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Magian Religion of the Medes [BC 788-550]

In the 9th century BC the Aryan population had become Iranian, and was settled east of the Zagros mountains, where it was known to the Assyrians as Madft, or Medea, a name also written Amada, like Amardi for Mardi. From this time forward the names of the kings and chiefs of Media and the neighbouring districts mentioned on the Assyrian monuments are Iranian, and in a list of Median princes conquered by Sargon in 714-713 BC there is found the name of Mazdaku, proving that Zoroaster's god Mazda, 'the Wise,' was already worshipped.

The Medes had an ancient Iranian religion, a form of pre-Zoroastrian Mazdaism or Mithraism. The religion of the ancient Medes [BC 788-550] is one of the most difficult and disputable questions in ancient Oriental history. The statements of the earlier classical authorities are not easy to reconcile with the Iranian Avesta, and fresh elements of difficulty have been introduced by the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions. The earliest form of the Median religion is to be found in those sections of the Zendavesta which have been pronounced on internal evidence to be the most ancient portions of that venerable compilation; as, for instance, the first Fargard of the Vendidad, and the Gathas, or "Songs," which occur here and there in the Book on Sacrifice. In the first Fargard, or chapter, of the Vendidad—the historical chapter, in which are traced the only movements of the Iranic peoples, and which from the geographical point whereat it stops must belong to a time when the Arians had not yet reached Media Magna — the Dualistic belief clearly shows itself.

Herodotus makes the Magi a Median tribe (L 101),' but he also implies that they were a class of priests (L 140), and he describes certain of them as interpreters of dreams (L 107). He further ascribes to them the Zoroastrian practices of reverencing the dog and destroying noxious animals (i. 140). No sacrifice could be offered without the presence of a Magus, who accompanied it with a hymn (the Avestan Gatha); and there was neither altar, fire, nor libation. On the other hand, the scourging of the Hellespont by Xerxes (Herod, vii. 36) is inconsistent with the belief that water was divine,' and in Herodotus's account of Magian religion Avestan dualism is conspicuous by its absence. So, too, is any reference to the doctrine of a resurrection.

The simplest way of explaining these anomalies is to suppose that the religious system described by Herodotus was that of the Medes, among whom the Magi were a sort of hereditary priests, like the Levites in Israel; and that the religious system of Darius represented the religion of the Persian aristocracy, but that the origin and fundamental principles of the two were the same. The conquest of Media by Persia would have introduced the Median forms of theology among the Persian people, though their influence would have been momentarily checked by the overthrow of Gomates and his party, who perhaps would have stood in much the same relation to the Achaemenian aristocracy as the Pharisees did to the Sadducees. Meanwhile the reformer Zarathushtra appeared and built upon preexisting religious beliefs and practices and attracted the Magi to his side. The result in the course of centuries was the Mazdseism of the Avesta.

Mazdeism was not originally a markedly priestly religion; it is thought that it became so when planted in Media. No doubt there were germs in the early Iranian religion of a priestly system. Zarathustra himself was a priest and was favorable to due religious observances. But it is quite contrary to his spirit that life should be governed entirely by ritual law. It was in Media that this came to be the case. The name of Magi, originally perhaps that of a tribe, became in Media the name of the priesthood, and so furnished an additional title for Mazdeism. It is to this stage of the religion that the priestly legislation of the Vendidad, with all its puritanical regulation of life, is to be ascribed; it was the Magi who imposed this yoke on the believers in Ahura.

The Magi [= Lat., plur. of Magus] were the sacerdotal caste of ancient Media, and priests of Persia in antiquity. Originally the name was a tribal one, designating a single division of the race of the Medes. (Cf. Herodotus 1, 101 ; Ammianus Marcellinus 23, 6, 32.) The term Magian, Maqu, occurs several times in the Old Persian inscriptions, in connection with the usurpation of Bardiya, the false Smerdis. The form of the appellative is found once or twice in the Avesta as Maju. The Greeks called this priestly sect Mafyoi; the English version of the Bible (Matt. ii. 1) renders it by " wise men." The origin and meaning of Moju, Maqu, Mayos, however, are uncertain. The familiar though unfavorable association of the name from earliest times with "magic," black arts, and astrology seems to have arisen from the peculiar tenets and rites of the Magians, and from their dreaded power as priests.

The Magi presumably became priests of Persia proper through the Median supremacy over the country. This religious supremacy continued even though the Median yoke was thrown off at the time of Cyrus the Great. One of the reasons probably for the hatred felt by the Persians at the Magian usurpation of the government by the false Smerdis in the time of Darius Hystaspes was the fear that this move might lead to a restoration of the Median sway. This opposition to the Magians and the resulting "massacre of the Magi," (Herodotus 3, 79) was presumably political and anti-clerical rather than religious.

The general religious tenets of the Magi priests mav he gathered from Herodotus 1,140, Plutarch, Is. et. Os. 47, from other classical writers, and by inference from the Avesta and from passages in the Old Persian Inscriptions. The Magian faith was characterized by a belief in the principles of dualism, Ormazd and Ahriman; by a belief in the resurrection and a future life; by certain "peculiar rites and practices, such as exposing the dead to be torn by dogs and birds; and by religious scruples against taking animal life, with the exception of destroying noxious animals, which was regarded as a meritorious and sacred duty.

The fame of the Magi for learning and for the power of divination was widespread in antiquity. It was in this sense that the Magi who came to w-orship at the manger in Bethlehem (Matt. ii. 1-12) are regarded as the wise men from the East. Later tradition represents these Magians as threo kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. coming from different places in Persia. The supposed remains of their hallowed bodies, it is claimed, were removed from Constantinople to Milan, and thence in AD 1162 to a shrine in the cathedral at Cologne, where they are still preserved as sacred relics.

Regarding the connection of Zoroaster's name in antiquity with the Magi, it maybe added that although the scene of his activity was Bactria there are nevertheless strong grounds for believing that he was originally a Magian from Media. As he was a reformer, however, his religion must have differed somewhat from the older faith.

The moral standard of the Magians was below that of the Zoroastrians, and it is hinted that the revolt of Cyrus against Astyages was a revolt of Persian Zoroastrianism against Median Magism. Yet the Median religion had a certain loftiness and picturesqueness which suited it to become the religion of a great and splendid monarchy. Persia, the conqueror of Media, was conquered in turn by the Median religion; and the religion of the Persian kings as read in their inscriptions does not correspond to any of the religious positions held in the Avesta. The Magi, from whom also the religion as a whole derives one of its names, belonged to Media and passed from there to greater power in Iran as a whole. Forms of religion arose as different from the faith of Zoroaster as later forms of Christianity from the simplicity of Christ, yet looking to him as their founder and the giver of their law.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:19 ZULU