MAGI (/ˈmeɪdʒaɪ/ ; singular MAGUS /ˈmeɪɡəs/ ; from Latin
magus) denotes followers of
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‑)
In English, the term "magi " is most commonly used in reference to
the "μάγοι" from the east who visit
* 1 In Iranian sources * 2 In Greek sources * 3 In Chinese sources * 4 In Graeco-Roman sources * 5 In Semitic sources * 6 In Christian tradition * 7 In the Quran (Islamic tradition) * 8 See also * 9 References * 10 External links
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
and Median (i.e. Old Persian) magu- were co-eval (and also that both
these were cognates of
But it "may be, however", that
Avestan moghu (which is not the same
Avestan maga-) "and Medean magu were the same word in origin, a
common Iranian term for 'member of the tribe' having developed among
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
Other Greek sources from before the
IN CHINESE SOURCES
Chinese Bronzeware script for wu 巫 "shaman". Cross potent .
Victor H. Mair provides archaeological and linguistic evidence
suggesting that Chinese wū (巫 "shaman; witch, wizard; magician",
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
IN GRAECO-ROMAN SOURCES
Byzantine depiction of the Three
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,
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
"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
The second, and "more serious" factor for the association with
astrology was the notion that
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 that the Iranians 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
Conventional post-12th century depiction of the Biblical MAGI (Adoração dos Magos by Vicente Gil). Balthasar, the youngest magus, bears frankincense and represents Africa. To the left stands Caspar , middle-aged, bearing gold and representing Asia. On his knees is Melchior , oldest, bearing myrrh and representing Europe.
Main article: Biblical Magi
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".
Gospel of Matthew
In addition to the more famous story of
Simon Magus found in chapter
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
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 – 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
Matthew 2 in Greek
* ^ A B Boyce, Mary (1975), A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I,
Leiden: Brill, pp. 10–11
* ^ A B Gershevitch, Ilya (1964), "Zoroaster's Own Contribution",
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 23 (1): 12, doi :10.1086/371754 , p.
* ^ A B C Zaehner, Robert Charles (1961), The Dawn and Twilight of
Zoroastrianism, New York: MacMillan, p. 163 .
* ^ A B Mair, Victor H. (1990), "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian
Maguš and English Magician", Early China, 15: 27–47 .
* ^ A B C 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 ,
* ^ Al-Marashi, Ibrahim (2000). "The Mindset of Iraq\'s Security
Apparatus" (PDF). Cambridge University: Centre of International
Gospel of Matthew
* Lendering, Jona (2006), Magians, Amsterdam: livius.org .