Mysterious Origins of the Magi
The Magi were (or still are) magicians, mystics, astrologers and/or alchemists. Magi is where we get the English word magician. In the times of the Ancient Greeks up to Roman times, people who studied astrology and other things that the common people did not necessarily understand were sometimes called magi. This term was sometime used to refer to people that used sleight of hand or other means of deceiving the naked eye. Sometimes the term was considered to be a bad thing you were maybe a trickster or deceptive if you were a magi (or in singular form – magus).
The first recognized mention of the magi is from ancient Greece about the 6th century BC. Heraclitus was inspired by them and wrote about them but apparently did not approve of their rites and rituals. It was not preserved what the rituals were exactly. It is thought that he might have simply been referring to foreigners.
It is possible that strangers to the ancient Greeks would have seemed magical with their different technologies or philosophies. We know that the ancient Greeks did study astrology but maybe the magi were one of their sources. Magi were located apparently all over the civilized world. It is possible that they were all the same race (Persians). Perhaps they were driven out of their native land, its not known exactly.
The perceived source and possible first leader of the magi was a man named Zoroaster (from ancient Eastern Iran) who was to have written texts that disagreed with what the main authority of the time – Greeks wisdom, or at least the Greeks considered his works “exotic”. His philosophy dealt with the battle of free will, truth and lie. He is sometimes credited with spreading dark arts throughout Greece and Rome. Perhaps his followers were simply disliked and distrusted because of their differing views on mythology.
The Chinese in the 8th century BC also have a reference to the magi and for them it seems to be a reference to illusions, shamanism, or magic and not really about politics or beliefs.
In the Bible the magi are also mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the current versions of the Bible the story of Jesus being born is foretold by angels to the “wise men”. But in a at least one version of the book of Mathew the wise men are referred to as magi. In the Bible, they are described as being fortune tellers, magicians and illusionist. What might have later been referred to as perhaps psychics? Also, they must have known something about the stars because, as the story goes, they followed the bright star of Bethlehem to find Jesus, but in ancient times knowledge of the stars was much more common.
While it is hard to know who these people really were, it is clear that they were spread out and that they had the ability to enchant people and were in some cultures respected and liked while in others they may have been disliked. We can only speculate with the scarce source material that remains until more is uncovered.