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16th December, Three Kings

December 16, 2011
by Paul Bommer

In Christian tradition, the Magi – also referred to as the Wise Men, Three Kings or Kings from the East – are a group of distinguished travellers who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. “Magus” is a term derived from Greek, meaning a priest.

The Gospel of St. Matthew – the only one of the four Gospels to mention the Magi – states that they came “from the East” to worship Christ, “born King of the Jews.” Although the account does not tell how many they were, the three gifts led to the assumption that they were three, although some early traditions held that they were as many as twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is linked to Old Testament prophesies, such as that in Isaiah, which describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings.

Traditions identify a variety of names for the individual Magi. In the Western Christian church, they have been known as – Kaspar, Caspar, Gaspar, Gathaspa, Jaspar or Jaspas – Melchior, Melichior or Melchyo – and Balthasar, Bithisare or Balthassar. In my image I have shown, the Czech names for the Magi (as well as the Czech words for Three Kings and the names of their gifts). The names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria around 500 A.D. which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari. In contrast, the Syrian Christians name the Magi – Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas, probably Persian in origin. In the Eastern churches -Ethiopian Christianity has Hor, Karsudan and Basanater, while the Armenians have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. One Armenian tradition identifies the Magi as Balthasar coming from Arabia, Mechior coming from Persia and Gasper coming from India.

The gifts symbolise Christ’s sovereignty (gold), divinity (frankincense) and death (myrrh, an oil used in embalming), while the day of celebration of the Three Kings’ arrival in Bethlehem is January 6th (Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany) and, in some cultures, this is the date on which children receive their Christmas gifts.

Marco Polo claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh, south of Tehran, in the 1270s – “In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.” Meanwhile, a shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, also contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly, they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. The Magi are still sometimes referred to as the Three Kings of Cologne and the city’s coat-of-arms has three crowns on it in their honour.

In Poland, people take small boxes containing chalk, a gold ring, incense and a piece of amber – in memory of the gifts of the Magi – to church to be blessed on the evening of Twelfth Night. Once at home, they inscribe the date and “K+M+B+” with the blessed chalk above every door in the house to provide protection against illness and misfortune for those within. The letters, with a cross after each one, stand for names of the Three Kings — Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They remain above the doors all year until they are inadvertently dusted off or replaced by new markings the next year. By happy coincidence, my dad who is Polish also has the initials K.M.B. – Krzysztof Maria Bommer!

Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer

One Response leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011

    Erratum! Despite being half Polish (a tad-pole?) I am unfamiliar with slavic grammar, and have been informed by a native speaker that the Czech word I have used for Myrrh is the accusative case Myrhu (Can one accuse someone of Myrrh?). My apologies.
    Kadidlo is Frankincense and the bejewelled pyx contains the Gold!

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