Magi (Μάγοι) were Zoroastrian astrologer-priests from ancient Persia. The word magi is plural; the singular is magus (μάγος). It is derived from the Old Persian word, Magupati, in Modern Persian Mobed. Magus is also a word for a Shaman (magician, wizard, or sorcerer), especially one of experience and accomplishment.
The Magi in the history of the Persian Empire
According to Herodotus, the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They organised Persian society after the fall of Assyria and Babylon. Their power was curtailed by Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, and by his son Cambyses II; the Magi revolted against Cambyses and set up a rival claimant to the throne, one of their own, who took the name of Smerdis. Smerdis and his forces were defeated by the Persians under Darius I. The sect of the Magi continued in Persia, though its influence was limited after this political setback.
During the Classical era (555 BCE - 300 CE), some Magi migrated westward, settling in Greece, and then Italy. For more than a century, Mithraism, a religion derived from Persia, was the largest single religion in Rome. The Magi were likely involved in its practice.
After invading Arabs succeeded in taking Ctesiphon in 637, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism, and the power of the Magi faded.
The Three Magi
The best known Magi appear in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter II as the Three Wise Men. There, they appear before Jesus as a child, noting that they observed His star (commonly known as the Star of Bethlehem) in the east (other possible translation: His star in the ascendant), and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They first visit Herod, asking where the new King can be found; Herod sends them to Bethlehem, and asks that they return when they have found Him. The Magi, however, are warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, and their bringing this news to Herod causes the massacre of the Holy Innocents. The visit of the Magi to Jesus as a child is commemorated by Roman Catholics and other Westerns (not Eastern Orthodox) on the Christian observance of Epiphany (feast). This visit is frequently treated in Christian art and literature as The Journey of the Magi.
Traditional names for the Three Magi
The Gospel does not in fact number the Magi, but from the three gifts given, popular culture usually has three Magi appearing at the scene. These are the Three Wise Men of Christmas carols and crèches. Their names, since the seventh century in Western Europe are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. In Ethiopian Christianity, they are Hor, Basanater, and Karsudan. None of these names is obviously Persian or carries any ascertainable meaning.
Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph. These names are likely of Persian origin; this does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity. The first name Larvandad is a combination of Lar, which is a region near Tehran, and vand or vandad which is a common suffix in Middle Persian meaning "related to" or "located in". Vand is also present in the names of such Iranian locations as Damavand, Nahavand, Alvand, and such names and titles as Varjavand and Vandidad. Alternatively, it might be a combination of Larvand meaning the region of Lar and Dad meaning "given by". The latter suffix can also be seen in such Iranian nams as "Tirdad ", "Mehrdad", "Bamdad" or such previously Iranian locations as "Bagdad" ("God Given") presently called Baghdad in Iraq. Thus, the name simply means born in or given by Lar.
The second name, Hormisdas is a variation of the Persian name Hormoz which was Hormazd and Hormazda in Middle Persian. The name refered to the angel of the first day of each month whose name had been given by the supreme God who, in old Persian, was called "Ahuramazda" or "Ormazd".
The third name Gushnasaph was a common name used in Old and Middle Persian. In Modern Persian, it is Gushnasp or Gushtasp. The name is a combination of Gushn meaning "full of manly qualities" or "full of desire or energy" for something and Asp, Modern Persian Asb, which means horse. As all scholars of Iranian studies know, horses were of great importance for the Iranians and many Iranian names including the presently used Lohrasp, Jamasp, Garshasp, and Gushtasp contain the suffix. As a result, the second name might mean something like "as energetic and verile as a horse" or 'full of desire for having horses. Alternatively, Gushn is also recorded to have meant "many". Thus, the name might simply mean "the Owner of Many Horses".
The Magi in other Christian legend
Jehovah's Witnesses do not agree with this view. They believe the Magi were pagan astrologers who were led to Jesus by a star made by Satan.
Some versions of Jewish and Christian mythology make Daniel, the prophet of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures a Magus. He is recorded to have become chief of all the Magi due to his great ability in the interpretation of dreams and omens, and his great intelligence. He is traditionally considered to be the author of most of the book of Daniel. (One chapter was written by King Belteshazzar .)
One story of Thomas the Apostle says that after Jesus' death and resurrection, Thomas found the three magi in Persia and baptized them as Christians while he (Thomas) was on his way to India to preach the Gospel there.
Mage, rather than magus, is the spelling usually encountered for magic-user characters in role-playing games and fantasy fiction.
Many references to the three magi can be found in various games and shows. For example, in the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime/manga series, a supercomputer (called "MAGI") is divided in three distinct parts, all of which are named after the Magi. In the video game Chrono Trigger, the three Gurus, of Life, Time, and Reason, are also named after the Magi and, through the course of the game, give key items to the player. Furthermore, one of the game's main characters is named "Magus", and another "Cyrus". The main plot in Final Fantasy II involved a quest to collect orbs of ancient mystical power, called Magi.
- The Majoos http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg.tcl?msg_id=00BfVY (Arabic)
- The Gift of the Magi http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/Gift_of_the_Magi.html by O. Henry
Last updated: 02-07-2005 07:22:30
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55