Magus is the singular for magi. Among the earliest writings concerning the magi are those of Herodotus (Greek historian, 485-425 BC). He cites them as one of the five social classes of the Medes. Probably they were similar to medicine men or shamans who were among the earliest of peoples, and somewhat paralleled to the India Brahmans in their early period.
In his times, Herodotus notes, the magi had became Zoroastrian priests. He mentioned a band of aboriginal shamans who were captured by Ayrians. The shamans not only learned their captors’ religion but became priests in it. By the fourth century C.E. these priests had gained such power that they were able to vigorously persecute Jews and Christians in Persia.
The Hebrew term for magus was “Chartumin,” while in Greek it was “Magos.” The term “Magus” or “Magi” seems to have several meanings including wise men, magicians, and magians. Their antiquity is distinguished in both Egypt and Chaldaea. In Egypt they were said to possess secret learning and wisdom. Also in Egypt and Chaldaea they were the sole seers and interrupters of sacred things in the past and future, but in Palestine they were never ranked with the prophets, unless among the idolatrous people. This would not mean that all were idolaters themselves, but some failed to express the orthodox views of the time. Some enhanced their eminent positions by displaying occult knowledge. They were considered sort of sacred scribes among the Jews, skilled in divination and the interpretation of certain scripture passages for hidden meanings.
Their domination or authority seemed to have extended beyond Persia throughout the entire Mediterranean area. The three Magi which visited the Christ Child were said to be Jews. So, this would seem to indicate the term Magi was not strictly a cultural or racial one, but more of a professional one. The three Magi were said to be astrologers who were seeking the meaning of a meteor that appeared in the sky at that time.
These Magi are thought to have come from the kingdom of Parthia since magianism was that country’s chief religion; or, they may have came from Eastern Chaldaea. When arriving in Jerusalem their appearance, clothes, and the gifts they bore indicated that they were above their country’s ordinary citizen class.
Except for the Magi who visited Jesus, they were not always spoken highly of in the Old Testament. Examples of this are Simon Magus and Elymas Magus. Many Magi were present in or about Roman courts as they accompanied high ranking officals and governors. Therefore, they were socially accepted in Roman society.
However, their creditability was questioned by some throughout history. Philo (Jewish philosopher, 20 BC – 50 AD), for example, said the Magi perverted the magical arts.
The main objection to their activities seemed to be centered around dream interpretation, which entailed seeing into the future as well as the past. The Hebrews raised strict objections to such activity too, although it must be noted that in the Bible both Joseph and Daniel interpreted dreams, and King Solomon in desperation secretly visited a magus at night who practiced necromancy. Dream interpretation was also practiced in Egypt, Persia, and Babylonia.
Another troubling subject was the driving out of demons in a person who was said to be possessed. The scribes called Jesus a demon, particularly Beelzebub, when he exorcized possessed persons. The scribed actually accused Christ of being a magus. The same charge could have been brought against the early Christians who cast out demons. The Roman Catholic Church still practices exorcism.
The early Christian writer Saint Ignatius (bishop of Antioch, d. c. 107) commenting on the Book of Ephesians said with the birth of Jesus Christ all magic had been overthrown.
Philo realized that magic still existed even though Ignatius wanted to deny it. Philo recognized that Jews and Christians were still using similar magical techniques but giving them different names. In the third century Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, in his “Confessio Sancti Cypriani 7” refers to himself as Magos philosophus, and in his “Homologia” as Cyprian the Magas, while busy with magic and possessing magical scriptures.
In the thirteenth century a German named Albertus Magnus might be considered another magus. He displayed a strange combination of characteristics, being a Roman Catholic bishop, a student and teacher of alchemy and an alleged magician.
In the sixteen century another German appeared on the scene who might also be considered a magus. This man, who is commonly called Agrippa, influenced occultists for generations. His unusual ideas always had him in trouble with his contemporaries and church authorities.
In the same century lived the famous physician, chemist, and occultist Paracelsus. Although this man contributed much to modern medicine, like Agrippa, he too was always in trouble with his contemporaries for his advanced ideas. The first two men allegedly found the Philosopher’s Stone but, Paracelsus was still seeking it for the good of humanity.
Men who might be considered magi seemed to be learned and in touch with nature. Their own nature seems to want to embrace everything around them. As occult writer Francis Barrett, wrote this nature or magical power came from the inward man and not from Satan.
It is not certain whether this quality is innate in all men, or whether it is given to a certain few. One thing seems pretty certain though, the belief in the magical power similar to that which Barrett spoke of still exists. The belief is still held by many magicians, witches, and diviners who participate in the magical and mystical arts.
The author of the “Persuasion’s of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England” speaks of a similar power or characteristic. This power seems to come from the diviner’s mastery of himself, or self-control, and the mastery of his magical or mystical arts. Once such control is attained then the person gains a new attitude towards himself and can establish a better relationship with his natural environment.
A final question remains: Is this power given? Is the power given in a religious sense? Since many magicians are athiests the term religious should not be taken in an orthodox sense. But, there seemed to be a general consensus among these people that their work involved a spirituality. A spiritual force within themselves which is derived from a higher power. So, in summary, it might be said, these people, whether they are called magi or not, still think they are in touch with themselves, their natural environment, and a higher power source. A.G.H.