Ostanes or Osthanes [Old Iranian Avastana or (H)ushtana] was a legendary Achaemenian era (700-300 BCE) Persian Magus (a Zoroastrian priest), and perhaps an arch-Magus. While he is not mentioned in Persian literature (most Persian literature from the Achaemenian era has been destroyed or lost), he finds mention in Hellenic and Arabic literature.
The is a possibility that the eponymous Ostanes / Oshtanes was an illustrious member of a family of Magi priests bearing the same name since Pliny seems to talk about three Oshtanes over a span of one or two hundred years with one being particularly noteworthy.
Xanthus of Lydia (late 5th cent. BCE) is cited by Diogenes Laertius at 1.2 as mentioning that the Persian Magi Ostani (plural) lived after the time of Xerxes (r. 486-465 BCE).
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) makes Ostanes a contemporary of Achaemenian King Xerxes (519-465 BCE) having accompanied the king on his invasion of Greece. Pliny also makes another Ostanes a contemporary of Alexander of Macedonia (356-323 BCE), and further states that Ostanes was Democritus’ (c. 460–c. 370 BCE) teacher, a task Ostanes shared with other Chaldeans and Magi present in the court of Xerxes.
Suffice it to say that Ostanes was thought to have lived sometime during the 6th to 4th centuries BCE.
In which court of Xerxes Ostanes was stationed is not entirely clear. A letter written by a certain Syneius (of Cyrene c.4th cent. BCE?) to Dioscorus, a Serapeion priest at Alexandria, Egypt, speaks of Democritus visiting Egypt where he was initiated into the mysteries by Ostanes (also see 'Democritus' below). George Syncellus, a 9th cent. CE Greek chronicler, says that Ostanes was sent by the Persian king to preside over the priests of Egypt.
What? Ostanes' Legacy
In a c. 2-4th cent. CE letter written in Syriac, the Egyptian philosopher Pebechius informs Osrom the Magian (a Zoroastrian), that he Pebechius, had discovered hidden books of Ostanes written in Persian. The books had been inscribed on seven tablets that had been hidden by a king behind seven doors. As Pebechius cannot read Persian, he implores Osrom "to send him the Persian letters" (presumable a language and translation guide). Pebechius stresses the need for quick action so that he may translate the texts before he dies, for he is already old and infirm. Osrom responds that he is delighted with the discovery and send the Egyptian the Persian "letters". As a result Pebechius deciphers the texts. In a subsequent correspondence, Pebechius in great awe describes the books as Ostanes' divine revelations and a treatise on the whole of all the sciences including the wisdom of Hermes which Ostanes had recovered and restored to the Magi and to the world. Compare this account with the Arabic text described below. We assume Osrom, to whom the letter was addressed, lived in Persia.
In Physika kai Mystika, a book by Democritus, but credited to a 2nd cent. BCE Egyptian Bolus, Ostanes is quoted as stating in the first person that he "died before our teaching was completed." Therefore he returned from the nether-world to deliver to his disciples the teachings of his ancestors which were hidden in a the pillars of a temple. What we have here is according to Kevin Thomas Van Bladel in From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science is "the loss and recovery of ancient Persian science." The occasion for the loss was the invasion of Alexander and the consequent destruction of Magian texts. The effort to recover them took place after the end of Macedonian-Greek rule.
The letter in Syriac from Pebechius to Osrom that we have cited above, also makes Ostanes a principle author of the texts on the Hermetic Sciences attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.
Also see our page: Hermippus Redivivus by J.H. Cohausen (1749) - Hermetic Philosophy & Zoroaster.
Ostanes on the Nature of God
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c. 248-258 CE), in his treatise Quad idola dii non sint, states that Ostanes said God cannot be perceived and Hermes Trismegistus said God cannot be comprehended (by humans). These are views prevalent in Zoroastrianism today.
Ostanes in Arabic Sources
Reconstruction of Zoroastrian-Persian texts Destroyed by Alexander
It is quite remarkable for a Zoroastrian Magus to find sympathetic mention in otherwise derogatory Arabic sources. It is even more remarkable that the Arabs would have preserved mention of Persian leadership in science when Persian sources themselves had forgotten the history.
One such Arabic source was published by Berthelot in La Chimie au moyen age, vol. 3.79-88 (Arabic text) as two books. The awkward style of the Arabic indicates that they texts were direct translations of an older work. Both books are accounts by Ostanes.
In the first book, Ostanes relates a conversation with Aristotle about the properties of special kinds of matter.
In the second book Ostanes describes a dream he had after falling asleep weary with concern about his work. In his dream an old man beckons him to rise from his bed and leads him to seven doors behind which are treasure houses of science. But to open these doors, Ostanes needs a key held by a ferocious beast with the wings of a vulture, the head of an elephant and the tail of a dragon. The sage Ostanes asks for the key in the name of God and the beast complies. On opening the doors, Ostanes discovers inscriptions behind each in a different language.
The first door reveals an inscription in Egyptian (a possible indication of the source of the original text) that describes the body, spirit and soul metaphorically as the lamp, oil and wick respectively. This essential composition of a person is typically Zoroastrian.
The second door reveals an inscription in Persian. The text reads:
Then there was after it Persian writing in which was much learning and knowledge, and this is what I say to you now; it is the writing that was clear to me and the knowledge that I had acquired. It said:
"As for Egypt, it has excellence over the towns and countries. That is because God the Exalted has given its people wisdom and knowledge in all things. As for Persia, the people of Egypt and those over the horizons need it (i.e. Persia). Nothing in their works is sound except that which has come from Persia. Do you not see that each of the philosophers whose concern was in this knowledge had sent to the people of Persia and took them as brothers, and asked them to send to him that which comes from their land and is not found in other lands? Have you not heard a certain philosopher having written to the Magi, the people of Persia, that 'I have come upon one of the books of the first sages in the pen of Persia that I cannot read. Send me one of their sages to read to me my book which I have found. For you are doing me a favour, if you do that, and I will thank you forever as long as I remain. So send quickly to me the one whom I have asked from before my life ceases and I become a corpse needing no knowledge.' And the sages of the people of Persia wrote to him that, 'When you letter reached us, we were very happy with what you wrote to us. We have sent quickly to you the sage that you have asked for to read to you your book and explain to you what is hidden to you of it, for we consider it is necessary duty for us to you.Consider when you have finished your book as it should be, and send quickly to us a copy of that book, because our forefathers were the ones who established that book. Therefore let us have a share of it with you, for it also thus should be. Peace.'"
Reconstruction of Zoroastrian-Persian History
The appeal by the Persian magi to share with them a text that had been lost to them is amazing. Zoroastrian texts had been largely destroyed during the invasion of Alexander and that some of them survived in Egypt is very probable. After Persian-Iranian liberation from Hellenic domination, Zoroastrian kings and priests went about collecting scattered texts that might have survived. The elation of the Persian Magi in learning that some of the ancient texts had indeed survived and had been rediscovered is palpable.
The third door doors reveals an inscription in the Indian script which stated that India was the most potent of all countries because of its proximity to the Sun. However, "if it were not for what we need from Persia, we would complete all our work with that which comes out of our land and our sea." Then the Indians relate how they sent the urine of a male, white elephant from their land to a man that had requested it, and how the man was very impressed with its healing properties. [This is very consistent with Zoroastrian healing and purification tradition which employs the urine of a male, white bull.]
We are not told of the contents behind the other doors as the dream comes to an end with the old guide giving Ostanes mysterious instructions. At the conclusion Ostanes states that he followed the instructions to completion "as Hermes had described." The account links the beliefs of the Magi, i.e. Zoroastrianism to Hermetic beliefs - In all likelihood giving rise to a syncretized belief system.
The similarity of this account is so close to the account described above in the letters between the Egyptian philosopher Pebechius and the Magian Osrom, so as to be beyond coincidence.
The Magus Ostanes' student and likely disciple was Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 BCE), an influential pre-Socratic philosopher who formulated an atomic theory for the cosmos. Many consider Democritus to be the father of modern science. Though largely ignored in Athens, he was respected by the Persians and Persian emperor Xerxes is said to have visited his home.
Democritus is reported to have also visited Babylon to study the science of the Chaldeans. He summed up the results of his investigations in a Chaldean Treatise. Another treatise by Democritus was titled On the Sacred Writings of Those in Babylon and as a result of his visit to Persia, he wrote Mageia [q.v. The Dying God by David Livingston (Lincoln, 2002) p. 101].
Synecius (of Cyrene 4th cent. CE) in a letter to Dioscorus, priest of the Serapeion at Alexandria, says that Democritus came to Egypt and was initiated into the Mysteries by the great Ostanes in a temple at Memphis in a ceremony attended to by many priests (magi). We may conclude that Democritus was not just a student of Magus Ostanes but a disciple as well.
As we note again below, in 30.9-10, Pliny notes that it was Democritus who instilled in the minds of men the sweetness of magic - the science of the Magi.
Ostanes is credited with being one of the great authorities in alchemy and the author of several
books on alchemy. For instance, in the Arabic treatise titled Kitab al-Fusul al-ithnay ‘ashar fi 'ilm al-hajar al-mukarram (The Book of the Twelve Chapters on the Honourable Stone).
Pliny the Elder, in a triad against Ostanes, credits the arch-Magus as having introduced the Persian sciences to the Egyptians and Greeks and giving the Greeks a downright "madness" for the magian sciences. In 30.2.8-10, Pliny goes on to state that many Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato had traveled east to study the philosophy and craft of the magi and then returned to Greece to teach what they had learned from the Persian magi.
In 30.2.9-10, Pliny goes on to say that it was Democritus who propagated in Greece magic - the science of the magi - and likely what Democritus had learnt from Ostanes and other magi.
Pliny's Natural History Book 30.2.3:
"The first person, so far as I can ascertain, who wrote upon magic, and whose works are still in existence, was Osthanes, who accompanied Xerxes, the Persian king, in his expedition against Greece. It was he who first disseminated, as it were, the germs of this monstrous art, and tainted therewith all parts of the world through which the Persians passed. Authors who have made diligent enquiries into this subject, make mention of a second Zoroaster, a native of Proconnesus, as living a little before the time of Osthanes. That it was this same 'Osthanes, more particularly, that inspired the Greeks, not with a fondness only, but a rage, for the art of magic, is a fact beyond all doubt: though at the same time I would remark, that in the most ancient times, and indeed almost invariably, it was in this branch of science, that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown. At all events, Pythagoras, we find, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato, crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof, submitting, to speak the truth, more to the evils of exile than to the mere inconveniences of travel. Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries. It was Democritus, too, who first drew attention to Apollobeches of Coptos, to Dardanus, and to Phœnix: the works of Dardanus he sought in the tomb of that personage, and his own were composed in accordance with the doctrines there found. That these doctrines should have been received by any portion of mankind, and transmitted to us by the aid of memory, is to me surprising beyond anything I can conceive. All the particulars there found are so utterly incredible, so utterly revolting, that those even who admire Democritus in other respects, are strong in their denial that these works were really written by him. Their denial, however, is in vain; for it was he, beyond all doubt, who had the greatest share in fascinating men's minds with these attractive chimeras."
Bidez and Cumont 1938 1.165-212.
» Pliny's Naturalis Historia at Perseus Bk. 30 in Latin
» Pliny's Natural History at Perseus Bk. 30 in English
» The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science by Kevin Thomas Van Bladel
» Mithraism and Alchemy