Maybe it’s because we are taught history at school in chunks. Rome is a chunk. Europe is a chunk. Indigenous North America is a chunk. Aboriginal Australia is a chunk.
Except I think it’s more than that.
Mostly we know that the western magical tradition is a Mediterranean blending of Egyptian and Greek ideas mixed with some Indian and oriental imports. (Like lemons.)
For convenience sake, that’s where we locate the ‘beginning’.
Of course, it was the grandfather of the Classical Elements himself that drew our attention to the problem with beginnings:
“Listen now to a further point: no mortal thing
Has a beginning, nor does it end in death and obliteration;
There is only a mixing and then a separating of what is mixed,
But by mortal men these processes are named ‘beginnings’.”
So if there was a blending of oriental ideas with Eastern Mediterranean ideas then… How did this happen? And more importantly, where? Just saying “oh, it was trade” or “the Persians” never did it for me.
The Khorasan Highway
What if I told you that there was a road that connected Babylon through the treacherous mountains of modern Iran, past the Caspian Sea, across the Mongol plateau and deep into modern China?
And what if I told you that it was ancient in the days of the Assyrians? No one knew who built this road. But the Horse People or ‘Arya’ (‘Aryan’) had settled along it where it ran through the wild Zagros mountains.
This was the route used not just by invaders, but by traders and migrants; mysterious travellers who would seemingly just appear from the ends of the earth.
Sitting at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, Russia, China and India, if you controlled the Zagros stretch of the Khorasan Highway, you set the agenda for the world.
The city at the crossroads of the world
This, of course, is what the Medes, a collection of Aryan tribes, did.
Tired of repeated attacks and demands for tribute, in 611BC they swept down from their mountain strongholds, crushing the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, known as “the bloody city” and then set about building a shining new home in the mountains beside the ancient road.
“Travellers who made the final ascent through the mountains along the Khorasan Highway would see, guarding the approaches to the Iranian plateau ahead of them, a vision which could have been conjured from some fabulous epic: a palace set within seven gleaming walls, each one painted a different colour, and on the two innermost circuits, bolted to their battlements, plates of silver and gold. This was Ecbatana, stronghold of the kings of Media, and already, barely a century after its foundation, the crossroads of the world.” Tom Holland. Persian Fire.
It was inside the palace of Ecbatana that the Magi of King Astyages could learn of the mysterious new sciences of the east from strangely dressed visitors, and look up into the clear mountain sky and watch the movement of the celestial wanderers, and take counsel until the early hours with travelling priests from Karnak.
Ecbatana itself means ‘meeting place’ for that’s what it was… Even before the city was built. It was the crossroads of the world.
It wasn’t the capital for long because rulers, like all politicians, end up behaving exactly as their predecessors did and so Astyages was overthrown by Cyrus.
However the new ruler had no intention of seeing Ecbatana in flames. Why would he? It was the most strategic city in the world. And so Ecbatana became the New York of early magic.
Cyrus ended up using Ecbatana as his base for most of his life until he died in battle at the age of seventy. The next two kings also considered it the symbol of their dominion of the world, and continued to base themselves there in the summer months. (Mountains beat the desert as a place to live in the summer.)
The seat of power eventually moved to bigger and more famous places (Babylon) but it was in the mountain city of Ecbatana that the practices of the Magi coalesced.
“As in the eastern kingdoms of Iran, where the monotheism of the Prophet (Zoroaster) had taken its strongest hold, so also in the west, Ahura Mazda had long been worshipped as supreme. Between the native paganism of the Persians and the teachings of Zoroaster there appears to have been, not rivalry, but rather synergy, and even fusion. Both were the expression of a single religious impulse, one that had been evolving over centuries, and was still, as the Persians conquered the world, in a state of flux. In particular, between the Magi, who had long been adepts of the most occult and sacred knowledge, and the priests of Zoroaster, there were numerous correspondences. It was not even clear which order had first proclaimed eternal war against insects and reptiles, had first worn white robes as a mark of their status, or had first exposed the corpses of their fellows to be consumed by birds and dogs… So too with the worship of the Good Lord Ahura Mazda himself, influence had long been percolating both ways. Far from dividing the Medes and the Persians from their cousins in the east, their ‘Mazdaism’ appears to have served them as a source of unity.” (ibid.)
Here’s a fun animation that shows the complexity of the region over a few thousand years:
The lessons of Ecbatana
I like this story. I even like the sound of the word, ‘Ecbatana’. There is probably some exciting astral work to be done in this general historical area which I am going to put on my priority queue. (You heard me.)
But I like the story for a different reason.
I like it because the prevailing historical narrative for magic is bollocks.
There was no Neolithic matriarchy, there was no dominant Celtic goddess/consort model, there weren’t any aeons that even remotely resemble Thelemic descriptions, there were no secret magical orders stretching back to King Solomon, Leland lied, Gardner lied, Murray certainly lied… And so on. The whole story is utter horseshit.
Does this mean modern magic has no history?
Notions such as astrology, hermeticism, elemental theory, etc all came from somewhere. They all have a lineage. Ideas have ancestors, too.
We have an opportunity now to explore our history without looking for immediate legitimacy (which is what Crowley, Gardner, etc were all desperate to find). The internet, the twenty first century, the rapid democratization of academic knowledge… These present us with the opportunity to build our own narrative out of real historical elements.
I find this exciting. But then I am a massive history nerd.
Be that as it may, Ecbatana might just qualify for a place on western magic’s collective cosmogram.