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A Magus (plural Magi, from Latin, via Greek μάγος from Old Persian magu) was a Zoroastrian astrologer-priest from ancient Persia, from which is derived the terms magic, magician, and also refered to as a sorcerer or wizard. The English term may also refer to a shaman.

The best known Magi are the Wise Men from the east in the Bible.

Missing image
The Three Wise Men are given the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar in this Romanesque mosaic from the Basilica of St Apollinarius in Ravenna, Italy.


The Greek word is attested from the 5th century BC as a direct loan from Old Persian magu. The Persian word is a u-stem adjective from an Indo-Iranian root *magh "powerful, rich" also continued in Sanskrit magha "gift, wealth", magha-vant "generous" (a name of Indra). Avestan has maga, magauuan, probably with the meanings "sacrifice" and "sacrificer". The Indo-European root appears to have expressed power or ability, continued e.g. in Greek mekhos (see mechanics) and in Germanic magan (English may), magts (English might, the expression "might and magic" thus being a figura etymologica). The original significance of the name for the Median priests thus seems to have been "the powerful". Modern Persian Mobed is derived from an Old Persian compound magu-pati "lord priest".

The plural Magi entered the English language in ca. 1200, referring to the Magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1, the singular being attested only considerably later, in the late 14th century, when it was loaned from Old French in the meaning magician together with magic.

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.

The Book of Jeremiah (39:3, 39:13) gives a title rab mag "chief magus" to the head of the Magi, Nergal Sharezar (Septuagint, Vulgate and KJV mistranslate Rabmag as a separate character).

After invading Arabs succeeded in taking Ctesiphon in 637, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism, and the power of the Magi faded.

Greek use of magos

While in Herodotus, magos refers to either a member of the tribe of the Medes (1.101), or to one of the Persian priests who could interpret dreams (7.37), it could also be used for any enchanter or wizard, and especially to charlatans or quacks (see also goetia), especially by philosphers such as Heraclitus who took a sceptical view of the art of an enchanter, and in comic literature (Lucian's Lucios or the Ass). The use of magoi in Matthew 2:1 of course is that of Hdt 7.37.

In Hellenism, magos started to be used as an adjective, meaning "magical", as in magas techne "ars magica" (e.g. used by Philostratus).

Fictional magi

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.

See also

External links

  • The Majoos ( (Arabic)
  • The Gift of the Magi ( by O. Henryes:Mago

ja:マギ pt:Mago zh:東方三博士


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