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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
The Magi were originally one of the six tribes into which the nation of the Medes was divided, who, like the Levites under the Mosaic institutions, were entrusted with the care of religion: an office which was held in the highest honor, gave the greatest influence, and which they probably acquired for themselves only after a long time, as well as many worthy efforts to serve their country, and when they had proved themselves superior to the rest of their brethren. As among other ancient nations, as the Egyptians, and Hebrews, for instance, so among the Medes, the priestly caste had not only religion, but the arts and all the higher culture, in their charge. Their name points immediately to their sacerdotal character (from Mag or Mog, which denotes 'priest'), either because religion was the chief object of their attention, or more probably because, at the first, religion and art were so allied as to be scarcely more than different expressions of the same idea.
Little in detail is known of the Magi during the independent existence of the Median government; they appear in their greatest glory after the Medes were united with the Persians. This doubtless is owing to the general imperfection of the historical materials which relate to the earlier periods. So great, however, was the influence which the Magi attained under the united empire, that the Medes were not ill compensated for their loss of national independence. Under the Medo-Persian sway the Magi formed a sacred caste or college, which was very famous in the ancient world for the practice of divination, astrology, and magic. According to Strabo the Magi practiced different sorts of divination—1. by evoking the dead; 2. by cups or dishes (Joseph's divining cup, ); 3. by means of water. By the employment of these means the Magi affected to disclose the future, to influence the present, and to call the past to their aid. Even the visions of the night they were accustomed to interpret, not empirically, but according to such established and systematic rules as a learned priesthood might be expected to employ. The success, however, of their efforts over the invisible world, as well as the holy office which they exercised, demanded in themselves peculiar cleanliness of body, a due regard to which and to the general principles of their caste would naturally be followed by professional prosperity, which in its turn conspired with prevailing superstition to give the Magi great social consideration, and make them of high importance before kings and princes—an influence which they appear to have sometimes abused, when, descending from the peculiar duties of their high office, they took part in the strife and competitions of politics, and found themselves sufficiently powerful even to overturn thrones.
Abuses bring reform; and the Magian religion, which had lost much of its original character, and been debased by some of the lowest elements of earthly passions, loudly called for a renovation, when Zoroaster appeared to bring about the needful change. As to the time of his appearance, and in general the particulars of his history, differences of opinion prevail, after all the critical labor that has been expended on the subject. Winer says he lived in the second half of the seventh century before Christ. He was not the founder of a new system, but the renovator of an old and corrupt one, being, as he himself intimates, the restorer of the word which Ormuzd had formerly revealed, but which the influence of Dews had degraded into a false and deceptive magic. To destroy this, and restore the pure law of Ormuzd, was Zoroaster's mission. After much and long-continued opposition on the part of the adherents and defenders of existing corruptions, he succeeded in his virtuous purposes, and caused his system eventually to prevail. The Magi, as a caste, did not escape from his reforming hand. He appears to have remodeled their institute, dividing it into three great classes:— 1, learners; 2, masters: 3, perfect scholars. The Magi alone he allowed to perform the religious rites; they possessed the forms of prayer and worship; they knew the ceremonies which availed to conciliate Ormuzd, and were obligatory in the public offerings. They accordingly became the sole medium of communication between the Deity and his creatures, and through them alone Ormuzd made his will known; none but they could see into the future, and they disclosed their knowledge to those only who were so fortunate as to conciliate their good will. Hence the power which the Magian priesthood possessed. The general belief in the trustworthiness of their predictions, especially when founded on astrological calculations, the all but universal custom of consulting the will of the divinity before entering on any important undertaking, and the blind faith which was reposed in all that the Magi did, reported, or commanded, combined to create for that sacerdotal caste a power, both in public and in private concerns, which has probably never been exceeded. Neither the functions nor the influence of this sacred caste were reserved for peculiar rare, and extraordinary occasions, but ran through the web of human life. At the break of day they had to chant the divine hymns. This office being performed, then came the daily sacrifice to be offered, not indiscriminately, but to the divinities whose day in each case it was—an office therefore which none but the initiated could fulfill. As an illustration of the high estimation in which the Magi were held, it may be mentioned that it was considered a necessary part of a princely education to have been instructed in the peculiar learning of their sacred order, which was an honor conceded to no other but royal personages, except in very rare and very peculiar instances. This Magian learning embraced everything which regarded the higher culture of the nation, being known in history under the designation of the law of the Medes and Persians. It comprised the knowledge of all the sacred rites, customs, usages, and observances, which related not merely to the worship of the gods, but to the whole private life of every worshipper of Ormuzd—the duties which, as such, he had to observe, and the punishments which followed the neglect of these obligations; whence may be learned how necessary the act of the priest on all occasions was. Under the veil of religion the priest had bound himself up with the entire of public and domestic life. The judicial office, too, appears to have been, in the time of Cambyses, in the hands of the Magi, for from them was chosen the college or bench of royal judges, which makes its appearance in the history of that monarch. Men who held these offices, possessed this learning, and exerted this influence with the people, may have proved a check to Oriental despotism, no less powerful than constitutional, though they were sometimes unable to guarantee their own lives against the wrath of the monarch.
If we turn to the books of Scripture we find the import of what has been said confirmed, especially in the book of Daniel, where the great influence of the Magi is well illustrated.
The Magi were not confined to the Medes and Persians. Since they are mentioned by Herodotus as one of the original tribes of the Medes, they may have been primitively a Median priesthood. If so they extended themselves into other lands. Possibly Magi may have been at first not the name of a particular tribe or priestly caste, but a general designation for priests or learned men; as Pharaoh denoted not an individual, but generally king or ruler. However this may be, the Chaldeans also had an organized order of Magi, a caste of sacerdotal scholars, which bore the name of 'wise men' (); 'the wise men of Babylon' (), among whom Daniel is classed (; ). Among the Greeks and Romans they were known under the name of Chaldeans, and also of Magi. They lived scattered over the land in different places (), and had possessions of their own. The temple of Belus was employed by them for astronomical observations, but their astronomy was connected with the worship of the heavenly bodies practiced by the Babylonians, and was specially directed to vain attempts to foretell the future, predict the fate of individuals or of communities, and sway the present, in alliance with augury, incantation, and magic (;; Daniel 2).
It is easy to understand how the lofty science (so called) of these Magi—lofty while its scholars surpassed the rest of the world in knowledge, and were the associates, the advisers, the friends, and the monitors of great and flourishing monarchs, of indeed successively the rulers of the world—might, could indeed hardly fail, as resting on no basis of fact or reality, in process of time, to sink into its own native insignificance, and become either a mere bugbear to frighten the ignorant, or an instrument to aid the fraudulent: thus hastening on to the contempt into which all falsities are sure sooner or later to fall. The decline was indeed gradual; ages passed before it was completed; but as soon as it ceased to have the support afforded by the mighty and splendid thrones of Asia, it began to lose its authority, which the progress of knowledge and the advent of Christ prevented it from ever regaining. The estimation, however, in which Simon Magus was evidently held, as recorded in the Acts ('some great one,' etc.), gives reason to think that Magianism still retained a large share of its influence at the commencement of our era. It seems, indeed, to have held a sort of middle position, half way; between its ancient splendor and its coming degradation: whence we may understand the propriety of the visit paid by the Magi to the newborn King of the Jews (Matthew 2, 'star in the East'). For if the system had been then sunk so low as to correspond in any degree with our conception of these pretended arts, it is difficult to assign, at least to the unbeliever, a sufficient reason why the visit was made, or at any rate why it was recorded; but its credibility is materially furthered if the circumstances of the case are such as to allow us to regard that visit as a homage paid by the representatives of the highest existing influences to the rising star of a new day, in the fuller light of which they were speedily to vanish.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Magi'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/m/magi.html.