In the Jorge Luis Borges short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius the only historical name the narrator and Bioy recognize from the cyclopaedia entry on Uqbar is that of

the impostor magician Smerdis, invoked more as a metaphor.

I looked him up and read the story of the Smerdis being assassinated, and then the fake Smerdis being killed by the seven including Darius, and so forth. However, nowhere in the Wikipedia article did I find a mention of magic. What is Borges referring to by calling Smerdis a magician?

1 Answer 1


Smerdis was a magian.

For example, the book Darius the Great by Jacob Abbott (freely available online e.g. here and here) has a chapter entitled "Smerdis the Magian", and the journal article Arno Poebel, "The Duration of the Reign of Smerdis, the Magian, and the Reigns of Nebuchadnezzar III and Nebuchadnezzar IV", The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 56(2) (1939), pp. 121-145, also refers to him thusly.

What is a magian, you may ask? There's an entry on Dictionry.com (mixed up with magi), and a much more detailed description here. In short, they were important religious figures in ancient Persia, not magicians.

So why did Borges call Smerdis a magician? Well, did he? Remember this is a translated story, originally written in Spanish. Checking the Spanish text, we find the original version of this passage (emphasis mine):

De los nombres históricos, uno solo: el impostor Esmerdis el mago, invocado más bien como una metáfora.

The Spanish word "mago" does translate as magician, but as far as I can tell from browsing Spanish-language pages about Zoroastrianism and ancient Persia, it's also the Spanish word for "magian". E.g.:

  • En la religión tradicional irania, los sacerdotes eran llamados magos.
    -- National Geographic

  • Según Heródoto (I-101), los magos eran una de las seis tribus de la Media.
    -- Spanish Wikipedia

TL;DR: it's a translation error.

  • Brilliant, thank you! The one interesting thing, which is almost unprovable, is whether or not Borges meant the 'magian' meaning or 'magician' meaning, since it is "invoked more as a metaphor" in the story, and sorcerer/wizard got rather mixed up with the matter. Presumably, since Borges was exceedingly well read, he did indeed mean the 'magian' meaning.
    – auden
    Nov 19, 2018 at 17:03

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