On January 6th the Western church celebrates the feast of Epiphany, marking the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ child (Matt 2).1 If you've ever sung "The Twelve Days of Christmas," you've chanted off the days between Christmas and Epiphany. But who were these Magi and what inspired them to saddle up their camels and head west?

The word magi is the plural form of the Latin word magus (Greek magos, pl. magoi). In both Latin and Greek, the g is hard like in guru, not soft like giraffe. Originally, the Magoi were a tribe of Medians located in what is now Azarbaijan, a province in northwest Iran encompassing the area between Mt. Ararat and the Caspian Sea. The Magoi served as priests for the other Median tribes. Under the Achaemenids (558-330 BC) they became the priests for the Persian Empire as well, not unlike the way the Levite tribe served the priestly function for the rest of the Israelites. The magi were responsible for ensuring that sacrifices were performed correctly and they interpreted dreams.

While originally polytheists, under Persian influence the magi became Zoroastrians, one of the first monotheistic religions.

Zoroastrian monotheism is complex. Zoroastrians worship Ahura Mazda as the supreme God, but he created seven other gods (zagatas) who each have their own sphere of influence. Some sources count only six of these divinities, equating the Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu) with Ahura Mazda. The Holy Spirit is indivisibly one with Ahura Mazda, yet still distinct, serving as his active agent and even indwelling the righteous.3 In the Hebrew Scriptures Yahweh is manifested by the Word/Angel/Spirit of Yahweh, at times distinct from Yahweh and at times indistinguishable from Him. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity also represents a "complex" monotheism: Christ is the image of the invisible Father, with the Holy Spirit as active agent.

Over time, probably under the influence of the magi, some syncretistic elements crept into Zoroastrianism. In particular, the magi are credited with incorporating the study of astronomy and Babylonian astrology into the religion. It is to this interest in the cosmos that we now turn.

King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene,4 a Hellenized Zoroastrian, erected a statue at Nemrut Dag: a lion with nineteen 8-pointed stars on and around it, identifying the lion as the constellation Leo. The lion has a crescent moon hung around its neck, and above its back are three more stars, these with 16 points and labeled with the Greek names for the planets/gods Jupiter, Mercury and Mars. Modern astronomers calculate that those three planets moved through the constellation Leo on July 6 or 7, 62 BC. Antiochus had been ruling since his father's death in 70 BC, but 62 may have been the year of his coronation or installation by the Roman general Pompey. The title Epiphanes was quite possibly added to his name at the same time: according to inscriptions on the site, his coronation was celebrated as the "Day of Epiphany."

One of the main stars in the constellation Leo is Regulus, thought to be the same as one of the Persian astrologers' four royal stars, Vanant. Long story short: the Nemrut Dag monument indicates what kind of events Zoroastrian astrologers in the first century BC would be looking for and would associate with royal ascents.

The ancients didn't imagine that the planets were compositionally different than stars. What made them different is how they move. Due to the rotation of the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets all rise in the east and set in the west. The stars stay fixed in their relative positions to each other, and the sun travels through a fixed path across the backdrop of the stars. The planets, however, meander through the night sky—the Greeks called them planetoi, "wanderers." Each planet generally moves eastward through the constellations, but sometimes its movement, from the perspective of the earth (also moving!), causes its path through the distant stars to loop back on itself, heading west. This looping back is called retrograde movement.