I’m running behind in catching up with my NYRB subscription, so I’m still making my way through the issue from last Dec. 4, and I’ve gotten to Christian Caryl’s review (paywalled, I’m afraid) of Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East; I feel compelled to pass along this striking passage:
In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Russell steeps himself in the works of E.S. Drower, a British scholar from the 1930s who managed to record the esoteric beliefs of the Mandaeans, a group from the marshes of southern Iraq. Russell is particularly impressed by the figures who populate their legends:
There is Krun, the flesh mountain, who sounds a bit like Jabba the Hutt; as Drower wrote, “The whole visible world rests on this king of darkness, and his shape is that of a huge house.” There is Abraham, who appears as a failed Mandaean guided by an evil spirit to leave and found his own community. There is the dragon Ur, whose belly is made of fire and sits above an ocean of flammable oil. There is Ptahil, “who takes souls to be weighed and sends his spirits to fetch souls from their bodies.” My favorite was the demon Dinanukht, who is half man and half book and “sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.”
My favorite too; I’ve told my wife that that’s how I hope to be reincarnated.