splitting Tiamat's body in two, he raised up one half to become the heavens, and used the other half to form the earth. From the blood of Kingu, he formed mankind to be servants of the gods. The city of Babylon was built by the other gods out of gratitude to their chief, and the entire epic was read and re-enacted in that city every New Year's Day.


The Mexican goddess of pulque or fermented drink, she seems to have been deified not by the priestly Aztec aristocracy, but by a grateful peasantry. The story goes that Mayauel, a farmer's wife, was tending the agave patch, when she encountered an unusually bold mouse; when she tried to shoo it away, the mouse only laughed at her. Mayauel observed that the mouse had been drinking the juice of the agave plants, and so she and her husband collected some juice and put it aside while they went out to the fields to work. When they returned in the evening, the juice had fermented. Upon tasting it, they discovered the happiness of intoxication. Mayauel is represented seated on a cactus plant (although the agave is not, strictly speaking a cactus but an aloe) but she is also shown carrying a loop of cord, as a sign that she helped women in childbirth. Rather than being the celestial, inhuman figure that many goddesses are, Mayauel seems rather to be the type of the wise, down-to-earth, practical and observant woman who was venerated by simple hearts for the various ways she eased their lives.


Mithraism is often presented by European scholars as 'the religion which could have been ours,' and with good reason; from the second to the fourth century AD, Mithraism and Christianity competed in Rome, and there are enough similarities between the two to make the victory of either one plausible. Mithras was the Persian god of light, truth and justice, the principal assistant to Ormazd or Ahura Mazda in his battle against the forces of darkness. He is identical with Mithra, and an apparent elaboration of the Vedic Mitra, god of the sun or the light of day, and one of the Adityas. Mithras was typically portrayed as a young man slaying a bull. In a highly complex, symbolic picture, he wears a tunic, trousers and pileus or cap, and sits partly astride the semi-prone animal, holding its head back with his left hand gripping the nostrils, while with his right hand, he plunges a dagger into its throat. A dog and a snake lick up the blood, and a scorpion grips the bull's testicles. The slaughter is commonly depicted in a cave, which is lit by two torch-bearers. In addition, there is usually a crow, along with trees or plants, while the tail of the bull sprouts an ear of corn. The symbolism is difficult to decode precisely, because the Mithraic tradition was largely oral and secret, and what records existed were destroyed by zealous, if not jealous, Christians. Interpreted according to Zoroastrian mythology, however, it signifies the sacrificial death of the great generative power of the universe, which thereby assures the continued fertility and renewal of the world.

Over the centuries, the worship of Mithras was remarkably wide spread, and adapted to the cultural needs of the times. He was lord of daylight in India, for example, but the lord of wide pastures in later Zoroastrianism. For the Roman legions, who helped to spread his cult throughout the empire, he was the bull-slaying, cave-dwelling hero-god. In every case, though, he was also a god of light.

For several centuries, the cult of Mithras was a serious rival to the newly born Christian faith, and it was only when the Emperor Constantine officially adopted Christianity that the matter was decided. The struggle was all the more remarkable in that the two have many beliefs and practices in common. The birth of Mithras was celebrated on December 25th, for example, and his rebirth was at the time of the spring equinox. Both had baptism for the remission of sins, the symbolic meal of communion (including consecrated wine), and beliefs in redemption, salvation, rebirth in the spirit and the promise of eternal life. Early Christian apologists claimed that Mithraists had caricatured their faith, but it seems likely that the two traditions arose separately, in a fascinating example of parallel evolution. They may indeed have borrowed some elements from each other, but it is now impossible to tell who took what from whom.

What set the worship of Mithras apart, though, was a strongly developed inner school, cloaked in secrecy, full of symbol, ceremony and initiatic rites. The rites included everything from the beating of drums and the unveiling of statues to the ritual slaughter of a bull on a grating, while the initiate crouched below, so as to be drenched with the animal's blood. Although exclusive and hierarchical, the Mithraic school did teach such useful virtues as self-mastery, the transmutation of sexual energy into psychic energy, and the concept of a mystical path. If the cult of Mithras lost out to the upstart Christianity, it is perhaps only because it lacked the magnetic charm of Jesus' divine personality.


In many, but not all, traditions, the Moon is seen as female. Inasmuch as it does not shine of its own light, but reflects the light of the {usually} masculine sun, this seems a reasonable interpretation, and Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan has commented that if there were no moon to catch the relentless outpouring of the sun, its fire would eventually consume the whole universe. However, in the Andaman Islands the waxing moon is regarded as masculine, while the waning moon is feminine. This belief also has its reason, and finds delightful support in the 'solar/lunar' arrangement of our own bodies; the waxing moon is the 'right-hand moon' because the orientation of the crescent is the same as the curve between thumb and index figure of the right hand, and the waning moon is the 'left-hand moon.'


Prophet and lawgiver to the Israelites, the story of Moses is well-known: how as a baby he was found by Pharaoh's daughter floating in a basket among the bulrushes; how he confronted Pharaoh and eventually led the enslaved Israelites to freedom, parting the sea as he went; how he brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai not once but twice, and so forth. There is no doubt that the message he transmitted has had a profound effect upon our world, forming one of the cornerstones of western civilization. Some scholars have suggested, though, that Moses was in fact not an Israelite but an Egyptian. The name Moses seems to be Egyptian, possibly meaning 'child,' and he was perhaps a member of the royal family of Ikhnaton, or a priest of Ikhnaton's monotheistic religion. Thus monotheism may have come into Judaism from Egypt!

Moses gave the Message in the form of law, because that is what was needed at the time, but as Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan said, "Love is above law." Therefore, with no disrespect intended, Moses is often employed in Sufi tales to represent inflexible legalism, as opposed to the freedom of mystical understanding—as for example in the story Pir-o-Murshid tells of Moses and the Shepherd. Moses, it is said, one day overheard a shepherd praying in a very rustic manner: "Oh, God," he was saying, "if only You were here, I would sit You down in the shade, and comb Your hair for You, and bring you a delicious drink of cool water." Moses could not let this simple view of the Deity go unchallenged. "Who do you think you're praying to?" he demanded. 'God isn't thirsty. He doesn't need your water. He doesn't need you to comb His hair. He is the Lord of the Universe, Creator of all, Commander of legion upon legion of angels and archangels, before whom a simple shepherd should tremble!" At this, the shepherd hung his head, and promised never to pray so again. Later, though, when Moses went up the mountain to talk to God, he was surprised to hear the Lord say, "Moses, We are not pleased with Thee. When the shepherd prayed to his shepherd-god, he felt close to Us, and We were close to him. Now, he feels We are far away and unreachable, and that was not Our wish."

And it was Moses' turn to hang his head...


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