The tradition of gift-giving on Epiphany is usually associated in the Catholic Christian countries with the episode of adoration of the Magi, when they presented special gifts to Jesus.
The Magi are mentioned in the Bible as the wise men, and are known in the Catholic countries also as the Three Kings, or Kings from the East. According to the Gospels, the wise men from the East arrived to Bethlehem, guided by the star, to pay homage to the newborn king of Jews, Jesus Christ. They offered the Child the special gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These symbolic gifts, as well as the whole episode with the Magi, prompted different researches and many theories about the meaning of the adoration, gifts and the figures of the Magi themselves. The three gifts were considered usual offering to a king, however, some scholars attributed a particular spiritual meaning to them. Origen of Alexandria (a scholar and theologian of early Christian interest) in his work Contra Celsum (248 AD) describes the gifts to Christ: “…gold, as to a king, myrrh, as to one who was mortal, and incense, as to God”. Thus, in the Christian theories, gold was a symbol of Christ’s kingship on earth, and incense indicated His priesthood or divinity. As to the gift of myrrh, there are different versions. According to the Western scholars, myrrh, used as an embalming oil in the preparing bodies for burial, was a symbol of the Passion and death of Christ. On the other hand, the oriental scholars considered myrrh an attribute of Christ as a scholar, a healer or a wonderworker. For example, in “Il Milione” Marco Polo describes the three gifts as means of the Magi to recognize if the prophet was God, king or scholar: “…For they said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.' … Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings.”
Picture: The Three Magi (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior). The illustration is made at the Hohenburg Abbey, France, 1185 by Herrad of Landsberg, taken from a reproduction by Christian Maurice Engelhardt, 1818.
Other theories associate gold with virtue, incense with prayer and myrrh with suffering. Perhaps, the number of these special gifts inspired the legends about the Magi, where they were depicted always in three.
Origins of the Magi. The name “Magi” derives from the Greek “magos” originating in the Old Persian “maguš” that identified the religious caste of Zoroastrianism (the religion based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, or Zaratustra), founded before the 6th century BC. The priests of this caste paid particular attention to the stars and astrology. In fact, the English term “magic” has derived exactly from “Magi”, associated with the occult in general.
Transformation of the Magi in Three Kings. With the spread of Christianity, introducing new religious celebrations, reinforced also by the Crusades, the story and origins of the Magi developed in a new tradition and legends. Thus, appeared clear the number of the Magi, they were nominated the Three Kings and, finally, got their names and legendary origins.
The idea that the Magi were kings originated probably from the belief, that the coming of the Magi would have been prophesied in the Psalm 72 of the Bible, in which various kings and sovereigns were going to pay the tribute and offer the gifts to Christ. This mistaken opinion, however, became quite a strong belief, greatly spread in the Medieval legends, artistic representations and mystery plays featuring the figures of the Magi. The names and origins of the Magi vary in different countries, deriving from some historical records and texts referred to scholars or sovereigns of the period. In the Armenian tradition the three Magi were considered Eastern scholars: Persian (called Melchior), Indian (Gaspar), and Arabian (Balthazar). In the West they were often associated with different continents, or even human ages. Thus, Melchior was the oldest king, representing Asia and offering the gift of gold. Gaspar (also Caspar) was the young king coming from Europe or Tarsus (a historic city in south-central Turkey, province of Mersin) bearing the gift of myrrh. Finally, Balthazar was of African origin, coming from Ethiopia or Saba (also Sheba, an ancient kingdom in the Horn of Africa or Yemen), portrayed as a black man of about forty years and offering the gift of frankincense.
Legends about the Three Kings. Various legends developed about the magi, telling some episodes before and after their visit to Jesus. The most spread legend has it that the Magi followed the star separately, meeting each other only at the gates of Jerusalem. After offering the gifts to Jesus Child, the wise men received gifts in exchange: the swaddle of the Child, some bread and, according to the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, a box with the magical stone. The swaddle appeared to be indestructible in fire, the stone was burning with a Holy Flame, and both the miraculous gifts were worshipped by the Persians. By some legends, the Magi, who had been pagan, were converted to Christianity after visiting Christ Child. Another version states that they travelled back home through India, where they were converted by St Thomas. Afterwards, they were nominated archbishops, and lived exemplary lives preaching mercy and compassion, until they died and were buried together. In the 4th century St Elena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found their relics and brought them to Constantinople, from where they were brought to Milan. After the city was conquered in 1164 by the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, the relics of the Magi were moved to the Cologne Cathedral, where they rest until today.