The Slaughter Of The Magi: How Ancient Persia Made Genocide an Annual Holiday
Long before the Holocaust and the atrocities we see today, history has been littered with genocide. Time and time again, minority groups living in the midst of a culture that isn’t their own have seen their neighbors turn on them and tear them apart.
One of the worst massacres was a story that is rarely told today. It happened in ancient Persia more than 2,500 years ago. In 522 BC, the Magi, an immigrant group living in Persia, was almost completely wiped out.
The Persians they’d thought of as their countrymen ran through the streets, massacring every single Magi they could find. And they didn’t stop there. For years to follow, they made The Slaughter of the Magi an annual holiday.
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The Magi: A Minority Group In A Foreign Land
Despite their name, the Magi weren’t wizards or magicians. They were a group of people from Media with a unique set of religious beliefs. In time, they would find a niche for themselves in Persian society, with so many of them serving as priests that the words "priest" and "Magi" would almost become indistinguishable. But when the Slaughter of the Magi happened, they were still newcomers in a foreign land.
At the time, the Magi had only been in Persia for 27 years. Throughout most of their history, the Magi had been one of the six tribes of Media . But in 549 BC , their homeland was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus the Great . After years living among their own, they became strangers in a strange land inside of the Persian Empire.
Depiction of Zoroaster in Clavis Artis, an alchemy manuscript published in Germany in the late 17th or early 18th century and pseudoepigraphically attributed to Zoroaster. ( Public Domain )
They were different from the Persians they lived with. The Persians considered them a religious “sect” with their own unique interpretation of the Zoroastrian religion who clung to their own unique way of life .
They had rules that forced them to accept an unusually equal standing to animals. When they ate meat, they insisted on killing the animals with their bare hands, believing that animals killed with weapons were unclean. And when one of their own died, they refused to bury or burn his body until the meat had been picked clean by birds and dogs.
Still, for most of their time in Persia, they were accepted. It didn’t take long before the Magi found their role as religious leaders. The royal court would keep a Magian present whenever they made a sacrifice to the gods and many got jobs interpreting the dreams of kings.
They thrived in Persia, even if they weren’t exactly like everyone else. They had their own beliefs and they had their own ways, but as far as they could tell, they were accepted there. And they had no reason to think that would ever change.
Rhyton in the shape of a ram's head, gold – western Iran – Median, late 7th–early 6th century BC. (Iroony/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Magi Become Scapegoats In a Political Plot
The moment that turned the people of Persia against their Medians is a tale of political intrigue, conspiracy, and corruption. And there’s a pretty good chance that it’s also an outright lie.
According to Persian history , the Magi tried to overthrow the kingdom by impersonating the king.
Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, had lost his mind fighting in Egypt. First, he sent an assassin out to kill his brother Smerdis, the next in line for his throne, and shortly after he killed himself by accidentally falling on his own sword.
The assassin succeeded and Smerdis died – but the Magi priests in the royal court seized an opportunity to cover his death up. They put a Smerdis look-alike named Gaumâta on the throne and told the people of Persia that their imposter was the real Smerdis, heir to the throne of Persia. A Magi priest, disguised as the king, was made ruler of the whole kingdom.
The story ends with Darius I and a team of nobles assassinating the Magi pretending to be Smerdis and declaring himself king – which is why the story is more than just a little suspicious.
Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC. ( Public Domain )
There’s no direct proof that Darius made the whole thing up, but it is, as one historian put it, a “fairly improbable” story. It’s all just very convenient -- “the king was an imposter” seems like exactly the sort of thing you’d expect the man who assassinated and replaced him to say.
It could be that a group of Magi priests really did plot to overthrow the Persian king, or it could be that they were just a convenient group of foreigners that Darius thought he could use as a scapegoat for his hostile takeover.
Either way, the Persians bought Darius’s story - hook, line, and sinker – and the consequences were horrible.
The Slaughter Of The Magi
Darius and his assassins ran through the castle, slaughtering Magian eunuchs and priests until they finally reached the man who called himself King Smerdis. They killed him on the spot, chopped off the heads of the dead and went out into the streets.
They waved the decapitated heads in front of people’s faces, telling them that their king was an imposter replaced in a Magian plot. They told the people to grab any weapon they could find, hunt down every Magi, and slaughter them all.
The Apadana Palace in Persepolis, Iran, northern stairway (detail) – fifth-century BC Achaemenid bas-relief shows a Mede soldier in traditional Mede costume (behind Persian soldier). ( Public Domain )
The king they’d killed had actually been incredibly popular across the Persian Empire. According to Greek sources , he’d sent aides to the farthest reaches of the kingdom and let them off the hook from paying tribute to the capital.
The people in the capital, however, hated him. They were used to being on top, and they didn’t like that this new king was changing things. When Darius told them that the king was a Magi imposter, they were only too willing to believe it.
They got their weapons and ran through the city, grabbing every Magi they could find and cutting them to pieces. The city was overflowing with their blood. As Herodotus put it: “If nightfall had not stopped them they would not have left one Magus alive.”
Gaumata under Darius I's boot engraved at Behistun Inscription in Kermanshah. (Vahidarbab/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Genocide Becomes a Holiday
For years afterward, The Slaughter of the Magi was an annual holiday . On the anniversary of Smerdis’s death, the Persians would hold massive feasts . They would give thanks to the gods, eat with their family, and celebrate the day an immigrant community was nearly wiped out.
This was a major holiday. Multiple ancient sources talk about it, and while it’s not entirely clear how long it lasted, it’s said that, during the reign of Darius I, the Slaughter of the Magi was “the greatest holy day that all Persians alike keep”.
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But it was more than just a feast. By strict law, on the day of the holiday, every Magi was required to stay inside his home. If one was caught walking around outside, there was nothing protecting him . Every Persian who saw him was encouraged to beat him, cut him, and leave him bloody and dying in the middle of the road.
Once every year, the Persians would relive the genocide that had turned the streets red with the blood of innocent people.
Top Image: Apadana Hall, 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume (Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots). The Magi were a group of immigrants from Media who followed the Zoroastrian faith. Source: Arad/ CC BY SA 3.0
By Mark Oliver
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