According to the Gospel of Matthew, following the birth of Jesus, “there came three wise magi from the East to Jerusalem…For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him”. Note that Matthew writes magi and not kings; that was a later change, although it may have had some basis of truth. According to tradition, the magi arrived at the nativity on Epiphany (originally celebrated as the day that Jesus was baptised on his 13th birthday), although even the most devout now accept that it is probably apocryphal.
But such traditions stem from somewhere. So just who were these three wise magi and how did they become so well known in the West that Matthew wove them into his gospel.
The name provides the first clue. Magi (or, in its Greek form, magoi) actually stems from the Old Persian (now Iran) word magush. There are many references to magush in the carvings and inscriptions from ancient Persia, including the stupendous rock-cut carving of Darius the Great at Bisitun (now in eastern Iran). He describes an enemy as a magush. Inscriptions in the great city of Persepolis also refers to magush, using the word specifically to identify priests.
Herodotus, our half-trusty guide to the East, mentions magush (using his native Greek of magoi) existing in the 5th century BC, describing how they prophesised for the ruling monarch and advised on the best course of action. No wonder Xenophon, another Greek author writing a century or so after Herodotus, refers to Persian magoi as authorities on all religious matters. These really were wise men.
The religion of the ancient Persians was Zoroastrainism, named for the prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek). Little is known about him, except that he came from the Aral Sea and trained as a priest. The religion he founded taught people to follow a path of truth and steer away from anything evil (personified as the dark God Angra Mainyu). The chief God of the pantheon was Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and he presided over creation with six other divine beings, creating a mystical seven forces in the world. These forces correspond with sky, water, earth, plants, beneficent animals, humans, and fire. Fire was personified as the son of Ahura Mazda, and became the symbol of the religion. Although adherents do not worship fire (contrary to much that is written), they preserve its sacredness by not defiling it in any way. Bodies are never burnt and priests wear facemasks when intoning over the flames. Since the earth, another of the seven forces, must be likewise unsullied, bodies are never buried but are left on, so-called, Towers of Silence, for vultures to consume.
Zoroastrianism is concerned with truth. Both the spoken (and written) truth. Herodotus says that Persian children are only taught three things: to ride, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. The king’s personal signal was a falcon, hovering over his magisterial image. This was the shahin and it represented the path of truth and righteousness. If the King should stray from the path, the shahin would fly away, taking away Ahura Mazda’s authority for the king to rule. Wisdom and knowledge, personified by the magush, was at the centre of society. No wonder the magush, the seekers into the truth of reality, had the epithet “wise”.
Lesser spirits also helped the King, the most powerful being the Sun God Mithra (later known as Mithras – or the Persian God – to the Romans). As with most Sun Gods, Mithras was born at the winter solstice.
The traditions of Mithras and Jesus interact. This makes sense since they developed in tandem and adhered to many set archetypes that would be immediately familiar to people. The magi almost certainly visited Mithras (in his Persian guise) after birth, but what about Jesus. What was the inspiration that led Matthew to include the tale in his gospel. When would he have witnessed Persian magi?
During the reign of Emperor Nero, the Romans started to feel uneasy about the rise of the Persian Empire. To counter the perceived threat, they installed client kings to rule buffer states, sometimes removing the incumbent monarch. One of the deposed was Tiridates, ruler of Armenia and brother to the King of Persia, Vologases. The Romans could not have chosen a more dangerous man and the whole sorry episode led to war between Rome and Persia. After several battles, sieges, and much posturing, the parties agreed a peace treaty whereby Tiridates would be restored to his old position of king on the condition that he visited Nero in Rome and paid featly to his rule.
In addition to being a king, Tiridates was also a Zoroastrian priest, a magus, and was accompanied by other magi on his journey to Rome in 66 AD. He also took 3,000 horsemen as a royal guard. His stature and presence made a huge impression on Nero and the Romans (so much so that Nero effectively handed Armenia back to Persia to be ruled by Tiridates). The flowing dress, soft hat, and treasures of the Zoroastrian magi astonished those in the West. Even if St Matthew did not witness the visit, the memory of it hung in the West a long time thereafter.
St Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 to 90 AD and it is likely he incorporated memory of the magi’s visit to Rome in his nativity story. He did not use the name Tiridates for the lead magi but instead chose another contemporary ruler. In south-east Iran a local king called Gondophares ruled. Scholars attest that his name would be translated as Caspar, the most familiar of the magi to visit Jesus. Maybe the three magi were also three kings.
The gifts the magi brought were possibly also adapted from those given to Nero, although they may have had a more symbolic importance when presented to Jesus. The writer Origen sets out the reasons in Contra Celsum, which he wrote in the third century AD. Gold was given as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (a holy incense) was given as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) was given as a symbol of death (anticipating the crucifixion). More recent research at Cardiff University suggests that both frankincense and myrrh were useful treatments for arthritis, although it does seem a rather odd gift for a newborn child.
Some early portrayals of the nativity scene show the magi giving their gifts. Each bend and kneel, a sign of great respect in the East reserved only for kings and Gods. In certain representations, the magi wear gloves to present their gifts. In Zoroastrian tradition, hands must be covered in religious rites. The illustration above, taken from late Classical Ravenna in Italy, shows the magi in their Eastern garb, two with their hands covered, and bowing low in obeisance.
So “we three kings from Orient are…” not kings exactly (although they might have been) but Zoroastrian priests inspired by a spectacular visit to Rome in 66 AD, and bringing gifts worthy of both a king and a God. Back home, the Zoroastrian magi were known for their knowledge of astrology and the heavens. If there really was an odd star in the night sky, they would have been the first to know about it, setting in motion their incredible journey to mark the birth of the Sun God at the solstice.
Wishing all my readers a peaceful solstice and a very happy Christmas and may your God bless you.