From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the alchemist. For the spider genus, see Thomisidae. For the son of Darius II, see Ostanes (son of Darius II).

Ostanes or Osthanes (Old Iranian (H)uštāna)[1] was an Iranian alchemist mage in classical and medieval literature with unclear identity.[2]


The origins of the figure of "Ostanes," or rather, who the Greeks imagined him to be, lies within the framework of "alien wisdom" that the Greeks (and later Romans) ascribed to famous foreigners, many of whom were famous to the Greeks even before being co-opted as authors of arcanum. One of these names was that of (pseudo-)Zoroaster, whom the Greeks perceived to be the founder of the magi and of their magical arts. Another name was that of (pseudo-)Hystaspes, Zoroaster's patron. The third of les Mages hellénisés[c] was Ostanes,[3] mentioned by the 4th century BCE Hermodorus (apud Diogenes Laertius Prooemium 2) as being a magus in the long line of magi descending from Zoroaster. In contrast to the figures of "Zoroaster" and "Hystaspes," there is as yet "no evidence of [an Ostanes] figure of a similar name in Iranian tradition."[4][5]

Magi and magic[edit]

Once the magi had been associated with "magic"—Greek magikos—it was but a natural progression that the Greek's image of Zoroaster would metamorphose into a magician too.[6] The 1st century CE Pliny the Elder names "Zoroaster" as the inventor of magic (Natural History XXX.2.3), but a "principle of the division of labor appears to have spared Zoroaster most of the responsibility for introducing the dark arts to the Greek and Roman worlds. That dubious honor went to another fabulous magus, Ostanes, to whom most of the pseudepigraphic magical literature was attributed."[6] Thus, while "universal consensus"—so the skeptical Pliny—was that magic began with (pseudo-)Zoroaster (xxx.2.3), as far as Pliny says he could determine, "Ostanes" was the first extant writer of it (xxx.2.8).

Xerxes and Greece[edit]

This 'Ostanes', so Pliny states, was a Persian magus who had accompanied Xerxes in his invasion of Greece, and who had then introduced magicis[b], the "most fraudulent of the arts," to that country. But the figure of Ostanes was such that Pliny felt "it necessary to supplement his history with doppelgangers"; so, not only does Ostanes appear as a contemporary of the early 5th century BCE Xerxes, but he is also contemporary with—and companion of—the late 4th century BCE Alexander.[7] Pliny goes on to note that Ostanes's introduction of the "monstrous craft" to the Greeks gave those people not only a "lust" (aviditatem) for magic, but a downright "madness" (rabiem) for it, and many of their philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato traveled abroad to study it, and then returned to teach it.(xxx.2.8-10).[2][8] This Ostanes was the teacher of Democritus.[1][9][10][11][12]

Growth of legend[edit]

Pliny also transmits Ostanes's definition of magic: "As Ostanes said, there are several different kinds of it; he professes to divine (divina promittit) from water, globes, air, stars, lamps, basins and axes, and by many other methods, and besides to converse with ghosts and those in the underworld" (xxx.2.8-10).[13] By the end of the 1st century CE, "Ostanes" is cited as an authority on alchemy, necromancy, divination, and on the mystical properties of plants and stones.[2] Both his legend and literary output attributed to him increased with time, and by the 4th century "he had become one of the great authorities in alchemy" and "much medieval alchemical material circulated under his name."[2]

This "authority" continued in Arabic and Persian alchemical literature, such as an Arabic treatise titled Kitab al-Fusul al-ithnay ‘ashar fi 'ilm al-hajar al-mukarram (The Book of the Twelve Chapters on the Honourable Stone).[14][15]


  • ^ To Pliny magicis was both magical and magian; for the Roman they were one and the same.
  • ^ Les Mages hellénisés (The Hellenistic Magians) is the title of Bidez and Cumont's monumental collection of Zoroastrian pseudepigrapha.


  1. ^ a b Encyclopedia Iranica
  2. ^ a b c d Smith 2003.
  3. ^ Bidez & Cumont 1938, pp. I.168–212
  4. ^ Colpe 1983, p. 828.
  5. ^ cf. Smith 2003.
  6. ^ a b Beck 2003, para. 7.
  7. ^ Beck 1991, p. 516, n. 55.
  8. ^ Beck 1991, p. 516.
  9. ^ The Philological Museum, Page 11
  10. ^ Thrice Greatest Hermes By G. R. S. Mead, page 195
  11. ^ The Dying God: The Hidden History of Western Civilization By David Livingstone, page 218
  12. ^ Tradition, Transmission, Transformation: Proceedings of Two Conferences, page 175
  13. ^ Beck 1991, pp. 516–517.
  14. ^ Ullmann 1972, p. 184.
  15. ^ Anawati 1996, p. 862.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anawati, Georges C. (1996), "Arabic Alchemy", in Rashed, Roshdi, Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science 3, London: Routledge .
  • Beck, Roger (1991), "Thus Spake Not Zarathushtra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Greco-Roman World", in Boyce, Mary; Grenet, Frantz, A History of Zoroastrianism, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Abteilung I, Band VIII, Abschnitt 1 3, Leiden: Brill, pp. 491–565 .
  • Beck, Roger (2003), "Zoroaster, as perceived by the Greeks", Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York: iranica on line 
  • Bidez, Joseph; Cumont, Franz (1938), Les Mages Hellénisés, Le Muséon 512, 1939, 188, Paris: Société d'Éditions Les Belles Lettres .
  • Colpe, Carsten (1983), "Development of religious thought", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran 3 (2), Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 819–865 .
  • Smith, Morton (2003), "Ostanes", Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York: iranica on line 
  • Ullmann, Manfred (1972), Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Abteilung I, Ergänzungsband VI, Abschnitt 2, Leiden: Brill .