The story of the Three Kings comes from Chapter Two of Matthew’s gospel, but it is the subsequent legends that have grown around this strange trio that concern us today. In verse one, Matthew tells us that,
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.”
Notice that. ‘There came wise men from the east.’ They are not kings and there are not three of them. These ‘wise men’ are the Magi, which comes from the Greek word µαγοι ‘magoi’, which is the plural of ‘magos’, which in turn comes from the Persian Magu, both terms refer to a class of scholar-priests from Medes (now in modern Iran).
|The Adoration of the Magi - from the Franks Casket c 800 CE|
It is the root of our word ‘magic’ as these Magi were astronomers, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, philosophers and the keepers of ritual; they were occultists that knew and studied the works of the Ancient Greeks, of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Herodotus, and they used them in their own researches. They observed the skies, for signs and portents, and according to Matthew “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them,” which is a little odd, since if the star was in the east and the Magi were also in the east, then they would have followed it further to the east, in the opposite direction from Bethlehem, but that’s by the by.
|The Adoration of the Magi|
They went first to Herod and then to Bethlehem, where they presented Mary and Jesus with ‘… gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.’ They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so went back to their own country by another way. That the gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh has given rise to the legend that there were three men, each of whom bore a single gift, but again Matthew does not mention the real number of the Magi, (indeed, early Christian tradition held that there were twelve of them, foretokening the number of the twelve apostles).
|Albrecht Durer - The Adoration of the Magi|
By the second century, Christians celebrated the visit of the Magi in the feast of the Epiphany (now January 6th), which means ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’, and the Epiphany predates the feast of Christmas by more than a century. Folk legends began to grow around the identity of the Three Wise Men; the eldest, Melchior, was a King of Arabia, white haired and white bearded, with a pale complexion and he brought the gift of Gold. Caspar came from Chaldea, was younger and had a ruddy skin, was beardless and brought frankincense. Balthasar was a black King of Ethiopia, tall and middle-aged, he bore myrrh (in some legends, the descriptions of Caspar and Balthasar are interchanged).
|Gentile da Fabriano - The Adoration of the Magi [Detail]|
In other traditions, their names are Apellius, Amerus and Damascus, another names them Megalath, Galgalath and Sarasin, whereas a fourth version calls them Ator, Sator and Peratorus. It was thought that, regardless of their names, they represented the three (then known) continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, and some thought that they were descendants of Balaam, a seer and Magi mentioned in the book of Numbers, who foretold a ‘star out of Jacob’ and who passed the watch for it down through his line. Bede, amongst others, speculated that the Three Wise Men were descended from Ham, Japheth and Shem, the three sons of Noah.
|Gentile da Fabriano - The Adoration of the Magi|
The pomp of their coming, with horses, camels and mules, in rich array bearing great treasures and accompanied by servants, gave artists of the Middle Ages an opportunity to exhibit their skills in a portrayal of the scene.
|Van Eyck - The Ghent Altarpiece|
In Northern Europe, where oil painting was developed, artists like Van Eyck, Durer and the German schools produced richly detailed depictions of the Three Kings in all their splendour.
|Reliquary of the Magi - Cologne Cathedral|
The Magi became associated with Cologne when Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, had their bodies brought from the Far East to Constantinople, and in 1164, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa gave them to Raynuldus, Archbishop of Cologne, who placed them in a magnificent shrine at Cologne Cathedral, where pilgrims from across Europe came to venerate these relics. A popular belief was that to touch them would protect travellers from injury whilst on the road, and these three saints had special powers of intercession and protection, against sorcery and sudden death; special rings were available from Cologne, inscribed with the names of the Magi and other charms and were thought to be especially efficacious against cramps and falling sickness.
|Magi Pilgrim Rings|
The Adoration of the Magi became an integral part of the Christmas story and they feature widely in Nativity scenes, on Christmas cards and in Nativity plays and they appear in umpteen carols, most notably ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’.