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Magi (//; Latin plural of magus) is a term, used since at least the 6th century BCE, to denote followers of Zoroastrianism or Zoroaster. The earliest known usage of the word Magi is in the trilingual inscription written by Darius the Great, known as the Behistun Inscription. Old Persian texts, pre-dating the Hellenistic period, refer to a Magus as a Zurvanic, and presumably Zoroastrian, priest.
Pervasive throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia until late antiquity and beyond, mágos, "Magian" or "magician", was influenced by (and eventually displaced) Greek goēs (γόης), the older word for a practitioner of magic, to include astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge. This association was in turn the product of the Hellenistic fascination for (Pseudo‑)Zoroaster, who was perceived by the Greeks to be the "Chaldean", "founder" of the Magi and "inventor" of both astrology and magic, a meaning that still survives in the modern-day words "magic" and "magician".
In English, the term "magi" is most commonly used in reference to the "μάγοι" from the east who visit Jesus in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew Matthew 2:1, and are now often translated as "wise men" in English versions. The plural "magi" entered the English language from Latin around 1200, in reference to these. The singular appears considerably later, in the late 14th century, when it was borrowed from Old French in the meaning magician together with magic.
Pre-4th century BCE usage
In Iranian sources
The term only appears twice in Iranian texts from before the 5th century BCE, and only one of these can be dated with precision. This one instance occurs in the trilingual Behistun inscription of Darius the Great, and which can be dated to about 520 BCE. In this trilingual text, certain rebels have 'magian' as an attribute; in the Old Persian portion as maγu- (generally assumed to be a loan word from Median). The meaning of the term in this context is uncertain.
The other instance appears in the texts of the Avesta, i.e. in the sacred literature of Zoroastrianism. In this instance, which is in the Younger Avestan portion, the term appears in the hapax moghu.tbiš, meaning "hostile to the moghu", where moghu does not (as was previously thought) mean "magus", but rather "a member of the tribe" or referred to a particular social class in the proto-Iranian language and then continued to do so in Avestan.
An unrelated term, but previously assumed to be related, appears in the older Gathic Avestan language texts. This word, adjectival magavan meaning "possessing maga-", was once the premise that Avestan maga- and Median (i.e. Old Persian) magu- were co-eval (and also that both these were cognates of Vedic Sanskrit magha-). While "in the Gathas the word seems to mean both the teaching of Zoroaster and the community that accepted that teaching", and it seems that Avestan maga- is related to Sanskrit magha-, "there is no reason to suppose that the western Iranian form magu (Magus) has exactly the same meaning" as well.
But it "may be, however", that Avestan moghu (which is not the same as Avestan maga-) "and Medean magu were the same word in origin, a common Iranian term for 'member of the tribe' having developed among the Medes the special sense of 'member of the (priestly) tribe', hence a priest."cf
In Greek sources
The oldest surviving Greek reference to the magi – from Greek μάγος (mágos, plural: magoi) – might be from 6th century BCE Heraclitus (apud Clemens Protrepticus 12), who curses the magi for their "impious" rites and rituals. A description of the rituals that Heraclitus refers to has not survived, and there is nothing to suggest that Heraclitus was referring to foreigners.
Better preserved are the descriptions of the mid-5th century BCE Herodotus, who in his portrayal of the Iranian expatriates living in Asia minor uses the term "magi" in two different senses. In the first sense (Histories 1.101), Herodotus speaks of the magi as one of the tribes/peoples (ethnous) of the Medes. In another sense (1.132), Herodotus uses the term "magi" to generically refer to a "sacerdotal caste", but "whose ethnic origin is never again so much as mentioned." According to Robert Charles Zaehner, in other accounts, "we hear of Magi not only in Persia, Parthia, Bactria, Chorasmia, Aria, Media, and among the Sakas, but also in non-Iranian lands like Samaria, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Their influence was also widespread throughout Asia Minor. It is, therefore, quite likely that the sacerdotal caste of the Magi was distinct from the Median tribe of the same name."
Other Greek sources from before the Hellenistic period include the gentleman-soldier Xenophon, who had first-hand experience at the Persian Achaemenid court. In his early 4th century BCE Cyropaedia, Xenophon depicts the magians as authorities for all religious matters (8.3.11), and imagines the magians to be responsible for the education of the emperor-to-be.
4th century BCE onwards
In Graeco-Roman sources
As early as the 5th century BCE, Greek magos had spawned mageia and magike to describe the activity of a magus, that is, it was his or her art and practice. But almost from the outset the noun for the action and the noun for the actor parted company. Thereafter, mageia was used not for what actual magi did, but for something related to the word 'magic' in the modern sense, i.e. using supernatural means to achieve an effect in the natural world, or the appearance of achieving these effects through trickery or sleight of hand. The early Greek texts typically have the pejorative meaning, which in turn influenced the meaning of magos to denote a conjurer and a charlatan. Already in the mid-5th century BC, Herodotus identifies the magi as interpreters of omens and dreams (Histories 7.19, 7.37, 1.107, 1.108, 1.120, 1.128).
Once the magi had been associated with "magic"—Greek magikos—it was but a natural progression that the Greeks' image of Zoroaster would metamorphose into a magician too. The first century 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." For Pliny, this magic was a "monstrous craft" that gave the Greeks not only a "lust" (aviditatem) for magic, but a downright "madness" (rabiem) for it, and Pliny supposed that Greek philosophers—among them Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato—traveled abroad to study it, and then returned to teach it (xxx.2.8–10).
"Zoroaster" – or rather what the Greeks supposed him to be – was for the Hellenists the figurehead of the 'magi', and the founder of that order (or what the Greeks considered to be an order). He was further projected as the author of a vast compendium of "Zoroastrian" pseudepigrapha, composed in the main to discredit the texts of rivals. "The Greeks considered the best wisdom to be exotic wisdom" and "what better and more convenient authority than the distant — temporally and geographically — Zoroaster?" The subject of these texts, the authenticity of which was rarely challenged, ranged from treatises on nature to ones on necromancy. But the bulk of these texts dealt with astronomical speculations and magical lore.
One factor for the association with astrology was Zoroaster's name, or rather, what the Greeks made of it. Within the scheme of Greek thinking (which was always on the lookout for hidden significances and "real" meanings of words) his name was identified at first with star-worshiping (astrothytes "star sacrificer") and, with the Zo-, even as the living star. Later, an even more elaborate mytho-etymology evolved: Zoroaster died by the living (zo-) flux (-ro-) of fire from the star (-astr-) which he himself had invoked, and even, that the stars killed him in revenge for having been restrained by him.
The second, and "more serious" factor for the association with astrology was the notion that Zoroaster was a Chaldean. The alternate Greek name for Zoroaster was Zaratas/Zaradas/Zaratos (cf. Agathias 2.23–5, Clement Stromata I.15), which—according to Bidez and Cumont—derived from a Semitic form of his name. The Pythagorean tradition considered the "founder" of their order to have studied with Zoroaster in Chaldea (Porphyry Life of Pythagoras 12, Alexander Polyhistor apud Clement's Stromata I.15, Diodorus of Eritrea, Aristoxenus apud Hippolitus VI32.2). Lydus (On the Months II.4) attributes the creation of the seven-day week to "the Chaldeans in the circle of Zoroaster and Hystaspes", and who did so because there were seven planets. The Suda's chapter on astronomia notes that the Babylonians learned their astrology from Zoroaster. Lucian of Samosata (Mennipus 6) decides to journey to Babylon "to ask one of the magi, Zoroaster's disciples and successors", for their opinion.
In Chinese sources
Victor H. Mair provides archaeological and linguistic evidence suggesting that Chinese wū (巫 "shaman; witch, wizard; magician", Old Chinese *myag) was a loanword from Old Persian *maguš "magician; magi". He describes:
The recent discovery at an early Chou site of two figurines with unmistakably Caucasoid or Europoid feature is startling prima facie evidence of East-West interaction during the first half of the first millennium Before the Current Era. It is especially interesting that one of the figurines bears on the top of his head the clearly incised graph ☩ which identifies him as a wu (< *myag).
Mair connects the ancient Bronzeware script for wu 巫 "shaman" (a cross with potents) with a Western heraldic symbol of magicians, the cross potent ☩, which "can hardly be attributable to sheer coincidence or chance independent origination."
Compared with the linguistic reconstructions of many Indo-European languages, the current reconstruction of Old (or "Archaic") Chinese is more provisional. This velar final -g in Mair's *myag (巫) is evident in several Old Chinese reconstructions (Dong Tonghe's *mywag, Zhou Fagao's *mjwaγ, and Li Fanggui's *mjag), but not all (Bernhard Karlgren's *mywo and Axel Schuessler's *ma).
In Semitic sources
In the 1980s, under the secular Ba'ath Party formerly led by Saddam Hussein, among the many propaganda campaigns of Iraq, the term majus was used during the Iran–Iraq War as a generalization of all modern-day Iranians. "By referring to the Iranians in these documents as majus, the security apparatus [implied] that the Iranians [were] not sincere Muslims, but rather covertly practice their pre-Islamic beliefs. Thus, in their eyes, Iraq's war took on the dimensions of not only a struggle for Arab nationalism, but also a campaign in the name of Islam."
In Christian tradition
The word mágos (Greek) and its variants appears in both the Old and New Testaments. Ordinarily this word is translated "magician" or "sorcerer" in the sense of illusionist or fortune-teller, and this is how it is translated in all of its occurrences (e.g. Acts 13:6) except for the Gospel of Matthew, where, depending on translation, it is rendered "wise man" (KJV, RSV) or left untranslated as Magi, typically with an explanatory note (NIV). However, early church fathers, such as St. Justin, Origen, St. Augustine and St. Jerome, did not make an exception for the Gospel, and translated the word in its ordinary sense, i.e. as "magician".
The Gospel of Matthew states that magi visited the infant Jesus shortly after his birth (2:1–2:12). The gospel describes how magi from the east were notified of the birth of a king in Judaea by the appearance of his star. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, they visited King Herod to determine the location of the king of the Jews's birthplace. Herod, disturbed, told them that he had not heard of the child, but informed them of a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He then asked the magi to inform him when they find the infant so that Herod may also worship him. Guided by the Star of Bethlehem, the wise men found the baby Jesus in a house; Matthew does not say if the house was in Bethlehem. They worshipped him, and presented him with "gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh." (2.11) In a dream they are warned not to return to Herod, and therefore return to their homes by taking another route. Since its composition in the late 1st century, numerous apocryphal stories have embellished the gospel's account. Matthew 2:16 implies that Herod learned from the wise men that up to two years had passed since the birth, which is why all male children two years or younger were slaughtered.
In addition to the more famous story of Simon Magus found in chapter 8, the Book of Acts (13:6–11) also describes another magus who acted as an advisor of Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul at Paphos on the island of Cyprus. He was a Jew named Bar-Jesus (son of Jesus), or alternatively Elymas. (Another Cypriot magus named Atomos is referenced by Josephus, working at the court of Felix at Caesarea.)
In the Quran (Islamic tradition)
Although some Islamic scholars have inferred an implicit reference, the Qur'an mentions the 'Majūs' or 'Magus' or Magians (المجوس) explicitly only once:
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Sabians, and the Nasrani, and the Magians, and those who associate [others with God] – surely God will decide between them on the Day of Resurrection. Lo! God is a witness over all things.— The Qur'an 22:17
- Anachitis – "stone of necessity" – stone used to call up spirits from water, used by Magi in antiquity.
- Epiphany (holiday) – a Christian holiday on January 6 marking the epiphany of the infant Jesus to the Magi.
- Fire temple
- History of Iran
- Matthew 2 in Greek
- Boyce, Mary (1975), A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I, Leiden: Brill, pp. 10–11
- Gershevitch, Ilya (1964), "Zoroaster's Own Contribution", Journal of Near Eastern Studies 23 (1): 12, doi:10.1086/371754, p. 36.
- Zaehner, Robert Charles (1961), The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, New York: MacMillan, p. 163.
- Beck, Roger (2003), "Zoroaster, as perceived by the Greeks", Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York: iranica.com.
- Beck, Roger (1991), "Thus Spake Not Zarathushtra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Graeco-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, p. 516.
- Mair, Victor H. (1990), "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš and English Magician", Early China 15: 27–47.
- Al-Marashi, Ibrahim (2000). "The Mindset of Iraq's Security Apparatus" (PDF). Cambridge University: Centre of International Studies: 5.
- Gospel of Matthew2:1–12:9; Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6,8; and the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15).
- Drum, W. (1910), "Magi", The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company
- Lendering, Jona (2006), Magians, Amsterdam: livius.org.
- "Magi from the East" at Gates of Nineveh
- The Magi in Medieval Mosaics, Sculptures, Tympanums and Art
- The Ancient Order of the Culdees of Iona