Re: The Greek word 'Magoi'

Carl W. Conrad (
Wed, 6 Nov 1996 12:53:58 -0600

At 4:34 AM -0600 11/6/96, TIMOTHY T. DICKENS wrote:
>Dear friends at B-Greek,
> I am currently trying to understand the etymology of the Greek word
>'Magos'; this word appears only in a
>couple of instances, and its scarceness makes me wonder if the word is
>even Greek in origin. While searching
>the Perseus project (q.v. above URL) I came up with the following results:
>> Magos [a^], ou, ho, ti=PMag.Par. Magian, one of a Median tribe, Hdt.
>> 1.101, Str. 15.3.1: hence, as belonging to this tribe,
>> 2. one of the priests and wise men in Persia who interpreted
>> dreams, Hdt. 7.37, al., Arist.Fr. 36, Phoen.1.5, Ev.Matt.2.1.
>> 3. enchanter, wizard, esp. in bad sense, impostor, charlatan,
>> Heraclit.14, Soph. OT 387, Eur. Orest. 1498 (lyr.), Plat. Rep.
>> 572e, Act.Ap.13.6, Vett. 74.17: also fem.,
>> Luc.Asin.4, AP 5.15 (Marc. Arg.).
>This information is not that much different from what the 9th.ed of LSJ
>also says. The problem is that in
>either case, I do not see any entry explaining the etymology of 'Magoi.'
>The second entry says that 'Magoi'
>were wise men in Persia. Question: If this is of any help a) what
>language did the ancient Persians speak? b)
>Does the word in Ancient Persian for 'wise men' transliterate into Magoi?

As no one else has yet attempted to deal with this not-uncomplicated
question, I thought I would give it a stab. It IS a question that readers
of the Greek text of Matthew inevitably would like to ask, whether or not
the answers are ready to hand. After doing a little bit of exploring, the
best info I could come up with is in the condensed version of Pauly
article on "Magoi" there indicates that there's more etymological info in
the above-cited entry from LJS than was obvious: i.e.: the Magoi were a
tribe of the Medes, to the west of the ancient Persians, and described at
some length by Herodotus in Bk 1 of his Histories (1.140) as being a
priestly caste with some distinctive religious practices that aren't
necessarily if at all related to the Persian (who spoke an Indo-European
language, Old Avestan, later Persian, ancestor of the modern Farsi still
used in Iran) Zoroastrians. Says Kleine Pauly (translated): "Aristotle (or
Antisthenes of Rhodes?) could explain in the lost treatise entitled
MAGIKOS, that the Iranian Magi do not know Magic at all. But the general
usage of the term (MAGOS) increasingly confounded the Iranian Magi with the
conjurers and astrologers of the Chaldaeans. In the Hellenistic period, the
early Greek predilection with the Orient became so great that one could do
nothing better to lend weight to any magical or alchemical text than to
ascribe to it the authority of Zoroaster or one or the other supposed Magi."

I think that's probably the best that can be done on the subject, as it is
fraught with a lot of speculation. Whatever historical facts may underline
the Matthaean account seem to be beyond any recovery unless and until a
good deal more is known of the history of that part of the ancient near
east. What is pretty clear is that the term "Magos" was used in the
Hellenistic world rather loosely for astrologers and magicians; Matthew or
his source must have had in mind Chaldaean astrologers/astronomers (there
was no distinction in the Hellenistic era drawn between astrology and

This is interesting stuff, but I have the distinct feeling that it is
ultimately not very helpful at getting at any real answer to the questions

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR