Persians: Dio of Prusa on Magians and a supposedly Zoroastrian myth (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Dio of Prusa on Magians and a supposedly Zoroastrian myth (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 36 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Ostensibly delivered in his hometown of Prusa in Bithynia, Dio’s speech concerning a visit to Olbia begins with some ethnographic observations concerning the rivers and the interactions between Olbian Greeks and Scythian or Getian neighbours (on which go to this link).

But as Dio’s discussion with Olbians continues, he turns to philosophical matters concerning the very makeup and workings of the universe, spelling out important aspects of the Stoic concept of the cosmic city. Dio pictures himself addressing an audience of Olbians, tired after a recent incursion by Scythian raiders. It is in this context that Dio brings in as an authority Zoroaster and his Magians by way of a myth about celestial horses attributed to the Magians. In this way, Persian wise men are credited with accurately describing the Stoic understanding of the cyclical universal renewal accompanied by apparent disasters of conflagrations and floods. So wise barbarians (Persians) are brought in as authorities in order to establish a very Stoic point. As usual with the presentation of ostensibly barbarian thinking and practices, we may doubt the degree to which we are witnessing actual Zoroastrian or Magian ideas, of course. But Dio nonetheless anticipates that a wise barbarian origin for his points might add some excitement or heft to the concepts.

In the process, Dio refers to the two quite different understandings of the term “Magians.” On the one hand, there is the derogatory use of the Greek term in connection with Greeks or Romans adopting foreign activities (from which we get our term “magician”). On the other, there are the Magian wise sages that Dio and some other authors in category 4 (to your right) evoke and take as in some way authoritative.

Works consulted: N.B. Kirkland, Herodotus and Imperial Greek Literature Criticism, Imitation, Reception (Oxford: OUP, 2022), 152-185.


[Continuation of Dio’s philosophical discussion with a group of Olbians regarding the Stoic concept of a cosmic city]

(29) “Well then,” I [Dio] said, “the term ‘city’ must be taken on the understanding that our sect​ [Stoics] is not literally defining the universe as a city because that would be in direct conflict with our doctrine of the city, which, as I have said, the Stoics define as an organization of human beings. At the same time it would possibly not be suitable or convincing, if, after stating in the strict sense of the term that the universe is a living creature,​ they should then call it a city, for that the same thing is both a city and a living being is a proposition that, I imagine, no one would readily consent to entertain. (30) Yet the present orderly constitution of the universe ever since the whole has been separated and divided into a considerable number of forms of plants and animals, mortal and immortal, yes, and into air and earth and water and fire,​ being nevertheless by nature in all these forms one thing and governed by one spirit and force. This orderly constitution, I say, the Stoics do in one way or another liken to a city because of the multitude of the creatures that are constantly either being born or else ending their existence in it, and, furthermore, because of the arrangement and orderliness of its administration.” . . . [further Stoic discussion omitted]

“This, then, is the theory of the philosophers, a theory which sets up a noble and benevolent fellow­ship of gods and men which gives a share in law and citizen­ship, not to all living beings whatsoever, but only to such as have a share in reason and intellect, introducing a far better and more righteous code than that of Sparta, in accordance with which the Helots have no prospect of ever becoming Spartans, and consequently are constantly plotting against Sparta.”

[Hymn of Zoroaster and the Persian Magians as an expression of Stoic notions]

(39) “Moreover, there is also an amazing myth sung in secret rites by the Magians (Magoi). They sing hymns about this god of ours [Father Zeus] as being the perfect and original driver of the most perfect chariot. For the chariot of Helios [Sun god], they claim, is relatively recent when compared with that of Zeus, though visible to the many because its course is run in full view. Therefore, they say, the chariot of Helios has enjoyed a reputation with all humankind, since the poets, beginning practically with the earliest times, so it would seem, are always telling of its rising and its setting, all in the same manner describing the yoking of the horses and Helios himself mounting his chariot.”

(40) “But the mighty, perfect chariot of Zeus has never been praised as it deserves by any of the poets of our land, either by Homer or by Hesiod. Yet Zoroaster sings of it, as do children among the Magians, who learned the song from him. For the Persians say that Zoroaster, because of a passion for wisdom and justice, deserted his fellows and lived by himself on a certain mountain. They say that at that point the mountain caught fire, a mighty flame descending from the sky above, and that it burned continually. So then the king and the most distinguished of his Persians drew near for the purpose of praying to the god. Zoroaster came out from the fire unscathed and, showing himself gracious toward them, instructed them to be of good cheer and to offer certain sacrifices in recognition of the god’s having come to that place. From then on, so they say, Zoroaster has associated not with everyone but only with those who are most truthful and are best able to understand the god, men whom the Persians have named “Magians.” This term refers to people who know how to cultivate spiritual power, not like the Greeks, who in their ignorance use the term to refer to enchanters (goētai).​ Everything else those Magians do is in keeping with sacred sayings. In particular, they maintain for Zeus a team of Nisaian horses (these horses are the finest and largest to be found in Asia) but for Helios they maintain only a single horse.”

“These Magians narrate their myth, not in the manner of our prophets​ of the Muses, who merely present each detail with much plausibility, but rather with stubborn insistence upon its truthfulness. For they assert that the universe is constantly being propelled and driven along a single path, as by a charioteer endowed with highest skill and power, and that this movement goes on unceasingly in unceasing cycles of time. The course that Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon) take, according to their account, is the movement of portions of the whole, and for that reason it is more clearly perceived by humankind. And they add that the movement and revolution of the universe as a whole is not perceptible to the majority of humankind, but that, on the contrary, they are ignorant of the magnitude of this contest.”

“What follows regarding the horses and their driving I really am ashamed to tell in the manner in which the Magians present it in their narrative, since they are not very much concerned to secure consistency at all points in their presentation of the picture. In fact, quite possibly I may appear absurd when, in contrast with Greek singing of grace and charm, I chant one that is barbarian. But I must still make the attempt.”

[Four celestial horses corresponding to Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Hestia]

“According to the Magians, that one of the horses which is the highest in the heavens​ is immeasurably superior in beauty, size, and speed, since it has the outside track and runs the longest course, a horse sacred to Zeus himself. Furthermore, it is a winged creature, brilliant in colour with the brilliance of the purest flame. In it Helios and Selene are to be seen as conspicuous signs or marks. I regard these marks as being like the marks which horses bear here on earth, some crescent-shaped and some of other patterns. And they say that these ‘marks’ appear to us to be in close array, as it were great sparks of fire darting about in the midst of brilliant light, and yet that each has its own independent motion. Furthermore, the other stars which are also visible through that Horse of Zeus, one and all being natural parts of it, in some instances revolve along with it and have the same motion, and in others follow different tracks. And they add that among men these stars which are associated with the Horse of Zeus have each its own particular name. Whereas the rest are treated collectively in groups, distributed so as to form certain figures or patterns.

(45) “Well then, the horse that is most brilliant and most spangled with stars and dearest to Zeus himself, being praised by the Magians in their hymns for some such attributes as these, quite properly stands first in sacrifice and worship as being truly first. Next in order after that, in closest contact with the Horse of Zeus, comes one that bears the name of Hera,​ a horse obedient to the rein and gentle, but far inferior in strength and speed. In colour this horse is of its own nature black, but that portion which receives the light of Helios is regularly bright, whereas where it is in shadow in its revolution it has its own proper colour.​ Third comes a horse that is sacred to Poseidon,​ still slower than the second. Regarding this steed the poets have a myth to the effect that its counterpart appeared among men (I think it’s the one whom they call Pegasos) and they claim that he caused a fountain to burst forth at Corinth by pawing with his hoof.​ But the fourth is the strangest conception of them all, a horse both firm and immovable, to say nothing of its having no wings, and it is named after Hestia.​ However, the Magians do not shrink from its portrayal. On the contrary, they state that this steed also is harnessed to the chariot, and yet it remains immovable, champing its adamantine curb. And from all sides the other horses press close to him with their bodies and the pair that are his neighbours​ swerve toward him abreast. They fall upon him, as it were, and crowd him, yet the horse that is farthest off​ is always first to round that stationary steed like horses around the turn in the hippodrome.”

[Disasters and the cosmic order: Conflagration and flood]

“Now for the most part the horses continue in peace and friendship, unharmed by one another. But on one occasion in the past, in the course of a long space of time and many revolutions of the universe, a mighty blast from the first horse fell from on high. As might have been expected from such a fiery-tempered steed, that horse inflamed the others and especially the last one. The fire encompassed not only its mane, which formed its personal pride, but the whole universe as well.​ And the Magians say that the Greeks, recording this experience as an isolated occurrence, connect it with the name of Phaithon, since they are unable to criticize the driving of Zeus and hate to find fault with the coursings of Helios. And so they relate that a younger driver, a mortal son of Helios, desiring a sport that was to prove grievous and disastrous for all humankind, requested his father to let him mount his car and, plunging along in disorderly fashion, consumed with fire everything, both animals and plants, and finally was himself destroyed, being smitten by too powerful a flame.”

“Again, when at intervals of several years the horse that is sacred to Poseidon and the Nymphs rebels, having become panic-stricken and agitated beyond his needs, he overwhelms with copious sweat that same steed, since those two are yoke-mates. Accordingly it meets with fate which is the opposite of the disaster previously mentioned, this time being deluged with a mighty flood. And the Magians state that here again the Greeks, through youthful ignorance and faulty memory, record this flood as a single occurrence and claim that Deukalion, who was then king, saved them from complete destruction.”

(50) “According to the Magians, these rare occurrences are viewed by humankind as taking place for their destruction, and not in keeping with reason or as a part of the order of the universe. This is because they are unaware that they occur quite properly and in keeping with the plan of the preserver and governor of the world. For in reality it is comparable with what happens when a charioteer punishes one of his horses, pulling hard upon the rein or pricking with the goad. Then the horse prances and is thrown into a panic but right away settles down to its proper gait.”

[Shifting and uniting of the celestial horses]

“Well then, this is one kind of driving of which they tell, attended by violence but not involving the complete destruction of the universe. On the other hand, they tell also of a different kind that involves the movement and change of all four horses, one in which they shift among themselves and interchange their forms until all come together into one being, having been overcome by that one which is superior in power. And yet this movement also the Magians dare to compare to the guidance and driving of a chariot, though to do so they need even stranger imagery. For instance, it is as if some wonder-worker moulded horses out of wax. Then, subtracting and scraping off the wax from each, should add a little now to this one and now to that, until finally, having used up all the horses in constructing one from the four, he should fashion a single horse out of all his material. They state, however, that in reality the process to which they refer is not like that of such inanimate images, in which the craftsman operates and shifts the material from without. Instead, the transformation is the work of these creatures themselves, just as if they were striving for victory in a contest that is great and real. And they add that the victory and its crown belong by necessity to that horse which is first and best in speed and prowess and general excellence, I mean to that one which we named in the beginning of our account as the special steed of Zeus. For that one, being most valiant of all and fiery by nature, having speedily used up the others (as if, I think, they were truly made of wax) in no great span of time (though to us it seems endless according to our reckoning) and having appropriated to itself all the substance of them all, appeared much greater and more brilliant than formerly. This process was not through the aid of any other creature, either mortal or immortal, but by itself and its own efforts proving victor in the greatest contest. Standing tall and proud and rejoicing in its victory, it not only seized the largest possible region but also needed larger space at that time, so great was its strength and its spirit.”

[Renewal of the universe]

“Having arrived at that stage in their myth, the Magians are embarrassed in search of a name to describe the nature of the creature of their own invention. For they say that now by this time it is simply the soul of the charioteer and master; or, let us say, merely the intellect and leadership of that soul. (Those, in fact, are the terms we ourselves employ when we honour and reverence the greatest god by noble deeds and pious words). (55) For indeed, when the mind alone had been left and had filled with itself immeasurable space, since it had poured itself evenly in all directions and nothing in it remained dense but complete porosity prevailed (at which time it becomes most beautiful) having obtained the purest nature of unadulterated light, it immediately longed for the existence that it had at first. Accordingly, becoming enamoured of that control, governance, and concord which it once maintained not only over the three natures of sun and moon and the other stars, but also over absolutely all animals and plants, it became eager to generate and distribute everything and to make the orderly universe then existent once more far better and more resplendent because newer. Emitting a full flash of lightning, not a disorderly or foul one such as in stormy weather often darts out, when the clouds drive more violently than usual, but rather pure and unmixed with any murk, it worked a transformation easily, with the speed of thought. But recalling Aphrodite and the process of generation, it tamed and relaxed itself and, quenching much of its light, it turned into fiery air of gentle warmth, and uniting with Hera and enjoying the most perfect marriage, in sweet repose it emitted anew the full supply of seed for the universe. Such is the blessed marriage of Zeus and Hera​ of which the sons of sages sing in secret rites. And having made fluid all his essence, one seed for the entire world, he himself moving about in it like a spirit that moulds and fashions in generation, then indeed most closely resembling the composition of the other creatures, inasmuch as he might with reason be said to consist of soul and body, he now with ease moulds and fashions all the rest, pouring about him his essence smooth and soft and easily yielding in every part.”

“And having performed his task and brought it to completion, he revealed the existent universe as once more a thing of beauty and inconceivable loveliness, much more resplendent, indeed, than it appears today. For not only, I suppose, are all other works of craftsmen better and brighter when fresh from the artistic hand of their maker, but also the younger specimens of plants are more vigorous than the old and altogether like young shoots. Indeed, animals are most attractive to see right after their birth, not merely the most beautiful among them – colts and calves and puppies – but even the whelps of wild animals of the most savage kind. For, on the one hand, the nature of man is helpless and feeble like Demeter’s tender grain, but when it has progressed to the full measure of its prime, it is a stronger and more conspicuous creation than any plant at all. However, the entire heaven and universe when first it was completed, having been put in order by the wisest and noblest craft, just released from the hand of the creator, brilliant and translucent and brightly beaming in all its parts, remained helpless for no time at all, nor weak with the weakness that nature ordains for man and other mortal beings. On the contrary, it was fresh and vigorous from the very beginning. (60) At that time, therefore, the creator and Father of the world, beholding the work of his hands, was not by any means merely pleased, for that is a lowly experience of lowly beings. No, he rejoiced and was delighted exceedingly: ‘As on Olympus he sat, and his heart did laugh / For joy, beholding the gods​ / who were now all created and present before him’ [Homer, Iliad 21.389-390].”


But the form of the universe at that moment – I mean both the bloom and the beauty of that which is for ever ineffably beauteous – no man could conceive and fitly express, neither among men of our time nor among those of former days, but only the Muses and Apollo with the divine rhythm of their pure and consummate harmony. For that reason let us also refrain for the present, now that we have not shirked exalting the myth to the best of our power. And if the form of that myth has turned out to be utterly lofty and indistinct, just as those who are expert in augury declare that the bird which ascends too high into the heavens hides itself in the clouds makes divination incomplete, still it is not I whom you should blame, but rather the insistence of those men of Borysthenes, because it was they who instructed me to speak that day.


Source of the translation:  J.W. Cohoon and H.L. Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 5 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1939-51), public domain (for volumes 1-2, Cohoon passed away in 1946; for volumes 3-5, Crosby passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.

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