I wrote this article to report on the popular ideas on the etymology and meanings of the word magi. This article focuses on the use of the word in ancient times, mainly prior to (but not limited to) the 3rd century BC. I provide a brief summary of the etymology first, then a review of some of the literary sources which contain related words.
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The popular etymology for Magi is as follows:
The current word magi (meaning astrologers, or skilled magicians) is from the Latin magi (plural of Latin magus, meaning learned magician), which is from the Greek magos (μάγος, used to refer to the educated Persian priestly class), which is from the Old Persian magush/maguš (meaning magician).
The oldest record of the Greek magoi is reportedly from Heraclitus (6th c. BC) in Clement of Alexandria’s (2nd-3rd cc. AD) Protreptikos (2.22.2). The best guess as to whom Heraclitus was referring is that he was referring to “practitioners of private cults”. Sophocles (5th c. BC) uses the word in a negative sense in his Oedipus Rex. Hippocrates (5th-4th cc. BC) uses the word in On the Sacred Disease, which is a literary attack against magic. In both Sophocles and Hippocrates, the word is associated “with begging priests and other private religious practitioners”. Plato’s Republic uses the word in a negative sense.
Herodotus is sometimes considered our best source for the magoi. He reports that “they were specialists in the interpretation of dreams and solar eclipses”. He also reports that “they were indispensable for libations and for sacrifices”. Additionally, he tells us that “they observed the rites of exposure and killed noxious creatures”. Herodotus’ information is repeated in Xenophon’s (5th-4th cc. BC) Cyropaedy, where Xenophon reports that “they have to sing hymns to all the gods at sunrise” and they have “to chose the gods to whom to sacrifice”. Dinon (4th c. BC) repeats the notion that they interpret dreams but denies that they practiced black magic. Theopompus (4th c. BC) reports that “the Magi taught the resurrection”.
Xanthus of Lydia (5th c. BC) dedicated his Magika to the magoi. He reports that they practiced incest and wife-swapping. Xanthus is also the first Greek to report on Zarathustra (Zoroaster). Aristotle (4th c. BC) reports that they were older than the Egyptians and that they believed “good” to be the source of everything (in his Metaphysics).
The earliest known use of the Greek magos is attributed to Aeschylus’ (6th-5th cc. BC) Persians. He uses the word as a name, being Magos Arabos. Due to the Elamite tablets, it is believed that *Magos was a common name amongst Persians. Euripides (5th c. BC) uses the word in three of his works: Suppliants, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Orestes. All three of these works use the word in a negative light.
To recap: there are two lights under which the magi were reported prior to the 3rd century BC, a positive/serious light and a negative light. The early tragedies, rhetoric, and philosophy by people such as Sophocles, Euripides, and Plato cast the magi in a negative light. The historians and Aristotelian philosophers such as Herodotus, Xanthus, and Aristotle cast the magi in a positive/serious light. These two lights appear to mix in the late 5th century and 4th century when the latter group spoke out against what they believed to be distorted views of magi. This mixture of opinions appears to be due to the Greeks’ growing familiarity with the magi, as well as a dwindling interest in traditional religions coupled with a growing interest in private ones.
In general, the Ancient Greek view labeled the magi as “the Others”. Edward Tyler pointed out that beyond the Greeks, other cultures would call their neighbors “magicians”, such as the southern Scandinavians did to the Lapps and Finns. Marcel Mauss noted that “the Others” are typically seen as less developed than the group calling them as such. However, the Greeks do seem to look down upon the Persians less than the southern Scandinavians looked down upon the Lapps and Finns.
The Biblical Magi
I think the most famous usage of the word magi is in the Bible. In Matthew 2, it reports that magi came to visit and bring gifts to the newly born king, Jesus Christ. This passage has resulted in a plethora of ideas about who these magi were. The most popular of which is that there were three magi and that they were wise kings from foreign kingdoms. This notion is somewhat similar to the positive views of the past which I covered that reported magi were learned and skilled individuals, but it deviates from the reports that casts them as lowly and foolish individuals.
The passage itself seems to refer to the magi as lowly and foolish, but somehow the opposite conception has taken root in popular thought (possibly due to Isaiah 60:3). As Mark Allan Powell has pointed out, the magi do not fit the description of wise kings, but as foreign servants. This provides insight into the 1st century Greek author’s feelings towards the magi. The reasoning behind identifying the magi as unlearned servants in Matthew 2 is based on Matthew 11:25, 20:25-28, and 21:16.
I agree with Powell on the topic that the magi in Matthew might have original been considered unlearned. I think this for a number of reasons. The first one is that the story is more consistent with the passage in Luke 2 about the shepherds who were visited by an angel. This would mean both Matthew and Luke reported about the unlearned visitors of Christ which God had revealed information to. If the magi truly were wise men, and they understood the celestial object as a heavenly sign (such as the Chaldeans reportedly did), that indicates some level of sophistication or advanced knowledge. The wise men who were learned in matters such as astrology and history juxtaposed against frightened shepherds who lacked higher education shows two completely differently pictures.
Another reason that I think there’s a possibility that the magi were uneducated is due to the history covered in the first part of this article. Magi has not always meant “wise/skilled/learned”. This alone is reason enough to speculate on the true intention behind the earliest writings of the book of Matthew. This coupled with Luke’s report makes sense to me.
A final point that I don’t believe is covered or mentioned anywhere else is the stark contrast in the schools of thought concerning the word magi. Where some believed them to be wise and complex, others believed them to be foolish and simple. I think maybe even more-so than the Isaiah verse that this is a reason behind the great differences in Matthew and Luke. Some scribes referred to them as wise men to try and establish a story that fit with the idea that the magi were wise and learned, and other scribes referred to them as magi in the derogatory sense. Some translations of the Bible do not even refer to them as wise men or magi, but simply “some men”.
Some Closing Thoughts
Overall, the variants of magi more or less are associated with private cults and foreigners. I think a deeper study into its glottochronology is necessary for a more accurate understanding of the origins of the variants of magi.
An interesting idea that I stumbled across while preparing for writing this article is a connection between the Old Sinitic *Mᵞag and Old Persian Maguš, suggesting a presence of some type of mage or shaman activity in ancient China.
Also to note, I don’t put much weight in the validity of the dating of time periods above, but I report them in this way as to map out what the common notions of our day are.
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