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Who Were the Three Wise Men?

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by Melbournefreelancer (subscribe)
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Published December 7th 2012
How much do you really know about them?
The three Wise Men rise to social consciousness this time of the year as they appear in Christmas plays, greeting cards, and decorations. And they disappear just as quickly as they appeared around the 6th day of the New Year. Mostly what we know about them is that they came from the Orient bearing gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense for the newborn baby Jesus. So who were they and is there anything else they did other than offer gifts? What makes them important enough to be part of the nativity scene?

Their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, kings of "Ind, Chaldea, and Persia" according to the Historia Trium Regum compiled by John of Hildesheim in the 14th century. They had apparently made similar astrological calculations about the Star of Bethlehem and set out from their own countries. They met at the outskirts of Jerusalem and then travelled together to Bethlehem.

Having found the Holy Infant and offered gifts and worship, they travelled back together till they reached a town in Persia at the border of Ind, where apparently the Star had first been seen. According to Hildesheim's chronicles they built "a fair chapel in worship of the Holy Child they had sought" and agreed to meet here every year at the same time. They also agreed to be buried at this place when their time came.

And when their time of death approached the Star again appeared to them as a sign and they once again travelled to the Persian town, built their tombs and awaited death. But that wasn't to be their eternal resting place, for as retold in Cynewulf, an Old English classic, Helena, the mother of Constantine removed their relics to Constantinople.

On Constantine's death, the relics came under the guardianship of the Roman Empire and were later on handed on to the Archbishop of Cologne for favours received from him during a war against Milan. The relics are believed to be buried in the Cathedral of Cologne where they are to this day. Scientific testing has revealed that the dye and weaving of the cloth on the relics are consistent with the kind extant during the 3rd and 4th centuries. Cologne Cathedral Altarpiece

The 6th day of January every year is celebrated as Epiphany or the day of the Three Kings. This is the 12th day of Christmas when the wise men are supposed to have finally arrived at the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born and offered their gifts. So the twelve days of Christmas are the days from 25th December to 6th January and not really a countdown from 13th to 25th December as is now commonly believed. So the Partridge and the Pear Tree song leads from Christmas day to Epiphany.

Cologne Cathedral Shrine of the Magi Shrine of the Magi Where Their Relics are Buried

If you ever happen to come across the Learning Channel's Mummy Detective series episode of The Three Kings you can catch an engaging show by Egyptologist Bob Brier who has gone to great lengths to retrace the lives of the wise men.

Meanwhile, here's a rendition of the Christmas Carol We Three Kings of Orient are...that I really liked. Can you detect the Bond theme music somewhere in there?

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