On the Three Biblical Magi as Spiritual Allies
December 28, 2016 3 Comments
So, Christmas has come and gone, but it’s still the Christmas season, more traditionally called Christmastide. Surely, dear reader, if you’ve grown up in the Anglophone world, you’re familiar with that old carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, yes? Many non-Catholics or non-traditional Christians think that these are referring to the twelve days leading up to Christmas Day, but it’s actually just the reverse; Christmastide begins at sunset on December 24 and ends at sunset on January 5, the evening before Epiphany, spanning twelve days in the process. So, even though Christmas was this past Sunday, there’s still so much going on over the next few days:
- December 25: Christmas
- December 26: Feast of St. Stephen
- December 28: Childermass, or Day of the Holy Innocents
- January 1: Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Solemnity of Mary Mother of God
All this culminates on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Theophany. Many modern Catholic churches celebrate this mass on the Sunday closest to January 6 (between January 2 and January 8), but I prefer to keep to the day itself instead of the archdiocese’s schedule. This day celebrates the revelation of God through the mortal Jesus to the world, and most famously remembers the visitation of three special people to the babe in the manger. When you think of a Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph in the manger with Jesus in the crib of hay, what else comes to mind? Gabriel above, perhaps, maybe alongside a bright star, and a number of shabby-looking nomads and herders around. Among the crowd coming to see the newborn King, however, there are often three special people who stand tall amongst the rest.
Usually decked in flowing and elaborate robes and accompanied by at least one camel, the Three Kings are among the gatherers to witness and praise the newborn Son of God. Also known as the Wise Men or Magi, this bit of Bible lore comes from Matthew 2:1–12:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
In other words, at some point soon after the birth of Jesus (between 40 days and two years after the birth itself), several magi came from the East following a particularly interesting star that led them to Judaea so as to meet with the coming “king of the Jews”. They met with Herod, the puppet king installed by the Romans who ruled Judea at the time, to ask him where the new ruler could be found; this promptly caused Herod and the other elite and aristocracy in Judea to freak out, due to the fragile balance of power and protection that Rome afforded Judea at the time (cf. later in Jesus’ life when he was being proclaimed to be king, which would have upset the power structure as a symbol of insurrection against Roman rule, and thus resulted in his crucifixion). Herod, disguising his fear and plotting under a mask of reverence, tells the Magi what his advisers told him according to old Jewish prophecy: Bethlehem, the birthplace of the old King David. Herod sent the Magi off to Bethlehem and told them to return and pass along where, specifically, the newborn ruler could be found so that Herod too could “go and worship him”, though he was going to have the God-child murdered instead. The Magi left Herod’s, followed the Star of Bethlehem, and finally come to find Jesus with Mary (not necessarily in a manger at this point), and they presented their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to him. A dream was sent to them that warned them not to return to Herod, so they left Bethlehem and Judea generally by a different route entirely, declining to tell Herod where Jesus could be found; around this same time, Mary’s husband Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family. And so the Magi went back to the East and Jesus et al. went to the West, as Herod realized that he had been duped by the Magi and ordered all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two years old to be murdered. Only once Herod died did Joseph receive another dream telling him to return to Israel, but we never hear of the Magi again in the Bible. Traditions have surfaced since then that say that, due to their recognizing God in Jesus, they either professed a kind of proto-Christianity on the spot, or later willingly became full Christians after having encountered an apostle of Jesus; they were then martyred, possibly in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and their remains were discovered by Saint Helena in Palestine and transported to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and eventually (by way of Milan and the Holy Roman Empire) to the Shrine of the Three Kings in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Cologne, Germany.
Although technically the Bible doesn’t specify exactly how many of the magi came to see Jesus, the nativity scene in Matthew explicitly lists three gifts, so it has become tradition for there to be three of them, one king bearing one gift each. These gifts are gold, myrrh, and frankincense, each of which were (and are!) precious goods of no small price themselves, but also have spiritual symbolism regarding the prophesied life of Jesus as Messiah:
- Gold, as one of the most recognizable precious metals, has always stood as a symbol of wealth, status, and royalty to many people across the world. It is rare, and it adorns the bodies and palaces of those who have money and power enough to obtain it; I don’t think much explanation here is necessary. Hermetic magicians know gold as a metal representing the perfection of body and spirit, but also that of the Sun’s might as it rules the solar system. In the Three Kings story, gold is a symbol of Jesus as King, come to bring rule and dominion to the world as he establishes the Kingdom of God on Earth.
- Frankincense is a bright yellow to white resin most famously used as an incense and an ingredient in anointing oils, and has mild psychotropic uses as an antidepressant. It has a bright and vaguely citrusy smell, and has been used in religious rituals for thousands of years across the world. In Semitic languages, its name reflects its white or milky nature, and Judaism has frankincense as a symbol of the Divine Name and an emblem of prayer generally. Frankincense, in other words, indicates the presence and worship of the Divine. Hermetic magicians know this to be an especially good substance for Solar works, but many grimoires and traditions say that frankincense may be used as a general incense for any ritual or spirit. In the Three Kings story, frankincense is a symbol of Jesus as God, worthy of our veneration and praise and prayer, with frankincense burnt as a sacrifice to adore and worship God as Man.
- Myrrh is a dark brown or black resin used in incense, medicine, and embalming of dead bodies. Its name comes from Semitic languages meaning “bitter”, given its metallic bitterwseet aroma and taste, and has been used in medicine both as an antiseptic and a painkiller. In Egypt, myrrh was used for embalming of mummies, and has had long-standing associations with death and the tomb, though it was also used as an anointing oil generally. Famously, at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark 15:23 describes Jesus as being given a drink of wine mixed with myrrh. Hermetic magicians recall the association of myrrh as one of the plants and incenses associated with Saturn and the sephirah Binah, the third emanation of God. In the Three Kings story, myrrh is a symbol of Jesus as Mortal, born human and destined to die as human, with a life full of pain, bitterness, sorrow, and suffering, with myrrh there to help him numb the pain in life and to protect the body in death.
Most traditionally, the three high-and-powerful guys who come to visit Jesus are known as magi, a Greek word that should be familiar to all my readers: each one of them was a μαγος, a magician-priest or (euphemistically) a “wise man” who knew the workings of the cosmos and how things come to be and how things can be used in this world to affect everything else. Note that each of the gifts they brought not only have monetary value but spiritual value, as well. They are giving the tools and supplies of their own magical and priestly trade to Jesus, not just as a “gift”, but as tribute; after all, one does not give their ruler a “gift”, since the ruler could just take what they want from their subjects as their own regal right, but one gives tribute to their king, showing that they owe all they have and could produce to the blessing of their ruler. The Three Magi recognized Jesus as their ruler, even bowing down, kneeling, and worshiping him; they thus recognized that Jesus is the source of their power and their protection and salvation in the future.
It is important to note that the word μαγος had slightly different connotations than it does now. In ancient Persia, the μαγοι were a specific caste of astronomer-priests, the same one that the prophet Zoroaster belonged to; these priests paid specific attention to astrology, and since astrology was (and is) considered one of the foremost sciences of the world, the μαγοι were not only priests but scientists. They kept track of the passage of the planets and stars, and had a role to play in determining the lives of people in Persia, though the term is not synonymous with “king”. Rather, the idea of the Three Magi being kings is one adopted from Old Testament prophecy, where it is described that all the kings of the world shall fall down and worship the Messiah. With these three roles coming together—scientist of the world, priest of the soul, king of the people—we have the three routes of understanding and working with the world, and three types of elders who rule the world and the affairs of its people. Thus, according to the Three Kings story, no matter what path in life one turns to, all paths lead to the selfsame Divinity.
The most common names for the Three Kings are Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar, sometimes with small variants in the spellings. As for their origins, there are two major traditions about where each king comes from:
- The most traditional set of origins for the Three Kings has Melchior coming from Persia, Balthazar from either Babylon or Arabia (the two, historically, were not considered too different as large areas), and Caspar from India. These are all, generally, to the East of old Judea, and are each considered ancient places of wisdom and learning befitting their status as “wise men” or Magi, though technically only one of them could be a true μαγος, with Melchior being the only Persian among them. Still, astrology and priestly religions filled these regions, so to Jewish eyes, they would all be equivalent as noble heathenry.
- In the Americas, especially in Latin American spiritual communities where the Three Kings are one of the more popular religious icons, they represent the three religious, spiritual, and occult traditions that came together to form the modern spiritual life in the Western hemisphere: Melchior represents the European or “white” religions, Balthazar the African or “black” religions, and Caspar the religions indigenous to the native inhabitants of the Americas.
It’s generally agreed-upon that Melchior is the king bearing gold, Balthazar myrrh, and Caspar frankincense. As traditional iconography is often wont to do, each king has a set of color associated with them to make them easier to pick out when one can’t necessarily see the gifts they bring. Additionally, by correspondence with each gift, not only can they be seen as emblems of the life of Jesus, but also as spiritual strengths that humanity is to exercise. Plus, befitting their status as magicians, each can be tied to one of the three Hermetic arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy as suggested by the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:
So why bring all this up? Well, I have a small on-again-off-again practice with the Three Kings, and I figure, what with Epiphany coming up so soon, that perhaps it’s a good time to get the word out about them. After all, much of modern Western occulture seems to either ignore or be ignorant of the Three Kings, when we have—literally hidden in plain sight—biblically attested and venerated magicians known the world over as purveyors of wisdom, power, grace, charity, and gifts. Plus, with many of my colleagues working in various ATR, hoodoo, or other eclectic spiritual paths, I think many of us could benefit from this trio of eclectic magicians with a running work of two-thousand-plus years.
What can the Three Magi do for us? Well, they’re magicians, scientists, priests, and kings. Do you want to become any of these things? Do you want to learn any of these disciplines? Ask and ye shall receive! If you consider the traditional origins of the Three Magi, you have a spiritual link to the old astrologers of Persia, the conjurers of Babylon, and the monks of India to learn from them, the ancient civilizations that even ancient Egypt considered to be wise; you have a mentor in each of the three Hermetic Arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy to guide and teach you as you want to grow and learn; these are masters of seeking what we are meant to find, our guides on the many paths up the mountain of Divinity. If you’re involved in a diasporic ATR like Santeria or Umbanda, you have links to the three influences that culminate in your practice: European religion with Solomonic rituals, African gods and magic, and native or indigenous practices that still survive and breathe through these practices. If you consider the role of the Three Kings as Santa-like dispensers of gifts and prosperity, then they become powerful friends who can help you obtain your desires and wishes. As the first adorers of Christ, they represent pilgrims putting faith and working in their own disparate religions, coming together to uncover the One, the Source, the Whole that underlies all religions and practices.
How can we set up a space or shrine for the Three Magi? Unfortunately, I haven’t found many resources in English on specific offerings, workings, or rituals one can do with them, but it’s not hard to guess for those who have worked with other saints or entities how to entreat and build a relationship with the Magi. For setting up a shrine, you could do for the Three Magi what one might do for any Christian saint: get an image, such as statues or an icon, of the Three Kings, a candle, and a glass for liquid offerings, and set them up respectfully on a platform, shelf, or table. I prefer to have a camel figurine with them, representing their own faithful steed who bears their burdens, and set out a smaller glass of water just for the camel, sometimes atop a bed of fresh cut grass as well. For libations for the Three Kings, when not offering water, I suggest something very sweet: dessert wines, juice or fruit nectar with a bit of rum, maybe a fruity soda with some vodka. Alternatively, one could offer three drinks together for each of the magi: one of water, one of juice, and one of wine. You can burn a single candle for all Three Magi, and many botanicas or spiritual stores sell premade/dressed candles for this reason, but you can also set out three smaller candles as well, one for each. Besides the images of the Three Kings and, perhaps, an image of a camel, I also incorporate a Star of Bethlehem into my shrine, hanging from above as the Three Kings look up adoringly at it.
So, what about prayers? Again, being minor figures in Bible lore, there’s no wealth or treasure of prayers to the Three Magi like how there might be for, say, the Archangel Gabriel or Saint Cyprian of Antioch, but there are a few things I like to call on when working with the Three Magi. Probably the most well known of all such texts is a common Christmastide carol that commemorates the Three Kings called, perhaps shockingly, We Three Kings, written by the Episcopalian rector John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857. It’s a lovely bit of minor-key music that recalls the quest, gifts, and symbolism of what the Three Kings brought to Jesus:
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Sounds through the Earth and Skies
There are many renditions of this carol, some more beautiful or haunting than others, which you can find on YouTube or sung at your local church or whatever this time of year. The song itself is one I use frequently as an introductory prayer when approaching the Three Magi, and a good way to get into the mindset of working with them. Beyond that, many of the usual prayers used for Epiphany refer to the Three Kings, and while they have special potency when used on Epiphany itself, they can be used at any time of the year.
In addition to doing once-off things, since Epiphany is coming up, why not a novena? As you’re probably already aware, dear reader, novenas are nine-day sets of prayers done leading up to and completing on the feast of some saint or holy figure, and the Three Kings have their own novena for Epiphany, as well. This would mean, then, that for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, novenas for Epiphany and the Three Kings should begin tomorrow, Thursday December 29. The most common novena I can find is a fairly standard, easy Catholic one, with a short invocation to the Magi followed by a Gloria Patri, with the invocation for each day focusing on a different virtue of the Magi that the one performing the novena wishes to inculcate in themselves:
- Hope for the birth of the Messiah
- Speed and conviction to seek the Messiah
- Strength to persevere any difficulty for the sake of the Messiah
- Humility to seek help to find the Messiah
- Joy in the face of despair when lost finding the Messiah
- Faith in finding holiness amidst filth and poverty for the Messiah
- Charity, prayer, and penance as gifts for and tribute to the Messiah
- Protection from danger in staying true to the Messiah
- Attaining the beatific vision of the Divine as a result of one’s spiritual vows and believing in the Messiah
Instead of just that, however, since a novena takes place over nine days, since 9 = 3 × 3, and there are three gifts from Three Magi, I also figured that it might be good to explore the threefold symbolism of each gift of the Magi by means of a small meditation on each day, broken up into three groups of three:
- Meditations of Melchior Bearing Gold
- Day 1: Birth of Royalty in Squalor and Scorn.
- Day 2: Crowning of Man in the World.
- Day 3: Rulership over All.
- Meditations of Caspar Bearing Frankincense
- Day 4: Prayer of Man ascending to Heaven.
- Day 5: Elevation of the Spirits of Mankind.
- Day 6: Holiness of Divinity.
- Meditations of Balthazar Bearing Myrrh
- Day 7: Grief and Suffering in the Hearts of Mankind.
- Day 8: Death and Entombing of Man in the World.
- Day 9: Resurrection in the World into Heaven.
Also, it’s a tradition in some Catholic countries and communities to take a piece of chalk blessed on Epiphany and bless one’s house by it in a special formula. Given the year XXYY (such that the year 2017 would have XX = 20 and YY = 17), one would write “XX + C + M + B + YY” (or, for this coming year, “20 + C + M + B + 17”) on the top threshold of the front door. This calls on the three initials of the Magi and, by it, asks them to bring gifts to the home for the new year just as they brought gifts to the new life of Jesus, but the letters also stand for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedictat”, or “May Christ bless [this] home”. Depending on the community, this is done sometimes by the local priest, sometimes by the head of the household, or sometimes by carolers specifically blessed and charged with playing out the role of the Three Kings for the community. I do this for my own house, and leave up the chalk until the end of the year when I do my whole-house cleaning and cleansing, leaving the lintel bare until Epiphany.
While my own relationship with the Three Kings is still nascent, I plan on committing more time with them later on once my current spiritual projects and processes wind down, but I do like to give them focus this time of year regardless. Perhaps later on, I’ll start compiling some of my ideas for workings, oils, and the like with the Three Kings for others to use, but right now, what I have is pretty bare. What about you? Do you work with the Three Kings? If so, how do you work with them, and what are some of your experiences in working with them as spiritual saints?