Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas Story: Magi, Myrrh and Mothers

Adoration of the Magi

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:1-12

In the English King James version of Matthews Gospel the ‘wise men’ from the East arrive to pay homage to the new King of the Jews and having arrived at Jesus Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem gave gifts to celebrate the birth. The Magi are described as having followed a star to Bethlehem and there have been many attempts to link it to an astronomical event, with the most commonly cited being a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE. This conjunction fits in with Matthew's chronology pointing to Jesus Christ being born somewhere before 4 BCE, as King Herod died in that year.

The visit of the Magi or Kings bringing gifts to the new King of the Jews as described by Matthew was also a necessary fulfilment of an earlier Biblical prophesy,

        The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba
        shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
        Psalms 72:10-11:

Matthew does not specify the actual number of ‘Magi’ that actually arrived in Jerusalem but because three particular gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh were specifically documented the tradition of Three Wise Men arose. In was only later in 6th and 8th century works that the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar were given to the ‘wise men’ and in Ethiopian Christianity their names are different, Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenians call them Kagbha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.

Possible Origins of the Three Wise Men

From Whence the Magi came? East or South-East?

Traditionally the notion of ‘wise men’ and their origins has been ascribed to the East and particularly to Zoroastrian Persia. The earliest Greek versions of Matthew's gospel had used magos, to describe the ‘wise men’ from the East and this word ultimately derived from the Avestan magauno, the priestly tribe of the Medes, the earliest Iranian empire. The magi were responsible for the Zoroastrian religious rites and particularly that of the maintenance of the sacred great fires.

At the time of the birth of Jesus Christ the Eastern or Iranian empire was controlled by the Parthians under Phraates IV (r 37-3BCE), and the power of the Zoroastrian priests was limited by a polytheistic bent in the empire. The only geographical place that might have had a significant number of Magi priests in training or officiating was at the location of what is now known as Takt-e Solayman or Throne of Solomon but then as either Mt Asnavand or Shiz (from the name of the artesian lake Čēčast ) or Adargoshnasp ( after ĀDUR GUŠNASP, the Fire of the Stallion, one of the Atas Bahrams, the three fires of the highest grade of Ancient Iran).

Takt-e Solayman and the central Artesian Well

I have been to the Takt-e Solayman.

It is a walled enclosure surrounding a deep artesian lake in a high, isolated, mountainous valley (2,200m) about 750km north-west of Teheran. Although the present visible structures are of late Parthian and Sassasinid eras the history of the site and the surrounding area as a Zoroastrian sanctuary goes back to about 1000 BCE. In early Iranian oral tradition, as later documented by Ferdowsi in the Shahnamah, King Kei Khusrau first established the Magi or mowbeds there,

Upon the spot where darkness cleared and light
First shone Khusrau commanded to erect
A dome ascending to the darksome clouds.

It was ten lassos long and broad, its circuit

Was half a rapid Arab charger's course,'

And round it there were lofty cupolas.

He brought and established there Azargashasp (ĀDUR GUŠNASP),

And round it settled the astrologers,

The archmages (mowbeds), and the men of lore.

At the time of Jesus Christ’s birth the Magi from Takt-e Solayman may have been wise but would have been dirt poor and not in the habit of giving gold, frankinsence and myrrh. If by extension kings of the Zorastrian faith were involved in the trip then there were only two that might have qualified: Parthia and Armenia and since Armenia as a province was being fought over by Parthia and Rome at the time then it is unlikely either they or their princelings would have been travelling.

(As an aside and as a pointer to Armenian Zoroastrianism I have visited the surviving Zoroastrian fire temple which still exists in the vaults beneath the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral at Etchmiadzin in Armenia and also the one at the ancient capital of the Armenian Kingdom at Ani, eastern Turkey.)

A Frankincense Tree in Arabia Felix
Arabia Felix

No it is more logical that the ‘wise men’ or perhaps early versions of ‘philosopher-kings’ had travelled by camel train along the long established Frankincense route from Arabia Felix, present day Yemen, through Petra to Jerusalem. Interestingly the Frankinsence producing Dhofar region of present day Oman, on the border with Yemen, was once part of a land that was known in Summerian texts as Magan. Perhaps the visitors were not Magi but were instead ‘of Magan’ or Magian.

Only Yemen and Oman at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth still produced Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh in relative abundance and only Yemen and Oman had a number of highly civilised and developed kingdoms (Himyar, ‘Ausan, Qataban, Saba, Ma’in and Hadramaut in Yemen and Ubar/Iram in Oman) based on the profits of the gum-resin trade, which would have been able to supply three or more ‘wise’ as well as royal visitors.

There was also a significant Jewish theological tradition in Yemen (Himyar was later to become a formal Jewish Kingdom in 400 CE) with the early contact of the Queen of Sheba (Saba) and Solomon’s court (c.8ooBCE) and the significant numbers of Jewish mercenary soldiers (and rabbi) in the Roman army under Aelius Gallus, which had invaded Saba in 25BCE.

Travelling to Jerusalem would have taken about 150 days from Marib but as part of a ‘trade’ mission it would not have been too much trouble to take time out to pay homage to the new 'King of the Jews' that biblical scholars would have predicted. There would also have been plenty of clear nights along the way for the ‘wise men’ to get the astronomy and their directions right!
Petra: Next Stop Jerusalem for the Magi!
Myrrh and Childbirth

As a final pointer to geographical origins of the Magi or Magian being from south-eastern Arabia Felix rather than eastern Persia is the Yemenese and Omanese traditional association of myrrh with childbirth and post-delivery care.

Myrrh is the gum resin from the bark of trees or shrubs of the Commiphora family. It has many traditional uses either when burned as an aromatic or powdered and applied to wounds or as a fixitive in perfumery. In traditional midwifery practice in parts of Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia the resin of C.mukul (or the bark of C.ornifolia) is burned and the smoke inhaled by a recently delivered mother to encourage the placenta to separate. The gum resin of C.myrrha is used when wanting to wean an infant off breast-feeding.

Myrrh Resin

Most importantly however where the Adoration of the Magi is concerned is that in Oman (Magan) and on Soqotra, the island belonging to Yemen off the coast of Somalia, the myrrh resin of C.kua is burnt ceremoniously to celebrate the safe delivery of a baby.

Wordle: magi
My First 'Wordle'

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent research