AskDefine | Define magi

Dictionary Definition



1 a magician or sorcerer of ancient times
2 a member of the Zoroastrian priesthood of the ancient Persians [also: magi (pl)]Magi n : (New Testament) the sages who visited Jesus and Mary and Joseph shortly after Jesus was born; the Gospel According to Matthew says they were guided by a star and brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh; because there were three gifts it is usually assumed that there were three of them [syn: Wise Men]magi See magus

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /meɪ'ʤaɪ/


magi p
  1. Plural of mage or magus



From magi.


  1. stomach




From magi.


Old Norse


  1. stomach




magi m|p
  1. Plural of mag

Extensive Definition

The Magi (singular Magus, from Latin, via Greek μάγος ; Old English: Mage; from Old Persian maguš and Proto-Kurdish mâgî) were a tribe from ancient Media, who — prior to the conquest of the Medes by the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BC — were responsible for religious and funerary practices.
Later they accepted the Zoroastrian religion and developed it into Zurvanism, which would become the predominant form of Zoroastrianism during the Sassanid era (AD 226–650). No traces of Zurvanism exist beyond the 10th century. In English, the term may refer to a shaman, sorcerer or wizard; it is the origin of the words magic and magician.


In Indo-Iranian languages

There are two different meanings of the term 'Magi': "From Herodotus' Histories and from subsequent accounts of them, it is quite clear that the Magi were in fact a sacerdotal caste whose ethnic origin is never again so much as mentioned." In other accounts, "we hear of Magi not only in Persia, Parthia, Bactria, Chorasmia, Aria, Media, and among the Sakas, but also in non-Iranian lands like Samaria, Ethiopia, and Egypt." "It is, therefore, quite likely that the sacerdotal caste of the Magi was distinct from the Median tribe of the same name." This sense of the term, which the Middle Persian authors of the Zend commentaries adduce to mean 'God's gift', is clearly related to Vedic Sanskrit magha (मघा), meaning 'riches' or 'gift'. The adjectival form survives as maghvand in Classical Persian, where it "seems to mean something like 'adorning'." Modern Persian mobed, derived from Middle Persian magu-pati, 'lord priest', is the unequivocal term for a Zoroastrian priest of a certain rank.

Greek use of magos

While, in Herodotus, magos refers to the priestly caste and tribe of the Medes, (1.101) said to be able to interpret dreams (7.37), it could also be used for any enchanter or wizard, and especially to charlatans or quacks (see also goetia), especially by philosophers such as Heraclitus who took a sceptical view of the art of an enchanter, and in comic literature (Lucian's Lucios or the Ass). In Hellenism, magos started to be used as an adjective, meaning "magical", as in magas techne "ars magica" (e.g. used by Philostratus).
The PIE root *magh- appears to have expressed power or ability, continued e.g. in Attic Greek mekhos (cf. mechanics) and in Germanic magan (English may), magts (English might, the expression "might and magic" thus being a figura etymologica).

English language

The plural Magi entered the English language in ca. 1200, referring to the Magi mentioned in , the singular being attested only considerably later, in the late 14th century, when it was borrowed from Old French in the meaning magician together with magic.

Arabic Language

It is speculated that the old Persian word maguš is the origin of the Arabic word majus (Arabic: مجوس ) which is used generally to describe Old Persian religions.

Chinese Language

Victor H. Mair provides archaeological and linguistic evidence suggesting that Chinese wū (巫 "shaman; witch, wizard; magician", Old Chinese *myag) was a loanword from Old Persian *maguš "magician; magi". He describes: The recent discovery at an early Chou site of two figurines with unmistakably Caucasoid or Europoid feature is startling prima facie evidence of East-West interaction during the first half of the first millennium Before the Current Era. It is especially interesting that one of the figurines bears on the top of his head the clearly incised graph ☩ which identifies him as a wu (yag''). These figurines, which are dated circa 8th century BCE, were discovered during a 1980 excavation of a Zhou Dynasty palace in Fufeng County (扶风县, Shaanxi Province).
The modern Chinese character , which combines (gōng "work") and (rén "person") doubled, is simplified from the Seal Script characters; however, the earliest Bronzeware Script character for 巫 is a cross with T-shaped potents. Mair identifies this ancient Chinese "shaman" character with a Western symbol of magicians, the "Cross Potent" (☩, see cross), which "can hardly be attributable to sheer coincidence or chance independent origination."
Compared with the linguistic reconstructions of many Indo-European languages, the current reconstruction of Old (or "Archaic") Chinese is more provisional. This velar final -g in Mair's *myag (巫) is evident in several Old Chinese reconstructions (Dong Tonghe's *mywag, Zhou Fagao's *mjwaɣ, and Li Fanggui's *mjag), but not all (Bernhard Karlgren's *mywo and Axel Schuessler's *ma).

Kurdish use of mancî

The ancient Medes are said to be one of many Iranic tribes that composed a new Kurdish ethnic pool over 2,000 years ago, and Magi refers precisely to one priestly caste within the Medes social structure and the followers of their teachings. Scholars affirm that the name mâgî survives in the modern Kurdish language through the traditional endonym of Kurds, Kurmanji, used by native speakers and members that comprise the Kurdish ethnic group. The word mancî or manji is a suffix of the word Kurmancî, which today refers to the sub-group of Kurds who speak a Kurdish dialect of the Kurmanji branch. The prefix simply means child or children. Scholars affirm that the Magi were a hereditary priesthood of ancient tribes of Kurdish ancestry.

History in the Persian Empire

According to Herodotus i. 101, which lists the names of the six tribes or castes of the Medes, the Magi were a hereditary caste of priests. They were highly influential in Median society until the unification of the Median and Persian Empires in 550 BC, after which their power was curtailed by Cyrus the Great and by Cyrus' son Cambyses II. The Magi revolted against Cambyses and set up a rival claimant to the throne, one of their own, who took the name of Smerdis. Smerdis and his forces were defeated by the Persians under Darius I. The Magi continued to exist in unified Persia, but their influence was limited after this and other political setbacks, and it was not until the Sassanid era (AD 226–650) that they would again achieve prominence.
The Book of Jeremiah (Bible verse |Jer|39:3|31, Bible verse |Jer|39:13|31) gives a title rab mag (Master Mage/Magus/מָג) to the head of the Magi, Nergal Sharezar (Septuagint, Vulgate and KJV mistranslate Rabmag as a separate character). It's also believed by some Christians that the Jewish prophet Daniel was rab hartumaya (master of sacred scribes) and entrusted a Messianic vision (to be announced in due time by a "star") to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment (Bible verse |Dan|4:9|31; Bible verse |Dan|5:11|31).

The Magi in India

In India there is a community termed Maga, Bhojaka, Suryadhwaja or Sakaldwipiya Brahmins. Their major centers are in Western UP, Kashmir, Rajasthan in Western India and near Gaya in Bihar. According to Bhavishya Purana and other texts, they were invited to settle in Punjab to conduct the worship of Lord Sun (Mitra or Surya in Sanskrit). Bhavishya Purana explicitly associates them to the rituals of the (now extinct) Zurvanite brand of Zoroastrianism. The members of the community still worship in Sun temples in India. They are also hereditary priests in several Jain temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Bhojakas are mentioned in the copperplates of the Kadamba dynasty (4-6th cent) as managers of Jain institutions. Images of Lord Sun in India are shown wearing a central Asian dress, complete with boots . The term "Mihir" in India is regarded to represent the Maga influence.
Shepherds in Bihar are also called Maghi.

Popular culture

  • The three Magi are major characters in Christopher Moore's light-hearted novel about the life of Jesus, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.
  • The Magi are the three super-computers, Melchior, Balthasar and Casper, that appear in the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which features many images from Judeo-Christian stories.
  • In the game Chrono Trigger, the Gurus of Life, Time, and Reason are named Melchior, Belthazar, and Gaspar. Magus is also the name of Frog's Arch Nemesis.
  • In the game Xenogears there are Three Wisemen of Shevat named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar.
  • The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used the title of "Magus" to refer to the second-highest level of attainment in their degree system. This system, with associated titles, would later be adopted by Aleister Crowley for his occult order A∴A∴, wherein the title "Magus" designated the highest attainable grade of magic (considered the mastery of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc.). To be a Magi means to journey to give gifts.
  • In the game Warhammer 40,000, the term Magos is used to describe a high ranking official of the Adeptus Mechanicus, a para-religious cult dedicated to technology.
  • In the book The Quest by Wilbur Smith, the central character, Taita, is referred to as "Magus," a long-lived, all-knowing sage and savant who has mastered the supernatural and attained magical powers. He embodies the Truth and seeks to destroy the Lie.
  • The guards of Imhotep's tomb in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns are actually an ancient group of people called the Medjay, but people often mistake them for the Magi.


External links

magi in German: Mager
magi in Spanish: Mago
magi in Persian: مغ
magi in French: Mage
magi in Italian: Re Magi
magi in Dutch: Magiër
magi in Japanese: マギ
magi in Polish: Mag (kapłan perski)
magi in Portuguese: Mago
magi in Finnish: Maagi
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