Two pages from the Cologne Mani Codex, “a lump of parchment fragments the size of a matchbox,” that tells the story of the early life of Mani, the Persian prophet and the founder of Manichaeism.
The work—made in 5th century Egypt— “bears the somewhat puzzling title Perì tês génnēs toû sṓmatos autoû (On the origin of his body),” which scholars now believe refers to the idea of Mani as a spiritual being who only temporarily took on a physical existence. It tells the story of his early life up to his maturation and the beginning of his mission to spread his faith throughout the world.
Manichaeism itself was a major religion that thrived between the third and seventh centuries from the Roman Empire to China. It rivaled Christianity for a time as a contender to replace classical paganism, its most famous adherent being St. Augustine, who embraced the religion for nine years prior to his final conversion to Catholicism.
Seen as a Gnostic religion—Mani was recognized not only as an apostle of Christ but as a reincarnation of Zoroaster and Buddha—Manichaeism preached a complex dualistic cosmology: a universal struggle between good and evil. It taught that God was powerful and good, yet not omnipotent. In the clash between Good and a separately existing Evil, the world and humanity come into being as a battleground for this epic struggle. A large array of deities, demons, and other cosmic figures take part in the religion’s intricate cosmogony and mythos.