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Magi were Zoroastrian astrologer-priests from ancient Persia. The word magi is plural; the singular is magus. Magus is also a word for a magician, wizard, or sorceror, especially one of experience and accomplishment.

According to Herodotus, the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They organised Persian society after the fall of Assyria and Babylon. Their power was curtailed by Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, and by his son Cambyses; the Magi revolted against Cambyses and set up a rival claimant to the throne, one of their own, who took the name of Smerdis. Smerdis and his forces were defeated by the Persians under Darius I. The sect of the Magi continued in Persia, though its influence was limited after this political setback.

The best known Magi appear in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter II. There, they appear before Jesus as a child, noting that they observed His star in the east. and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They first visit Herod, asking where the new King can be found; Herod sends them to Bethlehem, and asks that they return when they have found Him. The Magi, however, are warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, and their bringing this news to Herod causes the massacre of the Holy Innocents. The visit of the Magi to Jesus as a child is commemorated on the Christian observance of Epiphany.

The Gospel does not in fact number the Magi, but from the three gifts given, popular culture usually has three Magi appearing at the scene. These are the Three Wise Men of Christmas carols and crèches. Their names, since the seventh century in Western Europe are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph. None of these names is obviously Persian or carries any ascertainable meaning.

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