The Magi: history and symbols
According to tradition, the Magi, three in all, came from the East to pay homage to Jesus and offer him three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We invite you to discover the history, symbols and traditions related to these characters.
Photo by Robert Thiemann at Unsplash
History of the Magi
According to tradition, three Magi from the East went to Bethlehem guided by the light of a star.
When they discovered the baby Jesus in the stable, they knelt before him as a sign of respect and offered him gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
These characters, known as the Magi, are only mentioned in the Gospel according to Matthew.
According to the text of the Bible, they are not kings but only magicians. Their names and numbers are not specified. Guided by a star “rising in the east,” they find the birthplace of Jesus and offer him gifts:
“They entered the house, found the child with Mary, his mother, and worshipped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew, II:11).
Who are the wise? These sages are Balthazar, Gaspard and Melchior. Balthazar is described with a black face, descends from Cham, son of Noah and represents Arabia. He offers gold (reserved for kings), symbol of the royalty of Jesus.
Melchior describes himself as young, with an Asian face and represents India. He offers incense (used to honor God), a symbol of the divinity of Jesus.
Gaspard, on the other hand, represents Persia and is depicted as an old man with white hair.
It offers myrrh (used for embalming the dead), a symbol of the fact that Jesus was also a man and announces his death on the cross.
Refusing to denounce Jesus as “King of the Jews” to King Herod, the Magi return to their respective lands.
One day in the calendar is reserved to celebrate the worship of Jesus by Gaspard, Melchior and Balthasar, that is, the epiphany (in Greek the apparition) which takes place on January 6.
Note that this day is not a holiday and that traditionally the epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday of January around the famous galette des rois. To memorize the names of the three wise men, it is easy to remember two mnemonics: “Mega ball” or “Mega ball”.
Three symbolic gifts
According to a traditional interpretation, the three gifts brought by the Magi symbolize three aspects of Jesus – gold symbolizes royalty – incense, used for worship, symbolizes the divinity of Christ – myrrh, which was used to embalm the dead, reminds us that he too is truly human and mortal.
From the number of gifts offered, it was deduced that there were three Magi. This number is also symbolic because it evokes the Trinity.
At the end of the 13th century, Jacques de Voragine proposed this interpretation in “La Légende dorée” and produced a portrait of the three Kings:
“The first of the Magi was called Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard. He offered gold to the Lord as to his king, gold that means the kingship of Christ.
The second one, called Gaspard, young, without beard, and red in color, offered to Jesus, in incense, the homage to his Divinity.
The third one, with black face and full beard, was called Balthasar; the myrrh in his hands reminded him that the Son had to die”.
The names of the Magi
The names chosen by tradition for the Magi are Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar.
These names appear for the first time in a 6th century manuscript, now preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
In the Golden Legend, Jacques de Voragine names them in three different languages
Apelius, Americus and Damascus in Latin
– Galgalat, Malgalat and Sarathin in Hebrew
– Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior in Greek.
Epiphany and other traditions
The Magi, whose origin is still obscure today, entered the folklore surrounding the Christmas holidays.
Tradition says that they are among the cantons of Provence and that they watch the Child Jesus in the Christmas crib at the foot of the Christmas tree.
They are also celebrated on January 6, Epiphany Day, when the family shares the famous “galette des rois” (king’s cake) …
For a long time, especially among Eastern Christians, Epiphany was a more important date than Christmas Day because it celebrated the presentation of the Child God to the human world.
In Spain, it is the Three Kings who put toys in children’s shoes on January 6th. In Finland and Russia, Santa Claus is said to be the fourth wise man.
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