"Shamans & Amazons: The Endnotes" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, some extra bits of information from my video about Magic — and if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card.

In that video, I talked about how the word magic comes from the magi or magoi in Greek, ultimately from the Persian word magush, meaning “priest”. The word magush, in addition to being borrowed into Greek, also makes it into a number of other languages, such as Talmudic Hebrew magosh and Aramaic amgusha meaning “magician”, and Chaldean maghdim meaning “wisdom and philosophy”. One of the most surprising borrowings is into Chinese. It has been proposed that the Proto-Sinitic root *myag, which later becomes wū in Mandarin, came from Old Persian magush. Now wū, normally translated as “shaman”, were responsible for such things as divination, astrology, prayer, sacrifice, and healing, and might be better thought of as magicians or mages. Shamans on the other hand originally come from Siberian and Ural-Altaic traditions, and are associated with altered states of consciousness and ecstatic trances. The word shaman, by the way, comes into English through German and Russian, ultimately from a Tungusian word, which might come from a root that means “to know”. As an interesting side note here, there is another Mandarin word w which means “martial, military”, which comes from a very phonologically similar Proto-Sinitic root *myagx, and what’s more, the Proto-Indo-European root *magh- meaning “to be able, have power” that lies behind magush and magic has a homophone that means “to fight”, so there might be some sort of relationship here. This second Proto-Indo-European root is, through Greek, the source of a few fairly rare words ending in -machy, such as naumachy “a place specially constructed for mock sea battles”, logomachy “a contention about words”, and duomachy “a fight of two” in other words single combat. It might also be the root of the word Amazon, the society of female warriors in Greek myth. The Greek folk etymology for Amazon is that it comes from Greek a- “not” and mazos “breast” in the belief that the Amazons cut one of their breasts off in order to use a bow and arrow better, but it more likely comes from a hypothetical Iranian compound *ha-maz-an- “(one) fighting together”, in other words a warrior, with the ha part coming from the Proto-Indo-European root *sem- “one, as one, together with”, one of the possible roots that lies behind Samhain, the Irish festival that may have led to Halloween. By the way, the Amazon river was given this name because the expedition of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana was attacked there by warriors that he took to be women on account of their long hair, and Jeff Bezos named his online book company after the river because it was exotic, the longest river in the world, and started with the letter A. But despite his success, he’s no magician, just very flexible in the ethical department.

As always, you can hear even more etymology and history, as well as interviews with a wide range of fascinating people, on the Endless Knot Podcast, available on all the major podcast platforms as well as our other YouTube channel. Thanks for watching!