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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The three wise men (the three Magi)

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The birth of Jesus is celebrated in the West December 25. That birth is celebrated for a long time in Christendom and still currently in the Orthodox Church on January 6. But in the Catholic Church is celebrated now on January 6 the day of "epiphany" or manifestation of Jesus. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew 2: 1-12, some wise men came from the East to offer the newborn baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence comes the custom in some countries, as in Spain, of gave gifts to children on the night of January 5.

But who are the "wise men"? Magi, Greek  μάγοι ,  is a Iranian or Persian word that  had a great success among the Greeks.

For a long time, classical philology despised or disregarded the many evidences of the oriental influence in the Greek world trying to assert a supposed “hellenic” peculiarity. As  common sense and numerous historical and philological evidences demonstrate,  the Greeks don’t  were an only people, nor came all at once in the Greek peninsula nor  were isolated from other peoples and cultures.

The things happened on the contrary.By its very geographical situation, a point of contact between East and West, between the Europe and Egypt and Africa,  what we call Greek culture is an important component of other cultures, mainly Mesopotamian and Egyptian and Oriental, despite the classicist disregard of the importance and influence of oriental Persian and  Egyptian cultures.

The dependence of the Greeks from  Eastern cultures became soon clear  in astronomy, especially in some cosmogonic myths, in some religious cults, but some relationships are also evident in the early literary poems (Homer, Hesiod) with the Sumerian epic poems  Giglamesh, Enki ...

Then, from the sixth century and for two centuries, Persia occupied one third of the Greek territories and the influence, of course, was mutual.

A proof of evidence of this relationship is the term “magicians”, magus, μάγοι,(wizard), that as I said, is not from Greek but Iranian origin.

This word has on Greek the double meaning of charlatans who dupe with his "magic", and  also of priests who have a special function.

Primitive Persian religious beliefs and other of Zoroastrianism conceived own world full of spirits and daemons. The souls of the dead, separated from the body, ascend to heaven, or rather, to the heavens, because they are many. In that journey up the important ritual action and sacrifices of the "magi" are very important.

Iranian ideas and beliefs helped to germinate on Greece the ideas of  separation of body from the  soul, of the soul's ascent to heaven, of the universe populated by many daemons and spirits. These ideas  helped also to grow the interests of the Ionian Greeks to explain the nature through rational observation; that marked the origin of science.

The multiplicity of daemons or ubiquitous souls is a pre-Socratic doctrine, especially present in the Pythagorean thought. Diogenes Laertius (VIII, 32) tells us that Alexander Polyhistor claimed to have found on the " Pythagorean Comments", among other similar, these ideas:

The whole air is full of souls which are called genii[22] or heroes; these are they who send men dreams and signs of future disease and health, and not to men alone, but to sheep also and cattle as well; and it is to them that purifications and lustrations, all divination, omens and the like, have reference.  (translated by Robert Drew Hicks)

It is the same as Tales said   when he stated  that "everything is full of gods, daemons and souls" (A 22, 23 Diels-Kranz).

Aristotle says about Democritus in “On the Soul” 404a:

This is what led Democritus to say that soul is a sort of fire or hot substance; his ‘forms’ or atoms are infinite in number; those which are spherical he calls fire and soul, and compares them to the motes in the air which we see in shafts of light coming through windows; the mixture of seeds of all sorts he calls the elements of the whole of Nature (Leucippus gives a similar account);

The doctrine of the Pythagoreans seems to rest upon the same ideas; some of them declared the motes in air, others what moved them, to be soul. These motes were referred to because they are seen always in movement, even in a complete calm
. (Translated by J. A. Smith)

Diogenes Laertius, on I, 6-9, describes the activity of the "wise men":

while the Magi spend their time in the worship of the gods, in sacrifices and in prayers, implying that none but themselves have the ear of the gods. .. Further, they practise divination and forecast the future, declaring that the gods appear to them in visible form. Moreover, they say that the air is full of shapes which stream forth like vapour and enter the eyes of keen-sighted seers. ..
Aristotle in the first book of his dialogue On Philosophy declares that the Magi are more ancient than the Egyptians; and further, that they believe in two principles, the good spirit and the evil spirit, the one called Zeus or Oromasdes, the other Hades or Arimanius.
(translated by Robert Drew Hicks)

Herodotus in a famous passage (I, 131) says that the magoi worship the sky as supreme deity:

but they call the whole circuit of heaven Zeus, and to him they sacrifice on the highest peaks of the mountains; A. D. Godley, Ed.

Democritus, in a famous passage, describes the "teachers of the word" who, holding his hands to heaven, "called the universe by the name of Zeus." (Democritus, B 30 Diels-Kranz).

In summary, we can conclude that wizards and Iranian doctrines became somehow to be part of the pre-Socratic  philosophical context. Rituals and speculation of magicians about daimones and souls , left their mark on the Greeks of the fifth century.  So far the word "magician", “magi”,  is the most successful Iranian word in Greek and we must keep in mind that the Greeks and Persians maintained a  physical and geographical connection  for several centuries.

As a curious question about magicians, I can tell that already have long considered that the story of the Gospel of St. Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

It is a replica or it is made or influenced by the visit of Tiridates, king of Armenia, made to Rome to pay homage to Nero. Tiridates, crowned on the year 66 in Armenia by Nero, was a wise man, “magus”,  and also all his companions and so the Romans called him,  “magus”.

Nero had a passion of  music and poetry and also  of magic, which had to resign. Pliny the Elder  made reference to visit of Tiridates on Natural History, XXX, 16 s (VI):

The magicians, too, have certain modes of evasion, as, for instance, that the gods will not obey, or even appear to, persons who have freckles upon the skin. Was this perchance the obstacle in Nero's way? As for his limbs, there was nothing deficient in them. And then, besides, he was at liberty to make choice of the days prescribed by the magic ritual: it was an easy thing for him to make choice of sheep whose colour was no other than perfectly black: and as to sacrificing human beings, there was nothing in the world that gave him greater pleasure. The Magian Tiridates was at his court, having repaired thither, in token of our triumph over Armenia, accompanied by a train which cost dear to the provinces through which it passed. For the fact was, that he was unwilling to travel by water, it being a maxim with the adepts in this art that it is improper to spit into the sea or to profane that element by any other of the evacuations that are inseparable from the infirmities of human nature. He brought with him, too, several other Magi, and went so far as to initiate the emperor in the repasts of the craft; and yet the prince, for all he had bestowed a kingdom upon the stranger, found himself unable to receive at his hands, in return, this art. We may rest fully persuaded then, that magic is a thing detestable in itself. Frivolous and lying as it is, it still bears, however, some shadow of truth upon it; though reflected, in reality, by the practices of those who study the arts of secret poisoning, and not the pursuits of magic. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.

sunt quaedam Magis perfugia, veluti lentiginem habentibus non obsequi numina aut cerni. an obstitit forte hoc in illo? nihil membris defuit. nam dies eligere certos liberum erat, pecudes vero, quibus non nisi ater colos esset, facile; nam homines immolare etiam gratissimum. Magus ad eum Tiridates venerat Armeniacum de se triumphum adferens et ideo provinciis gravis.
navigare noluerat, quoniam expuere in maria aliisque mortalium necessitatibus violare naturam eam fas non putant. Magos secum adduxerat, magicis etiam cenis eum initiaverat; non tamen, cum regnum ei daret, hanc ab eo artem accipere valuit. proinde ita persuasum sit, intestabilem, inritam, inanem esse, habentem tamen quasdam veritatis umbras, sed in his veneficas artes pollere, non magicas.

And Tacitus describes the submission of Tiridates, who decides to go to Rome in Annals XV, 29.

Then the Roman commended the young prince for abandoning rash courses, and adopting a safe and expedient policy. Tiridates first dwelt much on the nobility of his race, but went on to speak in a tone of moderation. He would go to Rome, and bring the emperor a new glory, a suppliant Arsacid, while Parthia was prosperous. It was then agreed that Tiridates should lay down his royal crown before Cæsar's image, and resume it only from the hand of Nero. The interview then ended with a kiss. After an interval of a few days there was a grand display on both sides; on the one, cavalry ranged in squadrons with their national ensigns; on the other, stood the columns of our legions with glittering eagles and standards and images of deities, after the appearance of a temple. In the midst, on a tribunal, was a chair of state, and on the chair a statue of Nero. To this Tiridates advanced, and having slain the customary victims, he removed the crown from his head, and set it at the foot of the statue; whereupon all felt a deep thrill of emotion, rendered the more intense by the sight which yet lingered before their eyes, of the slaughter or siege of Roman armies. "But now," they thought, "the calamity is reversed; Tiridates is about to go, a spectacle to the world, little better than a prisoner." Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Ed.)

Exim Romanus laudat iuvenem omissis praecipitibus tuta et salutaria capessentem: ille de nobilitate generis multum praefatus, cetera temperanter adiungit: iturum quippe Romam laturumque novum Caesari decus, non adversis Parthorum rebus supplicem Arsaciden. tum placuit Tiridaten ponere apud effigiem Caesaris insigne regium nec nisi manu Neronis resumere; et conloquium osculo finitum. dein paucis diebus interiectis magna utrimque specie inde eques compositus per turmas et insignibus patriis, hinc agmina legionum stetere fulgentibus aquilis signisque et simulacris deum in modum templi: medio tribunal sedem curulem et sedes effigiem Neronis sustinebat. ad quam progressus Tiridates, caesis ex more victimis, sublatum capiti diadema imagini subiecit, magnis apud cunctos animorum motibus, quos augebat insita adhuc oculis exercituum Romanorum caedes aut obsidio: at nunc versos casus; iturum Tiridaten ostentui gentibus quanto minus quam captivum?

It is possible that this episode of the wizard Tiridates´s visit served as a pattern to the three Wise Men´s visit to baby Jesus of Bethlehem. 


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