The Magicians

The Christmas Nativity story is marked by visits from wise men [Matt 2:1], or Magi [plural for Magus Latin, or Magos Greek] from the East.

It is commonly believed to be wise men to be Zoroastrians from Persia.  The Prophet Zoroaster [c. 1500 BC]  was the founder of the Magi and “inventor” of both astrology and magic and the word, magi still survives in the modern-day words “magic ” and “magician”.

Harry Potter eat your heart out.

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Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith that developed in Persia from 1500 BC while Abrahamic monotheism can be dated to 2000BC. Zoroastrians, while astrologers and alchemists, were opposed to sorcery and their beliefs were marked by strong polarities between good and evil, dark and light and Messianism – a belief that a king will rise to reconcile the cosmic battle between light and dark.

The wise men of the East feature in biblical accounts of Daniel. Daniel served under two Chaldean-Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belteshazzar, and one Medo-Persian Darius. Daniel predicted the rise of a kingdom which would be greater than other kingdoms and take over the world.

 

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Old Testament scripture that dates after the exile is noted to be affected by Zoroastrianism as it takes on strong imagery of dark and light, motifs of angels and demons, heaven and hell. These polarities of Second Temple Judaism can be contrasted to the strong monotheism of traditional Judaism. In the Torah, the first five books, the Book of Job and other earlier writings,  God was ONE and held polarities of justice and mercy together. God [not an evil force] was to be feared as judge, Satan was more “accuser” than demon, bringing cases before YHWH for his judgement.  Death was a grey waste called Sheol, and the afterlife was a form of reincarnation.

Zoroastrians used their astrology to follow the signs to where the infant Christ lived with his parents. Their arrival signified the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the nations coming to see the light of Israel, bringing their tribute and fealty [Ps 72:11, Isa 60:11]. The arrival of the Magi to honour the birth of Christ is perhaps thus a look back to how Judaism was nuanced by the monotheism and messianism of the Zoroastrians. Or perhaps it is a look forward to the Age to come when all those who seek God in spirit and in truth, acknowledged the Messiah, the whole point of and culmination of scripture.

 

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One Thousand and One Nights – (Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah)

One Thousand and One Nights  is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic golden age, 7th – 13th century AD. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.  I detect some parallels with the Hebrew and Biblical account of the book of Esther and the origins of the Feast of Purim.

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The versions of One Thousand and One Nights vary, but what is common throughout all the editions is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: شهريار‎, meaning “king” or “sovereign”) and his wife Schehrezade (from Persian: شهرزاد‎, possibly meaning “of noble lineage”).  The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his shock to discover his wife’s infidelity. He has her executed and in his bitterness and grief, decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Schehrezade, the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. It ends with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.

The biblical account of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahaserus [Xerxes, 5th C. BC] and  the story was likely composed sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. It tells of the King of Persia whose wife refuses his command to appear before his banquet of noblemen and so he deposes her for fear that women throughout the kingdom would disobey their husbands. Not long after Xerxes seeks for a new wife by bringing virgins from all around the kingdom into the palace. The girls are prepared for the Royal House over one year and then are brought to the king for one night. After one night they are moved into the royal harem and not called again unless by name.  The story tells of an orphaned Jewish girl in the kingdom, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who was brought in before the king. She is favoured her among all the virgins and chosen to be his bride.

1001 Nights Esther

Not long after this Haman, the vizier [Prime Minister] brings charges against the Jewish people for not honouring the customs of the nation. Haman requests the King decree the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin,  passes news of the decree to Esther in the palace and urges her that she will not be spared by the decree and must intercede for her people. She tells him that anyone who comes to the king unbidden will be executed, except those he extends his golden scepter to. She resolves to fast and pray and then approach the king without invitation. After three days, she approaches the king, who extends his sceptre to her and asks her what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Instead of laying her case before the king, she instead invites him and Haman to attend a banquet. During the banquet again the king asks what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Again instead of laying forth her request, Esther invites them both to a second banquet.

The next day at the second banquet the king again asks what Esther’s petition may be up to half the kingdom. This time she asks for the lives of herself and her people be spared. The king seeing that it was Haman who had established the decree, is furious and he walks out onto the balcony. In the meantime Haman pleads with Esther by falling upon her couch. When the king returns he perceives  Haman to be molesting the queen and immediately orders his execution.  Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, is given Haman’s place as vizier and he promptly writes another decree for the Jews to defend themselves. The occasion is celebrated to the present day in the feast of Purim, the day the Jews were spared anhialation by a faithful womans’ courage and her ability to artfully delay the king.

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While elements are conflated and details changed, in both stories, the clever queen saves her own life and the lives of others by knowing how to go about matters of national and international diplomacy with subtle grace. Both women engage in theatrical delays across a series of nights, creating intrigue and enticing the King to change policies and preserve lives.