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The Magi

The acceptance of Zoroastrianism in the western half of the Persian Empire, its propagation, and its transformation into something quite unlike the Prophet's original message, seems to have been the work of the Magi who enjoyed a monopoly of religious affairs not only in their native Media but also in Persis and the whole western half of the Achaemenian Empire. There are few subjects on which scholars have differed more than on what part the Magi played in the dissemination of Zoroastrianism. For Moulton, whose zeal for the Prophet burned a little too brightly, the Magi were the villains of the piece, and they were not even allowed to belong to either the Aryan or the Semitic race, so repulsive did their peculiar doctrines appear to him to be. For Messina, on the other hand, it was the Magi themselves who were the true heirs of Zoroaster and who alone faithfully transmitted his doctrines. That scholars can differ so widely can only be atrributed to a rather one-sided reading of the available sources. Moulton's view bases itself mainly on Herodotus, while Messina reaches a perhaps too favourable view of these strange people by discounting the reliability of Herodotus' sources. Throughout antiquity the Magi were notorious for two things: they did not bury their dead, but exposed them to be devoured by vultures and wild animals, and they considered incestuous marriages to be exceptionally meritorious.
'The Magi,' says Herodotus, 'are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such-like flying and creeping things. However, since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it.'

This custom of the Magi which Herodotus found so peculiar is, in fact, typical of later Zoroastrianism, particularly the Videvdat. The slaying of noxious beasts, the exposure of the dead, which according to Herodotus, the Magi practised openly, and incestuous marriages are all attested of the Magi in our Greek sources, and they are also typical of the latest stratum of the Avesta. It is, then, fair to conclude that it was the Magi who were responsible for the drawing up of the Videvdat, the 'law against the daevas'; and this would go a long way to account for the appalling grammatical confusion that characterizes that not very admirable work. What hand they had in the compilation of the rest of the Avesta, however, is less certain, though it is unlikely that they had any direct share in the compilation of the great Yashts which, on the whole, adhere to grammatical rule. It cannot therefore be legitimately argued that because the Achaemenian kings were buried and not exposed, they cannot have been Zoroastrian, since we do not know how the Zoroastrians disposed of their dead until they came into contact with them but were also deeply influenced by them. One can, perhaps, go a lttle further than this, for the extraordinary zest with which the Magi are alleged to have killed 'with their own hands' flying and creeping things, can scarcely be accounted for except on the supposition that they thought such creatures to be the handiwork of an evil power. It is they, then, who would be responsible for the cut-and-dried division of creation into two mutually antagonistic halves -the creatures of the Holy Spirit on the one hand and the creatures of the Destructive Spirit on the other. Thus they can be regarded as the true authors of that rigid dualism that was to characterize the Zoroastrianism of a later period, but which is only implicit in the Gathas of Zoroaster.

According to Herodotus the Magi were one of six Median tribes, though Messina and many other scholars prefer to see in them a caste. Certainly, if they were ever a tribe, they were also very much more than that, since they made themselves indispensable at any form of religious ceremony, whether Zoroastrian or otherwise. Their presence was necessary even to the rite described by Plutarch in which an offering was made to Ahriman and which must therefore be regarded as a sacrifice performed by the worshippers of the daevas. It would be quite wrong to suppose that the Magi represented any kind of orthodoxy, for we sometimes find them officiating at sacrifices, and sometimes we are told that they execrate sacrifice as such or that they merely stand by while others offer sacrifice. Their position would seem to correspond to that of the Levites among the Jews or, even more closely, to that of the Brahmans in India: they were a hereditary caste entrusted with the supervision of the national religion, whatever form it might take and in whatever part of the Empire it might be practised. How they attained to this privileged position remains quite obscure, but there seems to be no doubt that their functions passed from father to son right up to the Muslim conquest and after.

Zoroaster and the Magi

It was Messina's contention that the Magi were the original followers of Zoroaster; and this view deserves serious consideration, though there are obvious objections to it. First, the word for 'Magus' (Avestan mogu) occurs only once in the Avesta, and this would be surprising if the Magi were responsible for the final redaction of that scripture. Secondly, Herodotus says that they were a Median tribe, and it can no longer be seriously maintained that the Avesta was a product of Media. From the whole of Herodotus' history, however, and from all subsequent accounts of them, it is quite clear that the Magi were in fact a sacerdotal caste whose ethnic origin is never again so much as mentioned. We hear of Magi not only in Persia, Parthia, Bactria, Chorasmia, Aria, Media, and among the Sakas, but also in non-Iranian lands like Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Their influence was also widespread throughout Asia Minor. It is, therefore, quite likely that the sacerdotal caste of the Magi was distinct from the Median tribe of the same name.


The Old Persian form of the word rendered into Greek as magos is magu. In the Gathas we meet with a noun maga and an adjective formed from it magavan; and it is quite possible that the Old Persian magu is an adjectival derivative from this same word maga with a different suffix. Maga can scarcely be separated from the Vedic magha (together with its adjective maghavan) meaning 'riches' or 'gift'. Messina, taking each passage in which the word occurs separately, has shown that 'gift' makes good sense in all the contexts. Maga, however, must have been a semi-technical term meaning God's 'gift' of the Good Religion to Zoroaster. The Pahlavi translators, for once, bear this out, for they translate the word as 'purity' or 'pure goodness'. In this they were probably following a live tradition, for when they simply do not know the meaning of an Avestan word they content themselves with a near-transliteration. Moreover, the adjectival form of the word in the form maghvand survives in Pahlavi and seems to mean something like 'adorning'. In the Gathas the word seems to mean both the teaching of Zoroaster and the community that accepted that teaching, but there is no reason to suppose that the western Iranian form magu (Magus) has exactly the same meaning despite the fact that in the Greek sources Zoroaster himself appears as a Magus and that he was claimed as such by the Magi who had emigrated outside Iran. Herodotus, however, knows nothing of Zoroaster and speaks of the Magi as officiating at religious ceremonies that seem to have little in common with Zoroastrianism in any form we know or indeed with the religion of the Achaemenian kings.

According to Porphyry the word 'Magus' means 'one who is wise in the things of God and serves the divine', and there is plenty of evidence to support this view. The Magi were considered to be philosophers, they were the teachers of the Achaemenian kings, they were the best of the Persians and strove to lead a holy life, and so on. The 'Magus', then, would be the man possessed of maga -the man who enjoys God's 'gift' or 'grace'; and he is in receipt of this 'gift' simply by virtue of belonging to the priestly caste. We have an exactly parallel case in India where the Brahmans who constitute the hereditary priesthood are sacrosanct simply because they inherit the brahman or 'sacred power' of which their caste is the vehicle. So it would seem that both the western Magi and the magavans of Zoroaster's community were members of a sacerdotal caste, but that they differed in this, that the Magi claimed priestly functions throughout the Empire and in association with all cults, while Zoroaster's magavans derived their authority solely from what they considered to be a direct irruption of the divine in the person of Zoroaster. At some stage the Zoroastrian priesthood must have made contact with the Magi known to the West, and the latter then adopted the name of 'Zoroastrian' and transformed Zoroaster himself into a Magus, though they may have meant no more by that term than a 'holy man'. That some of the Magi became profoundly influenced by Chaldaean astrology in the course of their migration to the West, and that they were commonly accused of 'magic' (i.e. the art peculiar to a Magus) and socery, has little or nothing to do with the religious situation in Iran. It can be assumed that even the 'worshippers of the daevas' and the 'followers of the Lie' had Magi of their own, but their authority would not have been accepted by any Zoroastrian. It is fairly clear that during the early Achaemenian period the Magi gained control of Zoroastrianism in the West, for as early as Plato Zoroaster is spoken of as a Magus. Thus Zoroastrianism fell under the influence of a hereditary priestly caste that ministered to the spiritual needs of not only the Zoroastrianism but also the entire Iranian nation. What the specific contribution of the Magi to Zoroastrianism was is largely a matter of guesswork and need not detain us for long.

It does, however, seem fairly certain that it was the Magi who were responsible for introducing three new elements into Zoroastrianism -the exposure of the dead to be devoured by vultures and dogs, the practice of incestuous marriages, and the extension of the dualist view of the world to material things and particularly the animal kingdom. It is not to be supposed, however, that with the conversion of a majority of the Magi and of the royal family itself to Zoroastrianism anything like religious uniformity was produced within the Persian Empire, for the type of religion described by Herodotus differs considerably from Zoroastrianism as we know it and probably reflects a more primitive and popular form of religion.

Popular Religion in Western Iran

'The customs which I know the Persians to observe [writes Herodotus] are the following. They have no images of the gods, no temples or altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess whom the Arabians call Alilat, and the Persians Mitra.

'To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barely-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a theogony, for such the Persians allege the chant to be. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please....
'Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year in three things alone -to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth....
'They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a dept: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies. If a Persian has the leprosy he is not allowed to enter into a city, or to have any dealings with other Persians; he must, they say, have sinned against the sun....They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers....
'Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainly, from my own actual knowledge. There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead. It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey. That the Magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practise it without any concealment.'

Much of this is familiar and is pan-Iranian, such as the veneration of the natural elements -fire, water, wind, and earth- and of the sun and moon. Herodotus is, of course, mistaken is supposing that the Iranian goddess of the sky was Mithra. His mistake, however, shows that his informant was well acquainted with both Mithra and Anahita, both of whom are for the first time mentioned in the inscriptions of Artaxerxes II. The 'whole circuit of the firmament' which Herodotus identifies with Zeus may either be the ancient Ahura, the 'Lord' par excellence, or the Ahura Mazdah of the Seven Chapters. The sacrifice Herodotus describes, however, differs from any known Zoroastrian rite, for he explicitlystates that they light no fire and pour no libations, whereas the Zoroastrian rite must, from the beginning, have been associated with the sacred fire, and libations have a vital part to play in the Avestan ritual. The laying of flesh on tender herbage, however, would point to an ancient Indo-Iranian usage, for this type of sacrifice is found in the Veda, and the Avesta itself speaks of the barsom or bundle of twigs which the priest holds in his hands, as being strewn, thereby indicating an earlier usage when the twigs were laid out on the ground. That a Magus had to be present at this sacrifice shows either that all the Magi were not Zoroastrians or that, though Zoroastrians, they were quite happy to officiate at non-Zoroastrian ceremonies.

The sacrifice described by Herodotus bears a curious resemblance to the sacrifice of Mashye and Mashyane which we have had occasion to discuss above. According to Herodotus the sacrificer carries the flesh of the sacrificial animal away with him and does with it whatever he likes, and Strabo explicitly states that no portion of it is given to the gods, since 'the deity needs the soul of the victim and nothing more'. Similarly Mashye and Mashyane give only a portion of the victim to the gods and the fire, and this the gods deem to be an act of ingratitude. Such practices, moreover, are condemned in the Avesta itself, for in the Yasna the sacrificial bull indignantly complains of the man who is stingy enough to keep all the sacrificial flesh for himself and his family, and in any case the jaws, the tongue, and the left eye should be reserved for Haoma. Perhaps it was this practice of withholding the sacrificial meat from the gods that constituted the sin of Yima 'who gave to our people portions of [the flesh of] the ox to eat'. If this is so, then it is perfectly possible that the rite described by Herodotus was that of the still-surviving daeva-worshippers.

The extreme veneration for water which Herodotus describes, though quite typical of the Gatha of the Seven Chapters and the later Avesta, is foreign to the primitive Zoroastrianism of the Gathas proper where the only element that is explicitly venerated is fire.

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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