Here is a delightful piece sent courtesy of Ellen and Mike Hodnett

Christmas characters

The rule of three

What those magical, royal wanderers through the desert really signify

Dec 20th 2014 | From the print edition

OF ALL the actors in the Nativity story, the three wise men are by far the most fun. To a scene that would otherwise verge on the gloomy—a hazardous birth, a stroppy landlord, a derelict stable, uncouth shepherds—they add glitter and mystery. Small wonder that most primary-school thespians, offered the choice between the saintly principals and the glamorous visitors, plump for the velvet robes, the gold-foil headgear and the tissue-boxes stuck with jewels.

T.S. Eliot, filled with the anomie of his age, did his best to drab the wise men down:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp…
…the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

It didn’t work, however. These surprising visitors to the stable always look splendid, and remarkably fresh for the journey. Longfellow’s kings are perhaps best of all:

Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

Glum or extravagant, were these figures magi (specifically Persian scholars from the Zoroastrian tradition, tasked with keeping the holy fire of Ormuzd and skilled in astronomy, medicine, magic and astrology), or kings from Tarsus, Saba, Sheba and points east, as Psalm 72 had predicted? Matthew, the only Gospel source, used the Greek word magoi, which signified wise men in general, and had them announce that they had seen the star at its rising. This tilts the balance towards astronomers, which was what the early church imagined them to be.

If these travellers were magi, the most circumstantial source—the Book of Seth, attributed to St John Chrysostom in the fourth century—said there were 12 of them, and that they had been watching for a star on the mythical mountain of Vauls, vaguely in Persia, for generation after generation, ever since Adam in old age had taken refuge there. With him he already had the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, actually pinched from Eden. It was because the gifts were three (symbolising respectively king, God and mortal, since resinous myrrh was used to anoint the body after death) that the travellers, too, were reduced to a trio of seekers cleverly navigating their way across the desert.

This version finds favour with modern researchers, who have spilt much ink unravelling the parallels between Zoroastrianism and Christianity (basically, Good and Evil Principles) and pinning down the exact spot in “the east” the magi came from, most probably the border between Iran and Afghanistan, possibly India, via the Silk Road. It is still impossible to know, though, exactly what sort of scholars they were; and much easier to dismiss them, as Rowan Williams did when Archbishop of Canterbury, as simply mythical, together with the ox and the ass.

It is just as hard to say which heavenly phenomenon the wise men were meant to have seen. It was possibly a supernova; possibly a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7BC; and possibly a comet, since the star’s beams were often said to stream and wave like a bird flying. In the Hellenic-Roman world comets presaged deaths or disasters, not births. Nonetheless the magi had been instructed, according to the Book of Seth, that one particular bright star would announce the coming of a child; and Matthew’smagoi knew it was a king’s star. One modern writer on magi, Martin Gilbert, spins the theory that the wise men themselves represent three stars in conjunction, this time Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury, and that they have swum into Matthew, chapter 2, for purely astrological reasons.

Their first words, “Where is the child that is born King of the Jews?” came out of mist, confusion and panic

The magi edition of the story did not, however, get much traction in the Middle Ages. Nor has it done on Christmas cards since. A sixth-century mosaic at Ravenna (see picture) is almost the last time they appear as scholars, looking suitably impecunious, and in the tight trousers and floppy Phrygian caps worn by Persians. “People think they were magi,” wrote John of Hildesheim, whose “Historia Trium Regum” of the mid-14th century was taken then as the last word on the matter, “because the star was so bright, and they did the journey so fast [in 13 days from the Nativity, to arrive on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany]. But this is a mistake.” The reason they travelled so swiftly, he added, was partly divine assistance and partly because they were on dromedaries, “which can really go”.

In truth, the magi theory languished for simple reasons. Medieval folk knew what kings were; magi they were unsure of, except that they were pagan, followed the teachings of Balaam, and dealt in demons. It was not good to introduce devilry into the Christmas scene, even if the Christ-child could defeat it with one wave of his tiny hand. Magi were linked to Persia, of which well-read Europeans perhaps knew a bit; oriental kings opened up a much more fantastical geography, stretching mistily via several different Indias to the shores of the Great Ocean, where mapmakers scattered rivers and mountains more or less as they liked, with an occasional camel or dragon and sultans, wearing turbans, forlornly perched in tents. The farther east you went, in this continent where all exotic place-names blended together, the more venomous and strange the beasts got, the thicker the trees and the vaster the deserts. That men should venture from such places, at the end of the earth, to find the Christ-child, was much more interesting than a short hop from the Middle East. And it was more interesting (as moderns also tend to think) if the wise men were not too wise but, like kings, often floundering and beset.

For so it seemed they were. To begin with, said John of Hildesheim, they were not magnificent figures of men but small, feeble and scrawny. Yes, he admitted, that was surprising; but so men became as you went farther east. (Conversely, the sheep got bigger, with enormous tails.) The kings also set out singly, since they ruled over lands that were far apart, and came together only when they reached Jerusalem.

Conveniently, a lamp-like star guided each of them; but had it not hung before their noses as close as a fish on a line (for kings, not being astronomers, could not read the sky and needed leading), they would never have made it. An Armenian source said they were also led by an angel; in the late 19th century, Edward Burne-Jones put the star in a walking angel’s hands. As the kings arrived in Jerusalem the star or stars disappeared, and a thick fog descended. Their first words in Matthew, “Where is the child that is born King of the Jews?” came out of mist, confusion and panic.

The angel’s warning at Autun

They were taken in, too, by King Herod, who invited them to dine: traditionally on a roasted cock which, in honour of the true king in the stable, rose up and crowed. Herod co-opted them to spy on the child and report back, and they were happy to oblige. Luckily, an angel intervened and warned them not to. They were then told to return “by another way”; starless this time, with no God-assisted steering, they took two laborious years over it, seeking directions from everyone en route. (“And so you see”, wrote John of Hildesheim smugly, “the difference between divine and human operations”.)

Small wonder, perhaps, that though the kings became patron saints of trouble-on-the-road from the 12th century they were not all that popular, because they were not that lucky. Their feast-day, July 23rd, seems to have been usurped in modern calendars by St Apollinaris, who cures gout and the French pox. It was St Christopher who actually kept travellers safe, and it is his image that still swings beside the rear-view-mirror rosaries and fluffy dice; whereas the kings come into play when the tyre is already flat, the speed cop already spotted, or the fine-notice glued to the windscreen by several days of rain.

Myrrh on your clothes

Their names and kingdoms were fairly obscure. For the sake of a good story, though, they had to have both. So they were called Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar (or Caspar), names that never really caught on, except in northern Europe in the high Middle Ages and in posher parts of west London in the late 20th century (“Melchior, give me that phone at once”). They were kings, respectively, of Arabia and Nubia, Godolia, and Tarsus, and hence their gifts: for gold lay so thick in Arabia’s red earth that you kicked it up as you walked, incense dripped from the trees of Godolia, and you could not wander in parts of Tarsus without myrrh, “moist as wax”, clinging to your clothes.

In fact, being kings, they brought a good deal more. Magi might well have only one small, portable gift each; but Matthew’s wise men had treasure chests. In the Spanish-speaking world, by long tradition, they are the Father Christmas figures, the bringers of unlimited money and sweets. In fact, said John of Hildesheim, the kings carried with them all the ornaments that Alexander the Great had left behind in Asia, and all the wealth that had been liberated from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The high-crowned travellers of modern Christmas cards plod across the dunes unburdened and unescorted; but medieval people knew that when kings travelled, ever on the move between their palaces as sport, work or blocked drains dictated, they took their chattels, treasure, beds, dogs and all their servants with them. Some painters hinted at this enormous retinue, hustling and holding back horses at the edges of the scene; some donors had themselves put in it, as grooms or falcon-trainers. There were so many hangers-on, said John of Hildesheim, that they could not get lodgings in Jerusalem and had to camp outside, looking like a besieging army.

Flustered as the kings were, the great treasure seemed to get forgotten (except for a small golden apple that was once Alexander’s, offered by Melchior, which immediately fell to ash because it symbolised, unhappily, Eve’s apple in Eden). Some cartoons have pointed out that these gifts were hardly suitable for a baby, or even for his mother (“Three wise men, and no one brought chocolate?” Mary fumes in one). In the 13th-century “Book of Marco Polo” the Christ-child gave them a present in return: a box which, eagerly opened on the way home, was found to contain a stone. Disgusted, the kings threw it down a well, whereupon it burst into flames; they somehow fished it out, took it home and worshipped it.

Balthazar’s gift

The nature of the gifts, though, was less important than the fact that the kings represented the whole Gentile world coming to pay homage. Traditionally one of them, usually Balthazar, was swarthy, darkening over the centuries until Hieronymous Bosch makes him black as coal, his skin contrasted with robes of gleaming white damask. By then he was assumed to be a king of Ethiopia; the darker he got, the farther south he drifted. He was usually calm, silent and in the background, as if no painter of the medieval or early modern age could imagine a negro who was not a servant. The kings were also all the ages of man, respectively 20, 40 and 60. The oldest, with long snowy hair and beard, struggling to kneel to give his present first, was usually taken to be Melchior; Gaspar was the young blade, rosy-cheeked and beardless and, just occasionally, oriental.

Together, then, the kings added up to Everyman; and as such they became a triune symbol of human striving, hope and folly. Over the featureless desert, over the centuries, they have taken on the characters of politicians, bankers, sunglass-sporting sheikhs, officers of OPEC and rock stars. They have carried election pledges, Turkish delight, overdue library books and barrels of oil. At times of austerity the gifts have become aluminium, potpourri and baby oil. The light they see in the sky, big as the sun, has become a digital stock-price display (for gold, frankincense and myrrh), the neon sign of the Ramada Bethlehem (five stars) and, of course, a UFO. And they have got lost, continually; despite the star, they often get their maps out, scratching at their crowned heads and longing, now, for satnav. The angel’s warning to return by a different way was interpreted early on, by some commentators, as a version of the saying of Heraclitus that you could never step into the same river twice in the endless flux of life.

To sea in a bowl

It is therefore easy to see the kings as an example—perhaps the prototype—of the three hapless travellers, who crop up everywhere once you start to look:

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl;
If the bowl had been stronger,
My tale had been longer.

This is Gotham in Nottinghamshire, not New York; but it could be either. Wynken, Blynken and Nod sail out in a wooden shoe, evidently unseaworthy, to catch the herring-fish stars and to fall asleep. The three jovial Welshmen go off hunting on St David’s day, they know not for what:

An’ one said, “Mind yo’r e’en, an’ keep yo’r noses reet i’ th’ wind,
An’ then, by scent or seet, we’ll leet o’ summat to our mind.”

Heirs to greatness

Jerome K. Jerome’s three men in a boat row off down the Thames in the 1880s because they are feeling seedy, and in need of a change—only to find that none of them can steer, or navigate a lock, or simply open a tin of pineapple, without great ado and even physical injury.

There was also, in the Middle Ages, another wandering-kings story in which the three monarchs, out hunting frivolously, came upon their own bodies in three graves, respectively just-dead, decayed and reduced to bones. A favourite imago mortiswas to show the kings, splendidly clad and with hawks still on their wrists, holding their noses as they gazed in horror. The original three kings, it could be argued, contemplated their own deaths in the offering of myrrh; and also confronted them, as all humans do, by setting out at all. For all beginnings are a type of birth, all lives are journeys part mapped, part unknown, and all journeys end, at least in the world of the here and now.

Brothers, stooges, wise guys

The kings were so neatly arranged, by races and ages, that some chroniclers maintained they were brothers, not strangers. The possibility was emphasised by putting them all in the same bed, straight as pins and with their crowns on, as they appear in stone reliefs at Autun, in Burgundy, and in the Louvre.

Certainly, whatever they had been before, they were forged in comradeship afterwards. Having journeyed back together, they preached Christ together, were baptised together (by St Thomas the Apostle, somewhere in India, where he found them all living in virtuous decrepitude), were buried together, and were gathered up afterwards by St Helena, mother of Constantine, to end as a cosy fraternity of bones in a magnificent gold reliquary that still stands behind the high altar in the great cathedral at Cologne. Before they died they had built a wood and stone chapel on the mountain of Vauls, the summit topped with a golden star that turned in the wind.

That scene of the kings in bed, however, suggests an even richer legacy. For, no matter how close, there are three distinct characters here. At Autun, while they sleep, the angel shows them, or tries to show them, the star. With one finger he touches the hand of Balthazar, who has woken up but is looking the wrong way. Melchior, the dotard, is sound off. Between them—the natural place to confine a spry young troublemaker—Gaspar has opened one eye suspiciously. Here we have the beginnings of the chemistry, and comedy, of three: of first, next, last; wise, wiser, wisest; old, middle-aged, young; good, better, best. In a stained-glass window at Canterbury Melchior is pleading, Balthazar expostulating and young Gaspar, gazing at the star, just sensibly trying to establish where they are.

This is the classic rule of three. One man, often the oldest or ostensibly the wisest, declares or does something, setting up the joke or establishing the pattern; the second queries, challenges or contradicts him, while also taking the theme on; and the third, typically the youngest (littlest, poorest, last), disrupts the pattern and trumps them all. The first two may also gang up on the third, making him seem all the more hapless and all the more the outsider, until, like Harpo Marx deliriously playing through the gibes of Groucho and Chico, the third takes sweet, mad revenge. The ruse crops up in the Three Stooges, in all jokes involving an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, and almost every fairy tale of three sons or daughters ever written. In those it is always the third who wins love, finds the treasure or saves the day, while the siblings trail home disappointed.

In jokes among the three, or in jokes set up in three, whoever says the third line blows a metaphorical raspberry and gallops away:

How do you make a Venetian blind?
I don’t know; how do you make a Venetian blind?
Stick him in the eye with a hat-pin.

Bathos is most neatly done in lists of three, and the kings have a little list capable of infinite permutations: gold, frankincense, digestive biscuits; gold, diamonds and the deed to a condo in Florida.

It is largely because they can be used this way—and are wandering haplessly, and on lurching camels, to boot—that the kings have enjoyed such long popularity, lasting seamlessly into a secular age. No one has fun with the shepherds, although in medieval mystery plays their rough humour was often endearing. They were not characters; and, most important, they were not indubitably three.

For those who feel deprived of the mystical significance of the kings, however, there is a more profound dimension to the rule of three to ponder. For three encompasses everything: past, present, future; here, there, everywhere; earth, sea and air; positive, negative, neutral; this, that and the other. Through these trinities the kings, who might be any Tom, Dick or Harry, wander in search of answers (yes, no, maybe) to mysteries even older than that of Father, Son and Holy Ghost: the birth of light, the dawn of life and the primacy of love.

About whispersfrombabylon

A father. A son. A priest. A scholar, a lawyer
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