What have they in common, you’ll ask. Well much more than you would expect, provided you allow yourself to think about Magi in general and not about The Magi from the Bible who followed their star to Bethlehem.
Magi were known as Wise Men from Mesopotamia, particularly famous around Babylon by their local name of Chaldeans, were reputed among others for their knowledge in astrology. In those days there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology, both forms of star observation went hand in hand. By studying and analyzing the celestial heavens, these Wise Men could, for instance, predict major events to important people. This knowledge was already mentioned by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. who defined the Magi as a priestly caste from upper Mesopotamia.
[The Three Wise Men, 6th century mosaic from the Basilica of Ravenna, Italy. Photography by Nina Aldin Thune]
The Magi we are familiar with, are the Three Wise Men who visited the Lord Jesus, but this fact is based on a simple and non-explicit quotation by the evangelist Matthew, who stated that they came from the east, which is evident geographically speaking, and brought expensive gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold with them. Nowadays there is a discussion going on whether there were three Magi or more for Matthew only mentions three gifts, which has been interpreted as each Magi carrying one gift, while evidently there could have been ten or thirty of them offering these three gifts.
Now we all know that Alexander the Great always looked for his omens. So, when he was in Babylon in 331 B.C, he came into contact with these Magi, the Chaldeans as Arrian called them, i.e. the priests of Marduk or Bel, for “in all matters of religious ceremonial he [Alexander] took their advice, offering sacrifice to Bel in particular, according to their instructions”. Alexander even gave them the money and instructions to rebuild the famous Temple of Bel.
After his campaigns to the East, through what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Alexander returned to Babylon in 323 B.C. and was met by the Chaldeans outside the city walls. They advised him not to enter Babylon, as it was considered a bad omen. Arrian tells us this story “… Alexander, after crossing the Tigris, was met by some Wise Men of the Chaldeans, who drew him aside and begged him to go no further, because their god Bel had foretold that if he entered the city at that time it would prove fatal to him”. Plutarch relates a similar story in which Alexander got the news through his naval commander, Nearchus: “As he [Alexander] was upon his way to Babylon, Nearchus … came to tell him he had met with some Chaldean diviners, who had warned him against Alexander’s going thither”. Alexander complied but as time went by he lost his patience and decided to enter Babylon after all - his destiny was already sealed. It was written in the stars and Alexander died shortly afterwards in Babylon. The diviners must have known this but it remains a guess whether or not Alexander was fully aware that he would die if he ignored the warning.
By ancient writers, we usually refer to our western historians, but what about the literature in the East. There are, for instance, the Enuma Anu Enli records of celestial omens, which archaeologists have recovered from the Assyrian Library in Nineveh. The authors were Chaldeans, who left us tablets detailing the movements of the planets and how they disclosed the fate of mankind. These astronomers had the duty to warn authorities when they discovered that some major event was going to happen. They had done so before, for instance, at the approach of the decisive Battle at Gaugamela, that engaged Alexander the Great against King Darius III of Persia "The son of the king will become purified for the throne but will not take the throne. An intruder will come with the princes of the west; for eight years he will exercise kingship; he will conquer the enemy army; there will be abundance and riches on his path; he will continually pursue his enemies; and his luck will not run out."
Now among these tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil there is also one predicting Alexander’s death: "When in the month Ajaru, during the evening watch, the moon eclipses, the king will die. The sons of the king will vie for the throne of their father, but will not sit on it."
It is plain to see that these Magi knew about births and deaths. Why then are we so reluctant to accept knowledge and proven facts reaching back thousands of years? Just because they have not been scientifically proven? Just because we look at these stories as tales from old times and naïve peoples? We still may learn so much from our past, if we simply would allow ourselves….
All this reminds me of a clay tablet at the British Museum in London that was found in Babylon, Iraq. It tells us about a meteorological and astronomical phenomena that was observed on the 29th day of the lunar month (the second month) in the year 323-322 B.C. Written in cuneiform script, it is a record of the death of Alexander, although he is simply mentioned as “king”. No western record of that ultimate moment has survived so far. Here too we could make some effort to read more about our history through the available legacies in the east. Why should we pretend that our Roman, Greek or maybe Egyptian sources are the only reliable ones? The Magi are not part of a fable. Why are we willing to believe that they came all the way to Bethlehem to pay tribute to the King of the Jews but would not have been able to predict the life and death of Alexander the Great and that of other kings?
We still have a long way to go…