[VIDEO TRANSCRIPT] Over two thousand years ago, a group of wise men traveled across the pages of ancient religious texts, only to disappear from history. But just who were the Magi from the East? Where did they come from? And why do they enrapture the curiosities of millions of people every holiday season? Or, you know…at least me.
Hi. I’m Kale Lawrence, and I have a ridiculous obsession with the Magi. But, I think that’s pretty evident by now. Most of what I knew when I first started writing The Magi Menagerie stemmed from what I’d heard during church services and what I saw in traditional Christmas nativities. But, as I dove head first into my research, I soon learned that their story was so much more than I could’ve ever imagined.
Wise Men, Magi, or Kings?
Despite popular belief–and an unfortunate mistranslation of early Biblical texts–the Magi were not kings. In fact, the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew specifically says “Magos,” referencing them as Persian astrologers.
These astrologers weren’t necessarily “sorcerers” or blessed with magical abilities. Instead, they were part of a society that had served kings for centuries, including Babylonian Kings. If you’re familiar with the Biblical character of Daniel from the Lion’s Den story, you’ll know he eventually went on to serve King Nebuchadnezzar as Chief of the Magi.
Essentially, the Magi were advisors to royalty, and excelled in dream interpretation, astrology, alchemy, and mathematics. They were not–and never were–kings. So, when you’re singing the carol “We Three Kings” this year, you might want to change that to “We Three Magi.” Nah. That’s not as catchy.
The Magi and Nativity Scenes Don’t Mix
One of the biggest myths surrounding the Magi is that they were at the manger when Jesus Christ was born. That is not true. See, it took the Magi time to get to Bethlehem and when they finally arrived, they stopped at King Herod’s palace first to ask where the King of the Jews had been born.
Fueled by jealousy, King Herod ordered the Magi to tell him where Jesus was so that he may also worship him. Well, the Magi could see right through his schemes so they peaced out. But, they did find Mary and Jesus–and ancient scripture says they were in their home. To really solidify this fact, King Herod ordered the decree to kill any boy less than 2 years old to try to weed out this “King of the Jews.” He specifically says this because the Magi noted the star had appeared quite some time ago. This is referred to as the Massacre of Innocents and while it isn’t known exactly how many toddlers were killed, it is estimated it could have been anywhere from 14,000 to 64,000.
Needless to stay, all those nativity scenes with the Magi are technically lying to you. Oopsie.
We Three (?) Kings
The Bible never says how many Magi there were. However, three was the consensus in early Christianity because there were three gifts. In some traditions, it’s noted there could have been around 12 Magi traveling in the caravan. We do not know how many there were, and we don’t know their names. Mysterious.
The Slaughter of the Magi
While the Magi were revered by Kings, they weren’t always treated with respect. In fact, in 522 B.C., an immigrant group of Magi living in Persia were nearly wiped out.
The exact details aren’t inherently clear–and there are plenty of conflicting reports–but historians believe the Magi were blamed for a political coup in Persia. The result was horrific: Darius the First ran throughout the kingdom senselessly killing Magi. He even ordered his own people to arm themselves and kill any Magi they could find. Magi were dragged into the streets, beheaded, and cut to pieces. Herodotus even said “If nightfall had not stopped them, they would have not left one Magus alive.”
That is truly horrific. But even more horrific, the Slaughter of the Magi became an annual holiday. This genocide was celebrated with a massive feast and considered the “greatest holy day that all Persians keep.” Terrifying. But, you know, ironically familiar.
Their Legend Continues
While the Magi seemingly just disappeared into the folds of time, their legend lives on. In fact, on January 6, the day of Epiphany is still celebrated in honor of the Magi visiting Baby Jesus. That King Cake you see typically associated with Mardi Gras? It also has roots in the Magi’s story. And entertainment still draws inspiration from their legend…ahem. Yeah.
No matter your beliefs, the story of the Magi is one all of us can readily appreciate. May it continue to be a shining light leading us to new and daring places.