Persians and Egyptians: Pseudo-Clementines on the origins and nature of Magian skill (second-fourth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians and Egyptians: Pseudo-Clementines on the origins and nature of Magian skill (second-fourth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023,

Ancient authors: Pseudo-Clement (second-fourth centuries, but 406 CE in this Latin translation), Recognitions, various passages (link; link to Latin text of Rufinus’ translation).

Comments: I am presently starting to develop an article on how the scholarly concepts of “magic” and “magicians” (etic categories that continue to be rampantly deployed by scholars of the ancient world) tend to detach such material from ancient ethnographic contexts in connection with Magians among Persians and among other peoples as well. (Added to the problems, of course, is the frequent juxtaposition of “religion” and “magic” in the same circles, both problematic categories for studying ancient phenomena for reasons we can’t fully develop here, of course). Material in the novel about Clement (known as the Pseudo-Clementines) is among the stronger evidence for a continuing awareness on the part of ancient people (including Jesus adherents) regarding the Persian context and broader ethnographic framework for such concepts as the “magi” (here translated “Magians”) and “ars magica” (here translated “Magian skill”). Ethnicity and peoples are the principal rubric, not “religion” or “magic.”

As the passages presented below demonstrate, Magians and their skills are by no means a side-issue for the authors of the material incorporated within the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies (reflecting the second through fifth centuries CE). The entire novelistic story of Clement begins with his search for truth (on which see the full opening at this link). Training in Magian skill (in this case among Egyptian wise men) is among his key plans to solve his conundrum. Then there is the prominence throughout the story of the figure of Simon the Magian (Simon Magus), a figure who appeared briefly in the Acts narrative but was developed by some heresy-hunters into a model opponent or heretic (link). (Charging your opponents with “Magian” practice was widespread, as followers of Valentinus [link] were also faced with this, for example). The competition between Peter the follower of Jesus and Simon the Magian in the Pseudo-Clementines is so central to the ongoing plot that there is no way to fully cover all that material in this post. Suffice it to say, Peter and his God win the competition against Magian tricks by way of many “miracles.” Instead of trying to outline that competition, I have provided key passages that sketch out Simon’s Magian skills and what those mean for the ancient authors who produced or retold this narrative. Foremost here is the idea that Persian Magians were experts in incantations, in manipulating lower spirits (or: demons), and in invoking the dead for various purposes (sometimes called necromancy).

Most importantly for establishing the ethnographic framework, however, is this writing’s theory regarding the origins of Magian skill. The authors trace Magian skill back to the fallen angels of the Genesis narrative (Genesis 6 as expanded in traditions associated with 1 Enoch, especially chapter 7) and to Ham, the son of Noah. But the authors also then follow the line through to show how this dangerous and deceptive practice (in the view of the authors) made its way to various peoples, including Egyptians (like those who competed with Moses just before the exodus) and, most prominently, Persians. Zoroaster (equated with Mesraim, son of Ham) is presented as the key figure here, underlining the eastern, Persian nature of the phenomenon, from this perspective. This shows how the foreign, Persian character of Magian ways remained central through the second to fifth centuries CE. On this, also see Pliny the Elder’s theory about the dissemination of Magian skill (link), as well as Apuleius’ defence against the accusation of adopting Magian ways (link). Anachronistically calling this “magic” or the proponents “magicians” loses most if not all of this.

Source of the translation: T. Smith, “The Recognitions of Clement,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 8, eds. J. Donaldson and A. Roberts (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1916), 75-211, public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.


[Clement’s conundrum and the place of Egyptian wise men and Magian skill in his quest; cf. Homily 1.5]

(1.1-2) I, Clement, who was born in the city of Rome, was from my earliest age a lover of chastity. At the same time, my way of thinking held me bound with chains of anxiety and sorrow. For a thought that was in me – I’m not sure where it came from – constantly led me to think of my condition of mortality and to discuss such questions as these: Would I have a life after death or be completely annihilated? Did I exist before I was born? Will I remember this life after my death? So the boundlessness of time will consign all things to oblivion and silence with the result that we will not only cease to exist, but there will be no memory of us ever existing. This also went around in my mind: When was the world made? Or what was before it was made? Or what has existed from eternity? For it seemed certain, that if it had been made, it must be doomed to dissolution. And if it was dissolved, what would happen afterwards? Unless, perhaps, all things will be buried in oblivion and silence, or something will exist which the mind cannot now conceive.

While questions like these were continually going around in my mind without knowing where they came from, I was pining away excessively with grief. What was worse is, if at any time I thought to set aside such worries as being of little use, the waves of anxiety rose all the higher in me. For I had in me that most excellent companion, who would not allow me to rest: the desire for immortality. For, as subsequent developments showed and the favour of almighty God directed, this way of thinking led me to the quest for truth and the acknowledgement of the true light. So it happened that, before long, I felt sorry for those who I had formerly, in my ignorance, believed to be happy. . . . [omitted discussion of his time in the philosophical sects and the disappoinment].

(1.5) What, then, will I do? This is what I will I do. I will go to Egypt, and I will cultivate the friendship of the revealers of sacred things or prophets who preside at the shrines when I am there. Then I will win over someone with Magian skill (magus) by money, and entreat him, by what they call the necromantic art, to bring me a soul from the infernal regions, as if I were desirous of consulting it about some business. But this will be my consultation: whether the soul is immortal. Now, the proof that the soul is immortal will be beyond doubt, not from what it says, or from what I hear, but from what I see: for seeing the soul with my eyes, I will forever hold the surest conviction of its immortality. And no false words or uncertain things heard will ever be able to disturb the persuasion produced by sight.

However, I related this project to a certain philosopher with whom I was intimate, who counselled me not to try this. He said that, “If the soul would not obey the call of the person with Magian skill, you will live even more hopelessly afterwards, thinking that there is nothing after death while also having tried things that were illegal. If, however, you seem to see anything, what sense of obligation (religio) or what piety can arise for you from illegal and impious things? For they say that transactions of this sort are opposed to the deity, and that God sets himself in opposition to those who trouble souls after their release from the body.” When I heard this, I was indeed hindered in my purpose. Yet I could not at all either lay aside my longing or get rid of the distressing thought. Not to make a long story of it, while I was tossed upon these waves of my thought, a certain report which started in the regions of the east in the reign of Tiberius Caesar gradually reached us. . . [omitted discussion of his travel to Judea to meet a Judean wise man, on which go to this link].


[Magian skill in Peter’s explanation to Clement about primordial history in the wake of a delay in the debate with Simon the Magian]

(1.26) To this Peter answered: “I am very happy, Clement, that I share words to so safe a heart, because to be mindful of the things that are spoken is an indication of being ready in the faith of works. But he from whom the wicked lower spirit (or: demon) steals away the words of salvation, and snatches them away from his memory, cannot be saved, even though he wants to be saved. . . .” [omitted several sentences]. “In the beginning, when God had made the heaven and the earth, as one house, the shadow which was cast by the mundane bodies involved in darkness those things which were enclosed in it. But when the will of God had introduced light, that darkness which had been caused by the shadows of bodies was immediately dispelled.” . . . [omitted section describing creation in more detail].

(1.29-31) “After all things were being completed which are in heaven, on earth, and in the waters, and the humanity had also multiplied, in the eighth generation, righteous men who had lived the life of angels, being allured by the beauty of women, fell into promiscuous and illicit connections with these women [alluding to traditions associated with the expansion of the Genesis 6 narrative in 1 Enoch, especially chapter 7]. Then acting without discretion and disorderly in every way, they changed the state of human affairs and the divinely prescribed order of life. The result was that either by persuasion or force they compelled all men to sin against God their creator. In the ninth generation, the giants were born. These giants – so-called from the old days – are not dragon-footed, as the myths of the Greeks relate, but men of immense bodies, whose enormous bones are still displayed in some places for confirmation. But against these giants the righteous providence of God brought a flood upon the world, so that the earth could be purified from their pollution, and every place could be turned into a sea by the destruction of the wicked. Yet there was then found one righteous man, by name Noah. Being delivered in an ark with his three sons and their wives, Noah became the colonizer of the world after the subsiding of the waters, with those animals and seeds which he had shut up with him.”

“In the twelfth generation, when God had blessed men, and they had begun to multiply, they received a commandment that they should not consume blood, for on account of this also the flood had been sent. In the thirteenth generation, when the second of Noah’s three sons [Ham, father of Canaan] had done an injury to his father, and had been cursed by him, he brought the condition of slavery upon his descendants [i.e. Canaanites]. In the mean time, his elder brother [Shem] obtained the lot of a dwelling-place in the middle region of the world, in which is the country of Judea. The younger obtained the eastern quarter, and he the western. In the fourteenth generation one of the cursed descendants [of Ham and Canaan] first erected an altar to lower spirits [or: demons] for the purpose of Magian skill (ars magica), and offered there bloody sacrifices. In the fifteenth generation, for the first time, men set up an idol and worshipped it. Until that time the Hebrew language, which had been given by God to men, bore sole sway. In the sixteenth generation the sons of men migrated from the east, and, coming to the lands that had been assigned to their fathers, each one marked the place of his own allotment by his own name. In the seventeenth generation Nimrod (Nebroth) reigned in Babylonia, and built a city. He migrated to the Persians from Babylonia and taught them to worship fire.”

“In the eighteenth generation, walled cities were built, armies were organized and armed, judges and laws were sanctioned, temples were built, and the princes of peoples were adored as gods. In the nineteenth generation the descendants of him who had been cursed after the flood [Ham and his son Canaan], going beyond their proper bounds which they had obtained by lot in the western regions, drove into the eastern lands those who had obtained the middle portion of the world [descendants of Shem], and pursued them as far as Persia, while themselves [Canaanites] violently took possession of the country from which they expelled them.” . . . [omitted remainder of Peter’s survey of history leading up to Jesus as the true prophet].


[Simon the Magian, his sect, and his Magian powers explained in more detail]

(2.5-16) When Peter had spoken in this way to us, Niketa [former supporter of Simon the Magian and, unknown to Clement at this point, Clement’s brother] asked permission to say something to him. After Peter granted him permission, Niketa said: “With your pardon, I ask you, my lord Peter, to hear me. I am very anxious for you and I am afraid in case you are outmatched in the contest which you are about to engage in with Simon. For it frequently happens that the one who defends the truth does not gain the victory, since the hearers are either prejudiced or have no great interest in the better cause. But over and above all this, Simon himself is a most effective orator, trained in debating skill and in the meshes of deductive reasoning. What is worse than all of this is that he is very powerful in Magian skill. So I am afraid in case, by chance, because he is so strongly fortified on every side, he will be thought to be defending the truth when he is alleging falsehoods in the presence of those who do not know him. For neither should we ourselves have been able to escape from him, and to be converted to the Lord, had it not been that, while we were his assistants, and the sharers of his errors, we had ascertained that he was a deceiver (deceptor) and a Magian (magus).”

When Niketa had spoken in this way, Aquila [Niketa’s brother] also, asking that he might be permitted to speak, proceeded in the following way: “Receive, I ask you, most excellent Peter, the assurance of my love towards you. For, in fact, I am also extremely anxious on your account. And do not blame us in this, because, in fact, to be concerned for any one comes from affection. Whereas to be indifferent is no less than hatred. But I call God to witness that I feel for you, not as knowing you to be weaker in debate – for I was actually never present at any dispute in which you were engaged – but because I know the impieties of this man quite well. I am thinking about your reputation, the souls of the hearers, and, above all, the interests of the truth itself.”

“For this Magian is vehement towards all things that he wishes, and wicked above measure. For in all things we know him well, since from boyhood we have been assistants and ministers of his wickedness. If God’s love had not rescued us from him, we would even now be engaged in the same evil deeds with him. But a certain inborn love towards God rendered his wickedness hateful to us, and the worship of God attractive to us. I think that it was also the work of divine providence that we, being first made his associates, should take knowledge in what manner or by what skill he accomplishes the miracles (prodigia) which he seems to work. For who is there that would not be astonished at the wonderful things which he does? Who would not think that he was a god come down from heaven for the salvation of men? For myself, I confess, if I had not known him intimately, and had taken part in his activities, I would easily have been carried away with him. Because of this, it was no great thing for us to be separated from associating with him, knowing as we did that he depends upon Magian skill and wicked devices. But if you also yourself wish to know all about him – who, what, and from where he came, and how he contrives what he does – then listen.”

“This Simon’s father was Antonius and his mother was Rachel. He is a Samaritan by descent group (gens), coming from a village of the Gettonians. A Magian by training yet very well trained in the Greek literature. He is desirous of glory, boasting more than any other human, so that he wants others to believe he is an exalted power which is above God the creator, to think that he is the Christ, and to call him the “Standing One.” He uses this name to imply that he can never be dissolved, asserting that his flesh is so compacted by the power of his divinity that it can endure eternally. Hence, therefore, he is called the Standing One, as though he cannot fall as a result of any corruption.”

“For after that John the Baptist was killed, as you yourself also know, when Dositheos [often pictured as a Samaritan of Arabian origins] had broached his sectarian teaching (haeresis) with thirty other main disciples and one woman, who was called Luna (from which these thirty appear to have been appointed with reference to the number of the days, according to the course of the moon), this Simon ambitious for evil glory, as we have said, went to Dositheos. Pretending to be Dositheos’ friend, Simon asked him whether, if any one of those thirty should die, Simon should immediately be a substitute for whoever died. For it was contrary to their rule either to exceed the fixed number, or to admit any one who was unknown, or not yet proved. As a result of this practice, the rest who desire to become worthy of the place and number are eager in every way to please, according to the institutions of their sect, each one of those who aspire after admittance into the number, hoping that he may be considered worthy to be put into the place of the deceased, when, as we have said, any one dies. Therefore Dositheos, being greatly urged by this man, introduced Simon when a vacancy occurred among the number.”

“But not long after he fell in love with that woman whom they call Luna, Simon confided everything to us [Aquila, Niketas, and others] as his friends: how he was a Magian (magus), and how he loved Luna, and how, being desirous of glory, he was unwilling to enjoy her in dishonour, but that he was waiting patiently till he could enjoy her honourably. Further yet he asked whether we would also conspire with him in order to accomplish his desires. And he promised that, as a reward for this service, he would cause us to be invested with the highest honours, and we would be considered gods by men.”

Simon said: “However, only on condition that you confer the leadership on me, Simon, who by Magian skill am able to show many signs and miracles, by means of which either my glory or our sect may be established. For I am able to render myself invisible to those who wish to lay hold of me, and again to be visible when I am willing to be seen. If I wish to flee, I can dig through the mountains, and pass through rocks as if they were clay. If I throw myself headlong from a lofty mountain, I would be carried unhurt to the ground, as if I were held up. When bound, I can loose myself, and bind those who had bound me. When shut up in prison, I can make the barriers open of their own accord. I can animate statues so that those who see the statues suppose that they are men. I can make new trees suddenly spring up, and produce sprouts at once. I can throw myself into the fire, and not be burned. I can change my appearance so that I cannot be recognised. But I can show people that I have two faces. I will change myself into a sheep or a goat. I will make a beard grow on little boys. I will ascend by flight into the air. I will exhibit abundance of gold, and will make and unmake kings.”

“I will be worshipped as God; I will have divine honours publicly assigned to me, so that an image of me will be set up, and I will be worshipped and adored as God. What more can be said? I will be able to do whatever I want to do. For already I have achieved many things by way of experiment. In short,” he said, “once when my mother Rachel ordered me to go to the field to reap, and I saw a sickle lying, I ordered it to go and reap. Then it reaped ten times more than the others. Lately, I produced many new sprouts from the earth, and made them bear leaves and produce fruit in a moment. I successfully tunneled through the nearest mountain.”

“But when he spoke like this about the production of sprouts and boring through the mountain, I was confused on this account, because he wanted to deceive even us, in whom he seemed to place confidence. For we knew that those things bad been from the days of our ancestors, which he represented as having been done by himself lately. Although we heard these atrocious claims from him and worse than these, we nevertheless followed up his crimes and caused others to be deceived by him, telling many lies on his behalf. We did this before we did any of the things which he had promised, so that while had not yet done nothing, he was by thought to be a God by some people.”

“Meanwhile, at the outset, as soon as he was reckoned among the thirty disciples of Dositheos, he began to depreciate Dositheos himself, saying that he did not teach purely or perfectly, and that this was not the result of poor intention but of ignorance. When Dositheos perceived that Simon was depreciating him (fearing in case his reputation among men might be obscured, because he himself was supposed to be the Standing One), Dositheos was enraged when they met as usual at the school, seized a rod, and began to beat Simon. Yet suddenly the rod seemed to pass through his body, as if it had been smoke. On which Dositheos, being amazed, said to him, “Tell me if you are the Standing One, that I may adore you.” And when Simon answered that he was, then Dositheos, perceiving that he himself was not the Standing One, fell down and worshipped him, and gave up his own place as leader to Simon, ordering all the rank of thirty men to obey him. Dositheos himself took the inferior place which Simon formerly occupied. Not long after this Dositheos died.”

“Therefore, after the death of Dositheos, Simon took Luna to himself. As you can see, he still goes around with her deceiving the crowds and asserting that he himself is a certain power which is above God the creator. At the same time, he asserts that Luna, who is with him, has been brought down from the higher heavens, and that she is Wisdom, the mother of all things. He said that the Greeks and barbarians contended with one another to be able in some measure to see an image of her [Wisdom], but they were completely ignorant of her as she truly is, the dweller with the first and only God. Propounding these and other things of the same sort, he has deceived many. But I should also state this, which I remember that I myself saw. Once, when this Luna of his was in a certain tower, a great crowd had assembled to see her, and were standing around the tower on all sides. But she was seen by all the people to lean forward, and to look out through all the windows of that tower. Many other wonderful things Simon did and does, so that people are astonished at them and think that he himself is the great God.”

[Conjuring the dead by way of Magian skill explained]

“Now when Niketa and I [Aquila] once asked him to explain to us how these things could be effected by Magian skill, and what was the nature of that skill, Simon began to explain it to us as his associates in the following way. He said: “I have made the soul (animus) of an innocent and violently slain boy assist me by invoking him with an unutterable conjuring (adiuramentum). By this everything I command happens.” I replied: “But is it possible for a soul to do these things?” He answered: “I want you to know that the soul of man holds the next place after God, once it is set free from the darkness of his body. And immediately it acquires foreknowlege: therefore it is invoked for divination by way of those who are dead (necromantia; or: necromancy).”

Then I [Aquila] responded: “So why don’t souls of persons who are killed take vengeance on their killers?” Simon said: “Do you not remember that I told you that when the soul goes out of the body it acquires knowledge of the future?” “I remember,” I said. Simon said, “Well, then, as soon as it goes out of the body, it immediately knows that there is a judgment to come, and that every one will suffer punishment for those evils that the person has done. Therefore, they are unwilling to take vengeance on their killers, because they themselves are enduring torments for their own evil actions which they had done here, and they know that worse punishments await them in the judgment. Moreover, they are not permitted by the angels who preside over them to go out, or to do anything.” I replied: “Then if the angels do not permit them to come here, or to do what they want to, how can the souls obey the Magian who invokes them?” He said: “It is not that they grant indulgence to the souls that are willing to come. Rather, when the presiding angels are adjured by one greater than themselves, they have the excuse of our violence who adjure them, to permit the souls which we invoke to go out. For those who suffer violence do not sin, but we who impose necessity upon them.” At that point, Niketa, no longer able to refrain, quickly answered, as I also was about to do, in fact, but I wanted to first get information from him on several points. But, as I said, Niketa, anticipating me, said: “And do you not fear the day of judgment, you who do violence to angels, invoke souls, deceive men, and bargain for divine honour to yourself from them? And how do you persuade us that there will be no judgment, as some of the Judeans confess, and that souls are not immortal, as many suppose, though you see them with your very eyes, and receive from them assurance of the divine judgment?”

[Simon’s claim to be born of a virgin and to be God]

“At those sayings of his, Simon grew pale. But after a little while, recollecting himself, he answered as follows: “Do not think that I am a man of your kind (genus). I am neither Magian, nor lover of Luna, nor son of Antonius. For before my mother Rachel and he came together, she, still a virgin, conceived me, while it was in my power to be either small or great, and to appear as a man among men. Therefore, I have chosen you first as my friends for the purpose of testing you, that I may place you first in my heavenly and unspeakable places when I will have proved you. Therefore, I have pretended to be a man so that I might more clearly ascertain if you are completely devoted to me.” But when I heard that – judging him in fact to be a wretch yet wondering at his arrogance and blushing for him, and at the same time fearing in case he should attempt some evil against us – I [Aquila] called in Niketa to pretend for a little along with me, and said to Simon: “ Don’t be angry with us corruptible men, you incorruptible God, but rather accept our affection and our mind which is willing to know who God is. For we did not know who you are until now, nor did we perceive that you are the one we were seeking.”

“As we spoke these and other similar things with looks suited to the occasion, this most vain fellow believed that we were deceived. Being thereby the more elated, he also added this: “I will now be propitious to you, for the affection which you bear towards me as God. For you loved me while you did not know me, and were seeking me in ignorance. But I would not have you doubt that this is what it is like to truly be God: when one is able to become small or great as he pleases, because I am able to appear to man in whatever way I please. Now, then, I will begin to unfold to you what is true.

At one point, I used my power to turn air into water, water again into blood. Solidifying it into flesh, I formed a new human creature – a boy – and produced a much nobler work than God the creator. For God created a man from the earth, but I from air, which is a far more difficult thing to do. Again I unmade him and restored him to air, but not until I had placed his picture and image in my bedroom as a proof and memorial of my work.” Then we understood that he was speaking about that boy whose soul, after he had been slain by violence, Simon had made use of for those services which he required.

However, Peter, hearing these things, said with tears: “Greatly do I wonder at the infinite patience of God and, on the other hand, at the audacity of human rashness in some people. For what further reason can be found to persuade Simon that God judges the unrighteous, since he persuades himself that he employs the obedience of souls for the service of his crimes? But, in truth, he is deluded by lower spirits. Yet, although he is sure by these very things that souls are immortal and are judged for the actions which they have done, and although he thinks that he really sees those things which we believe by faith; even so, as I said, he is deluded by lower spirits, yet he thinks that he sees the very substance of the soul. How will such a man, I say, be brought to confess either that he acts wickedly while he occupies such an evil position, or that he is to be judged for those things which he has done, who, knowing the judgment of God, despises it, and shows himself an enemy to God, and dares commit such horrid things? Therefore, it is certain, my brothers, that some oppose the truth and the holiness (religio) of God, not because it appears to them that reason can by no means stand with faith. Rather, it is because they are either involved in excessive wickedness, or prevented by their own evils, or elated by the swelling of their heart, so that they do not even believe those things which they think that they see with their own eyes.”


[Egyptians trained in Magian skills in the Exodus 7-8 narrative as comparable to Simon competing with Peter]

(3.55-57) [Peter:] “On account of those, therefore, who by neglect of their own salvation please the evil one, and those who by study of their own profit seek to please the good One, ten things have been prescribed as a test to this present age, according to the number of the ten plagues which were brought upon Egypt. For when Moses, according to the commandment of God, demanded of pharaoh that he should let the people go, and in token of his heavenly commission showed signs, his rod being thrown upon the ground was turned into a serpent. And when pharaoh could not by these means be brought to consent, as having freedom of will, again the Magians seemed to do similar signs, by permission of God, that the purpose of the king might be proved from the freedom of his will, whether he would rather believe the signs done by Moses, who was sent by God, or those which the Magians rather seemed to work than actually do. For truly he should have understood from their very name that they were not workers of truth, because they were not called messengers of God, but Magians, as the tradition also intimates. Moreover, they seemed to maintain the contest up to a certain point, and afterwards they confessed of themselves, and yielded to their superior. Therefore the last plague is inflicted, the destruction of the first-born, and then Moses is commanded to consecrate the people by the sprinkling of blood. And so, gifts being presented, with much entreaty he is asked to depart with the people.”

“I see myself as engaged in a similar transaction right now. For just like then, when Moses exhorted the king to believe God, the Magians opposed him by a pretended exhibition of similar signs, and so kept back the unbelievers from salvation. So also now, when I have come out to teach all peoples (gentes) to believe in the true God, Simon the Magian resists me, acting in opposition to me, as they also did in opposition to Moses, so that whoever among the peoples that does not use sound judgment may be made manifest. But those who distinguish one type of signs [Magian ones] from another type of signs [those done by God] may be saved.” While Peter spoke like this, Niketa answered: “I beg you that you would permit me to say what’s on my mind.” Then Peter, being happy with the eagerness of his disciples, said: “Speak what you will.”

Then said Niketa: “In what respect did the Egyptians sin in not believing Moses, since the Magians did similar signs, although they were done rather in appearance than in truth? For if I had been there then, should I not have thought, from the fact that the Magians did similar things to those which Moses did, either that Moses was a Magian, or that the Magians did their signs by divine commission? For I should not have thought it likely that the same things could be effected by Magians, even in appearance, which he who was sent by God performed. Now, in what way do people who believe Simon sinned, since they see him do so great marvels? Or is it not marvellous to fly through the air, to be so mixed with fire as to become one body with it, to make statues walk, brazen dogs bark, and other such like things, which surely are wonderful enough to those who know not how to distinguish? Yes, he has also been seen to make bread from stones. But if a person who believes those who do signs sins, how will it appear that he also does not sin who has believed our Lord for his signs and works of power?”


[Origins and dissemination of idolatry and Magian skill]

(4.26-31) [Peter:] “Now therefore, since you do not yet understand how great darkness of ignorance surrounds you, in the mean time I wish to explain to you where the worship of idols began in this world. And by idols, I mean those lifeless images which you worship, whether made of wood, or earthenware, or stone, or brass, or any other metals. The beginning of these was the following: Certain angels, having left the course of their proper order, began to favour the vices of men, and in some measure to lend unworthy aid to their lust. In order that by these means the angels might indulge their own pleasures more and in order that they might not seem to be inclined of their own accord to unworthy services, the angels taught men that lower spirits could, by certain skills – that is, by Magian invocations – be made to obey men. And so, as from a furnace and workshop of wickedness, they filled the whole world with the smoke of impiety, the light of piety being withdrawn.”

[Ham and his son Mesraim / Zoroaster as the originators of Magian skill; cf. Homilies 9.4-6]

“For these and some other causes, a flood was brought upon the world, as we have said already, and will say again. Everyone on the earth was destroyed, except the family of Noah, who survived with his three sons and their wives. One of these, by name Ham, unhappily discovered the Magian skill and handed down the instruction of it to one of his sons, who was called Mesraim, from whom the descent group (genus) of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians are descended. The peoples (gentes) who then existed called him [Mesraim] Zoroaster, admiring him as originator of Magian skill in whose name many books on this subject exist. Therefore, since he [Mesraim / Zoroaster] was much and frequently focussed on the stars and wanted to be considered a god among them, he began to draw forth, as it were, certain sparks from the stars and to show them to men. The purpose of this was that the rude and ignorant might be astonished, as with a miracle. Wanting to increase this estimation of him, he attempted these things again and again, until he was set on fire and consumed by the lower spirit himself, whom he accosted too persistently.”

“But the foolish men who lived then – who should have abandoned the opinion which they had conceived about him since they had seen it confuted by his mortal punishment – praised him even more. Building a sepulchre in his honour, they went so far as to adore him as a friend of God and one who had been removed to heaven in a chariot of lightning, and to worship him as if he were a living star. Hence his name was called “Zoroaster” after his death – that is, “living star” – by those who, after one generation, had been taught to speak the Greek language. Ultimately, by this example, even now many worship those who have been struck with lightning, honouring them with sepulchres, and worshipping them as friends of God. But this man was born in the fourteenth generation, and died in the fifteenth, in which the tower was built, and the languages of men were divided into many.”

[Persians prominent in the chain of transmission and preservation of Magian skill]

“First among them is named a certain king Nimrod (Nebroth). The Magian skill was handed down to him as by a flash, whom the Greeks, also called “Ninos,” and from whom the city of Nineveh took its name. So in this way diverse and erratic superstitions derived from the Magian skill. For, because it was difficult to draw away the humanity from the love of God, and attach them to deaf and lifeless images, the Magians made use of higher efforts so that men would be turned to erratic worship by signs among the stars and motions brought down as it were from heaven, and by the will of God. And those who had been first deceived, collecting the ashes of Zoroaster – who, as we have said, was burned up by the indignation of the lower spirit, to whom he had been too troublesome – brought them to the Persians, so that they might be preserved by them with perpetual watching, as divine fire fallen from heaven, and might be worshipped as a heavenly God.”

“In a similar way, other men in other places built temples, set up statues, instituted mysteries and ceremonies and sacrifices to those whom they had admired, either for some skills or for virtue, or at least had held in very great affection. They rejoiced, by means of all things belonging to gods, to hand down their fame to posterity, especially because, as we have already said, they seemed to be supported by some fantasies of Magian skill, so that by invocation of lower spirits something seemed to be done and moved by them that led to the deception of men. To these they also add certain ceremonies and drunken banquets, in which men might with all freedom indulge. Lower spirits, conveyed into them in the chariot of repletion, might be mixed with their very bowels, and holding a place there, might bind the acts and thoughts of men to their own will. Such errors, then, having been introduced from the beginning, and having been aided by lust and drunkenness, in which carnal men mainly delight, the duty of God, which consisted in self-control and sobriety, began to become rare among men, and to be almost abolished.”

[Idolatry follows]

“At first, men worshipped a righteous and all-seeing God neither dared to sin nor to do injury to their neighbours, being persuaded that God sees the actions and movements of every one. When worship was directed to lifeless images, concerning which they were certain that they were incapable of hearing, or sight, or motion, they began to sin licentiously, and to move on to every crime, because they had no fear of suffering anything at the hands of those whom they worshipped as gods. Hence the madness of wars burst out, from this came plunderings, thefts, captivities, and liberty reduced to slavery. Every person, as he could, satisfied his lust and his covetousness, although no power can satisfy covetousness. As with fire, the more fuel it gets, the more extensively kindled and strengthened it becomes, so also the madness of covetousness is made greater and more vehement by means of those things which it acquires. . . Therefore, begin now with better understanding to resist those things which you do not rightly desire . . .” [omitted remainder of Peter’s speech at this point].

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