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Persian and Median Mages in the Ancient Greek World

Updated on May 26, 2012
The Faravahar is one of the symbols of Zoroastrianism, as well as of the Median Empire.
The Faravahar is one of the symbols of Zoroastrianism, as well as of the Median Empire.

A lot of sorcerers in the Graeco-Roman literary tradition are portrayed as hailing from the lands of Egypt and the Near East, carrying the wisdom of these cultures. This characterization of sorcerers as outlanders may be due to the Greeks' habit of projecting less desirable attributes among free Greeks onto foreign peoples. In other words, if he acts weird, he is probably not Greek.

From the dawn of the classical period forward, the Greeks viewed the Persians as the originators of alien magical knowledge. Other Oriental races looked probably 'less magical' to them. In the Odyssey, we encounter a wide spectrum of magical practices, yet it must have assumed its final form well before the Greeks became aware of the Persians. So the Odyssey doesn't count.

The mages (Greek magos, Persian maku) were the wise men of the Persian empire, whose expertise extended beyond religious matters. The Babylonians were associated with astronomy and astrology among other forms of magic. The Syrians were added to the mix in the Seleucid period when the Seleucid kings, who had their seat in Syria, conquered vast portions of land from the former Persian empire.

Nero employed an Armenian mage named Tiridates in the A.D. period and Arabs, most notably the figure of Lucian’s amulet-monger, were also ideal candidates, being both remote and conveniently poised between the Orient and Egypt. Much of the transfer of Near Eastern magical culture to the Greek world occurred in the Orientalizing period, the 8th century B.C., via the medium of itinerant religious technicians.

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: "The Three Wise Men"
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: "The Three Wise Men" | Source

Persian Mages and their Habits

Aeschylus writes that Atossa, the widow of King Darius and mother of the current king, Xerxes, experienced dreadful dreams that suggested she should make offerings to her dead husband. The Persian elders performed a ritual to call up Darius' ghost who then delivered prophecies of the doom of Xerxes’ military campaign against Greece.

In other Hellenistic sources, Persian mages are directly associated with necromancy. The offerings made to the ghost don't involve blood sacrifice, because it is either not essential, or inappropriate.

Xanthus of Lydia, in his book Magica, writes that the mages had sex with their mothers, daughters and sisters, and the women were held in common. These unions were public knowledge and were readily consented to by both parties, when a man wished to marry someone else's woman.

According to Xanthus, 6,000 years passed from the time of Zoroaster to Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. Zoroaster was followed by a succession of many mages called Ostanes, Astrampsychus, Gobryas, and Pazates, until Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Persians. Pliny, in his Natural History, corroborates this notion of a line of Persian mages throughout the history of Persia.

The Dream of Astyages
The Dream of Astyages | Source

Median Mages and the Story of Astyages

Deioces united the Median race in one nation and ruled over them. The names of the tribes of the Medes were Bousai, Paretakenoi, Strouchates, Arizantoi, Boudioi, and Magoi (Mages).

Herodotus tells the story of Astyages and the Persians. Astyages's daughter was called Mandane. He had a dream in which she produced so much water that the entire city, then, the whole of Asia was flooded. The Median dream-interpreters among the mages told him a terrifying story, so when Mandane has come of age to be wedded to a man, Astyages, fearing the fulfillment of the vision, gave her to a Persian named Cambyses, a wealthy man, however, far below even a middle-class Mede.

Soon after this, Astyages saw another dream in which he saw a vine grow from his daughter’s genitals, covering all Asia. The dream-interpreters told him to summon his daughter, who was pregnant with a child, keep her locked up, and when the child is born kill it. Because Astyages trusted the mages and because he feared that his daughter’s child would rule over his city, he did what he was instructed to do. Except he couldn't bring himself to kill the baby.

The young Cyrus lived in the country where the boys of his village called him king. He did what real kings do, commanding the guards, door-keepers, messengers and all else. The mages interpreted this as the vision coming to a trivial conclusion and told Astyages to be cheerful and send the boy to the Persians and his parents.

When Cyrus had grown to be a man, he destroyed the Median army in battle. Astyages cursed his grandson and impaled the mages that interpreted his dream. He proceeded to arm the remnants of the Medes in the city, young and old alike, with whatever weapons he had, and marched them out into battle with the Persians. They were crushed by the enemy and Astyages was taken hostage.

Reconstitution of a prehistoric tomb containing two young women possibly buried alive.
Reconstitution of a prehistoric tomb containing two young women possibly buried alive. | Source

Herodotus on Persian Mages and Sorcerers

Herodotus writes that upon reaching the River Scamander, the Persian King Xerxes walked up to the Pergamos, the citadel of Troy, because he desired to see it. When he had seen it and found out all about it, he ordered the sacrifice 1000 oxen to Athene, while the mages poured libations to the heroes, which planted fear in the hearts of the encamped troops during the night, because they believed that the mages conjured up the souls of the dead heroes of the Trojan war buried there.

Later, into the River Strymon, the mages sacrificed white horses to acquire good omens. Having done this, they ventured to pass over the river at the Edonian city of Ennea Hodoi. Because they found out that this city was called Ennea Hodoi, meaning "Nine Ways," they buried alive there nine boys and nine girls, all local children.

Persian custom dictated that they should bury people alive. In order to stop a storm, Amestris, Xerxes' wife, buried seven boys and seven girls of distinguished Persian descent to honor the god believed to be under the earth. The storm went on for three days, then the mages offered sacrifices to the dead and sang an incantation to calm the wind. They were helped by sorcerers (goêsi). Sacrifices were also offered to Thetis and the Nereids and the wind stopped the next day.

The same story is told by Philostratus in his Heroicus that tells the account of Apollonius’s necromancy of Achilles' ghost.

All four extant species of hyenas. Book Plate Illustration from Johnson's Book of Nature, 1880.
All four extant species of hyenas. Book Plate Illustration from Johnson's Book of Nature, 1880.

The Hyena, Most Magical of All Creatures

Of all animals, most highly revered by the mages was the hyena. They have credited magical skills to it, especially the ability to make man go insane. They believed that the hyena changed sex annually. Hyenas or objects made from their skin repulsed panthers that would run away upon spotting them. If the pelts of both animals are hung up back-to-back, the panther’s hairs supposedly fall off.

When hunted, the hyena veers rightward attempting to put the hunter in front. If successful, the hyena causes the hunter to lose his mind and fall off his horse. The mages require that the hyena be caught when the moon is in the constellation of Gemini, and that every last hair be kept intact.

When you try on the skin of the hyena's head, it cures headache, while the gall, placed on the forehead, cures eye inflammation. To cure dim sight or cataracts, one needs to decoct the gall with three ladles of honey and an ounce of saffron. If allowed to mature in a copper container, the medicine induces clear vision even more effectively.

One can get rid of glaucoma by anointing the eyes with the gravy of the fresh roasted liver with honey added and the foam skimmed off. The hyena’s teeth alleviate toothache when brought into contact with human teeth. Worn as amulets in the right order, the hyena's teeth cure pains in the arms and shoulders.

If extracted from the left side of its muzzle, bound up in sheep- or goatskin, the teeth help get rid of severe stomach aches. Hyena lungs, when eaten, cure coeliac pains. Their ashes, mixed with olive oil and massaged into the skin, cure belly pain. And the list goes on endlessly!

Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundis) the Elder (23 – ­79 A.D.) Roman historian, scholar, and writer.
Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundis) the Elder (23 – ­79 A.D.) Roman historian, scholar, and writer.

Pliny on the History of Magical Practices in Greece

In Natural History, Pliny writes that the influence of magical practices is probably due to the fact that they encompassed and incorporated the three disciplines that exercised the strongest control over the human mind. They first began in medicine, were gradually introduced in healthy living, and added the blinding power of religion to desirable promises by meddling in the art of astrology, since everyone was eager to know his or her future.

According to Pliny and other writers, magic was first invented in Persia by Zoroaster. Eudoxus, a great proponent of magical practices, as well as Aristotle, suggested that Zoroaster lived 6,000 years before the death of Plato, Aristotle's teacher. Hermippus wrote that Zoroaster had been instructed by Azonaces who had lived 5,000 years before the Trojan war. It is amazing how the memory of the art should have lived on over such a long period of time without any intervening commentaries or distinguished line of successors.

From historical records, we are aware of names such as Apusorus, Zaratus, Marmarus, Arabantiphocus, and Tarmoendas, but we know virtually nothing of their lives. Interestingly enough, Homer kept silent about these practices in the Iliad, which documents the Trojan war, while his other significant work on the wanderings of Odysseus was loaded with tales of magic.

Pliny believed that the first man to have composed an extant treatise on magic was Osthanes, who escorted the Persian king Xerxes in his military campaign into Greece. He spread the seeds of the magical craft along the way. Pythagoras, Democritus, Empedocles, and Plato traveled abroad in self-imposed exhile to learn or learn about the craft. Upon returning, they expounded it, promoted, and included it daily life. Around the time of the Peloponnesian war in Greece, Hippocrates promoted medicine, while Democritus promoted magic.

Another magical tradition derived from Moses, Jannes, Iotapes, and the Jews, but this was introduced thousands of years after the time of Zoroaster. All the more recent was the Cyprian magical tradition. There was a man whose story is similar to that of Osthanes, but whose name remains unknown, that traveled along with Alexander the Great and added no small influence to the magic of his time.


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    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      I'm fascinated by history, especially ancient stuff. I'm sure most will never understand what it is that's so "cool" about it. lol I guess I just like to dig deep hoping to find something that's not obvious. Thank you for reading and voting! :)

    • Sphinxs Sanctum profile image

      Sphinxs Sanctum 

      8 years ago from Southern United States

      That was incredibly interesting and taught me much. I've not been a big fan of history in general but find the stories from this age, fascinating! Haunty- you are such a great writer and I truly believe you should be doing this professionally. Might as well, it seems to have captivated you! Voted UP & I.

    • windbreather profile image


      8 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      Being an avid reader of History I found this article extremely interesting. Many names listed were totally foreign which shows how much our educational system has neglected Persian History.

      I could not help but conclude the primitive origins of medicine with magic and various sacrifices to the gods of the time. Fortunately the Greeks had Plato and Socrates for some basis of reason and of course the Father of Modern Medicine.




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