The Magi

In Cologne Cathedral, Epiphany, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Magi, relics, reliquaries, Saint Helena, The Christmas Sales, The Errant Hours, The Venerable Bede, Three Kings, TS Eliot by Kate Innes

The Magi by Herrad of Landsberg (1130-1195)
reproduced by Christian Maurice Engelhardt 1818


‘We Three Kings of Orient are,
one in a taxi, one in a car,
one on a scooter beeping his hooter,
reading the Shropshire Star.’

This delightful version of the famous carol is sung by my children and, presumably, many others, whenever the Christmas excitement becomes too much to bear.  Perhaps I don’t always join in with the enthusiasm that it deserves.

We don’t pay much attention to the Three Kings now, except on Christmas cards where they are presented as the instigators of the Christmas gift.  (In a weak moment, at 1am on Christmas morning for example, tape and scissors in hand, I wish that their presents had gone unremarked by the writers of the Bible, as so many other details did.)  Epiphany, the celebration of their visit and the last day of the Christmas feast on the 6th of January, is mainly ignored in Britain and the USA.  Christmas is deemed to be over as soon as the first person has joined the overnight queue for the ‘Christmas’ Sales on the 26th.

In the New Testament, information about the visitors to the baby Jesus is very thin indeed.  There we are told only that they are Magi (Magoi in Greek – soothsayers or holy sages, and possibly the followers of Zoroaster from Persia).  We do not know if they were men or women, and there is no mention of how many Magi, only that there were three gifts.

However, lack of written evidence never stopped a good story.  It didn’t take long for them to acquire the names that are still associated with them in legend: Caspar (Jaspar or Gaspar), Balthazar and Melchior. (meaning ‘The Lord of Treasure’, ‘The White One’, and the ‘King of Light’.  Interestingly these names were used as titles for the pre-christian god, Mithras)  The Venerable Bede (8th century) describes the Magi thus: Jaspar is young and beardless, Balthazar is middle aged with a dark, heavy beard and Melchior is an old man with a long beard.  In the 14th century, a cleric known as John of Hildesheim wrote the Historia Trium Regum, with lots of very pleasing detail about their lives and their deaths.

Saint Helena and the Cross by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525
(I’m afraid that, to me, the look in her eye says ‘pole dancer’ more than ‘saint’!)

According to the Historia, Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena (Saint Helena of Constantinople), conveniently found the bodily remains of the magi on her visit to the Holy Land in 326-8 AD, along with the true cross and many other relics to bolster the new religion of Christianity in the Roman Empire.  She took the three kings to Constantinople and installed them in the Hagia Sophia.  Their travels were not over, however.  Due to power sways between East and West, they were moved to Milan in the 6th century, and then taken by Frederic Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, to Cologne in 1164, after Milan rebelled against his rule.  Cologne Cathedral has just celebrated 850 years of hosting these relics.

The reliquary of the Three Kings inside the shrine at Cologne Cathedral
The three crowned skulls can be seen at the top.

During the Medieval period, Cologne capitalised on their presence as most towns with venerable relics did, by encouraging pilgrimage.  The Three Kings were said to have the power to protect travellers, to prevent epilepsy, sudden death and misfortune, and even to cure snake bite.  Many badges and rings were sold engraved with their names as amulets.

Ring brooch, 1350-1450, V&A Museum London

But studies done on the skulls and contents of the reliquary in 2004 have revealed nothing that denies their claimed provenance.  The fabric found is consistent with that of 2nd/3rd century Syrian cloth.  The three skulls are of a young man, a middle aged man and an old man, as shown by the fusing of the cranial sutures.  The mystery remains.  These enigmatic figures, said to come from countries as diverse as Iran, India and Ethiopia, cast a long shadow.

Whenever I read TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, I am reminded that the visit of the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem directly led to the massacre of hundreds of children by Herod’s soldiers, according to the Gospels. Were they led all that way for Birth or Death?

My novel The Errant Hours, set in the thirteenth century, involves a troupe of travelling players called the Three Kings.  As protectors of travellers they help the heroine of the story, Illesa, through many dangers.  What follows is an excerpt from the second half of the book.  I hope to publish the novel, in one form or another, this year.

The chamber was heavy with fumes of burnt chaff.  It had been music she’d heard, plucked strings finding the beginning of a familiar tune.  Illesa pushed herself up on one elbow and waved her other hand in front of her face, making the smoke whirl lazily.  First light was stealing through the shutters.
The harp stopped abruptly as a loud and prolonged bout of coughing came from the corner of the room.  It would be the big man who had taken the only available bed.  The other one, the boy with blond, almost white, hair was slender enough to be any of the bundles strewn on the floor.  Richard had said they would go early.  He and the bald leader of the players had been housed in the gatehouse, one of the few places with a complete roof.  Perhaps it was the noise of them leaving that had woken her. 
Illesa sat up listening.  Her neck was stiff and aching.  A sack on a wooden floor made a poor bed for the saddle weary.  She got quietly to her feet and went into the ruin of the hall.  There it was again.  A liquid cascade of notes, ending in melancholy.  Sir Richard had certainly gone by now, so the figure sitting on the piled up stone in the shadow of the wall with his back to her could not be him, no matter how similar the form and tilt of the head.  He was bent over the little harp, strumming notes almost too soft to hear and fingering the wooden pegs.
“Wide the border, strong the wall,
 long the waves surrounding me.
My love may come from far away,
my fate will come, my enemy.” 
“Go to the well, girl.  The horses need water.” 
A woman’s voice?  It had the tone and cadence. 
“We are leaving soon.  Hurry up, you!” 
           And then he laughed and turned.  It was the boy, wearing a rich cloak and trimmed hat, doubtless from the pack of costumes they had taken off the overloaded cart last night.
“Go on, you!  Do as you’re told!” he admonished with finger raised, and in Richards voice this time.  The little mimic.
Illesa bit back her reply.
Your master won‘t want you to be late,” he said in the simpering lady’s voice and flounced past her into the chamber.
Illesa stepped out into the remains of the bailey, picking her way through the piles of debris toward the well. 
Gaspar, the player of ladies, was going to make a tiresome travelling companion.  His skin was soft and beardless.  If he shaved, it left no mark.  He looked younger than her, but Illesa suspected that he wasn’t.  It was his slender, graceful body, like the tumblers who performed at fairs, which gave him the appearance of a youth.  But his full lips and broad mouth were too knowing, too provocative.
The well bucket was attached to a ring in the gatehouse wall with a long iron chain.  It looked like a hard, heavy pull, but the water was high and the bucket reached it before the end of the chain.  She began to heave.  What exactly was going to be expected of her during the Round Table she had not overheard.  All Richard had said was that she would be part of the Arthurian play in front of the King, as she had desired, which was a very contrary interpretation of her actual feelings.
The covered wagon belonging to the travelling players was near the east gate.  On it, in peeling paint, were the figures of three exotic and richly dressed men carrying golden coffers in their outstretched hands.  The three wise men, magicians and astronomers, Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar.  In the wreck of the stable behind the wagon, the dun carthorse was standing, its head down as if already harnessed up.  She was old to be pulling a big cart.  Illesa rubbed her neck and set the bucket down.  The horse nosed it, disappointedly. 
If they expected the horse to reach Nefyn, the three kings would have to give her more than well water, but there was no fodder in the stable.  In the byre Illesa managed to gather an armful of old hay from the manger, then tripped on the rubble on the floor and fell to her knees, her toe throbbing.  She brushed the mud from her skirts as much as she could and limped back towards the wagon.  Gaspar and Balthazar stood by it, staring at her. 
“A fine lady for King Arthurs court!” the boy declared royally.  It was amazing what he could do with his voice.  Lady Ragnell indeed!”
Illesa stopped where she was.  The name was not familiar but the connotation was plain.
Balthazar made to slap Gaspar with the back of his hand, but the boy dodged the blow and gave a high-pitched squeal like a piglet.
You do it, Gaspar.  And you,” Balthazar tipped his head at Illesa, “come with me.”
Gaspar made a face like a dried plum as she put the hay into his arms and followed Balthazar into the hall.  He looked at her with his legs apart and hands on his hips, the light from the window behind him, making the most of his bulk for dramatic impact.
“Melchior has told me to explain that even though Sir Richard may want you as part of his entertainment, that does not mean you are part of this troupe, you understand?” 
“Yes, master.”
“While Sir Richard is away, I am your master, and you will do only as you are told.  Don’t draw attention to yourself because you won’t like the attention you get.”
“Yes, master.”
Balthazar breathed out, having finished his performance, perhaps glad he had remembered the words that Melchior had given him to say. 
“So what do you do?  Sing, dance, play the citole?”
“No, master.”
“No,” she repeated, shame beginning to heat her face.
“How can you not do anything?” he said, mournfully.  “What does he mean to do with you?”
Illesa cleared her throat.
“I can read,” she said, hesitantly.
“Well,” he huffed, “that is not good for much.  We learn by listening to Melchior.  He is the only one who reads or writes.”  He adjusted the thick belt around his belly.  “I expect it is because of your face,” he said as he passed her on the way to the wagon.  “Get your things.”