Persians: Xanthos on the Magians’ supposed incest and on Zoroaster’s date (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Xanthos on the Magians’ supposed incest and on Zoroaster’s date (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 22, 2024,

Ancient authors: Xanthos of Lydia (mid-fifth century BCE), Magian Matters / Magika = FGrHist 765 F31-32, 42, as cited by Clement of Alexandria, Diogenes of Laertes, and Excerpts on Virtues and Vices for Constantine Porphyrogennetos (link to FGrHist).

Comments: Writing in the fifth century BCE, Xanthos of Lydia is among the first authors to write a work in Greek (although he himself was likely Lydian) about Magians from Persia. His work is now lost, but two passages are cited by others. The passage dealing with Magians’ supposed incestuous sexual practices suggests that Xanthos’ work highlighted negative or paradoxical customs. More inocuous is the claim that Zoroaster was very early.

Works consulted: P. Kingsley, “Meetings with Magi: Iranian Themes among the Greeks, from Xanthus of Lydia to Plato’s Academy,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 5 (1995): 173–209 (link).


[Supposed incestuous sexual practices]

(F31 = Clement of Alexandria, Tapestries / Stromateis 3.2.11) In his book entitled Magian Matters (Magika), Xanthos says: “The Magians (Magoi / Magi) have sex with their mothers, and he says that for them it is also right to have sex with their daughters and sisters. He also says that the women were held in common by agreement, not forcibly or secretly, whenever one man wanted to marry someone else’s wife.”

Ξάνθος (δὲ) ἐν τοῖς ἐπιγραφομένοις Μαγικοῖς, Μίγνυνται δὲ, φησὶν, οἱ μάγοι μητράσι καὶ θυγατράσι· καὶ ἀδελφαῖς μίγνυσθαι θεμιτὸν εἶναι· κοινάς τε εἶναι τὰς γυναῖκας, οὐ βίᾳ καὶ λάθρα, ἀλλὰ συναινούντων ἀμφοτέρων, ὅταν θέλῃ γῆμαι ὁ ἕτερος τὴν τοῦ ἑτέρου.


[Date of Zoroaster and the succession of Magian leaders]

(F32 = Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.2 [link to full passage]) But Xanthos the Lydian calculates six thousand years from Zoroaster to the expedition of Xerxes [ca. 480 BCE]. After that, there were a long line of Magians in succession, bearing the names of Ostanas, Astrampsychos, Gobryas, and Pazatas until the conquest of Persia by Alexander.

Ξάνθος δὲ ὁ Λυδὸς, εἰς τὴν Ξέρξου διάβασιν ἀπὸ τοῦ Ζωροάστρου, ἑξακόσια φησί· καὶ μετ ̓ αὐτὸν γεγονέναι πολλούς τινας Μάγους κατὰ διαδοχὴν, Ὀστάνας καὶ Ἀστραψύχους, καὶ Γωβρίας καὶ Παζάτας, μέχρι τῆς Περσῶν ὑπ ̓ Ἀλεξάνδρου καταλύσεως.


[Cyrus’ training by Magians]

(F42 = Excerpts on Virtues and Vices for Constantine Porphyrogennetos) Cyrus, king of the Persians, was more experienced in the pursuit of wisdom (philosophia) than anyone else, being one who had been educated by the Magians. He was taught justice and truth according to some ancestral customs that were established for the Persian aristocrats. He also sent for the Sibyl of Ephesos named Herophila, requesting a response.


Source of the translation: Translations by Harland.

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