Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Eszter SPAT


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Yezidi Prophet, Trimorphic Christ or Hellenic Aion.
Traditional Motifs in the Yezidi
Mishabet of Ibrahim

Par Eszter SPÄT (*)

Ever since the attention of European scholars and travelers was drawn to the mysterious Kurdish group of the Yezidis, the question of their origins, or rather the origin of their teachings and myths has exercised a great fascination. Some claimed to see in them the heirs of the Assyrians, other spoke of the Sabaeans or the cult of Semiramis, others again were convinced that they were simply a heretical Islamic sect.

The list of possible origins offered to the Yezidis would be too long to enumerate here. It is only recently that they have started to consider Yezidism as a religion of its own, an independent entity per se. Simultaneously with this shift in the perception of Yezidism, and the discovery that the core of their beliefs was based on a pre-Zoroastrian Western-Iranian mythology, Yezidis came to be seen as the “original Kurds” by the Kurdish national movement. While researchers laid less and less stress on the actual origin of the Yezidis, an interesting phenomenon has developed among Yezidis, that is the “original Kurds” themselves. In the name of this Kurdishness and originality, some younger, educated Yezidis, interested in their culture and religion, became ready to reject any element that may be assumed to have been adopted from another religion, as “non-Yezidi,” alien, spurious adaptation to placate the enemy, or even a forgery.

However, I believe that such motifs should not be rejected, but rather seen as important elements for evaluating, appreciating and understanding the nature of Yezidi religion. These motifs have a double interest for the researcher. On the one hand, they show the inner logic of Yezidi religion through they way they have been adapted to and reworked in the new system. On the other hand, they teach us a lot about the place of Yezidi culture in the general historical and religious landscape of the wider region, the Middle and Near East that is, leading us back through the centuries. It is this second aspect I would like to talk about here.

The story of prophet Ibrahim’s birth and life told as a Yezidi mishabet or sermon, and recently published by Prof. Kreyenbroek, is a good example of what I have in mind.

This interesting myth presents us with a vivid mix of various traditions of the wider region. It contains a great number of motifs known to us from the Bible, the Jewish Haggadic literature, the Quran, or Islamic tradition.

However, there is an element, which surprises the reader, or listener, and that cannot be connected to any of the above tradition. We find this motif in the description of the birth of Ismail, son of Ibrahim (both of whom were considered prophets, and even incarnate divine powers by the Yezidis.) As in Muslim tradition, Ismail was born from Hagar in the desert, and the spring Zemzem spran up in his birth place. Here, let me quote the original text:

Around that time Rajab, Sha'ban and Ramadan appeared there. All three were Kurdish merchants... They traded in Egypt and India, they came and saw that water flowed there. They said to each other, ' We have traded in these parts for several years but we have never seen water flowing here.’ They settled by the water, they brought their wares and said to Rajab, '… get on your horse, go to the water and see where it comes from. …Rajab… mounted his horse and travelled on and on until he came to the source of the water; there he saw an old man with a white beard and white clothes, and a white-haired woman. He greeted them and said, 'What people are you, who are you, how long have you been here?' They said, 'Take your water and have a good journey; don't ask questions!' Rajab came back to his friends and told them what he had seen, explaining how things were.

The second time they sent Shaban., he went to the source of the water and saw a young man of sixteen and a young woman. …
The same conversation as above was repeated. Shaban returned and told his friends what he had seen.

The third time they sent Ramadan. Like his comrades, he too… rode his horse until he came to the Spring; he saw a baby of three days, sucking on his mother's nipple. He greeted him and said, 'Who are you people, since when have you been here?' The woman said, 'We have been here as long as the little one has been born.' He in turn returned to his friends and told them what he had seen. One said, 'I saw an old man'. One said, 'I saw a young man.' One said, 'I saw a baby.'… They said, 'He is a prophet.'

Original Kurdish text for the translator:... di wî wextîda (Receb- şeban-Remezan) li wir peyda bun. Ev her sê kes bazirganêt kirmanc bun... Evan bazirganî li Misrê û Hindê dikirin, hatin, dîtin aveke li wêder di hûrit. Ji hevra gotin: emrê buwe çend sal em bazirganiyê di vê rêyêda di keyn, ev av me ne dîtîye.Li serê avê hêwirîn, bazirganê xo danîn, gotine (Receb): li Hespê xo swar be, here serê vê avê, gelo! ew ji kûr tê!!...Dibêjin, Reco kûnê xo rakir, li Hespê xo swar bu, ço ço heta gehişte serê avê, dît kalekî rihspî, kinc spî û pîrejineke porspî li wêder, silav li wan kir û gotê: hun çî kesin, kîne, hewe kengî(ê) hun li hêrene? ...gotinê: ava xo bibe, oxira xo xêrke, pirsyar neke. Reco ziviriye cem hevalêt xo, tiştê dîtî ji wanra got, hal û meselek eveye.

Cara duwê (şeban) hinartin, ew ço serê avê dît xortekî şanzde salî û jineke genc...

Cara sêyê Remo şandin, ew jî wek hevalêt xo li hespê xo swar bu, ço heta gehişte serê Kaniyê, dît zarokekî sê rojî, memkê dakê dimijîne, silav kir,got: hun kîne, ji kengî ve hun li virin? Jinkê gotê: hewe emrê vî piçukî em li vêderin.Ew jî zivirîye cem hevalêt xo,tiştê dîtî bo wan got. Yekî got: min extiyar dît. Yekî got: min ciwan dî. Yekî got: min zarok dît. Ya Remo derkeft rast, gotin: eve Nebiye.

This is a very striking and unusual way to describe or symbolize the status of a prophet. One is tempted to point a finger, and declare that this must be an original Yezidi motif, so hard to interpret for an outsider, exactly because it is rooted in Yezidi religious symbolism.  Before we get carried away, however, we must take note that Yezidis are not alone in the region to possess such a myth of the three-form appearance of a divine being or prophet. We meet with a similar account among the Nusayris (or Alawis) of Syria, an extreme Shiia sect, who consider Ali bin Talib the manifestation of God, and are believed to have been strongly influenced by some heretical movements of early Christianity. A version of the Nusayri origin myth relates the following:

Nusayris believe that in the beginning souls existed in a pure spiritual form, in complete purity, and in this state they beheld Ali. But then they committed the sin of pride stating that “As for creation, there has not been created anything nobler than we”, so that Ali withdrew from them. Then, much later, Ali appeared before them “Thereupon he appeared to them in the form of an aged man with a white head and beard… then they imagined him to be such as that shape through which he appeared to them. And he said to them, “Who am I?,” and they replied “We do not know.” Then he appeared in the form of a young man with a twisted moustache, riding on a furious-looking lion, then again he appeared to them in the form of a small child. Again he called them and said “Am I not your Lord?”

At first glance, such a presentation of prophethood in Yezidi tradition, and of divinity in Nusayri tradition, is very confusing and hard to interpret. Obviously, if Yezidis and Nusayris share such a peculiar motif, there must be a common source, and we must look for this source if we are to understand this motif.

This source we can find in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The so-called Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are non-canonized writings of an uncertain origin or authorship from the first few centuries of the Christian era, talking about the life and deeds of the those Apostles mentioned in the canonized Biblical texts. During Late Antiquity and even the early Middle Ages these apocryphal acts enjoyed great popularity. It is in these Acts that we meet with the concept of a divine figure, in this instance Christ, appearing in three different forms, as a boy, young man and old man.

In the Acts of Peter we read about some old blind widows, who call out to Peter, begging him to give them back their sight through the mercy of Christ. Peter then significantly answers “If there is in you the faith which is in Christ, then see with your mind what you do not see with your eyes… These eyes shall again be closed, that see nothing but men and cattle and dumb animals and stones and sticks; but only the inner eyes see Jesus Christ.” Next a wonderful light fills the room, and then Peter asks the old women to tell what they saw “And they said, ‘We saw an old man, who had such a presence as we cannot describe to you’; but others said, ‘We saw a growing lad’; and others said ‘We saw a little boy who gently touched our eyes, and so our eyes were opened.’ So Peter praised the Lord, saying ‘…. God is greater than our thoughts, as we have learnt from the aged widows how  they have seen the Lord in a variety of forms”

We meet with a similar three-form presentation of Jesus in other Apocryphal Acts as well. The clue to this strange image, or we could say phenomenon, is in the very words spoken by Peter just prior to the curing of the blind widows, where he sets about describing his God, or rather Christ as: [God] who is both great and little, beautiful and ugly, young and old, appearing in time and yet in eternity wholly invisible… who is before the world, yet now is comprehended in time

As some researchers have pointed out, Christ, who manifests himself as child, youth and old man, is conceived here after the type of Aion, or the Hellenic god of Infinite Time, or Eternity, in whom past, present and future coexists simultaneously. He contains all potentialities within him, he is the source of all that moves, while he himself is immovable. On a Hellenic statue of Aion, the god of Time, the inscription states:  "He who by his divine nature remains ever the same in the same things. He who is and was and shall be, without beginning, middle or end, free from change, universal craftsman of the eternal divine nature." Tatian, an Assyrian Chrisitan from the kingdom of Adiabene, with its capital at Arbil, explained Time, and the way people relate to it with the allegory of the passengers of a ship that travels along the shoreline: “Why do you divide time, saying that one part is past, and another present, and another future? For how can the future be passing when the present exists? As those who are sailing imagine in their ignorance, as the ship is borne along, that the hills are in motion, so you do not know that it is you who are passing along, but that time remains present”

Aion, the God of Eternity, is a typical product of the Hellenistic culture, where oriental religions mixed with Greek philosophy, in this case mainly Platonism. The oriental influence at work here was Iranian, more concretely Zurvanism. Zurvanism was a modified form of Zoroastrianism, influenced by both Greek ideas and Babylonian astral religions and it appeared in Persia during the Sassanian period. According to Zurvanism, Zurvan Akrana, or Infinite Time - limitless, eternal, and uncreated - is alone the cause, the source of all things. As some sources say “the being of all things has need of Time. Without Time one can do nothing that is or was or shall be” But as for Zurvan, (occasionally also called zaman), “he himself was, is, and will be.”

Zurvan is surrounded by three gods, who are in reality his attributes: Ashoqar, Frashoqar, and Zaroqar. These names can be interpreted as ashoqar “he who makes virile”, frashoqar “he who makes resplendent” and zaroqar “he who makes old”. Clearly, they refer to the three periods of human life-cycle: youth, maturity and old age. Zurvan is the god of life and death, presiding over the birth, maturity, and death of the body. At the same time Zurvan himself is unageing and deathless;

The doctrines of the so-called Zurvanites spread through the Greek-speaking world of Late Antiquity and greatly contributed to the Hellenic cult of Aion, or Eternal Time. Sometimes this divine Aion was seen as the Supreme Being, as for example in Mithraism. Where the influence of Greek philosophy and Platonism was more profound, he became the manifestation of the Supreme Being, through whom the Father shows Himself to mankind. He was also seen as the creative power of the Father, and as the primal measure of all temporality, mixing the ages of the universe and was therefore symbolized by the three ages of the human life-cycle.

Naturally, the Hellenistic concept of the Eternal Time, equated with the Supreme Divine Power, appearing as the three ages of human life-cycle was not confined to Christianity, but made its appearance in other religions based on the concept of the manifestation of the transcendent Divinity in finite space and time, that is in the religions of salvation of Late Antiquity as well.  This is well exemplified by an account of the deeds of Simon of Samaria, or Simon Magus.

Simon Magus, whom some of you may remember from the Bible as the rival of the apostles, was widely considered the founding father of the Gnostic movement, a rival of early Christianity and rooted in much the same traditions. Simon Magus’ theological contest with the Apostles is the topic of many apocryphal Acts. In the Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, yet another apocryphal work, we find a description of Simon’s magical tricks that will sound familiar.

The dispute between Peter, the Apostle, and Simon, the magician came into the ears of emperor Nero, and he ordered Simon brought before him: “And he, coming in, stood before him, and began suddenly assume different forms, so that on a sudden he became a child, and after a little an old man, and at other times a young man.; for he changed himself both in face and stature in different forms, and was in a frenzy, having the devil as his servant. And Nero beholding this, supposed him to be truly the son of God.

It is not difficult to understand how such a three-form appearance was associated with Simon, if we read the Church fathers’ account of Simon’s teachings. Simon claimed to be the Great Power of God that is the incarnation of God the Father, descended on earth in a human form. And this very same Father was defined by Simon, with words that evoke the description of Zurvan above, as:  "He that has stood, that stands, and will stand," Meaning "He that has stood " in relation to pre-mundane existence; " He that stands " in relation to present being; and " He that will stand " in relation to-the final consummation (end of the world/ kiyamet).

It is easy to recognize in this description of the Endless Power the Aion or Eternal Divine Time of late Hellenism, modeled on the Persian Zurvan, the Infinite Time that was, is and will be. And as Simon claimed for himself the same role than Christ, that is role of the incarnated Divine Power, it is clear why the three-form appearance, the trademark of the Aion as a manifestation of the Supreme Being, came to be associated with his figure.

Yet another famous 2nd century Gnostic text, the Apocryphon of John, which was still in use by some heretical groups in 9th century Mesopotamia, contains a revelation to the narrator, a certain John, by a divine being, called the Forethought, the creative power of the transcendent Father. John describes this revelation in the following way:

At that moment the … the heavens opened and all the creation shone with light… I.. saw within the light a child standing before me. Then I saw him like and elderly person. And it changed its appearance to be like a young person... And within the light there was a multiform image. And these forms were appearing through one another. And its appearance had three forms… It said to me … Now I have come to teach you what exists, and what has come to be, and what must come to be.

The image of three-form deity did not disappear with the decline of Hellenistic culture of Late Antiquity, but was transmitted both to the literary and popular culture of the Middle Ages, Christian and non-Christian alike, very likely through the above-mentioned Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The three-form appearance of Christ appears again and again in Mediaeval works, where the three-form image has clearly lost all connections with the notion of Time and Eternity, and functions more as a literary tool for describing limitless divine power. Due to the lack of Time (which unfortunately in my case in is not Infinite), I would like to quote here only the two most eloquent examples of the literary career of this motif.

It makes a fascinating appearance in the Abgar legend, which it may have reached through oral tradition. This famous legend of the arrival of Christianity to Edessa (that is to Urfa) speaks of how the king of Edessa, king Abgar, sent an envoy to Christ, stating his willingness to accept his teachings and inviting him. In response Christ sent the king a letter, blessing him and the city. This letter, of a magical power, was preserved and saved the town from destruction on several occasions. As the legend evolved with time, it was told that along with the letter Christ also sent a picture of himself, later known as the “Holy face of Edessa ”. This image was not painted by human hands, but appeared as Jesu pressed a wet towel to his face, miraculously imprinting the cloth with his features. The legend of both the letter and the image enjoyed great popularity in the Greek, Syrian and Armenian churches.

What concerns us here is the version conserved by an Armenian writer in the 13th c. The story begins with the sending of a messenger to Jesus, taking Abgar’s letter and asking for Jesus’ portrait. Then the attempt of the painter to represent the likeness of Jesus is related in the following way: “The painter … started to paint His face, in order to bring to Abgar the portrait of the young man, as the Saviour was. And the painter looked up to Him again, and saw a powerful aged man. And he threw away the first sketch and started to paint with fear the portrait of the old man. And he looked up again and saw a beautiful youth. Then he realized that he was unable to imprint the likeness of His face.”

Just as imaginative and fantastic is the “reuse” of the three-form appearance of the deity in medieval popular oral tradition in Persia, transmitted to us through Marco Polo.

Marco Polo, traveling through Persia in the second half of the 13th c., reports that near the town of Saba, south of Teheran, there existed a town, Kala Ataperistan, populated by what he called “fire-worshippers.” These people retained in their memory a version of the legend of the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men, Magi who came from the Orient to visit the new-born Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. Marco Polo tells us that these Persian fire-worshippers remembered that once in the distant past three kings of the region set off on a journey to find and worship a prophet born just then in the country of the Jews. They took three kinds of gifts, gold, incense and myrrh to see which the child would choose. For the first symbolizes an earthly king, the second God, the third a man of medicine. When they reached the place where the child was born “first the youngest of the kings went before him, and found the child similar to himself both in his age and looks… Then the second, middle-aged king entered, and just like the one before him, he saw the child as a man of his own age… Finally the oldest king entered, who was of an advanced age, and after the same had happened to him as to the other two, he retreated in wonder. When all three of them were together again, they told each other what they had seen, and were even more amazed. They agreed to enter together, all three of them, and when they did so, they could finally see Christ as he really was, that is a thirteen-day-old child. Then they worshiped him and gave him the gold, incense and myrrh. The child reached for the three presents at the same time.


So now we have followed the motif of a divine power appearing successively or simultaneously as a child, youth and old man full circle, from its Iranian beginnings through its late Antique and Medieval career back to contemporary Alawism, and yet another religion of Iranian origin, Yezidism. And while it has all but disappeared from Christian tradition, among Yezidis it is still a part of the living tradition. During my field work I have found that Yezidis of different walks of life were familiar with the details of the story and were ready to state that Ismail was a “supernatural being” that is a divine figure, and the three-form appearance was a proof of his keramet.

How does this relate to the original question posed at the beginning of my paper, concerning the position of “alien” elements in Yezidi religion? The origin and history of this motif helps us place the Yezidis within the cultural map that has its roots in the Hellenistic world of Late Antiquity. Hellenism, a blend of Greek and Oriental elements, was the cultural milieu in which the great Late Antique religions, Christianity, first Hellenic, then Rabbinic Judaism and Islam were born. This ancient cultural globalism is attracting the attention of researchers, who want to understand the common base of our seemingly divided contemporary cultures, more and more. As the recently established, international Center for Hellenic Traditions states in its founding letter: The Hellenic tradition is in the focus of interest not as merely a Greek-speaking culture nor as the “cradle of Western civilization” but as an integrative cultural factor... securing unity across various intellectual enterprises on the expanses of the vast oikumene throughout many centuries, cutting through religions and civilizations.”

The fact that Yezidis are among the inheritors of a common language spoken by the culture of Late Antiquity, and can even teach us about how Hellenistic ideas were transmitted and readapted in popular and oral milieu on the periphery, will hopefully raise more interest for the study of Yezidi religion, and perhaps even for Kurdology in general, in the future. 

(*) Ph.D. student at Central European University in Budapest