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Everyone who knows the traditional story of Christmas has heard of the three magi who followed the star in the East and who traveled afar to worship at the manger wherein lay the baby Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.). These magi were not kings, but "wise ones," astrologers and priests of ancient Persia, philosophers of Zoroastrian wisdom, and their title has provided the root for the words "magic," "magician," and so forth. Such men were the councilors of the Eastern empires, the possessors of occult secrets that guided royalty.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, those who bore the title of magi were more likely to be men who had devoted their lives to the accumulation of occult wisdom and knowledge from the Kabbalah, the ancient Egyptians, the Arabs, and various pagan sources, and had thereby come under the scrutiny of the church and suspected of communicating with demons. Although these individuals valiantly clung to precious fragments of ancient lore and insisted that they were practitioners of good magic, the clergy saw few distinctions between the magi and the witches that the Inquisition sought to bring to trial for demonolatry and devil worship. It was not until the advent of the Renaissance that the magi and their forbidden knowledge began to gain a certain acceptance among the courts of Europe and the better educated members of the general populace.

Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties that the magi had with the orthodox clergy was their contention that angelic beings could be summoned to assist in the practice of white magick. There were seven major planetary spirits, or archangels, that the magi were interested in contacting: Raphael, Gabriel, Canael, Michael, Zadikel, Haniel, and Zaphkiel. One of the original sources of such instruction allegedly came from the great Egyptian magi and master of the occult, Hermes-Thoth, who described the revelation he had been given when he received a shimmering vision of a perfectly formed, colossal man of great beauty. Gently the being spoke to Hermes and identified itself as Pymander, the thought of the All-Powerful, who had come to give him strength because of his love of justice and his desire to seek the truth.

Pymander told Hermes that he might make a wish and it would be granted to him. Hermes-Thoth asked for a ray of the entity's divine knowledge. Pymander granted the wish, and Hermes was immediately inundated with wondrous visions, all beyond human comprehension and imagination. After the imagery had ceased, the blackness surrounding Hermes grew terrifying. A harsh and discordant voice boomed through the ether, creating a chaotic tempest of roaring winds and thunderous explosions. The mighty and terrible voice left Hermes filled with awe. Then from the All-Powerful came seven spirits who moved in seven circles; and in the circles were all the beings that composed the universe. The action of the seven spirits in their circles is called fate, and these circles themselves are enclosed in the divine Thought that permeates them eternally.

Hermes was given to comprehend that God had committed to the seven spirits the governing of the elements and the creation of their combined products. But because God created humans in his own image, and, pleased with this image, had given them power over terrestrial nature, God would grant the ability to command the seven spirits to those humans who could learn to know themselves, for they were and could come to conquer the duality of their earthly nature. They would truly become magi who learned to triumph over sensual temptations and to increase their mental faculties. God would give such adepts a measure of light in proportion to their merits, and they would be allowed to penetrate the most profound mysteries of nature. Assisting these magi in their work on Earth would be the seven superior spirits of the Egyptian system, acting as intermediaries between God and humans. These seven spirits were the same beings that the Brahmans of ancient India called the seven Devas, that in Persia were called the seven Amaschapands, that in Chaldea were called the seven Great Angels, that in Jewish Kabbalism are called the seven Archangels.

Later, various magi sought to reconcile the Christian hierarchy of celestial spirits with the traditions of Hermes by classifying the angels into three hierarchies, each subdivided into three orders:

  • The First Hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones
  • The Second Hierarchy: Dominions, Powers, and Authorities [Virtues]
  • The Third Hierarchy: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

These spirits are considered more perfect in essence than humans, and they are thought to be on Earth to help. They work out the pattern of ordeals that each human being must pass through, and they give an account of human actions to God after one passes from the physical plane. They cannot, however, interfere in any way with human free will, which always must make the choice between good and evil. In their capacity to help, though, these angels can be called upon to assist humans in various ways.

It is these archangels, then, that the magi evoke in their ceremonies. Accompanying the concept of the planetary spirits, or archangels, was something the Egyptians called "hekau" or word of power. The word of power, when spoken, released a vibration capable of evoking spirits. The most powerful hekau for calling up a specific spirit in ceremonial magic is that spirit's name.

"To name is to define," cried Count Cagliostro, a famous occultist of the eighteenth century. And, to the magi of the Middle Ages, to know the name of a spirit was to be able to command its presence, thereby making them true miracle workers.

Delving Deeper

Budge, E. A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. New York: Dover Books, 1971.

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Meyer, Marvin, and Richard Smith, eds. Ancient Christian Magic. San Francisco: HarperSanFran cisco, 1994.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Agrippa (14861535)

Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, author of The Occult Philosophy, (1531) one of the most influential works in Western occultism, was an accomplished physician, soldier, and occultist who traveled widely throughout Europe. More commonly known as Agrippa, the versatile magus envisioned magic as a blend of scientific knowledge, religious doctrine, and occult secrets. While his intellect brought him fame, wealth, and political favor, the turbulent times in which he practiced his craft also brought him condemnation, poverty, and prison. Agrippa became immersed in the supernatural and the occult and sought to develop a synthesis that would unite various magical systems and religious traditions with the Kabbalah.

While in Paris on a mission for the Emperor Maximilian I (14591519), Agrippa formed a secret society with a group of like-minded scholars and noblemen. The pact they vowed to uphold envisioned a reformed world, and they pledged to come to one another's assistance whenever needed. Later, when their efforts to restore one of their members to his former position of power failed, the group was disbanded.

A humanist and feminist ahead of his time, Agrippa exalted the position of women far above the prevailing sentiment of the early sixteenth century. In 1509, he composed The Nobility of the Female Sex and The Superiority of Women while lecturing at the university at Dole. Agrippa annoyed a number of clerics when he presented teachings from the Bible, the Church Fathers, and various works of philosophy to argue his praise of women. The paean to the fair sex was dedicated to Margaret of Austria, Maximilian's daughter, who was mistress of Dole and Burgundy, in the hope that he might obtain her patronage. Unfortunately for his cause, a Franciscan friar in Margaret's cabinet warned her that Agrippa was a heretic who taught the Kabbalah of the Jews and whose attentions were not to be trusted. Once the clergy saw that royal support would not be forthcoming for Agrippa, they also managed to squelch publication of his praise of women.

Discouraged by Margaret's rejection of his work, Agrippa went first to England, then to Cologne where he continued his lectures and his studies. In 1515, his military prowess while serving in Maximilian's campaign in Italy earned him a knighthood on the battlefield. Coincident with this honor, the Cardinal of St. Croix asked Agrippa to serve as representative to the council of Pope Leo X (14751521). Agrippa was pleased to do so, for he saw this as an opportunity to rectify matters with the church whose clergy he had offended in the past, but when the council was disbanded before he could state his defense, he abandoned both his military and ecclesiastical careers.

Agrippa returned to teaching, lecturing on Hermes Trismegistus at Turin and Pavia, and adding to his fame as a magus. In 1520, he left his position as a city official at Metz when he ran afoul of the inquisitor Savini from whom he rescued a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft. With the unforgiving Inquisition now keeping a close watch on his activities, Agrippa began practicing medicine in such cities as Cologne, Geneva, and Fribourg. In 1524, King Francis I (14941547) appointed him as personal physician to his mother, the Duchesse Louise of Savoy, and Agrippa was at last on a pension. Such security soon dissipated, however, when he rebuked the duchess for asking him to debase his talents by divining her future from the stars.

Agrippa continued his nomadic existence, moving from city to city, country to country. In 1529, he was summoned to provide counsel for Henry VIII of England (14911547), the chancellor of Germany, an Italian marquis, and Margaret of Austria, governor of the Netherlands. Twenty years after he had dedicated The Superiority of Women to her, Margaret finally granted her approval to the work and appointed Agrippa historiographer of her court.

It was at this time when destiny appeared at last to have smiled upon him that Agrippa confused follower and foe alike by publishing On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences (1529), which proclaimed that nothing was certain in either the arts or the sciences. The product of his disillusionment with the lack of material rewards that his scholarship and his alchemical practices had produced, Agrippa's work advised that the only reliable source to which humans might turn was religious faith. As if such preachments were not baffling enough coming from a leading occultist of the day, a scholar known throughout all of Europe as the great champion of alchemy and magic, Agrippa's Occult Philosophy, which had been written when he was a youth but had remained in manuscript form, was published about a year later. In this monumental work, Agrippa declared that magi were able to perform miracles through the occult wisdom revealed to them by supernatural beings. With one book recanting the occult beliefs of the other, but still declaring that all human endeavors were uncertain acts of vanity, Agrippa found himself once again devoid of a stable audience and relieved of his pension as an imperial historiographer. He was jailed in Brussels for one year for his inability to pay his debts, and upon his release he sought refuge at Grenoble in the home of M. Allard, Receiver General of the Provence. Agrippa died there in 1535.

Before he died, Agrippa was seen everywhere with his large black dog, Monsieur. Because of his reputation among the people as a black magician, it was widely believed among the townsfolk of Grenoble that Monsieur was Agrippa's familiar. After Agrippa's death, the large dog seemed to vanish mysteriously, thereby convincing people that the magus had been in league with Satan all along. Although a friend testified that he had often walked Monsieur for the scholar and that the large black canine was simply a dog, the townspeople persisted in their belief that they had often witnessed the magus Agrippa in the company of his demonic familiar.

Delving Deeper

Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: Capricorn Books, 1968.

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World: Europe 1100 to 1350. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. Cleve land, Ohio: World Books, 1961.

Meyer, Marvin, and Richard Smith, eds. Ancient Christian Magic. San Francisco: HarperSanFran cisco, 1994.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Count Allesandro Cagliostro (17431795)

Count Allesandro Cagliostro was widely known as the man who held the secret of the philosopher's stone, the alchemist who turned lowly metals into gold and in Strasburg produced alchemically a diamond which he presented to Cardinal Louis de Rohan. Cagliostro was said to have invented the "water of beauty," a virtual fountain of youth, and when the best doctors in Europe admitted their defeat in difficult cases, they summoned the count and his curative powers. Although most students of sorcery and magic regard Cagliostro as a charlatan, certain scholars of the occult still regard him as one of the greatest magi of all time.

By the time he was 14, Cagliostro (Peter Basalmo) was an assistant to an apothecary in Palermo, Italy, and had become an expert in the principles of chemistry and medicine. Driven to obtain less conventional knowledge, the teenager fell in with a group of vagabonds who were continually in trouble with the police. When he was 17, he had gained a reputation as one who could evoke the spirits of the dead, but he used this knowledge to fleece a wealthy citizen of Palermo and he fled to Messina, where he assumed the title and the identity of Count Cagliostro.

It was in Messina that the young man met the mysterious Althotas, a man of Asian appearance, dressed in caftan and robes, who upon their first encounter proceeded to reveal the events of Cagliostro's past. As they became better acquainted, Althotas said that he didn't believe in ordinary magic, but maintained that the physical laws were mutable and could be manipulated by the powers of mind. The two traveled together to Egypt where they visited the priests of many esoteric traditions and received much secret knowledge. From Egypt they went to Asia and began to pursue alchemical experiments.

When Althotas died on the island of Malta, Cagliostro returned to Italy with a considerable fortune accumulated from his work with various alchemical teachers. In 1770, when he was 26 years old, he met Lorenza Feliciani while in Rome, and he asked her to marry him. Lorenza's father was impressed by Cagliostro's apparent wealth and readily consented to the wedding. While some biographers believe his riches came from his successful alchemical experiments, others accuse the count of duping wealthy aristocrats out of their inheritances and of running disreputable gambling houses. His marriage to Lorenza is also clouded with charges of chicanery and deceit. Although most accounts depict her as an honest and good woman, she traveled throughout Europe and Great Britain with Cagliostro and appears to have been involved in his various schemes. By far the most important of Cagliostro's creations was the Egyptian Masonic rite, whose lodges admitted both sexes and whose main temple was presided over by the Grand Mistress Lorenza and the Grand Copt Cagliostro.

In the lodges ruled by the Grand Mistress and the Grand Copt, women were so emancipated that they were encouraged to remove all of their clothing to be initiated into the mysteries of nature. Those women who received the magnetic powers bestowed upon them by the Grand Copt were promised the ability to make full use of their own occult force. In the Egyptian Masonic lodge, physical happiness was equivalent to spiritual peace.

Wealthy members of European royalty sought his magical elixir of regeneration, and Count Cagliostro is said to have cured thousands of people with his lotions and potions during his reign in Europe as a master conjurer. Today, researchers can only guess if these illnesses were linked to hysteria or psychosomatic delusions.

Although the church had chosen to ignore accusations of deception and charlatanism directed against Cagliostro, it could not overlook the formation of another Masonic lodge. And when the Grand Copt sought to establish a lodge within the boundaries of the papal states, he was arrested on September 27, 1789, by order of the Holy Inquisition and imprisoned in the Castle of Saint Angelo. Inquisitors examined Cagliostro for 18 months, and he was condemned to death on April 7, 1791. However, his sentence was commuted to perpetual imprisonment in the Castle of Saint Angelo. Unable to accept such a fate, Cagliostro attempted to escape. He was placed in solitary confinement in a cistern in the Castle of San Leo near Montefeltro where he suffered with little food, air, or movement. Sometime in 1795, the governor took pity on the prisoner and had him removed to a cell on ground level. It was here, around March 6, the unhappy magi died. Although the records are incomplete, it is thought that his wife, Lorenza, who had been sentenced to the Convent of St. Appolonia, a penitentiary for women in Rome, died in 1794.

Delving Deeper

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Aleister Crowley (18751947)

Aleister Crowley (Edward Alexander Crowley) is one of the most controversial figures in the annals of modern occultism. Along with the Freudians, Crowley believed that most of humankind's ills were caused by inhibition of the sexual impulses. Consequently, much of Crowley's magick drew its impetus from the release of psychic energy through sexual activity, including homosexuality and other practices that earned for Crowley the distinction of being named one of the most sinister figures of modern times. In his day, and for some time

afterward, the name of Aleister Crowley was almost synonymous with evil. Crowley's own mother, a fundamentalist Christian, dubbed him "The Great Beast 666," a diabolical image drawn from the Book of Revelation.

In Cairo, Egypt, in 1904 a being that called itself "Aiwass" suddenly took possession of Crowley's wife after she had uttered something to the effect that "they" wished to communicate with him. At the time, they were standing before the Stele of Revealing in the Cairo Museum. There followed three days of dictation by Aiwass to Crowley. The text of this dictation forms The Book of the Law (1904), which was supposed to herald the coming of the Age of Horus, the child.

Crowley won the distinction of being the "wickedest man in the world" while he was conducting an institution he called the Sacred Abbey of Thelema. Located on the island of Sicily, the abbey was dedicated to the practice of magic, uninhibited sex accompanied by liberal use of drugs, and worship of ancient Gnostic deities. Ritual intercourse, both hetero and homosexual in nature, was the chief form of worship.

Drawing upon ancient Gnostic magical texts, Crowley added to an old Graeco-Egyptian text and performed the rite of Liber samekh, celebrating sexual release and the passage of the spirit from a lower level of consciousness to a higher one. Crowley added his own contributions to the original Gnostic text, some of which were "High Supernatural Black Magic" and "Intercourse with the Demon." According to Crowley the ritual was the one to be employed by the Beast 666 for the attainment of knowledge and conversation with his holy guardian angel. In The Black Arts (1968) Richard Cavendish comments on the Liber samekh: "To know the angel and have intercourse with the demon . . . means to summon up and liberate the forces of the magician's unconscious. The performance of the ritual is accompanied bythe mounting frenzy with which the barbarous names of power are chantedending in a climax which is both physical and psychological and in which the magician's innermost powers are unleashed."

Crowley's life and career are illustrations of the two possibilities inherent in experimenting with altered states of consciousness. Whatever else might be said about him, Crowley was a powerful magician and a master of the art of ritual. Crowley's excesses and eventual decline probably were results of his reliance upon narcotics. His philosophy of life was summed up in an analysis by journalist Tom Driberg in the days when Crowley was beginning to be called the wickedest man in the world: "His basic commandment was 'Do what thou wilt.' Since his training in serious, formal magick (as he spelt it) was rigorous, he did not mean by this 'Follow each casual impulse.' He meant 'Discover your own true will and do it.' In other words, 'Know yourself and be yourself.'"

Before his death Crowley was rumored to have started a group on the American West Coast that included the study and practice of alchemy. The deaths of several persons as the results of mysterious explosions were connected with this practice; but if a Crowley cult ever existed, it had all but vanished within a few years after his death.

Delving Deeper

Aleister Crowley Foundation. [Online]

Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: Capricorn Books, 1968.

Mannix, Daniel P. The Beast. New York: Ballantine Books, 1959.

Rhodes, H. T. F. The Satanic Mass. London: Arrow Books, 1965.

John Dee (15271608)

Although Dr. John Dee's reputation as a black magician may be undeserved, he seems destined to remain so categorized in the history of magic and the occult. Dee came from a family of means, and he was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge, when he was only 15. His application to his studies was intense, and he soon distinguished himself as a scholar. He slept only four hours per night, ate a light meal, participated in various forms of recreation for two hours, then used the remaining 18 hours for study.

When he left Cambridge, he traveled to Holland to study with Mercator (15121594) and other learned men of his day. Returning home, he was made a fellow of Trinity College, and he gained a wide reputation as an astronomer.

Dee left England again soon after acquiring fame as an astrologer and an astronomer, and he taught at many European universities. In 1551, he was back in England and was received by King Edward VI (15371553), who awarded him a pension of 100 crowns per annum. This stipend Dee later exchanged for a rectory at Upton-upon-Severn.

During Queen Mary I's (15161558) reign (155358), Dee was accused of trying to kill her by "enchantments." He was seized, confined, and tried. After a long trial that lasted until 1555, he was at last acquitted.

When Elizabeth I (15331603) ascended to the throne in 1558, she consulted with Dee as to which day the stars deemed the most propitious hours for her coronation. Pleased with his pronouncements, she continued to grant him the favor of her attention, and she made many promises of prefermentnone of which were kept. Disillusioned by the intrigues of the English Royal Court, Dee left the country for Holland. In 1564 while residing in Antwerp, Dee published his greatest work, Monas Hieroglyphica. After he had presented a copy to the Emperor Maximilian II (15271576), Dee returned to England to produce more learned occult volumes.

In 1571, while residing once again on the Continent, Dee fell ill. When Elizabeth heard of it, she sent two of her best physicians to attend to him. The queen also conveyed additional proofs of her high regard for him and made further promises. When he recovered, Dee returned to England and settled at Mortlake in Surrey. Here he accumulated an extensive library of works on occultism and allied subjects, prompting his neighbors to decree that he was in league with the devil. While Dee insisted that he did not practice black magic, it seemed apparent that he knew a great deal about the subject.

After Elizabeth's death, James I (1566 1625) refused to extend patronage to Dee because of his troubled reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts. Dee returned to Mortlake, where he died in 1608 in a state of neglect and poverty. Dr. John Dee's globes, magic stone, and other items of his occult practices may be seen today in the British Museum.

Delving Deeper

Caron, M., and S. Hutin. The Alchemists. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Dr. Faust (c. 14801540)

Although many assume that Dr. Faust was a fictional character created by Christopher Marlowe (15641593) for his famous play, The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus (1589), and utilized again later by Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) for his masterwork Faust (1808), there actually was a magician named Georg Faust, who was born in Knittlingen, Wurttenburg, Germany, around 1480. Faust was a traveling magician, visiting town after town, performing feats of legerdemain, telling fortunes, and professing to have supernatural powers. While some contemporary scholars were impressed with his alleged abilities, others branded him as nothing more than an unscrupulous charlatan. At some point, Georg Faust became confused with an academic named Johann Faust, and he was mistakenly credited with many of the learned professor's scholastic achievements.

When Georg Faust died around 1540, he had become such a legendary magician in Germany that in 1558 Johann Speiss published a book entitled The History of Dr. Johann Faust, which listed his many feats and adventures. Speiss included his interpretation of how Faust had become a master magician by selling his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of limitless knowledge and power.

Over the course of time, the Faust story has been the subject of numerous plays, operas, and films. The first cinematic production of the ageless tale of Dr. Faust selling his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge was a French film in 1905. The noted German actor Emil Jannings played the role in a classic version of the story in 1926, and British actor Richard Burton enacted Dr. Faustus in 1968.

Delving Deeper

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Marie Laveau (c. 17941881)

Marie Laveau succeeded Sanite Dede as the voodoo queen (high priestess) of New Orleans sometime around 1830. No one in the hierarchy of voodoo priests and priestesses disputed Laveau's rise to that position, for it was widely known that she was gifted with powers of sorcery and the ability to fashion charms of unfailing efficacy.

Laveau was a Creole freewoman, and by profession a hair dresser. Her prestige among the white establishment was assured when the son of a wealthy New Orleans merchant was arrested for a crime of which he was innocent, although there was much false evidence against him. His father appealed to the voodoo high priestess to put a spell on the judge to cause him to find the young man not guilty.

Laveau took three Guinea peppers and placed them in her mouth before she went to the cathedral to pray. Although she was the recognized voodoo priestess of New Orleans, she did not find her beliefs incompatible with Catholicism and Christian charity, and she attended Mass daily. On that particular day, she knelt at the altar for several hours, praying for the young man to be found innocent. Then, later, by a ruse, she managed to enter the courtroom and place the peppers under the judge's seat. The judge found the prisoner not guilty, and Marie Laveau was handsomely rewarded by the merchant.

Laveau greatly popularized voodoo by revising some of the rituals until they became her unique mixture of West Indian and African tribal religions and Roman Catholicism. She invited politicians and police officials to the public ceremonies that she conducted on the banks of Bayou St. John on the night of June 23, St. John's Eve. On other occasions, she would hold voodoo rituals on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and at her cottage, Maison Blanche. Hundreds of the most prominent families in New Orleans would be present at these public celebrations of voodoo, hoping to get a glimpse of Marie Laveau herself dancing with her large snake, Zombi, draped over her shoulders. For the white onlookers, the music and the dance provided exciting entertainment. For Marie Laveau's fellow worshippers, the rites were spiritual celebrations, and even Zombi was an agent of great voodoo powers. On other occasions in private places, the high priestess celebrated the authentic rites of voodoo for her devoted congregation, far from the critical eyes of the white establishment and clergy.

For many years, legend had it that Marie Laveau had discovered the secrets of immortality and that she lived to be nearly 200 years old. Some speak in hushed whispers that she is still alive, conducting voodoo rituals in the secret shadows of New Orleans. Such a legend quite likely began when Laveau cleverly passed the position of high priestess to her daughter, who greatly resembled her, at a strategic time when she had just begun to age. Laveau retired from public appearances to continue to conduct the intricate network of spies and informants she had built up while her daughter assumed the public persona of Marie Laveau, voodoo queen of New Orleans. Because she now appeared ageless and could sometimes be seen in more than one place at a time, her power and mystery grew ever stronger among her voodoo worshippers and the elite white community, as well. As far as it can be determined, Marie Laveau died in New Orleans on June 15, 1881.

Delving Deeper

Arbury, David. "Marie Laveau." Voodoo Dreams. [Online] 3 March 2002.

Hollerman, Joe. "Mysterious, Spooky, and Sometimes Even a Little Scary." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb ruary 7, 2002. [Online] 3 March 2002.

"Marie Laveau." Welcome to the Voodoo Museum. [Online] 3 March 2002.

Metraux, Alfred. Voodoo. New York: Oxford Univer sity Press, 1959.

Steiger, Brad, and John Pendragon. The Weird, the Wild, & the Wicked. New York: Pyramid Books, 1969.

Eliphas Levi (c. 18101875)

Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) was born in France about 1810, the son of a shoemaker. His parents soon decided that he should be educated for the life of a parish priest. Constant became a deacon, took a vow of celibacy, and seemed destined for a quiet life in the clergy. But then his life suddenly assumed a different course when he upset members of the church hierarchy for espousing doctrines quite contrary to those endorsed by the papacy. For one thing, Father Constant felt that somewhere along the ages the theologians of the church had confused Lucifer, the bearer of light, with Satan, the Prince of Darkness, and had judged him unfairly. Such a liberal attitude to the angel who led the revolt in heaven did not sit at all well with his superiors, and Father Constant was expelled from the church.

For many years after his expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church, Father Constant appears to have traveled throughout France and other European nations rather anonymously, and little is known of those years in which he lived in obscurity, collecting his thoughts, forming his political and spiritual philosophies. In 1839, he published a pamphlet entitled The Gospel of Liberty, which, because of its socialistic leanings, earned him six months in prison in Paris.

Once he served his term in prison, he put aside his vow of celibacy and married a 16-year-old girl, whose parents soon had the union annulled. It was after his painful separation from his wife that Alphonse Louis Constant assumed the identity of Eliphas Levi and began to devote his time to an intensive study of alchemy and the occult. Often his focus was on the Kabbalah and the tarot, believing firmly that the ancient cards depicted a concise summary of all the revelations that had come down to humankind through the ages.

Levi saw in the symbolism of the tarot cards the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the mysteries of Solomon, and the truths hidden in the apocryphal text of the Book of Enoch and the scrolls of Hermes Trismesgistus. To do a spread of the tarot cards, in Levi's opinion, was to establish communication with the spirit world. To seek within the tarot might bring the serious magician a clue to the manipulation of the natural and divine energy that permeated all of nature. The existence of such a force, Eliphas Levi believed, was to discover the Great Arcanum of Practical Magick.

His Doctrine of Transcendental Magic was published in 1855, followed by Rituals of Transcendental Magic in 1856. Other works of Eliphas Levi include The Key of the Grand Mysteries (1861) and The Science of the Spirits (1865). Eliphas Levi died in 1875, esteemed by many and hailed as the last of the alchemists. Others have criticized certain of his writings by suggesting that his imagination may have in some instances surpassed his actual knowledge of the arcane.

Delving Deeper

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Simon Magus (c. first century)

Several cults with widely differing beliefs all bearing the label of "Gnostic" arose in the first century, very strongly competing with the advent of Christianity. Many of the Gnostic sects blended elements of Christianity with the Eleusianian mysteries, combining them with Indian, Egyptian, and Babylonian magic, and bringing in aspects of the Jewish Kabbalah as well.

The first Gnostic of importance was Simon Magus, a Samarian sorcerer, a contemporary of the apostles, who was converted to Christianity by Philip. Although he had been a highly respected magus, Simon continued to be impressed by the remarkable powers of the apostles and their ability to heal and to manifest miracles. When he saw Peter and John baptizing people by the laying on of hands, he asked that he might be taught the power of transferring the Holy Spirit to others. Eagerly, Simon offered to pay the apostles a fee to teach him how to manifest the Holy Spirit. Peter strongly rebuked him for attempting to buy this profound spiritual gift (Acts 8:924). Simon accepted the rebuke and asked Peter to pray for his forgiveness. The term "simony" to describe the purchasing of ecclesiastic blessings has come down through the ages.

Simon apparently brooded over his inability to acquire the Holy Spirit from the apostles, and, according to legend, he fell back on his old ways of sorcery and began to traffic once again with demons. To prove his power, Simon announced to all of Rome that he would fly into the sky and ascend to the heavens, just as Jesus had done. Remarkably, Simon, supported by demons, began to fly upward. Peter, however, fearful that many innocents would be attracted to this false prophet, prayed that God would end Simon's flight. Frightened away by the apostle's prayers, the demons fled the artificial wings supporting Simon, and the magus crashed to the ground, breaking both legs.

The story of Simon Magus fueled the beliefs of generations of magi and alchemists that there was a secret oral tradition that had been passed down from Jesus that had much greater power and authority than the scriptures and epistles offered by the orthodox teachers of Christianity. The Gnostics, like the initiates of the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, sought direct experience with the divine and they believed that this communion could be achieved by uttering secret words of wisdom that God had granted to specially enlightened teachers.

Delving Deeper

Meyer, Marvin, and Richard Smith, eds. Ancient Christian Magic. San Francisco: HarperSanFran cisco, 1994.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Pico della Mirandola (14631494)

Born in 1463 in Mirandola castle, near Modena, Italy, Pico, the Count of Mirandola, was one of those precocious young geniuses who were gifted with a precise memory, a facility for language, and a talent for philosophy, mathematics, and theology. Early in his studies, Mirandola came to believe that the future could be predicted through a practiced interpretation of dreams, communication with benevolent spirits, and a careful analysis of the intestines of birds. He took a great deal of inspiration from the ancient Chaldean oracles and the old mystery schools of Orpheus and Eleusis, and he was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Kabbalah. For centuries, the Kabbalah had remained a mysterious esoteric philosophy that had been developed within the larger framework of the Jewish religion. Jealously guarded by various rabbis, the teachings of the Kabbalah remained largely unknown by medieval Christians until such magicians/scholars as Pico Mirandola brought the ancient mystery within the reach of European alchemists and magi by translating the Hebrew into Latin.

When he was 24, Mirandola became confident that he could prove the divinity of Christ through certain doctrines of the Kabbalah and esoteric magic, and armed with 900 theses for public debate on the matter, he set out for Rome. The young magician's proofs were not accepted warmly by the church, however, relying as they did upon such elements as nature spirits, pagan gods, and Jewish mysticism. Pope Innocent VIII (14321492), ever on the alert for the presence of witches in whatever disguise they may present themselves, appointed a commission to examine

Count Mirandola's theses for any taint of heresy. Although his percentage of acceptable theses was quite high, the papal commission managed to discover four of Mirandola's arguments to be greatly heretical and another nine to be less so, but erroneous in their concepts.

In 1487, Pico Mirandola offered a defense of those 13 theses that had been judged heretical and accused those in the papal commission who had condemned them as being themselves heretics. They could hardly be considered worthy of judging him, he derided them, for they were essentially ignorant men who couldn't even speak or write acceptable Latin, the official language of the church.

Mirandola's intellectual snobbery was illadvised, for he had offended bishops with power, two of whom had influence with the Inquisition. Mirandola fled Italy, but he was arrested in France and placed in a dungeon to await his trial for heresy. It was only through the intervention of such substantial members of the artistocracy as Lorenzo de Medici that he was allowed to return to Florence and be spared the certain tortures and likely death sentence at the hands of the inquisitors.

Innocent VIII remained unforgiving; but in 1493, one year before Pico Mirandola's death at the age of 31, Alexander VI (14311503) accepted his apology and removed at last the threat from the Inquisition that had pursued the young count for six years.

Delving Deeper

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Pythagoras (c. 580c. 500 b.c.e.)

Pythagoras, one of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of the sixth century b.c.e., is said to have traveled the known world of his time, accumulating and absorbing wisdom and knowledge. According to the legends surrounding his life, he was taught by Zoroaster (c. 628c. 551 b.c.e.), the Persian prophet, and the Brahmans of India; and he initiated into the Orphic, Egyptian, Judaic, Chaldean, and many other mystery schools.

Pythagoras is among those individuals given the status of becoming a myth in his own lifetime. The philosopher was said to have been born of the virgin Parthenis and fathered by the god Apollo. Pythagoras' human father, Mnesarchus, a ring merchant from Samos, and his mother consulted the Delphic Oracle and were told that he would be born in Sidon in Phoenicia and that he would produce works and wonders that would benefit all humankind. Wishing to please the gods, Mnesarchus demanded that his wife change her name from Parthenis to Pythasis, in order to honor the seeress at Delphi. When it was time for the child to be born, Mnesarchus devised "Pythagoras" to be a name in which each of the specially arranged letters held an individual sacred meaning.

After traveling the known world, Pythagoras formed his own school at Crotona in southern Italy. An unyielding taskmaster, he accepted only those students whom he assessed as already having established personal regimens of self-discipline. To further stress the seriousness of his study program, Pythagoras lectured while standing behind a curtain, thereby denying all personal contact with his students until they had achieved progress on a ladder of initiatory degrees that allowed them to reach the higher grades. While separated from them by the curtain, Pythagoras lectured his students on the basic principles of music, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.

Pythagoras called his disciples mathematicians, for he believed that the higher teachings began with the study of numbers. From his perspective, he had fashioned a rational theology. He believed the science of numbers lay in the living forces of divine faculties in action in the world, in universal macrocosm, and in the earthly microcosm of the human being. Numbers were transcendent entities, living virtues of the supreme "One," God, the source of universal harmony.

Devoted to his studies, his travels, and his school, Pythagoras did not marry until he was about 60. The young woman had been one of his disciples, and she bore him seven children. The legendary philosopher died when a rejected student led an angry mob against the school and burned down the house where Pythagoras and 40 students were gathered. Some accounts state that Pythagoras died in the fire; others have it that he died of grief, sorrowing over how difficult a task it was to elevate humanity.

Delving Deeper

Schure, Edouard. The Great Initiates. Translated by Gloria Rasberry. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Count Saint-Germain

Frederick the Great (17121786) of Prussia called the Count of Saint-Germain the man who could not die, for according to the count, he had already lived 2,000 years by partaking of his discovery of a regenerative liquid that could prolong human life indefinitely.

Saint-Germain captivated the courts of Europe in the eighteenth century. He would refer to a pleasant chat with the Queen of Sheba and relay amusing anecdotes of Babylonian court gossip. He would speak with reverence of the miraculous event that he had witnessed at the marriage feast at Cana when the young rabbi Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) turned water into wine. Saint-Germain spoke and wrote Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, English, Italian, Portugese, and Spanish. He was also a talented painter and an accomplished virtuoso on the harpsichord and violin. The count was also a successful alchemist, and it was widely rumored that he had succeeded in transforming base metals into gold. It was believed that he could remove flaws from diamonds, and in this way improved one of the gems of King Louis XV (17101774). His chemical training far surpassed that of his contemporaries of the eighteenth century. His skill at mixing pigments was considered extraordinary, and famous painters begged in vain for the count to reveal his formulas.

It was also claimed by many that Saint-Germain could render himself invisiblea remarkable accomplishment said to have been often witnessed. He was also a proficient hypnotist and could fall at will into a state of self-hypnosis. Members of Europe's royal courts also heard him speak often of an invention that would occur in the next century and which would unite people of all lands. He called it a steamboat, and he implied that it would be he who would be on hand in the future to help create the vessel.

Who was the Count of Saint-Germain and what was his true place of origin? The mystery has never been solved, and he remains one of history's most intriguing enigmas. Some scholars have conjected that the man was a clever spy on a secret mission who had deliberately shrouded his past with mystery. Why, these scholars ask, would the skeptical Prussian King Frederick promote such fantastic tales of the count unless he had some reason to do so?

Saint-Germain seems to betray himself as a diplomat with his astounding knowledge of the political past. Having gained access to secret court files, he could have studied European history methodically and with earnest purpose. His wide range of claimed artistic talents may have been amateurish, but wildly exaggerated by those who would stand to gain by the count's missions.

Old records show that Saint-Germain died in the arms of two chambermaids at the court of the Landgrave of Hessen-Cassel, a fervent alchemist. But in spite of his supposed death, there are many recorded instances of the reappearance of the count. Many believe that he only feigned death, just as he had done many times before, so that he could go on sipping of his elixir of life and observing world events from a more quiet perspective.

After the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, Marie Antoinette received a letter of warning that was allegedly signed by the Count of Saint-Germain. Madame Adhemar, Marie Antoinette's confident, kept a rendezvous with the count in a chapel. Saint-Germain, then supposedly dead for five years, told her that he had done everything that he could to prevent the Revolution, but that the great magician Cagliostro, a fervent antimonarchist, had taken control of the events. It was further said that the Count of Saint-Germain showed himself many times during the French Revolution. He was said to have been observed often near the guillotine, sadly shaking his head at the bloody work initiated by his pupil, Cagliostro.

Today, many occult groups claim the Count of Saint-Germain as their spirit guide, and he remains popular as a spiritual mentor from beyond. Others maintain that the Count of Saint-Germain still lives, periodically feigning death in whatever guise he continues to walk the earth, so that he might on occasion offer his counsel to those men and women in high political places.

Delving Deeper

De Givry, Emile Grillot. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy. Translated by J. Courtenay Locke. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Skinner, Doug. "The Immortal Count." Fortean Times, June 2001, 4044.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


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MAGI . The Greek word magos (Latin magus ), borrowed from Old Persian magu-, has two distinct meanings. First, it refers to a Zoroastrian priest and usually has a neutral or positive meaning. Second, it describes someone who engages in private types of ritual with the intent to influence the world or the course of history, for which most languages only have words with negative overtones (magician, wizard, and sorcerer). Although this second meaning has had a lasting impact on the common vocabulary of modern Western languages (in the word magic and its derivatives), the fact that the magi originally were a priestly class among the Persians was rarely forgotten in Greco-Roman antiquity.

The Magi in Zoroastrianism

The Old Persian word magu- is of uncertain etymology and meaning. Its Avestan counterpart is only found once in the Avesta in a difficult passage (Yasna 65.7), where it supposedly means "member of a tribe." It has been suggested that this is in fact the original meaning of the word and that it came to be used in western Iran in the meaning "member of the (priestly) tribe" and hence "priest," but this is uncertain. It can be concluded that the word was not a term used for "priest" by the eastern Iranian Zoroastrians, who were responsible for the composition of the Avesta.

The word magu-, "priest," is well attested in western Iran from the Achaemenid period (550330 bce) onward. It is found in the royal Old Persian inscriptions and in administrative documents (in Elamite) found in Persepolis. Magu- is also well attested in contemporary non-Iranian sources, chiefly in Greek. This wide range of sources notwithstanding, it is difficult to specify what these priests really were or did. In the Old Persian inscriptions, the word is only used in the context of Darius's accession to power, which revolved around his struggle against the usurper Gaumata, who is consistently described as a magus. The relevance of this is unclear. Herodotos follows Darius's version of the story, but both in the Iranian and in the Greek materials the fact that the usurper king was a magus is not given much more thought. One piece of evidence from Herodotos has often been adduced as a possible solution to this problem: he mentions magi as a name of one of the six tribes of the Medes (Histories 1.101). This passage has been invoked many times to suggest that the magi were "originally" a priestly clan among the Medes, and this suggestion has opened the floodgates for a large number of speculations, most of which attribute many of the aspects of Zoroastrianism that seemed difficult to understand to the pernicious influence of these Median magi. This simple trick allowed scholars to shape for themselves a pristine Zoroastrian theology, going back to the prophet Zarathushtra, which had been perverted by later generations and especially by the Median magi. However, Herodotos's testimony is much too weak to support this type of reconstruction.

Some of the characteristics Herodotos attributes to the magi moreover are typical of Zoroastrianism. He writes that most of the Persians bury their dead, but not the magi: they leave the body unburied, to be eaten by dogs and birds (Histories 1.140). In the same passage Herodotos records that the magi kill as many ants, snakes, and other flying and creeping animals as they can. These are both characteristic elements of evolved Zoroastrianism and strongly suggest that the information Herodotos had assembled on the magi concerned Zoroastrian priests, even though Herodotus never mentions Zoroaster and pays little attention to the religious beliefs of the Persians. In Herodotos's Histories, the magi perform a variety of functions, which are all compatible with functions performed by Zoroastrian priests known from other sources. The magi accompany the Persian armies, performing libations and sacrifices. Their presence is required for every sacrifice, because they have to sing a special hymn, they interpret signs, dreams, and portents, and they also have functions that seem to be entirely unconnected with the religion, functioning as court officials and in administrative and legal positions.

Many of these aspects return time and again in Greek literature on the magi. A few generations after Herodotos, two important extra functions came to be attached to the magi: their role in Persian education and their role as theologians who spread and interpreted the ideas of Zoroaster. The evidence from the large number of Greek sources available has been shown to be fully compatible with what can be reconstructed of priestly duties from Iranian sources.

For the Achaemenid period the most important evidence comes from the Elamite Persepolis tablets, chiefly administrative documents recording the transfer of amounts of wine, grain, and other foodstuffs, frequently for services rendered. The magi occur numerous times in these texts as specialists in ritual (for a large number of gods) and in other, not clearly religious, functions. This situation is similar to the evidence from the Greek sources and is in fact typical for the later history of the magi.

Most of the evidence for that later history comes from the Sassanian period (224642 ce). In post-Sassanian Zoroastrian sources (the Pahlavi books), the word mogh, the Middle Persian descendant of Old Persian magu-, is hardly ever attested. Instead of this generic word, more specific titles are always given that reflect a hierarchy and a specialization of functions. Even though the high priestly title mowbed certainly contains the word (it is derived from an unattested *magupati-, "leader of the magi"), the generic title became unpopular among the Zoroastrians of Iran in the early centuries after the Arab conquests. Since many reconstructions of Sassanian history are based on sources from those later periods, the existence of the word in Sassanian Iran has sometimes been obscured. It is, however, not only frequently found in non-Iranian Sassanian sources (Syriac, Armenian, Greek) but also well attested on the most reliable Iranian sources from the period itself, namely personal seals. In fact the word mogh (written mgw ) is one of the most common words on Sassanian seals and bullae. The word also had a long and distinguished career in Islamic Persian poetry, which shows that it had not disappeared from the common speech of the Persians. The question therefore arises why the Zoroastrians who formulated their tradition in the ninth century, the authors of the Pahlavi books, wanted to get rid of it; so far no reasonable hypothesis has been suggested for this problem. The only suggestion that makes sense is that the Arabic word majūs (borrowed from Syriac) was used not just to refer to Persian priests but to Zoroastrians in general and that the term came to be felt to be misleading for those who wanted to distinguish themselves as members of the priestly class.

The duties of Zoroastrian priests in the Sassanian period were varied. Apart from ritual and theology, magi also occupied themselves with administrative work in general and legal affairs in particular. Sassanian society is often depicted as a static society, in which the social classes (priests, warriors, and others) could not and did not intermingle. While it is generally acknowledged nowadays that that image does not give an accurate picture of Sassanian society (it is based largely on descriptions of the "ideal" organization of a Zoroastrian society), it is true that the priesthood and the military apparatus had separate hierarchies with representatives spread all over the empire. The extant evidence is not sufficient to understand the whole system, but it seems that a priestly hierarchy (which was never stable in the Sassanian Empire but subject to continuing modifications) was in place already in the third century ce. Its backbone was and remained the network of fire-temples that covered the whole empire and was one of the most important economic factors of Sassanian Iran. Priests thus controlled vast sums of money (and also land, slaves, and goods) that had been donated to the temples as pious gifts or deposited temporarily. Associated with these fire-temples, in all likelihood, were priestly schools (hērbedestān ), where future priests were educated and where lay Zoroastrians received religious instruction.

Apart from their evident religious functions in theology and ritual, priests were found at court, as advisers to the king, and as interpreters of signs and dreams. They are also, as already mentioned, well represented in functions now defined as purely secular: the administration of the empire and the judiciary. Evidence for priests in these functions comes from seals and legal texts but also in significant quantities from Christian literature, chiefly in Syriac and Armenian, where the magi are always represented as the chief imperial force attempting to stem the tide of conversion to Christianity by trying and executing Zoroastrian apostates.

With the Arab invasions of the seventh century and the slow process of Islamization of Iran, the priesthood underwent dramatic changes. The first to disappear almost immediately were the court priests and the priests in secular offices. The evidence for priestly functions from the ninth century still shows a great variety in functions, but eventually a simple system replaced the earlier hierarchy. Among the Parsi Zoroastrians there are basically three priestly titles: the ervad (Middle Persian hērbed, "priestly teacher") is a priest in minor orders, the mobed is a fully ordained priest, and the dastur (Middle Persian dastwar, "someone in authority") is a priest of the highest rank associated with the most prestigious type of fire-temple. In modern Zoroastrianism, priesthood is hereditary. The question whether it has always been strictly hereditary is difficult to answer, but it is likely that it was. There is no evidence to suggest that priesthood became hereditary only in a later period of the religion.

Their administrative business aside, it is evident that the core of priestly duties consisted of ritual, theology, and the transmission of Zoroastrian literature. The latter function is critical for the first two mentioned. Almost all Zoroastrian literature from the premodern period that survived is priestly literature. This consists of several distinct collections. The Avesta, in its own language, chiefly consists of ritual texts. Most nonritual texts in Avestan have been lost, but there is some information on their contents from summaries in Middle Persian. The second important part of Zoroastrian priestly literature consists of exegetical translations of the Avestan texts. These are collectively known as Zand (a word presumably meaning "knowledge"). Far from being only a translation of Avestan texts, the Zand texts are interspersed with explanatory notes and exegetical discussions. The third part of Zoroastrian priestly literature consists of theological, historical, and other works that are based on the Zand. The fourth part, finally, are priestly compendia and answers to questions posed by members of the community. The latter two categories are clearly part of the priestly tradition from a period when writing had come to be accepted: they are written compositions. This is not the case with the first two collections. For a variety of reasons, there are signs that writing came to be used for the transmission of religious texts only late in the development of Zoroastrianism. The evidence is strongest for the Avesta itself, for a special alphabet was designed for it, covering all the nuances of priestly pronunciation of the holy texts in ritual, that cannot have originated before the fourth or even the fifth century ce. Even after the invention of this alphabet, it seems that the oral transmission of the holy texts and their commentaries continued as the normal procedure. Since priests had to use both hands in the rituals they performed, they could not hold a book and had no use for it in most rituals.

Before the fourth century ce the transmission of religious knowledge was an exclusively oral process. Since the Avesta was composed in an eastern Iranian language but has been preserved among western Iranian priests, it is likely that the texts of the Avesta were memorized word-by-word by the western Iranian priests from a very early period (i.e., the sixth century bce) and that the corpus of the Avesta thus became fixed. To facilitate comprehension of the texts, they were provided with a translation in the local language, which was transmitted alongside the Avestan texts. This translation grew in size considerably over time with the addition of glosses and learned comments. The amount of texts thus orally transmitted was large, and there are clear signs of specialization to make this oral transmission possible. First, the texts were divided over numerous specialists who memorized part of the sacred literature. A further development, evident from later sources, divided the priesthood into two different classes: those whose chief responsibility was the performance of rituals and those whose responsibility lay in education and theology. Ritual priests memorized the Avestan texts with their accompanying rituals, and teacher-priests memorized the Avestan texts with their commentaries. The latter class of priests was therefore unsuited for the performance of many rituals, but it is this class that was responsible for the development of Zoroastrian theology.

The main evidence for this theology in Iran itself comes from the Sassanian and Islamic periods, but the evidence from Greek literature shows much earlier traces of recognizably Zoroastrian theologies attributed to (Zoroaster and) the magi. Since the majority of Avestan texts have been lost, a firm chronology of the development of Zoroastrian ideas is not possible. There are many different versions of the crucial Zoroastrian story of the creation of the world and the mixture of good and evil in it and also of ideas about how history will come to an end in the perfection of creation and the separation of evil from good. This seems to support the idea that a systematic view of Zoroastrian theology was developed in priestly circles on the basis of a large number of selected passages from Avesta and Zand. The early attestation of systematic views on this subject in Greek literature moreover shows that a priestly synthesis was reached comparatively early in the development of the tradition. As one would expect, it was constantly refined and adapted to new social, political, and cultural settings. In addition to a variety that arose in the course of history, one would expect different views to have been propounded in different regions of the Iranian world, in different priestly schools, and in different social settings. Evidently the requirements of the Sassanian court and large urban centers, where all subjects of learning and philosophy from Iran and the rest of the world were pursued, were different from those in rural parts of the empire.

This may explain, for instance, the matter of Zurvanism. Some priests held that the good and the evil spirits had been born from a primal deity, Zurvan, the god of time. This idea was based on the exegesis of difficult passages from the Avesta and it is attested chiefly in Armenian, Syriac, and Greek sources. It is almost entirely absent from Zoroastrian texts. Scholars have often seen a willful excision of this theology from Zoroastrian literature and interpreted this as a sign of a fierce sectarian struggle, for which there is, however, no evidence. If one assumes that Zurvanite ideas, which show a much stronger influence of Greek philosophy than most Zoroastrian texts, were characteristic of the type of theology developed in court circles, then their absence from most Zoroastrian texts, which derive from a single priestly family in southwestern Iran, is no longer surprising.

The Image of the Magi in the Ancient World

As noted above, important evidence for the activities of the magi is in Greek and Latin literature. The word magos was borrowed in an early stage of contact between Iranians and Greeks, presumably in the sixth century bce. From the early sources onward the word has the double meaning of "Persian priest" and "magician." As Persian priests the magi appear chiefly as the followers of Zoroaster, heritors of an old tradition of wisdom. Their chief use in many discussions is to illustrate the philosophical position of positing two primal, eternal realities (good and evil), in other words, dualism.

In many more passages, however, magi appear as magicians. In an early development, Greeks started applying the term to non-Persians as well, and eventually Greek individuals began to apply it to themselves. The Persian magi were thought to have special powers in visiting the realm of the dead, in guiding souls to the otherworld, or evoking the spirits of the dead. They excelled in magic, using herbs, stones, and spells for their purposes, and they developed a reputation for astrological knowledge and interests. It should be noted that in this context the word is not always used in a negative sense. Even Christian literature shows a certain ambivalence in this respect. The despised figure of Simon Magus shows the negative use of the term, whereas the Magi who first recognized the newborn king of the Jews (Mt. 2:112) show the lasting impact of the positive reputation of these "Persian" wise men in the realms of astrology and divination. In general, however, the Western traditions on the magi are a Western invention fueled by stereotyped views of the East as a place from which one could expect both unfathomable wisdom and acute danger.

See Also



Benveniste, Émile. Les mages dans l'ancien Iran. Paris, 1938.

Bidez, Joseph, and Franz Cumont. Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d'après la tradition grecque. Paris, 1938.

Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 2: Under the Achaemenians. Leiden, 1989.

Boyce, Mary, and Frantz Grenet. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 3: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule. Leiden, 1991.

De Jong, Albert. Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.

Kingsley, Peter. "Meetings with Magi: Iranian Themes among the Greeks, from Xanthus of Lydia to Plato's Academy." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1995): 173209.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G. "The Zoroastrian Priesthood after the Fall of the Sassanian Empire." In Transition Periods in Iranian History, pp. 151166. Paris, 1987.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G. "The Dādestān ī Dēnīg on Priests." Indo-Iranian Journal 30 (1987): 185208.

Moulton, James Hope. Early Zoroastrianism: The Origins, the Prophet, the Magi. London, 1913.

Albert de Jong (2005)


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Magi is the plural form of a littleused singular, magus (from Old Persian magu ), that designates a member of an ancient Near Eastern priestly caste.

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (Histories I), the Magi were originally a Median tribe. Herodotus described their peculiar customs, that they neither buried nor burnt their dead, but exposed them to the birds, that they practiced consanguineous marriage and were specialists in oneiromancy, i.e. divination through dreams, astrology, and magicthis last art taking its name from them. They forbade the killing of certain animals, but made the killing of certain others obligatory. Their view of the world was dualistic.

When the Persians displaced the Medes, darius the Great (521486 b.c.), put to death several Magi who challenged his power, an event commemorated by an annual feast called "The Killing of the Magi." Nonetheless, their political influence grew steadily until they obtained a religious monopoly, for Herodotus reports it was not permitted to offer a sacrifice without the assistance of a Magus.

The Magi and Zoroastrianism. That the Magi were specialists in magic and astrology, according to the Greeks, is hardly characteristic of Zoroastrianism. The relationship between the Magi and the reform which found expression in zoroaster's Gāthās is problematic. Probably by the time of Artaxerxes I (465425 b.c.), but certainly under Seleucus I (306280 b.c.), the fusion was complete between the religion of the Achaemenids and that of Zoroaster. The Magi, as they enjoyed a religious monopoly, called themselves the disciples of Zoroaster. Thus, many Greek sources call Zoroaster a Magus, as did Xanthus (5th century b.c.) and Dinon (4th century b.c.) who were cited by Hermippus (3rd2nd centuries b.c.).

The Magusaioi. The word is a Semitic and Greek adaptation of the Iranian term magus, and it designates the "Hellenized Magi" to whom a vast lore of pseudoscience, written in Greek, was attributed. In the dialogue Alcibiades, ascribed to Plato, two kinds of magic are distinguished: popular magic, which was tantamount to sorcery, and the authentic, or Persian magic, which was a form of religion. Although the philosophers maintained the distinction, it was lost to the general public, and the Magi in Hellenistic and Roman times were commonly considered as astrologers and sorcerers.

The Old Testament book of Daniel ascribes to magoi, in the Bablyonian kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar, occult powers, such as divination and dream interpretation (Dan 1.20, 2.2, 4.4, 5.7). In the New Testament the term μάγος, outside of the Gospel of Matthew, has a perjorative connotation, with reference to simon magus in Acts 8.924 and BarJesus in Acts 13.612. The Magi (μάγοι) in Mt 2.112, however, represent wise pagans who do homage to Jesus as Messiah.

Popular Traditions. Traditions about the Magi concern their social rank, their number, their names, and their place of origin.

Rank of the Magi. Popular tradition, by c. 500 a.d., knew the Magi as kings, although no historical evidence justifies this belief. Nor did any Father of the Church hold the opinion that the Magi were kings. In the liturgy of the Feast of epiphany the Magi are associated with Psalms 71 (72).10: "The kings of Tharsis and the Isles shall offer gifts," a Psalm to which Matthew alludes in 2.712. From such an association it was an easy, if uncertain, step to confer kingship upon the wise men.

Number and Names of Magi. In the West, at least, the "three kings" has become so common a synonym for the Magi that few people are aware that in Matthew's Infancy Narrative no mention is made of their number. The idea that the Magi were three in number seems to have grown from the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) offered to the infant Christ. In the East, however, the number of the Magi is set at 12. In art they are depicted as two, three, four, or even eight.

Regarding the names of the wise men, again, popular tradition embellishes where the evangelist is silent. In Western tradition the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar appear only in the 8th century. In Syrian tradition such names as Larvandad, Harmisdas, and Gushnasaph occur, while the Armenians refer to Kagba, Badalima, etc.

Place of Origin. Matthew's narrative states only that the Magi were from the East, which could mean Mesopotamia or Persia, though the gifts seem to indicate South Arabia (Is 60.6; Ps 72.15). Along these lines Maximus speculates Babylon; Clement and Cyril of Alexandria, Persia; Justin and Tertullian, Arabia. Bede thought that the three represented the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Magi are sometimes considered descendants of the three sons of Noah. As offspring of the families of Sem, Ham, and Japheth, they would represent the major families of humanity. Although it can only be a later elaboration, this interpretation suggests the call of all people to Christ.

Relics of the Magi. The cathedral of Cologne possesses and venerates the relics of "the holy three kings." The relics were brought to Cologne from Milan in the 12th century, but little is known about them before that date.

Magi in the Gospel. In the Christian tradition, the theological significance of the Magi's visit is more important than its historical significance. The visit of the Magi is the first of two episodes in Matthew 2. The evangelist fashioned the chapter by drawing from two Old Testament stories. The visit of the Magi is modeled after Numbers 2224 while the second episode (Mt 2.1323) draws upon the Exodus story, as told in the Old Testament (Ex 14) and supplemented by midrashic expansions of the kind recounted by the Jewish historians Josephus and Philo. The Exodus motifs, in the latter, draw a parallel between Moses and Jesus.

The use of Numbers 2224 in the episode concerning the Magi, prepares the stage for the Exodus to follow. In Numbers 2224, the wicked king Balak of Moab seeks to destroy the Israelites under Moses just as the wicked king Herod sets into motion, in vv.112, a plot to destroy Jesus, which will be carried out explicitly in due time (vv.13, 18). In Numbers, a seer, Balaam, called a magus by midrashic lore, and coming "from the east," delivers favorable oracles, predicting prosperity for Israel and a strong, royal leader, thus thwarting the malicious designs of the wicked king. Similarly, the Magi in the Gospel come from the East (Mt 2.1) and, in virtue of visionary gifts, recognize and pay homage to Jesus as Messiah (vv.2, 11), thus auguring well for the defeat, in the next episode, of King Herod's plot. Numbers 24.17, concerning a star that will come forth from Jacob, was a wellknown messianic text in Judaism; it furnishes the star in the Magi episode (Mt 2.2, 9, 10).

Matthew weaves scripture citations into the episode. Verse 6 blends Micah 5.1 and 2 Samuel 5.2 to articulate a Davidic messianic theme, for the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Although the Magi are not so well schooled in Jewish scriptures as the Jewish king and rulers would be, they, by contrast to the rulers, are able to recognize the fulfilment of Jewish scripture: that Jesus is King of the Jews, Messiah. Their homage to him (v.11) alludes to Psalms 72.1011 and Isaiah 60.6, which features foreigners bearing gold and frankincense in homage to Israel's anointed ruler. This allusion demonstrates that the Magi are representative of the world outside of Israel, the Gentiles to whom the kingdom is given once Israel refuses the Messiah (Mt 21.4243).

Bibliography: m. m. bourke, "The Literary Genus of Matthew 12," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (Washington 1939) 22 (1960) 160175. j. e. bruns, "The Magi Episode in Matthew 2," ibid., 23 (1961) 5154. e. j. houdous, "The Gospel of the Epiphany," ibid., 6 (1944) 6984. d. daube, "The Earliest Structure of the Gospels," New Testament Studies (Cambridge, Eng.Washington 1954) 5 (195859) 174187. r. leaney, "The Birth Narratives in St. Luke and St. Matthew," ibid., 8 (196162) 158166. a. m. denis, "L'Adoration des Mages vue par S. Matthieu," Nouvelle revue théologique (TournaiLouvainParis 1869) 82 (1960) 3239. s. m. iglesias, "El género literario del Evangelio de la Infancia en San Mateo," Estudios biblicos (Madrid 1941) 17 (1958) 243273. p. a. king, "Matthew and Epiphany," Worship, 36 (196162) 8995. g. messina, "Ecce Magi ab Oriente venerunt," Verbum Domini (Rome 1921) 14 (1934) 719. h. j. richards, "The Three Kings," Scripture 8 (1956) 2328. d. squillaci, "I Magi," Palestra del clero, 39 (1960) 1620. r. e. brown, The Birth of the Messiah, rev. ed. (New York 1999). The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City 1993).

[j. duchesneguillemin/

e. j. joyce/

m. stevenson]


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Priests of ancient Persia and cultivators of the wisdom of Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) (possibly 1500 B.C.E.). They were instituted by Cyrus when he founded the new Persian empire and are supposed to have been of the Median race.

The German scholar K. W. F. von Schlegel stated in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (2 vols., 1829): "They were not so much a hereditary sacerdotal caste as an order or association, divided into various and successive ranks and grades, such as existed in the mysteriesthe grade of apprenticeshipthat of mastershipthat of perfect mastership." In short, they were a theosophical college; and either its professors were indifferently "magi," or magicians, and "wise men" or they were distinguished into two classes by those names.

Their name, pronounced "Mogh" by later Persians, and "Magh" by the ancients, signified "wise," which was the interpretation of it given by the Greek and Roman writers. Stobaeus expressly called the science of the magi, the "service of the gods," as did Plato. According to Joseph Ennemoser in his book The History of Magic (1847), "Magiusiah, Madschusie" signified the office and knowledge of the priest, who was called "Mag, Magius, Magiusi," and afterward magi and "Magician." The philosopher J. J. Brucker maintained that the primitive meaning of the word was "fire worshiper" and "worship of the light," an erroneous opinion. In modern Persian, the word is "Mog"; "Mogbed" signifies high priest. The high priest of the Parsees at Surat was called "Mobed." Others derive the word from "Megh," "Meh-ab" signifying something that is great and noble; Zoroaster's disciples were called "Meghestom."

Eusèbe Salverte, author of Des sciences occulte (1829), stated that these Mobeds were named in the Pehivi dialect "Magoi." They were divided into three classes: those who abstained from all animal food; those who never ate of the flesh of any tame animals; and those who made no scruple to eat any kind of meat. A belief in the transmigration of the soul was the foundation of this abstinence.

They professed the science of divination and for that purpose met together and consulted in their temples. They professed to make truth the great object of their study, for that alone, they said, can make man like God "whose body resembles light, as his soul or spirit resembles truth."

They condemned all images and those who said that the gods were male and female; they had neither temples nor altars, but worshiped the sky, as a representative of the deity, on the tops of mountains; they also sacrificed to the sun, moon, earth, fire, water, and winds, said Herodotus, meaning no doubt that they adored the heavenly bodies and the elements. This was probably before the time of Zoroaster, when the religion of Persia seems to have resembled that of ancient India. Their hymns in praise of the Most High exceeded (according to Dio Chrysostom) the sublimity of anything in Homer or Hesiod. They exposed their dead bodies to wild beasts.

Schlegel maintained that it was an open question "whether the old Persian doctrine and wisdom or tradition of light did not undergo material alterations in the hand of its Median restorer, Zoroaster, or whether this doctrine was preserved in all its purity by the order of the magi." He then remarked that on them devolved the important trust of the monarch's education, which must necessarily have given them great weight and influence in the state. They were in high credit at the "Persian gates" (the Oriental name given to the capital of the empire, and the abode of the prince) and they took the most active part in all the factions that encompassed the throne, or that were formed in the vicinity of the court.

In Greece, and even in Egypt, the sacerdotal fraternities and associations of the initiated, formed by the mysteries, had in general an indirect, although not unimportant, influence on affairs of state, but in the Persian monarchy they acquired a complete political ascendency. Religion, philosophy, and the sciences were all in their hands. They were the universal physicians who healed the sick in body and in spirit, and, in strict consistency with that character, ministered to the state, which is only the individual in a larger sense. The three grades of the magi alluded to were called the "disciples," the "professed," and the "masters."

They were originally from Bactria, where they governed a little state by laws of their own choice, and by their incorporation in the Persian empire, they greatly promoted the consolidation of the conquests of Cyrus.

Their decline dates from the reign of Darius Hystaspes, about 500 B.C.E. , by whom they were fiercely persecuted. This produced an emigration that extended from Cappadocia to India, but they were still of so much consideration at a later period as to provoke the jealousy of Alexander the Great.


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Magi. Originally a Median tribe (according to Herodotus, the Magoi were one of six Median tribes) responsible for all ritual activity regardless of religious boundaries, e.g. to which god a sacrifice was offered. As Zoroastrianism spread across the Iranian plateau so it became part of their responsibility. In this way, it is thought, Zoroaster's teachings were integrated into the general traditions of the region. It was the magi who thereafter carried Zoroastrianism through the Empire. During the Achaemenid era, Babylon was a major administrative centre, and it is likely that it was there that the magi became involved in the beliefs and practices subsequently named after them, magic, and also astrology. It was this reputation which motivated the writer of Matthew's Gospel (see below) to relate a story about magi (the word used in the Gk. is magoi, and so the later Christian legend of kings does not do justice to the text). Zoroaster himself used two different terms to refer to a priest: zaotar, an officiating priest, and a manthran, who composes sacred manthras. As Zoroastrianism developed, the magi became ever more important in the work of the Zoroastrian ‘church’. Naturally words change with time, magus (singular) became mobed, under a supreme head, the Mobedan Mobed. In post-Sasanian Iran, the high priest took the title hudnan pesobay, leader of the faithful, a title recalling Muslim titles. In modern times a high priest, dastur, is generally associated with a ‘cathedral’ fire temple (Atash Bahram, Atas) whose liturgical life he oversees with a team of priests, mobeds, under him. There are two initiatory rites for priests, navar and maratab. A priest who has undertaken the first of these, and is therefore qualified to perform some of the minor rites, is known as an ervad. The mobeds and the ervads have essentially liturgical roles, with little sense of any teaching or pastoral duties. Purity is necessary so that the duly empowered priest can, in devotion, through concentration on the ritual, generate ritual power (amal) so that the heavenly forces are present. Because of the centrality of the concept of purity, one term for priest is yozdathrager, ‘Purifier’.

The Christian appropriation of the Magi reveals little knowledge of the above. According to Matthew 2. 1–12, they were guided by a star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the new-born Jesus. Acts 13. 6 ff. uses the word to mean magic-workers, and Ignatius of Antioch understood the word in that sense, arguing that magic yielded up its power when Jesus was born. Origen inferred that they were three in number from the gifts, and Tertullian suggested that they were kings. By the 6th cent., they were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. What were claimed to be their relics were taken to Europe and are now in Cologne Cathedral.


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Magi (sing. Magus) Members of a hereditary priestly class of ancient Persia, responsible for certain religious ceremonies. By the time of Christ, the term Magi applied to astrologers, soothsayers and practitioners of the occult. In the Western Church, the feast of Epiphany marks the coming of the Magi to Jesus. In the East, Christmas heralds the arrival of the Magi.


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Magi the ‘wise men’ from the East, often referred to as the Three Magi, who brought gifts to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1), said in later tradition to be kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Recorded from Old English, the word is the plural form of magus.


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Ma·gi / ˈmāˌjī/ (the Magi) the “wise men” from the East who brought gifts to the infant Jesus (Matt. 2:1), said in later tradition to be kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


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ma·gi / ˈmāˌjī/ plural form of magus.