Re: The Greek word 'Magoi'

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Nov 07 1996 - 09:25:27 EST

At 8:13 AM -0600 11/7/96, Timothy T. Dickens wrote:
>At 17:26 Uhr +0100 on 06.11.1996, Timothy T. Dickens wrote:
>> 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.
>It is not Greek in origin, but generally considered as an old Persian loan
>word. Old Persian is, not surprisingly, the language of the ancient
>Persians, and it is an indo-european language like Greek and Latin are,
>belonging to the indo-aryan group. This being so, there could well be a
>more exact etymology, but as far as I know there is no good explanation of
>the word.
>Dr. Rainer Thiel
>TTD: Dear Dr. Thiel,
> Your comments are interesting; particularly, since they differ
>somewhat from what a member from another list had to say on the topic:
>". . . .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. . . . "
>Dr. Thiel and Dr. Conrad,
>If the passage by Herodotus is given any type of credibility whatsoever,
>then while the "religious practices" of the Magoi "aren't "necessarily. .
>. related to the Persian," was the language of the Magoi old Persian?

Dr. Thiel and I are not in any disagreement at all. I took my information
>from Der Kleine Pauly; I wasn't sure exactly about the sequence of language
changes in ancient Persia, but my impression was that the oldest
Zoroastrian texts were indeed in Old Avestan, an Indo-European language
akin to Sanskrit, but that the language of the period in which Herodotus
visited the area and learned about the Magoi was "Persian"--I guess Old
Persian is the appropriate term for it. I would assume, without knowing it
for sure, that Herodotus' informants were Persian, that he learned this
proper name from them, and that he converted it into his Greek form,
"Magos." And I don't think anything more can be said definitively about it.
IF Herodotus is right, and the Magoi of which he speaks were a MEDIAN
priestly caste, then I don't think we may confidently say that these
"Magoi" spoke Old Persian, but only that Herodotus' sources, probably
speaking Old Persian, CALLED them by a name that Herodotus converts into
his own Greek nom. pl. MAGOI. I really think you're asking for more
information than our sources give us.

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

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