Who Were the Medes of Ancient Persia?

The term “magic” is derived from the Median priestly tribe, the “Magi,” who were the same as the Magi spoken of in the Biblical Nativity story.

The Medes were an ancient group of Iranian tribes who settled northwestern Persia and eventually rose to briefly oversee the Median Empire from Turkey to Afghanistan. One of the tribes of the Medes was known as the “Magi,” who are assumed to be a tribe of hereditary, priestly shaman or wise men from whom we derive the modern terms magic and magician.

Origin of the Magi

The origin of the “magi,” plural of “magus,” referenced by the Greeks as “magoi” were a specific tribe from among the Median peoples. They are one of the six Median tribes, described by Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century B.C.E., as being a tribe of hereditary priests among the Medes. (This seems similar to the Brahmin priestly caste of ancient India, and also the priestly tribe of Levi among the Israelites)

The title of the wise men from the East appearing following the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, were described as “magi,” which term was used at the time to mean sages, wise men, astrologers, astronomers, people with magical powers, or priests. We have the modern term “magic” or “magician” from the term magi. The Medes were known in the Iranian languages as the Madai or Maad, with the modern term for a Zoroastrian priest being mogh.

Origin of the Medes

Gudea of Lagash in Mesopotamia mentions the Medes as far back as at the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Assyrian and other sources discuss the Medes from around 900 B.C.E., possibly entering the area from the Eurasian Steppes in the first wave of Iranian settlers in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. They were an Indo-European (Aryan) group of tribes of warriors, nomads and horse breeders who settled in the Hamadan Plain, becoming sedentary.

The Persian tribes, their cousins, also an Indo-European people arrived at the same time and settled further south in the Fars area and the Bakhtiari Mountains.

One chief of the Medes, Deioces (728-675 B.C.E.), united the Median tribes. He was followed by Phraortes, who conquered Fars and made the Persians the vassals of the Medes, which they remained until Cyrus the Great, 100 years later. Next came Madius the Scythian.

It is thought that by the time of the rule of Cyaxares, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) was set up as the capitol of the Median Empire. In a short amount of time, the Medes ruled from Turkey to Afghanistan along the north of the Middle East. They overtook Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris, in 612 B.C.E., putting an end to the Assyrian Empire.

By 549 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great removed the Mede Astyages, who was his maternal grandfather, from power and conquered the Medes, establishing the Achaemenid Empire in its place.
Language of the Medes and Relation to the Kurds

The language of the Medes is a northwestern branch of the Iranian languages. An Armenian manuscript of a Christian prayer from the 15th century C.E. contained the prayer in seven languages. One of these languages was known as the “Medean language.” This is in a Kurmanji Kurdish dialect and may be oldest known form of Kurdish.

V.I. Minorsky believes that the Kurdish languages descended from the Median language. This does not mean, however, that the Kurds are the Medes, but that they spoke the Median language as did those of Kashani and Tati, Gilanis, Mazandaranis, Talishis, and Baluchis.

The ethnic and geographic origins of the Kurds are based in the area of Turkey and to the south of the Mede original geography. The Medes, however, probably absorbed much of the culture of the peoples in their areas, including the Kurds, leaving behind their language in exchange.

Religion of the Medes

Mary Boyce, relates that Assyrian inscriptions show that the Medes were early Zoroastrians. While Zoroastrianism developed in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, the headquarters moved to western Iran aftern the conversion of the Medes and the Persians.

Prior to their conversion, Oric Basirov explains that the Medes held the same polytheistic gods of the Old Iranians, with the Ahura gods Mazda and Mithra at the apex. Their pantheon was a mix of female and male deities, which became dominated by a male supreme god (Ahura Mazda) when they converted to Zoroastrianism.

Some of the new doctrines of Zoroastrianism, Basirov points out, were very different from the Old Iranian religion held by the Medes. Including the concepts of:

Last day
Universal Judgment
The Kingdom of God
Day of Judgment
Heaven and Hell
The Coming of the Savior

Up until Persian Sassanid rule (224-651 C.E.), the Medes still buried their dead, which later was changed to the Zoroastrian tradition of exposing the bodies to nature to be eaten by birds. Earth, water, and fire were too sacred in Zoroastrianism to dispose of the bodies in any other way. The Islamic Conquest following the Sassanid Empire changed the religion and the way of burial of the Medes and the Persians to follow the Muslim customs.

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