Flavin’s Corner December 2003

Magic with Tears

Part One: Gaspar

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.  When Herod the King had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.  And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet.  And though Beth-lehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.  Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child: and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him.  When they had heard the king, they departed: and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Matthew 2:1-12, KJV; in THE HOLY BIBLE, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties Special Commandment. Appointed to be read in Churches. various translators; London: Robert Barker, 1611

Thanksgiving was costly in several ways, some of which have yet to be invoiced.  I prepared a turkey and all the fixings the night before, so I could be on the road no later than eight-thirty in the morning.  I had a full day planned, traffic into Boston was exceptionally light and I made great time, but that time, plus some more, was spent trying to deliver a dinner.  A friend of a friend, who was once a classics professor and knows Greek and Latin, was three months into a drunk and wasn’t holding up well.  I assumed he would spend Thanksgiving Day with a half-gallon of cheap vodka and had decided days before to visit and provide a meal (a very fine meal, in actuality).

Several minutes of ringing the doorbell was followed up with some aggressive, yet restrained, knocking at his backdoor, which brought me once more to the frontdoor and a round of vigorous doorbell ringing.  A tenant in the building appeared, let me in the hallway and in hushed tones informed me that the person I was looking for had had a rough night, was home and his apartment door was unlocked.  The fellow was a good neighbor and a nice guy for letting me in.

Entering the apartment was stepping into someone’s personal hell.  He was passed out in bed.  From his doorway, I could see dried piles, puddles and smears of feces of different age and color in various rooms.  “Get up!” I yelled.  “I brought over a turkey dinner and a great rumcake...”

He woke, recognized me, crawled out of bed, donned a bathrobe and stumbled to the living room.  After he lit a cigarette, he focused somewhat and began to blather about having to fill out some legal forms and get a haircut on Monday.  I barked profanities and said I didn’t want to hear it.  I’d seen cleaner zoos.  There was shit everywhere, I’ve no doubt a considerable amount still on his person, and I was in no mood to listen to future plans when there was some serious cleaning and hygiene to attend to.  He admitted that he was embarrassed.  Then he stumbled to the kitchen and got a chilled half-gallon of vodka from his freezer.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; he probably wasn’t the first drunk to greet a new morning with a cigarette and step over piles of crap to get to the booze.

Magoi,” I said, hoping I had managed the vowels okay.  Nothing.  I repeated, “magoi.”  A puzzled look; still nothing.  “Magoi, like the Magi who paid their respects to Baby Jesus,” I explained.  “Ah, magoi!”  He had got it.  Taking a pull from the bottle of vodka, he began to mumble associations, “Magic!  Magus!”  “That’s Latin; let’s stick with the Greek magoi,” I demanded.  He then tried to explain the Magi as a Persian priestly class and may have given a credible, though surely outdated, definition, had I not cut him off.  “Are there any other early Greek words related to magoi?  Some scholars have now abandoned the ‘wise men’ translation and use ‘astrologers’ instead.  Herodotus mentioned the magoi; do you recall whether or not a generic sense of ‘astrologers’ would fit?”  I was talking about Jesus with a man soiled with his own waste.  Surreal doesn’t even come close.

Standards of cool and hot fluctuate with cultural whimsey, but for me a Thanksgiving dinner will always trump White Castle hamburgers or filet mignon, and Christmas music touches places within me that pop personalities and aging rockers can never reach.  Though the Jesus Narrative ends with a death on the cross and an alleged resurrection, now remembered with Good Friday and Easter celebrations, it opens with a young mother giving birth and hoping for the best, our Christmas.  With every birth there’s hope.  For some years now I’ve tried to get past the Coca-Cola Santa and the very successful commercialization of Christmas.  I try to think about all mothers giving birth and hoping their children can bring good things into this troubled world of ours.

The unknown authors who penned the gospels of Mark and John began their efforts with an adult Jesus meeting Baptist John.  Many scholars believe Mark’s gospel was written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, c. 70 CE, and date the composition of  John’s gospel sometime between 90 and 100 CE.  The gospels of Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written in the 80s and differ from Mark and John by including infancy scenes.  Matthew introduced the Magi and Luke provided shepherds and a babe in a manger.  I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that Christians could be comfortable with the idea that ancient Iraqi pagans were the first to acknowledge Jesus.

Some historians place the first mention of the Magi with Heraclitus of Ephesus (the chronographer Apollodorus suggests Heraclitus was around forty years of age c. 504-501 BCE).  However, the origin for this citation is Titus Flavius Clemens (aka St. Clement of Alexandria) who died around 215 CE, some seven hundred years after Heraclitus.  In Clement’s Protreptikos pros Ellenas ("Hortatory Discourse to the Greeks"), Heraclitus associates the Magi with fire.  Although secondary sources indicate Heraclitus wrote about fire in a cosmic sense, there is no direct evidence Heraclitus was actually concerned with or knew of the Magi.  Indeed, many regard Heraclitus as an outsider, an intentionally obsure and misanthropic loner.  It’s easier to imagine the connection as a product of Clement’s imagination.

Note: Two later authors who describe the beliefs of Heraclitus offer a tantalizing, though tenuous, connection with Matthew’s infancy scene and the Magi, and their unknown sources may have been the same as that which inspired Clement to attribute knowledge of the Magi to Heraclitus.  St. Hippolytus of Rome (who died twenty years after Clement and was an anti-pope for a time) writes in his Refutation of all Heresies that Heraclitus believed that  “God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger [all the opposites, this is the meaning]; he undergoes alteration in the way that fire, when it is mixed with spices, is named according to the scent of each of them.” For a different translation, click here.  Debate continues as to the reliability of Hippolytus, with some scholars alleging that he simply repeated apocryphal anecdotes from inferior sources.  The third century Epicurean, Diogenes Laërtius, writes of Heraclitus in his De vitis, dogmatibus et apophthegmatibus clarorum virorum (“Lives of Eminent Philosophers”): “He does not reveal the nature of the surrounding; it contains, however, bowls turned with their hollow side towards us, in which the bright exhalations are collected and form flames, which are the heavenly bodies.”  According to the unknown sources used by these authors (and Clement), with Heraclitus we find the elements of Magi, fire and spices revealing aspects of God, and fire as stars.  The above quotes are from Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 5th to 7th eds., by Hermann Diels, ed. with additions by W. Kranz; translated in The Presocratic Philosophers: a critical history with a selection of texts, second edition, by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957, 1983; pp. 190 and 201.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484-425 BCE), whom Cicero called the “father of history,” provides the earliest sure mention of the Magi, though the author does so with details which go against later images and representations.  Herodotus writes:

There is another practice, however, concerning the burial of the dead, which is not spoken of openly and is something of a mystery: it is that a male Persian is never buried until the body has been torn by a bird or a dog.  I know for certain that the Magi have this custom, for they are quite open about it.  The Persians in general, however, cover a body with wax and then bury it.  The Magi are a peculiar caste, quite different from the Egyptian priests and indeed from any other sort of person.  The Egyptian priests make it an article of religion to kill no living creature except for sacrifice, but the Magi not only kill anything, except dogs and men, with their own hands but make a special point of doing so; ants, snakes, animals, birds–no matter what, they kill them indiscriminately.  Well, it is an ancient custom, so let them keep it. The Histories, by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt; Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1954; p. 71 [1:140].

I’m uncomfortable with what follows, but I feel it needs consideration.  Understanding the gospels as Greek tragedy has yet to be fully explored, but many scholars today recognize verisimilitude, as well as agenda considerations in Christian scripture.  It is not unreasonable to assume that educated individuals in the first century who were fluent in the Greek language and literate, such as the author of Matthew's gospel, might have had access to Herodotus and have been familiar with the queer custom of the Magi (at least according to Herodotus) of a dead body being torn by birds or dogs before burial.  Also, anyone even peripherally involved with the Roman world would have been knowledgeable about what happens to a crucified body.  Prof. Crossan (emeritus; Religious Studies, DePaul University) has written: 

What exactly made crucifixion so terrible?  The three supreme Roman penalties were the cross, fire, and the beasts.  What made them supreme was not just their inhuman cruelty or their public dishonor, but the fact that there might be nothing left to bury at the end....No wonder we have found only one body from all those thousands crucified around Jerusalem in that single century.  Remember those dogs.  And if you seek the heart of darkness, follow the dogs.  Jesus: a revolutionary biography, by John Dominic Crossan; New York: HarperSanFrancisco; 1994; pp. 126-127.

It seems too coincidental that the Magi would be the first to acknowledge Jesus, have a custom of a dead body being torn by dogs before burial, and the brutal truth that most victims of crucifixion were left for the dogs.  Perhaps it’s an example of exceptional composition and balance.

The Magi are understood to have been associated with the Indo-Aryan Medes (OP Mada; Heb mdy, see Genesis 10:2), who along with the Persians (OP Parsa), a related tribe, conquered and displaced the indigenous people of Iran in the late second millennium before the Common Era (BCE).  Fire was held in great esteem by the Medes and they worshiped the Indo-Aryan pantheon of gods, i.e., Mithra, Varuna, Indra, etc.  The Medes were renowned horsemen and charioteers, as well as fierce warriors.  By the time of their first mention in ninth century BCE Assyrian cuneiform texts, the Median empire encompassed eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.  In the seventh century BCE the Indo-Aryan (Iranian) Medes joined forces with a southern Iraqi (Semitic) people, the Chaldeans, and overthrew Assyria.  The term 'magi' undoubtedly existed at this time and was in use by the Medians, but it’s exact meaning remains unknown.

Note: Modern scholarship has assisted in clearing up some of the confusion surrounding the Chaldeans, notably from the widespread influence of Hebrew scripture and the previously sacrosanct mention that Abraham was from “Ur of the Chaldeans.”  Though few serious scholars today regard the tale of Abraham as historical (Paul even uses the term “allegory” to describe Abraham’s relationship with Hagar and Sarah; see Galatians 4:21-31), it is suspected that the authors of Genesis had a Middle Bronze Age period in mind, c. 2100 to 1900 BCE.  The inclusion of 'Chaldeans' in Genesis is now thought to have been inserted post-exile (after 539 BCE).

“The latest editors of Genesis were not content with mere metaphors, however.  They wanted to show how the origins of the people of Israel lay at the very heart of the civilized world.  Thus unlike the lesser peoples that arose in underdeveloped, uncultured regions around them, they hint that the great father of the people of Israel came from the cosmopolitan, famed city of Ur.  Abraham’s origins in Ur are mentioned only in two isolated verses (Genesis 11:28 and 31, a P document) while his story seems very much more centered on the north Syrian–Aramean–city of Haran.  But even that brief mention was enough.  Ur as Abraham’s birthplace would have bestowed enormous prestige as the homeland of a putative national ancestor.  Not only was Ur renowned as a place of extreme antiquity and learning, it gained great prestige throughout the entire region during the period of its reestablishment as a religious center by the Babylonians, or Chaldean, king Nabonidus in the mid-sixth century BCE.  Thus, the reference to Abraham’s origin in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ would have offered the Jews a distinguished and ancient cultural pedigree.”  The Bible Unearthed: archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman; New York: The Free Press, 2001; pp. 312-313.

A later and much more explicit claim for the origins of the Hebrews is found in the The Book of Judith.  Written in the second century BCE, the adventure is set in Neo-Babylonian times, and is thought to have had a special appeal with those involved with the earliest stages of the Maccabean Revolt c. 167-164 BCE, the rededication of the Jewish temple and the origin of the Hanukah holiday.  Judith 5:6 claims “This people [the Israelites] are descended of the Chaldeans.”  The Book of Judith is not included in the Hebrew Bible, however the Catholic and Orthodox churches grant it canonicity.  The use of ‘Chaldeans’ may be understood as related to Genesis and Abraham, as explained above.

When the Medes and Chaldeans took Assyrian-controlled Babylon, they became heirs to a rich cultural, technological and pre-scientific heritage.  The dynasty which ruled from 626 to 539 BCE, today known as the Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian period, was bold and successful.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was built under Nebuchadnezzar II (probably shortly before his destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE).  Working from the solid astronomical efforts of the conquered Assyrians (observations and calculation techniques), the division of the zodiac into twelve divisions of equal length probably occurred late in Neo-Babylonian times.  If there was a convenient period for when the Magi become associated with the study of the stars, this would have been a perfect opportunity, but such a conclusion would certainly be frivolous and wrong.

Chaldean (L Chaldaeus, Gk Chaldaois) is a poor translation of the Hebrew Kasdim ("clod-breakers"), originally an alternative name for the inhabitants of Babylon (var.Babel), but used post-exile (i.e., after 539 BCE) to refer specifically to a Semitic tribe who lived in lower Mesopotamia along the Persian Gulf.  The Neo-Babylonian dynasty, today called Chaldean, referred to themselves as “kings of Akkad” and worshiped the state pantheon of Marduk, Anu, Ishtar, etc.  The Hebrew Kasdim is related to the Assyrian Kaldû and ultimately derived from the Akkadian Kasdu (the Old Akkadian dialect, c. 2500-1950 BCE, being the earliest known Semitic language).  Words such as the Akkadian kasapu (“sorcery”) and the Hebrew kashaph (“witch”) may indicate a general occult attribution to Babylon, but nothing like the later associations after the invention of the mathematical zodiac and the beginnings of horoscopic astrology.  Herodotus mentions the Chaldeans, yet excludes even the briefest reference to the Hebrews.  I believe Herodotus was familiar with the Hebrews and used their writings (especially post-exile authors, such as Jeremiah) as uncredited source material.  However, during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, the terms Chaldean and Magi (magoi) had yet to achieve the meanings and connotations they soon would. 

Note: The presence of Rab-mag in Jeremiah (39:3 and 39:13) remains somewhat befuddling.  Describing the downfall of Jerusalem by “Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon” and the “Chaldeans’ army,” Jeremiah identifies Nergal-sharezer, named as a prince of Babylon, as holding an office or position of Rab-mag. Rab is understood as meaning “great” or “chief,” with mag usually translated as “priest.”  Within a few lines of Jeremiah we find Babylon, mag and Chaldeans.  The Book of Daniel also mentions Rab-mag as a title, but was written in the second century BCE and is today regarded as apocalyptic propaganda.  Of interest is the usage of mag (Magi), an Indo-Aryan (Iranian) Median caste or profession, accompanying “Nebuchadrezzer,” a southern Iraqi Semite who followed the Babylonian pantheon.  Jeremiah is thought to have significantly contributed to Hebrew scripture as either author or editor of several works (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah and Lamentations; see Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard E. Friedman; New York: Summit Books, 1987).  Could a later editor have inserted Rab-mag into Jeremiah?  Or did Jeremiah, the prolific author, editor and prophet, use a term he didn’t completely understand? 

Herodotus offers another episode which seems to conflict with the perception of the Magi as an order of respected priestly astrologers.  The union between the Medes and the Neo-Babylonians (or Chaldeans, as they did not name themselves) broke when the last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, abandoned and attacked the Medes.  Support was then given to the Persians, a related Indo-Aryan tribe.  The Medes were vanquished and effectively removed from history shortly thereafter.  Cyrus the Great, the next Indo-Aryan ruler of Babylon, became the representative of Marduk on earth (and restored the exiled Hebrews to their home).  His son, Cambyses II, conquered Egypt and became a pharaoh.  Cambyses II is said to have committed suicide while in Egypt and a power struggle in Babylon ensued, which involved certain Median Magi pretending to be legitimate successors to the Babylonian throne.   . 

The other Persians, once they had learnt of the exploit of the seven confederates, and understood the hoax which the two brothers had practiced on them, were soon ready to follow their example: they, too, drew their daggers and killed every Magus they could find–so that if darkness had not been put an end to the slaughter, the whole caste would have been exterminated.  The anniversary of this day has become a red-letter day in the Persian calendar, marked by an important festival known as the Magophonia, or Killing of the Magi, during which no Magus is allowed to show himself–every member of the caste stays indoors till the day is over.  The Histories, p. 209 [3:79] (see full reference above).

Succeeding Cambyses II, Darius (ruled 522-486 BCE) openly worshiped Ahura Mazda, the supreme god in the Iranian pantheon popularized by Zoroaster (OP Zarathustra; c. 630-550 BCE), though he allowed the state religion of Marduk to continue, and it may be assumed that it was he who instituted the anti-Magi holiday.  Some speculate that Darius' father, Hystaspes, was King Vishtaspa, an early convert to Zoroastrianism.  Continuing the Indo-Aryan (Persian) dynasty, Darius was followed by Xerxes, who had the high priest of Marduk murdered and ordered the public worship of Ahura Mazda.

In much the same way as one set of names for the Hebrew god ('El, Elohim, El Šadday, etc.) may be traced to 'El, a sky-father deity in the Ugaritic (Caananite) pantheon, and other sacred names (YHVH or Yahwey and Yah) are adaptions of the Ugaritic diety Yam (Yamm or Yave), the god of the sea, it is suggested that Zoroaster elevated the status of Ahura Mazda to create a distinctive cult.  Zervanism and Mithraism are also examples of this.  Some incorrectly believe that Zoroaster founded the Magi order.  It’s Twistory time!  (For more about 'El, see: Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: essays in the history of the religion of Israel, by Frank Moore Cross; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973; pp. 3-75.  For more about Yam, see: The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, by Cyrus H. Gordon; New York: W. W. Norton, 1965; pp. 178-190.) 

Part Two: Melchior

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.
From Magick Without Tears, by Aleister Crowley; Hampton, NJ: Thelema Publishing, 1954.

Recently I was visited by a theater owner from Chicago whom I hadn’t seen in nine years or so.  He’s a close friend of a close friend and we worked together on a couple of occasions.  Most of the time we spent together was non-theater related (read: goofing off).  He was in the area with his wife visiting her family and decided to look me up.  As his small theater has somewhat prospered over the years, gaining critical recognition and acquiring some cash through grants, he asked if I might be interested in writing something for his theater. 

As his theater has a reputation for producing gritty or offbeat works, we discussed a possible play about today’s lowlifes which would put Algren, Thompson and Bukowski to shame.  The creative juices began to flow (or maybe it was the beer) and with shocking hyperrealism in mind, I suggested a play about the notorious black magician, Aleister Crowley.

Crowley was a bad poet who got to hang out with W. B. Yeats through his time spent with The Order of the Golden Dawn.  His homosexuality and drug abuse seem almost tame compared to episodes of crapping on someone’s livingroom rug for shock value or being force fed feces because he wanted to break barriers and overcome personal fears.  And, of course, he was the model for Uncle Fester of The Addams Family and is featured on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album

There have already been a few plays about Crowley, but I offered the hard work of translating ritual magic to the stage and being as offensive as allowable by law.  The blasphemous and occult nature of the proposed piece could spark protest or create an instant hit.  I haven’t heard back from him. 

Past and present religions, including sects and cults, usually support their moral and theological arguments with inspired literature (read: fictive texts).  Some form of ritual magic is present in the vast majority of these movements.  The acclaimed science fiction author and accused pedophile, Sir Arthur C. Clark, once suggested that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  As science has demonstrated the impossibility of many magical claims and alleged miraculous events, individual gullibility (or group psychosis) and nationalistic fervor can only account for so much.  Clark’s definition of magic should be tested and technologies sought for in religious and related literature.

Of course writing is a paramount technology (Gr techne, art or artifice, that is a skill acquired by science or practice, combined with logos, word or discourse), but many specifics concerning invention and diffusion are still hotly debated and too complex for even a cursory overview in this column.  Ancient pre-mathematical calendars may also rise to the level of a technology, as in the case of Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 BCE), which offers redundant indicators to assist farmers. (For more on writing, see: The World’s Writing Systems, eds. Peter T. Daniels and William Bright; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.  For Hesiod’s calendar, see: “Fail-Safe Stellar Dating: Forgotten Phases,” by Harald A. T. Reiche; Transactions of the American Philological Association 119 [1989]; pp. 37-53.)

The dietary laws of the ancient Hebrews do not quite fit the classification of a technology, however the laws deserve mention as the behavioral codes undoubtedly assisted the general health of the ancient Hebrews in pre-refrigeration times.

Though the ancient Greeks never formalized a scriptural canon of inspired literature, various texts may be utilized to identify technologies which bolstered the claims of their pantheistic mythology.  Still other texts reveal early critical and proto-scientific thinking which called those claims into question.

Prof. Carl A. P. Ruck (classical studies, Boston University) believes that the so-called Homeric Hymn to Demeter, thought to have been written in the seventh century BCE by an unknown author, provides evidence for a chemical technology in the form of a porridge made from barley infected with ergot being used during the mystery rites enacted at Eleusis which caused profound hallucinations.  By the late fifth century BCE, the Eleusinian chemical technology was being used to entertain guests in the home of an Athenian general, Alcibiades, and public abuse was mentioned in the Demes, a comedy by Eupolis thought to have been written c. 411 BCE.  (See: The Road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the mysteries, Ethno-mycological Studies #4, twentieth anniversary edition, by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck; preface by Huston Smith and afterward by Albert Hofmann; Los Angeles, CA: Hermes Press, 1998; p. 58.)

Another example of chemical technology, in Latin, would be The Golden Ass (also called Metamorphoses) by Lucius Apuleius, c.124–170 CE.  This long tale, which many credit as influencing the modern novel, describes a (Greek) Thessalian witch using a chemical technology (probably a solanaceae paste like medieval European witches; see The Golden Ass 3:16).

Not everyone in ancient times believed the claims of inspired literature.  Xenophanes, c. 570-475 BCE, refuted popular religious convention by declaring: "But if oxen (and horses) and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen of gods like oxen, and they would make the bodies (of the gods) in accordance with the form that each species itself possesses."  (See: Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: a complete translation of the fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, by an unknown translator; Oxford: Blackwell, 1948; p. 20.)

Not long after Xenophanes, Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 BCE), who doctrinally followed the Milesian philosophers, was brought up on charges of impiety (or atheism) and Medism.  He believed the sun was a red-hot rock and banished as a result, perhaps after being made to pay a small fine.  Banishment has been argued by some to be a most compassionate and civilized act, at c. 450 BCE, in the deep thick of the Persian Wars (c. 499-428 BCE).

That the Medes had been removed from power for almost a century and a state sponsored holiday had been introduced by the Persians against the Magi, a Median caste of priests, surely had the same impact on fifth century Greek courts that most politically motivated jurisprudence has had down the ages, including our own time.  Which is to say, little or none.  Exactitude often isn’t important, as long as the message gets put out by an administration that enemies of the state (or religion) will not be tolerated. 

The ancient Greeks practiced a literary conceit which assumed many foreign words had Greek antecedents or equivalents, and proposed equivalents often reveal the bias (or attempted cleverness) of the author.  Æschylus (c. 525-456 BCE), the “Father of Tragedy,” offered an underlying theme in his 472 BCE play, Persæ (“The Persians”), that the Old Persian Parsa was related to the Greek word for “destroyer,” such as contained in the name Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.

Today, we may consign the Indo-Aryan Medes to three distinct periods:

1. 1200-800 BCE.  A conjectured relationship with Bronze Age Luristan (eastern Iran), as artifacts show evidence of horse mastery, a Median trait.  The Medes are thought to have practiced an Indo-Aryan polytheistic religion at this time.

2. 900-539 BCE.  Historical period, which extends from mentions in Assyrian cuneiform texts, through various military campaigns in the region and culminated with an alliance with the Semitic Neo-Babylonians (“Chaldeans”).  The Medes had a priestly caste, the Magi, who are said to have interpreted dreams and may have been exposed to Zervanism, an early rival to the Zoroastrian cult.  After the advent of the Persian dynasty with Cyrus the Great, the Medes as a tribe no longer existed.  As the Persians and the Medes were related, the Medes may have embraced the Zoroastrian cult and have been absorbed into the Persian dynasty.

3.  539 BCE to the present.  Post-historical period with the term ‘Median’ often used as a synonym for Persian.  The Magi became variously regarded as wandering mystics, Zoroastrian priests, Chaldeans and astrologers.  As the Median Magi were last mentioned as confederates and a festival instituted against their caste, all subsequent mentions after 522 BCE may be assumed to refer to non-Median occultists.

While the origins, homeland and basic vocabulary of proto-Indo-European (PIE) are regularly debated, equally fascinating is fifth century BCE Greek terminology which continues to generate a significant influence on many modern European languages.  One often overlooked term is the English word ‘medic’, a physician or one who gives first aid in battle and related to medicine, medical, Medicaid, etc.  Medic is also used to denote the language of the ancient Medes, though its primary definition (Eng ‘medic’ < L medica < Gr medike; Median grass) refers to a type of alfalfa clover, Medicago sativa, first domesticated in Iran by the Medes to feed their horses.  It was brought to Greece in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE.  The effects after ingestion are neither especially stimulating or narcotizing, but are said to produce a general feeling of well being.

Why the ancient Greeks chose Median grass to serve as the basis for healing terminology will likely remain unknown, although perhaps attributable to authorial whimsey and historical happenstance, as other botanicals were certainly in use by Greek healers at the time.  The subsequent and ongoing use of medi (and medica) in modern European languages makes for great classroom trivia, but not much more.  The Median priestly class, the Magi, also continues to impact language, however for reasons in keeping with Clark’s definition of magic as involving an advanced technology. 

Around 7000 BCE the indigenous, non-Indo-European and non-Semitic inhabitants of Neolithic Iraq began farming and the domestication of plants, established permanent settlements and developed an agglutinative language.  A nearby Semitic people joined with the indigenous Iraqis at the end of the Chalcolithic (“copper and stone,” also known as the Eneolithic) period and the beginning of the Bronze Age, c. 3500 BCE.  After much hard work and innovation, the Sumerian civilization emerged c. 3200 BCE (dated as such by the invention of writing and the cuneiform script; writing being a traditional requirement for the status of ‘civilization’), centered around the city-state of KI.EN.GIR (“Sumer”).  In some ways, the Sumerian civilization didn’t last that long, yet in so many important areas, we are still in their debt and continue to benefit from their advances.

Exploiting the radiant wealth of agriculture and industry of the Sumerian civilization, other local Semitic peoples built rival city-states (through tribal coalitions), prospered within the already established cultural and economic systems, and eventually seized power.  The names of the new kings and city-states are part of the foundation of western civilization: Sargon, Hammurabi and Sennacherib, and Ur, Babylon and Nineveh.  Yet, despite profound regime changes, continuity was preserved and the gains of the past were appreciated and built upon. 

Cuneiform writing did not stop when Sharru-kin (“Sargon”) I of Akkadê took control of Sumer, c. 2300 BCE.  The cuneiform script was adapted and used to express Akkadian, a Semitic and nonagglutinative language.  Besides script, other cultural continuities allowed new insights and understandings.  Farming, irrigation, trade routes, economic parity with neighbors, and other essentials were not destroyed with every new war and upstart dynasty, but were encouraged to be improved.

It is arguable that this ancient Iraqi continuity made possible our only exact science, mathematics.  Born from the necessity to conduct economic trade transactions and calculate building requirements, mathematics later achieved a pre-scientific status by trying to explain the movements of the stars and planets.  All cultures display some degree of hubris with claims that they can control nature through prayer or ritual, but it was the ancient Iraqis who attempted manipulation through a better understanding of the mechanics involved. (See: The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, by O. Neugebauer, second edition; New York: Dover, 1969; p. 45.) 

Some may presume or guess that the Sumerians and the Akkadian dynasty which followed were concerned with patterns or movements in the heavens, but no direct evidence has survived to support any such claims.  They probably were, but proving it is another matter.  The first extant astronomical (astrological) text is dated to the Old Babylonian period, c. 1830-1530 BCE.  It’s a simple list of occurrences and consequences now referred to as omen astrology.  Of note is that the pronouncements concern such generalities as the weather, farming, and any possible affects to the city-state (nation or country), but not to individuals.  (See: Science Awaking II: the birth of astronomy, by Bartel L. van der Waerden, with contributions by Peter Huber; New York: Noordhoff/Oxford, 1974; pp. 48 and 49.)

Van der Waerden and others date a collection of omen astrology pronouncements, known by it’s opening words Enuma Anu Enlil (“When [the gods] Anu [and] Enlil...”), as being compiled during the Cassite period, c. 1530-1160 BCE.  While omen astrology is regarded as somewhat primitive, contained in the Enuma Anu Enlil collection is a series of observations of the planet Venus and its peculiar risings and settings over a twenty-one year period, c. 1581-1561 BCE.  Leaving guesswork behind, the records of actual observations enabled later investigators (i.e., scribes, priests, astrologers, pre-scientific mathematicians, etc.) a confidence based on fact, not fiction.  Accurate observations of the periodicity and phases of Venus, the moon and the sun, revealed patterns of movement not previously recognized.  Knowing what’s going to happen before it does is always most impressive.  Magical, in fact.

Pre-scientific mathematical astronomy was greatly advanced during the Assyrian period, c. 1356-630 BCE, with many gains made during the so-called Sargonid dynasty (the last four Assyrian kings, 722-630 BCE).  Though the natural year had been divided into twelve months (which were assigned three stars each) in Old Babylonian times, under the Assyrians this system was expressed in texts called appropriately enough “The three Stars each,” though today’s convention is to refer to them as astrolabes (see Van der Waerden above, pp. 64-67).  Not all of the astrolabes are found on the standard rectangular slabs of inscribed clay; examples have been recovered which are circular in design.  Circularity suggests a rotating wheel of sequentiality in the heavens and the possibility of opposition, but in Assyrian times it was suggestion only.

The propensity for the human mind to form patterns from stars in the night sky (constellation < L constellatio, a collection or group of stars) probably extends back into prehistoric times.  What specific stars were used, the form imagined and the name given differ with various cultures and historical periods.  Many of the constellations we recognize today, as well as the names given them, had their beginnings in ancient Iraq.  Willy Hartner argued for a constellation tradition involving Leo (MUL.UR.GU.LA, “lion”) and Taurus (MUL.GU.AN.NA, “bull”) in existence before c. 4000 BCE, however despite great respect for Hartner, few today support such an early date.  (See: “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near east and the Motiff of the Lion-Bull Combat,” by Willy Hartner, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 14, Numbers 1 and 2, January-April 1965, pp. 1-16.)

Cassite boundary stones from 1300-1100 BCE depict several familiar forms which stood for constellations, such as scorpion, lion, archer, goatfish and waterman.  Still more constellations are mentioned in the so-called MUL.APIN series of tablets, c. 700 BCE, such as twins, crab and balance.  The MUL.APIN series records the helical (with the sun) risings of thirty-six stars and is surprisingly correct most of the time.  Nearly two thousand years of ancient Iraqi tradition, observations and the formulation of pre-scientific mathematical systems had reached a turning point with MUL.APIN.  The next step was the invention of the mathematical zodiac; a technology which changed the world. (See: “Babylonian Astronomy. II.  The Thirty Six Stars,” by B. L. van der Waerden, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 8, 1949, pp. 6-26.)

Note: The mathematical zodiac may be best understood as a grid-map to locate the exact positions of the sun, moon and planets.  An imaginary three hundred and sixty degree circle surrounding the visible earth was divided into twelve equal sections of thirty degrees each, called “signs,” and named after a prominent constellation.  Fixed stars were used mark significant divisions of the zodiac.  As the grid-map was based in mathematics, sound predictions could be made as to where the sun, moon or planets would be on any given day or night. 

In 612 BCE, a coalition of Medes, Neo-Babylonians (“Chaldeans”) and Scythians sacked Nineveh and destroyed the famous library of Assurbanipal, the last Assyrian king.  Previous regime changes in ancient Iraq were undoubtedly violent and it may be assumed there was significant destruction during conquests.  However, no reports survive which mention such assaults against houses of learning.  Fortunately, as has been the case in many major archaeological discoveries, the collapse of the library served to preserve many of the slate and clay tablets, of which over 20,000 have been recovered.  It remains an irony that the Medes and their priestly caste, the Magi, and the Chaldeans, are today most often associated with astrology, despite their apparent disregard for the treasures in Assurbanipal’s library.

Despite the great loss, copies of important texts existed in other collections and studies were able to advance.  The first extant cuneiform texts which mention zodiacal signs date from the mid to late fifth century BCE.  Allowing for an unattested period of development, a fair guess for the invention of the mathematical zodiac would be 550 to 500 BCE, that is at the end of the Neo-Babylonian (“Chaldean”) and Median period and the beginning of the Persian dynasty.  With the invention of the mathematical zodiac a means was available to calculate the position of influential heavenly bodies at the time of an individual’s birth.  The ancient Greeks gave the practice of determining a person’s future based on when they were born the name horoscope (Gr horoskopos < hora “hour” and skopein “to view”).  They also gave us the term ‘zodiac’ (Gr zodiakos “circle of animals”) and were the first to take advantage of the newly invented ancient Iraqi technology.

It’s unclear how or when the mathematical zodiac diffused to Greece.  During the period allowed for the invention and application of the zodiac, the fifth century BCE, Greece experienced the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, yet still managed to increase its cultural base with advancements in the arts (including literature) and establish the basis for the modern scientific method.  Indeed, some scholars are so impressed with the achievements of the ancient Greeks during the fifth century BCE, that they equivocate when it comes to crediting the ancient Iraqis with their fair due.

Moreover in many cases the Babylonians had long been familiar with the data in question, and although we know little about the transmission of astronomical information to Greece, it is often just as likely that the Presocratic philosophers derived their knowledge directly or indirectly from the East as that they made the discoveries independently.  Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, by G. E. R. Loyd, New York: W. W. Norton, 1970; p. 81.

Again, in Neugebauer’s view, it is impossible in the present state of the evidence to trace the early history of the Babylonian lunar and planetary schemes of the Seleucid texts or to give any dates for their invention; nor do we know how far these were developed in the fifth and early-fourth centuries BC when they might have come to the notice of the Greek astronomers.  Even the invention of the zodiac, which Neugebauer in common with most modern scholars takes to be of Babylonian origin, need not necessarily so.  Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle, by D. R. Dicks, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970; p. 172.

Did the development of pre-scientific mathematics allow the ancient Iraqis to discover a theorem for determining the length of the diagonal of a square (the hypotenuse of a triangle) a thousand years before Pythagoras?  Enable the prediction of lunar eclipses before Thales (assuming--cough--he was correct)?  Or is the problem akin to the standing claim that Columbus discovered North America?  Others may have proceeded Columbus, but he was able to repeat his journey of discovery and shared his knowledge with the world.  Greek culture was certainly influenced by those it came into contact with.  The creation of the Greek alphabet through the addition of vowels to the Phoenician alphabet is an easy example of how the ancient Greeks took foreign concepts and made them their own.  Such was the case with the ancient Iraqi technology of the mathematical zodiac.  And the Greeks shared their knowledge with the world. 

Part Three: Balthasar

When it hurts too bad, you’ll stop.
An ex-girlfriend, c. 1996.

Scientists and skeptics often lament the presence of daily astrology columns in newspapers, with only the occasional article about astronomy being printed.  Everyone seems to be interested in what might be possible and not what will never be.  We haven’t changed much since ancient times.  The seemingly intellectual dichotomy in accepting scientific tenets while holding superstitious beliefs only began with the ancient Greeks because they get credit for creating the scientific method of critical analysis.  Humans surely accepted rational explanations for some things, though embraced irrational excuses for others, long before the Greeks.  The paths of science and superstition (read: religion) often cross, yet sadly they soon separate and the irrational wanders away. 

The ancient Iraqi invention of the mathematical zodiac was a technology the superstitious could use to safely advance their occult agendas.  Reading entrails or tea-leaves must have been extremely dangerous.  Accurately describing the past and future positions of the sun, moon and planets, while still vulnerable to foolish associations, fits Clark’s definition of magic.  The technology was used (abused?), found to be fairly reliable and diffused to divers cultures.  Other than chemical technologies related to healing and hallucination, as the tricks of the witch and sorcerer were bogus, only the zodiac offered some ...degree of surety.  (For more on the continued use of the zodiac by the Greeks, though familiar with the scientific method, see: Greek Horoscopes, by O. Neugebauer and H. B. van Hoesen; Philadelphia, PA: The American Philosophical Society, 1959, reprinted 1987.  For the use of the zodiac by the Romans, see the erudite introduction in: Astronomica, by Manilius, edited and translated by G. P. Goold; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977, with corrections 1997 [Loeb #469].  For Vedic [Indian] usage of the zodiac, see: From Astral Omens to Astrology from Babylon to Bikaner, by David E. Pingree; Rome: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 1997.  For the use of the zodiac by the ancient Egyptians, do your own research as I can only do so much...)

It wasn’t just the store-front and palace occultists who eagerly incorporated the ability to use the technology of the mathematical zodiac into their résumé.  Mithraism, originally just another Indo-Aryan sect favoring one polytheistic deity over another, adapted its rituals to include zodiacal mysticism and for a time became very popular among Roman soldiers.  And, while introducing a new religion, the authors of the Christian gospels brilliantly invented aspects of the life of Jesus which would coincide or suggest knowledge (read: mastery) of the zodiac.  Right.  Back to the Magi...

I returned to see the onetime classics professor a couple of days after Thanksgiving equipped with cleaning supplies and more questions.  The official reason I allowed the guy to live in his own waste for a two day period after I was aware of the horrible mess is that I was hoping a family member or close friend would step in and help him.  Unofficially, I had been wearing nice clothes on Thanksgiving, didn’t want to get them dirty, and I was too busy the next day.  I returned as soon as I could.  Sometime during my absence the buttered corn and red pepper combination, as well as a couple of the yams and all the cranberry sauce found its way to the kitchen floor.  The turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy were still in the refrigerator.  Uneaten.

As drunkenness had produced extremely poor bathroom habits for over two weeks and the initial piles of crap had dried and hardened.  I used a paint-scraper and small chips and fine particles of dried shit hit my face as I worked.  Other, somewhat more recent, dung droppings were removed with sponges and a mop.  I used a plastic scrubbie pad (designed for use on non-stick cooking pans) to clean the soiled areas of the carpet.  All traces of his personal hell involving excrement vanished in half an hour, except some lingering stains on the kitchen floor which could possibly be explained with a little creative manipulating of the truth.

He was out of cheap vodka, but still intoxicated from his many weeks of nonstop drinking.  Though I really wanted to stay and chat, perhaps ask a few questions about those wild and crazy Greeks, one look in his bloodshot eyes informed me that it would be a waste of time.  And, I’d had enough of waste at that point.  I told him to get into detox and left my telephone number in case there was an emergency.

Much like in John Ford’s 1962 highly successful western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when Ransom Stoddard confesses to not being the hero many believe to the editor of the Shinbone Star, the editor replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” the unknown author of Matthew’s gospel knew pagan astrologers didn't visit Baby Jesus, but it made for great copy.

It seems all but certain that an itinerant Aramaic-speaking Hebrew teacher lived in Palestine during the early years of the first century of the Common Era, taught an egalitarian and cynical philosophy based upon reciprocity and fairness, was probably crucified by the Romans, and history identifies him as Ieosus or YHShVH (Greek variants of Ieosus include Iason or Jason, and the most common translation of the Hebrew YHShVH is Yoshua), or, in English, Jesus.  His message, given out while surrounded by creepy pagans, polytheist players, fancy philosophers and Hebrews in a hurry to sacrifice that evening’s meal at the temple, was one of peace and goodwill to all.  It was revolutionary and it was honest.  What followed was neither, though some of Jesus' message was maintained and continues to inspire.

Although just about all scholars date Paul’s letters before the writing of Mark’s gospel and use a lack of narrative details of the life of Jesus to support their claims for the letters being earlier, I’m not convinced.  I don’t have a problem with a hypothetical “sayings” text, as preserving the message seems logical, but without a structured narrative to introduce the hero, Jesus, as first put forth with Mark’s gospel, I can’t support the priority of the author known as Paul.  The so-called letters are too vague and vain.  With Mark we have literature about a great figure, Jesus, while with Paul’s letters we have ...letters about Paul.

I can’t bring myself to begin complimenting the unknown author of Mark’s gospel on his work, for fear I’d never finish this already late column.  It must suffice that I greatly respect his verisimilitude and appreciate the inclusion of quotes by that itinerant Aramaic-speaking Hebrew teacher who lived in Palestine during the early years of the first century of the Common Era.  Also, I personally believe that the Jesus Narrative, as first told in Mark’s gospel, was partially based upon the zodiac, so as to appeal to mystics and those familiar with Mithraism, which also incorporated the zodiac into its rituals. (See: “The Zodiacs: Maps of Heaven and History,” by moi; online here).

The unknown author of Mark’s gospel certainly wasn’t alone in his use of the zodiac as far as first century Greek literature is concerned.  The myth of Jason and the Argonauts could have been based upon real heroes and events (unlikely), was the subject of much speculation, a couple of theatrical productions and widely accepted as part of the history of Europe.  During either the first or second century of the Common Era, an unknown Greek author writing as Eratosthenes, wrote an account of the origins of forty-eight constellations, the Catasterismi, which suggested the Argosy was based upon characters, places and objects associated with the zodiac.  Other Greek writers had attempted the same with Heracles, who didn’t start off with twelve labors, but was later made to become a sun-hero traversing the signs of the zodiac.  (For more on Jason and the zodiac, see: Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: a sourcebook containing The Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus, by Theony Condos, Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1997.  For more on Heracles and the zodiac, see: Beyond the Blue Horizon, by Dr. E. C. Krupp; New York: HarperCollins, 1991; pp. 139 and 140.)

I visited the drunk several days later with no aspirations of getting answers to my questions, but merely to see how he was doing.  Not well.  He was shaking, covered in bruises from falling down, cowering from human contact and claiming he hadn’t had a drink in more than a week.  There was no mention of pink elephants, yet I concluded he was going through the DT’s (L delirium tremens).  Thirty days of detox didn’t seem to interest him, so I notified the landlord and telephoned an ambulance to get him taken to the hospital for at least a few days of care.

The EMI guys showed up, asked him a few questions to determine his mental state (name, day of the week, his address, etc) and then invited him to join them for a trip to the hospital.  He declined and the EMI guys made ready to leave.  I stood alongside of the confused landlord who couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t take him away.  One of the medical attendants looked at me with sympathy and said, “If he’s not an immediate danger to himself, we can’t do anything.  If he wants to die in this apartment, that’s his right.”  Ouch.

Matthew’s fictive mention of the Magi was designed as a marker to alert the reader to an astrological (read: zodiacal) theme or motif in the rest of his gospel (following, for the most part, the Jesus Narrative as established by Mark).  Creating an infancy scene with a young mother giving birth under the threat of danger was pure genius.  For some, the baby turned out to be an incarnation of god.  For others, setting their expectations a bit lower on the cosmic scale, the baby turned out to be a wise and much revered teacher, and they grant Matthew a nod of appreciation for creating an endearing and emotional account.  And for the rest, we leave the rational path and are deeply moved at the endless possibilities in every new birth.  We even nurture such irrationalities as a baby becoming a company CEO someday and staying out of jail, which is an opportunity hopefully available to every newborn.  Even those hunted by a wicked despot.

The Magi all but ceased to exist after their failed attempt to seize power before Darius, c. 522 BCE, and in all likelihood the unsupported order ended a short time afterwards.  Ditto, the Chaldeans, after Cyrus took control in 539 BCE.  It was Greek literary cleverness and convention which kept the terms current and later writers exploited the imagery that the terms conjured up in the reader’s mind.  Zoroastrian claims about the zodiac and the Magi?  Their sacred texts were first written down after the invention of the Brâhmî alphabet in the mid-third century BCE, like those of Buddhism and the Vedic sagas, and can’t be counted on for getting the facts straight.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the drunk has had a drink and he’s grown stronger and beginning to leave his apartment for food and errands.  His brain is still soaked and he can’t seem to focus on certain practical things like straightening out his health insurance now that he’s unemployed or even how to work his computer properly.  He says he won’t drink for a long time and I’d like to believe him, but I don’t.  People only change when not changing becomes unbearable.  It’s not magical, just practical.

I’ll probably take him a ham dinner early Christmas morning.  I can only hope this dinner doesn’t end up on the floor like the last one.  All my best to you and yours.  POE. 

sufficiently seasoned,

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