Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Magic and the magicians

Posted by Fredsvenn on December 22, 2014

Magi (Latin plural of magus; Ancient Greek: magos; Old Persian: maguš, Persian:‎ mogh; English singular magian, mage, magus, magusian, magusaean; Kurdish: manji) is a term, used since at least the 6th century BC, to denote followers of Zoroastrianism or Zoroaster.

The word means “skilled magicians, astrologers,” from Latin magi, plural of magus “magician, learned magician,” from Greek magos, a word used for the Persian learned and priestly class as portrayed in the Bible (said by ancient historians to have been originally the name of a Median tribe), from Old Persian magush “magician”.

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, 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”.

Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, was the founder of Zoroastrianism. Though he was a native speaker of Old Avestan and lived in the eastern part of the Iranian plateau, his birthplace is uncertain. He is credited with the authorship of the Yasna Haptanghaiti as well as the Gathas, hymns which are at the liturgical core of Zoroastrian thinking. Most of his life is known through the Zoroastrian texts.

The 2005 Encyclopedia Iranica article on the history of Zoroastrianism summarizes the issue with “while there is general agreement that he did not live in western Iran, attempts to locate him in specific regions of eastern Iran, including Central Asia, remain tentative.”

Urartu, corresponding to the biblical Kingdom of Ararat or Kingdom of Van, was an Iron Age kingdom centred on Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands. Scholars such as Carl Ferdinand Friedrich Lehmann-Haupt (1910) believed that the people of Urartu called themselves Khaldini after their god Khaldi.

Chaldea or Chaldaea, from Greek Chaldaia; Akkadian: māt Ḫaldu; Hebrew: Kaśdim; Aramaic: Kaldo) was a small Semitic nation which emerged between the late 10th and early 9th century BC, surviving until the mid 6th century BC. It was located in the marshy land of the far south eastern corner of Mesopotamia, and briefly came to rule Babylon.

During a period of weakness in the East Semitic speaking kingdom of Babylonia, new tribes of West Semitic-speaking migrants arrived in the region from The Levant (Aramea, modern Syria) between the 11th and 10th centuries BC. The earliest waves consisted of Suteans and Arameans, followed a century or so later by the Kaldu, a group who became known later as the Chaldeans or the Chaldees.

The Chaldeans originally spoke a West Semitic language similar to Aramaic, however they eventually adopted the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, the same East Semitic language, save for slight peculiarities in sound and in characters, as Assyrian Akkadian. During the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III introduced an Akkadian infused Eastern Aramaic as the lingua franca of his empire.

In the time of Ashur-nirari III (ca. 1200 BC, the beginning Bronze Age collapse), the Phrygians and others invaded and destroyed the Hittite Empire, already weakened by defeats against Assyria.

Some parts of Assyrian ruled Hanilgalbat was temporarily lost to the Phrygians also, however the Assyrians defeated the Phrygians and regained these colonies. The Hurrians still held Katmuhu and Paphu. In the transitional period to the Early Iron Age, Mitanni was settled by invading Semitic Aramaean tribes.

Though belonging to the same West Semitic ethnic group, and migrating from the same Levantine regions as the slightly earlier arriving Arameans, they are to be differentiated from them to some degree; and the Assyrian king Sennacherib, for example, is careful in his inscriptions to distinguish them.

When they came to briefly possess the whole of southern Mesopotamia, the name “Chaldean” became synonymous with “Babylonian” for a short time, particularly to the Greeks and Jews, this despite the Chaldeans not being Babylonians, and their tenure as rulers of Southern Mesopotamia lasting a mere five decades or so.

The short-lived 11th dynasty of the Kings of Babylon (6th century BC) is conventionally known to historians as the Chaldean Dynasty, although only the first four rulers of this dynasty were positively known to be Chaldeans, and the last ruler, Nabonidus and his son and regent Belshazzar, were known to be from Assyria.

When the Babylonian Empire was absorbed into the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the name “Chaldean” completely lost its meaning in reference a particular ethnicity, and came to be applied only to a socioeconomic class of astrologers and astronomers.

The actual Chaldean tribe had long ago became Akkadianized, adopting Mesopotamian culture, religion, language and customs, blending into the majority native population, and they eventually wholly disappeared as a distinct race of people, much as other fellow preceding migrant peoples, such as the Amorites, Kassites, Suteans and Arameans of Babylonia had also done.

The Persians found this so-called Chaldean societal class masters of reading and writing, and especially versed in all forms of incantation, in sorcery, witchcraft, and the magical arts. They spoke of astrologists and astronomers as Chaldeans; consequently, Chaldean came to mean simply astrologist rather than an ethnic Chaldean. It is used with this specific meaning in the Book of Daniel (Dan. i. 4, ii. 2 et seq.) and by classical writers such as Strabo.

The disappearance of the Chaldeans as an ethnicity and Chaldea as a land is evidenced by the fact that the Persian rulers of the Achaemenid Empire (539 – 330 BC) did not retain a province called Chaldea, nor did they refer to Chaldeans as a race of people in their written annals.

This is in contrast to Assyria, and for a time Babylonia also, where the Persians retained Assyria and Babylonia as distinct and named geo-political entities within the Achaemenid Empire, and in the case of the Assyrians in particular, Achaemenid records show Assyrians holding important positions within the empire, particularly with regards to the military and civil administration.

This complete absence of Chaldeans from historical record also continues throughout the Seleucid Empire, Parthian Empire, Roman Empire, Sassanid Empire, Byzantine Empire and after the Arab Islamic conquest and Mongol Empire.

In English, the term “magi” is most commonly used in reference to the magicians 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.

The Avestan word ‘magâunô’, i.e. the religious caste of the Medes into which Zoroaster was born, (Yasna 33.7: so I can be heard beyond Magi), seems to be the origin of the term.

The term only appears twice in Iranian texts from before the 5th century BC, 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 BC.

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.”

The oldest surviving Greek reference to the magi – from Greek μάγος (mágos, plural: magoi) – might be from 6th century BC 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 BC 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 BC Cyropaedia, the Athenian 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.

Magic and magicians

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