Persians: Suda on Zoroaster and on expertise in Magian practice, howling chants, and potions (tenth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Suda on Zoroaster and on expertise in Magian practice, howling chants, and potions (tenth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 22, 2024,

Ancient authors: Anonymous Byzantine lexicographers (tenth century CE drawing on earlier materials), Suda lexicon, at the alphabetical entries: ἀστρονομία / astronomia, Adler alpha no. 4257; γοητεία / goēteia, gamma no. 365; Zoroaster, zeta no.159; Zoroaster (another one), zeta no. 160; μαγεία / mageia, mu no. 9; μαγική / magikē, mu no. 13; μάγοι / magoi, mu no. 28; and, Ὀστᾶναι / Ostanians, omicron 710 (link to online Suda text and alternative translations; Greek texts also further below).

Comments: Although quite late (tenth century CE), the dictionary or lexicon known as the Suda draws on earlier works and is extremely important for understanding the nuances of Greek terms and particularly distinctions between related terms. In the cases translated below, the compiler clarifies distinctions between a variety of terms, all of which are still in the tenth century (as well as in previous centuries back to Pliny the Elder in the first century [link] and further back still) associated with Persians and the east. Common scholarly traditions which translate mageia as “magic” (and therefore Magus as “magician” or “wizard,” again) are anachronistic and not inclined to help us understand what is going on here, particularly in an ethnographic context and particularly when the “Persian” connection is lost. On this see also Apuleius’ defence against the accusation of engaging in Magian practices (link).

Because of their association with astrology and Magian techniques, there were numerous Greek authors who composed works attributed to Zoroaster (especially on astrology) and Ostanes (especially on Magian techniques). However, none of these examples of Greek notions of Persian wisdom – beyond the writing attributed to Zoroaster (Zostrianos – link) among the Nag Hammadi documents – have survived in full (see Beck 1991 and the surviving ancient references and fragments in Bidez and Cumont 1938). Again, none of these Greek configurations of foreign wisdom need to be imagined as accurate preservation of actual Persian ideologies or practices.  We do, however, have descriptions by Greek authors: see Plutarch’s somewhat substantial outline of what he thinks summarizes the Zoroastrian worldview, drawing on a lost work by Theopompos (link).

Works consulted: R. Beck, “Thus Spake Not Zarathuštra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Greco-Roman World,” in A History of Zoroastrianism, Volume 3: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule, ed. M. Boyce and F. Grenet (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 491–565; J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque, vol. 2 (Paris: Société d’Éditions les Belles Lettres, 1938) (link), for a collection of the ancient sources (although their interpretation in volume 1 has been shown to be problematic).


Astronomia: This refers to the arrangement of the stars. Babylonians were the first to discover this through Zoroaster, after which also Ostanes. They gave attention to the sky’s motion which took place in correspondence with births. After them Egyptians and Greeks received this and trace those who are born back to the movements of the stars.

Also attested is the phrase “to judge by stars,” in reference to those traveling a long and lonely journey and reckoning the location of their homelands by stars.

Also attested is the term “starry,” referring to the one who comes out of the stars.

“Magian things (mageia)” and “discoursing about the stars (astrologia)” began from Magousaians (Magousaioi). For the Persians are called “Magog” by their countrymen. And Magouseans [here it seems an alternate spelling, as I have supplied, was intended] are the same.

Ἀστρονομία: ἡ τῶν ἄστρων διανομή. πρῶτοι Βαβυλώνιοι ταύτην ἐφεῦρον διὰ Ζωροάστρου: μεθ’ ὧν καὶ Ὀστάνης: οἳ ἐπέστησαν τῇ οὐρανίᾳ κινήσει τὰ περὶ τοὺς τικτομένους συμβαίνειν: ἀφ’ ὧν Αἰγύπτιοι καὶ Ἕλληνες ἐδέξαντο καὶ τοὺς γεννωμένους ἀναφέρουσιν εἰς τὴν τῶν ἀστέρων κίνησιν. καὶ Ἄστροις τεκμαίρεσθαι, ἐπὶ τῶν μακρὰν καὶ ἔρημον ὁδὸν πορευομένων καὶ ἄστροις σημειουμένων τὰς θέσεις τῶν πατρίδων. καὶ Ἀστρῷος, ὁ ἐκ τῶν ἄστρων. ὅτι μαγεία καὶ ἀστρολογία ἀπὸ Μαγουσαίων ἤρξατο. οἱ γάρ τοι Πέρσαι Μαγὼγ ὑπὸ τῶν ἐγχωρίων ὀνομάζονται. καὶ Μαγουσαῖοι, οἱ αὐτοί.


Goēteia, mageia: The terms “expertise in howling of chants (goēteia)”, “expertise in Magian things (mageia)”, and “expertise in potions (pharmakeia)” differ. Medes and Persians discovered them. So the term “expertise in Magian things” is of course calling upon lower spirits (daimones) that do good things precisely for causing something good, like the oracles of Apollonios of Tyana. But the term “expertise in howling of chants” refers to raising a dead person by calling on them, which is derived from the “wailing (gooi)” and lamentations which are made at burials. But the term “expertise in potions” refers to when some death-causing mixture is given as a potion by mouth to someone.

“Expertise in Magian things (mageia)” and “discourses about the stars (astrologia)” began with “Magousaians” (Magousaioi), for the Persians are called “Magog” by their countrymen.

Also attested is “Magouseans” for the same.

Also attested is the term “I howl chants (goēteuō)” with an accusative object.

Γοητεία: μαγεία. γοητεία καὶ μαγεία καὶ φαρμακεία διαφέρουσιν: ἅπερ ἐφευ̂ρον Μῆδοι καὶ Πέρσαι. μαγεία μὲν οὗν ἐστιν ἐπίκλησις δαιμόνων ἀγαθοποιν δθεν πρὸς ἀγαθο τινος σύστασιν, ὥσπερ τὰ το ̓Απολλωνίου το Τυανέως θεσπίσματα. γοητεία δὲ ἑπὶ τ ἀνάγειν νεκρὸν δι᾿ ἐπικλήσεως, ὁθεν εἵρηται ἀπὸ τν γόων καὶ τν θρήνων τν περὶ τοὺς τάφους γινομένων. φαρμακεία δὲ, ὅταν διά τινος σκευασίας θανατηφόρου πρὸς φίλτρον δοθτινι διὰ στόματος. μαγεία δὲ καὶ ἀστρολογία ἀπὸ Μαγουσαίων ἥρξατο: οἱ γάρ τοι Πέρσαι Μαγὼγ ὑπὸ τνγχωρων ὀνομάζονται. καὶ Μαγουσαοι, οἱ αὐτοί. καὶ Γοητεύω: αἰτιατικ.


Zoroaster: A Perso-Mede and sage (sophos). Concerning this man, see under “astronomia” [above]. He was also the first to introduce the term “the Magians (hoi Magoi),” which is customary among them [i.e. Persians and Medes]. He lived five hundred years before the Trojan war. It is said that he wrote On Nature in four books, On Stones in one book, On Observation of the Stars, and On Astrological Production in five books.

Ζωροάστρης, Περσομῆδος, σοφός. ζήτει περὶ τούτου ἐν τῇ ἀστρονομίᾳ. ὃς καὶ πρῶτος ἦρξε τοῦ παρ’ αὐτοῖς πολιτευομένου ὀνόματος τῶν Μάγων. ἐγένετο δὲ πρὸ τῶν Τρωϊκῶν ἔτεσι φ’. φέρεται δὲ αὐτοῦ Περὶ φύσεως βιβλία δ’, Περὶ λίθων τιμίων α’, Ἀστεροσκοπικά, Ἀποτελεσματικὰ βιβλία ε’.


Zoroaster [i.e. there is a tradition that there was another Zoroaster]: Astronomer in the time of Ninos king of Assyria [legendary king]. This is the one who prayed to be killed by a heavenly fire, instructing the Assyrians to preserve his ashes, because in this way their kingdom would continue forever. Until now the ashes are guarded by them.

Ζωροάστρης, ἀστρονόμος, ἐπὶ Νίνου βασιλέως Ἀσσυρίων, ὅστις ηὔξατο ὑπὸ πυρὸς οὐρανίου τελευτῆσαι παρεγγυήσας τοῖς Ἀσσυρίοις τὴν τέφραν αὐτοῦ φυλάττειν: οὕτω γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἡ βασιλεία οὐκ ἐκλείψει διαπαντός: ὅπερ μέχρι νῦν πεφύλακται παρ’ αὐτοῖς.


Mageia: It is calling upon lower spirits (daimones) that do good things for causing something good, like the oracles of Apollonios of Tyana. The term “expertise in howling of chants (goēteia)” is calling on evil-causing lower spirits, taking place around graves. But the term “expertise in potions (pharmakeia)” pertains to giving some death-causing mixture as a potion or something else by mouth to someone.

But the term “liver-inspection (hēpatoskopia)” refers to the dissection of the entrails [of sacrificed animals] by means of which they used to predict coming events. For when dissecting they witnessed certain signs in the livers.

See also goēteia [entry above]. Concerning “Expertise in Magian things,” see under “Persians.”

Μαγεία: ἐπίκλησίς ἐστι δαιμόνων ἀγαθοποιῶν πρὸς ἀγαθοῦ τινος σύστασιν: ὡς τὰ τοῦ Ἀπολλωνίου τοῦ Τυανέως θεσπίσματα. γοητεία ἐπίκλησίς ἐστι δαιμόνων κακοποιῶν περὶ τοὺς τάφους γινομένη. φαρμακεία δέ, ὅταν διά τινος σκευασίας θανατηφόρου πρὸς φίλτρον, ἢ ἄλλως δοθῇ τισι διὰ στόματος. ἡπατοσκοπία δὲ ἡ τῶν ἐγκάτων ἀνατομή, δι’ ὧν προεμήνυον τὰ συμβησόμενα. ἀνατέμνοντες γὰρ σημεῖά τινα ἐθεώρουν ἐν τοῖς ἥπασι. καὶ ζήτει ἐν τῷ γοητεία. ζήτει περὶ μαγείας ἐν τῷ Πέρσαι.


Magikē: Medes and Persians invented this. It is different from “expertise in the howling of  chants (goēteia)” and “expertise in potions (pharmakeia)”

Μαγική: ταύτην ἐφεῦρον Μῆδοι καὶ Πέρσαι. ἡ διαφέρουσα τῆς γοητείας καὶ αὐτῆς φαρμακείας.


Magoi [i.e. Magians]: Among Persians this refers to the philosophers and god-lovers. Zoroaster was the first one of them and after this in succession were Ostanes and Astrampsychos.

Μάγοι: παρὰ Πέρσαις οἱ φιλόσοφοι καὶ φιλόθεοι: ὧν ἦρχε Ζωροάστρης καὶ μετὰ τοῦτον κατὰ διαδοχὴν Ὀστάναι καὶ Ἀστράμψυχοι.


Ostanai: These men have earlier been called “Magians (Magoi)” by the Persians, and subsequently Ostanians (Ostanai) [i.e. followers of Ostanes]. See under “astronomy” [above].

Ὀστᾶναι: οὗτοι πρῴην παρὰ Πέρσαις Μάγοι ἐλέγοντο, κατὰ διαδοχὴν Ὀστᾶναι. ζήτει ἐν τῷ ἀστρονομία.


Source of translation: Translations by Harland.

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