Skilled in alchemy, astrology, fortune telling and other esoteric practices, the Magi were the priestly caste of the Kingdom of the Medes.
In Classical Greece, the name was used for everyone who was believed to practice Zoroastrianism, which was considered a powerful and magical faith. The modern word and concept of “magic” originates from that same root.
The first mention of Magi in Western sources that we know of was that of Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher. He lived in the Sixth Century BC and didn’t have a very high opinion of the Magi. Heraclitus damned the Magi for their immoral ceremonies and practices.
A century later, Herodotus uses the word in two fashions: for a priestly caste and for one of the tribes of the Medes, who inhabited a territory in today’s northwestern Iran.
Then, in the Fourth Century BC, Xenophon, a mercenary and historian, who had traveled through Persia, portrays the Magi as the highest power in spiritual issues and speculates that they were in charge of educating the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire.
Before the times of Xenophon the name only shows up in Persian texts twice.
However, by that time the term magi appears not only in the areas controlled by the Achaeminids, but also in Samaria, Egypt and Ethiopia.
At first the Magi were not practitioners of Zoroastrianism. Because of their gift for interpreting dreams Darius the Great placed them at the head of the state religion. The Magi not only held religious authority but also influenced civil and political matters.
The dream interpretation talent, proved very useful for one Daniel, a Jewish captive in Darius’ Court. After he deciphered one of the emperor’s dreams, Daniel was appointed chief Magi. This did not sit well at all with the other priests for Daniel was a foreigner a not part of the hereditary caste. We all know this ended up with Daniel being saved from the lions’ den by an angel of his god, Yahweh.
In the Bible, the archangel Gabriel tells Daniel about the upcoming Messiah. There is some related evidence that suggests that Daniel revealed to an undisclosed Magi faction that a star would announce the coming of the Anointed One.
Magi in Christian Tradition
There is no mention in the Bible of Magi. The Gospel of Mathew talks about “astrologer,” and “wise men” from the East. However folklore has it that they were magi, a common label at the time for Middle Easterners.
While in Christian Eastern beliefs there were as many as a dozen Magi, in the West there are just three. That number probably came about because of the three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – given to the infant Messiah.
The tradition developed and by the Sixth Century AD the Magi that followed the star to Bethlehem were kings and had names. Various sets of names were used. Today, we identified them by the monikers and titles that first appeared in 14th Century Armenia. So, we know the call the astrologers or Magi who visited the Holy Family as King Melchior of Persia, King Gasper of India and King Balthazar of Arabia.