Could the magos of antiquity provide a prototype of the hermit? There are two confluences: institutional and individual, that of the authorized and that of the unsanctioned, that of the community and public culture, and that of the solitary and insightful.
The earliest practitioners of what the Greeks called magic were the priestly castes of the Persian Empire. These priests were called magoi. They officiated rites at sacrifices and funerals, and other established religious ceremonies. The ancient Greeks, as enemies of the Persians, ascribed evil motives and powers to the magoi, not noticing that they themselves had similar priests performing similar functions doubtless considered evil in motive and power by the Persians.
The evolving interpretation of magic and religion is succinctly illustrated by the cultures of antiquity, especially the Hebrew/Jews. In the first stage, as a small and powerless culture surrounded by larger cultural entities and empires, the Hebrews accepted the authenticity of multiple gods and their powers. This is the earliest stage and a stage at which all the (other) cultures of antiquity remained.
In the second stage, the gods of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, etc., are deemed to exist and to exert their power — but the Hebrew god’s power is increasing, rivaling, and finally greater than all the rest. Thus the contest between the god of the Phoenician priests and the god of the Jews in the first book of Kings, where Elijah defeats his rivals in a contest of divine intervention to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish god.
The third stage maintains not that other gods exist, or that one god is superior to another god, but that only one god exists and that the others are false, that they do not exist, that they have no true power. Here is the beginning of exclusivism culturally, the high point of secular power and prestige spilling into the psychology of the elite.
And the fourth stage, represented by Christianity under the later Roman Empire and beyond, asserted both that the other gods were false and that their adherents derived their power from demonic powers. Thus did all non-sanctioned religious practices, all accretions of previous (pagan) religions, now representing conquered cultures, become anathema, condemned as magic. This stage parallels the growth of political and material consolidation, not at the tribal or nationalist stage but regionally, including subordinate states and cultures.
The cultural circle of established religions came round again with the establishment of parallel priestly castes performing religious rites of sacrifice and funerals. The originally small, localized tribe of stage one comes round to universalize or project its new epoch of power.
But a different trajectory occurred in the individuals who did not represent castes or powers. These, too, were dubbed magoi but were distinct in motive and aspect. The philosopher Heraclitus, living around 500 BCE, described these magoi as night-ramblers, Bacchants (adherents of Bacchus, god of wine, libertine and debauched), Maenads (disreputable women, adherents of Bacchus), and mystics, (adherents of mystery religions versus the conventional religion of the state).
Heraclitus or whoever is represented by the fragment left us, expresses a view that confirms the dominant powers of his society, motivated by the desire for stability and order. This view would naturally disdain any challenges to the religion of Olympus — even if Heraclitus himself did not believe in the gods. “The rites accepted by people in the Mysteries are an unholy performance,” he states. And yet the Greeks, if not Heraclitus, ascribed genuine power to them.
Tiresias, who appears in plays of Sophocles as a seer and prophet, is described as a magos. Tiresias advises the powerful through insight granted by the gods, yet holds no title in an official priestly caste, and is clearly a solitary, bound to be distrusted by all. From T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:
I, Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives …
Tiresias can walk through the sinister side untouched, and through the corridors of power without desire. But because his revelations are so damning — to Oedipus in Oedipus the King and to Creon in Antigone, he is dismissed as a magos, a peddler of ill fate, a maleficent being, but inspired by Delphic oracles nevertheless, not as a fraud because he did not sell his knowledge indifferently but with great reluctance.
Plato, in The Republic, inveighs against sorcerers and diviners, as
begging priests and soothsayers [who] go to rich men’s doors and make them believe that they by means of sacrifices and incantations have accumulated a treasure of power from the gods that expiate and cure with pleasurable festivals any misdeed of a man or his ancestors, and that if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure just and unjust a like, since they are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end.
But none of this character can be ascribed to Tiresias. There are, then, three sets of magoi. The priestly caste is clearly one side, but the other parallels the shamans and prophets distinct from the fraudulent peddlers, thieves, and con-artists. A magos not associated with the ruling caste and its priesthood, who is independent, eccentric, an ethical teacher, itinerant, homeless, viewed by authority as a potential criminal, as a fraud intent on power, will be vilified even centuries later. Living in an environment that straddled intolerant Judaism and an indifferent Roman Empire, Jesus, for example, has been depicted by some as a magos not of the priestly caste but as a fraud. Yet to automatically describe a magos as a fraud is to automatically reproduce the point of view of the ruling priestly caste, a situation found in all cultures and applied to all magoi.
In ancient Greece, the historical figure of Diogenes the Cynic emerges as another bridge to amalgamate the characteristics of the magoi. He disclaims any prophetic or magical function, any desire or ambition, reducing all to the philosophical and the ethical — yet with an air of madness, being what Plato called “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is an itinerant iconoclast who disrespects authority and outrages the power caste. Some of his acts are deliberately provocative and unacceptable to society, for which he was called a dog. But he accepts nothing from anyone, claims no special skills, and defrauds no one but rather forces them to think.
Diogenes is a prototype of the hermit. Eccentric eremitism carries over into early Christian times — Simon Stylites is an equivalent. The self-regulating eremitism of the desert hermits salvaged the hermit against powerful authorities and the tendencies of authorities to institutionalize the simple, the free, the ethical, prophets of a sort, magoi in the better sense.