Persian Mages

A large proportion of the male sorcerers in the Graeco-Roman literary tradition are strongly characterized as deriving from the lands of the ancient civilizations of the Near East and Egypt and as manipulating the wisdom of these civilizations. The frequent representation of sorcerers as Orientals and Egyptians in the extant texts is perhaps best explained as an example of the Greek tendency to "invent the barbarian," that is, to project attributes regarded as undesirable or bizarre among free Greeks onto alien peoples. It should not be taken to document directly the impact of these peoples on the development of Greek magical culture. From the classical period on the Greeks tended to identify the Persians as the fount of alien magical wisdom, and their projection of magic onto other Oriental races tended to be secondary to this. Yet the Odyssey, with all its magic, including some Egyptian, must have reached its final form long before the Greeks had even heard of the Persians (Cyrus acceded to the throne ca. 557 B.C.).

The terms "mage," "Median," "Persian," "Babylonian," "Chaldaean," and "Syrian" tend to function almost interchangeably in the following texts. The key to these identifications or associations lies in the Persian empire. The mages (Greek magos; Old Persian makus) were the professional wise men of the Persian empire, whose expertise was by no means confined to religious matters. When the Persians first made their impact on the Greeks, they had already subsumed the Medes and had taken Babylon within their empire. The Chaldaeans were a series of tribal groups among the Babylonians. The Greeks came to associate them with astronomy and astrology in particular and with magic in general, but there is no indication that they had any such significance for the Babylonians themselves. Other Eastern peoples were added to the mix at a later stage. "Syrians" were perhaps added in the Seleucid period. The Seleucid kings took over much of the territory of the former Persian empire but were based in Syria. The A.D. period added Armenians (in the figure of Nero's Armenian mage, Tiridates, 45) and even Arabs (in the figure of Lu-cian's amulet-monger, 275). Arabs no doubt recommended themselves for these purposes as being both remote and in a sense conveniently poised between the Orient and Egypt. For another Oriental mage see 148.

If the Graeco-Roman texts, despite appearances, do not document any transfer of magical culture from the Near East to Greece, this is not to say that no such transfer occurred. It is a cornerstone assumption of many scholars that it did, either during the Mycenean period (ca. 1500-1000 B.C.) or, as most prefer, the so-called Orientalizing period (the eighth century B.C.}. In particular, it has become commonplace to adduce Assyrian-Babylonian evidence from around the time of the Orientalizing period in discussions of early Greek magic. The transfer is held to have occurred primarily through the medium of itinerant religious technicians. (See A Guide to Further Reading 2.2 and 3.4.}

36 Atossa and the Persian elders (mages?) call up the ghost of Darius

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