TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Three Iranians Bow Down to a Baby Jew...

Felted Nativity by Beneath the Rowan Tree

A highly unlikely scenario these days, don't you think? But, apparently, it did happen a couple of thousand years ago. Christmas is coming and with it, the same stories and images we hear and see over and over again every year. Sometimes it's good to revisit them, poke them a little, and maybe expand the images we carry in our heads.

We think of the three wise men as vaguely coming from the East with flowing robes and large turbans. The Biblical text is found in Matthew:

The Visit of the Magi

Matthew 2 (NIV)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied, for this is what the prophet has written:

6'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I was raised as a PK (Pastor's Kid), so I've heard, sung, enacted and seen the story a gazillion times. You know, the pat version that has gotten engrained into our popular culture these last two thousand years. Sermons often do try to address the origin of these three men, what their gifts mean, downplaying the role of magi and making them into kings. Magic and astrology are NOT embraced by Christianity and here it is, smack in the heart of the biggest story in the Bible. So, of course, there is more to it, right?

I went to Wikipedia first to revisit background information. They sure do a good job of providing comprehensive data on almost any subject under the sun! Without getting too deeply into it, here are a few points that caught my eye:
  • "Magos" actually refers to a cast of Zoroastrian priests, probably Persian, which is modern day Iran.
  • We know them by three names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. But, there are many variations, including a belief by Chinese Christians that one of them came from China. The three faces that now seem so familiar to us were popularized in the 12th Century and formalized by the 15th. They represent the three stages of life: young, middle aged and old, as well as the three known worlds at the time: Europe, Africa and the Orient.
  • The first known artistic images of the three wise men (3rd Century) show a much different picture than what we are familiar with today:

One of the earliest known depictions from
a third century sarcophagus.
Similar attire continued for a few more centuries:

Byzantine art usually shows the Magi in Persian dress (breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps). Mosaic, ca. 600.Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy - restored.
  • Finally, the symbolism behind the gifts: "Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been advanced; while gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure. They generally break down into two groups:
    That they are all ordinary gifts for a king — myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
    That they are prophetic — gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priestship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering." Wikipedia

Let me sidetrack here. I ran into that Byzantine mosaic several times. It's in the public domain so everybody is using it, I guess. The most interesting version was on this site called The Irish Origins of Civilization, a long, very long rant about how all as we know it started in good old Ireland. I have a tender place in my heart for the Green Emerald... Coming from Icelandic descent, there's a drop or two of blood from that part of the world running in my veins... (Danish men bopped Irish women on the head and carted them off to Iceland, right?) Anyway, if you are bored and looking for something very long to read that plays with the origin of all things, check it out. Here is a snippet:

"The term Israelite has its etymological origins in the term Iesa, the Druidic Christ. A high initiate of the Cult of Iesa was known as an "Iesa-ite" or, as it has come down to us, an "Israelite." The Israelites were worshippers of the sun, stars, and zodiac.

The Three Wise Men (referring to the mosaic above) - the Magi who followed the bright star (the sun) to the birthplace of Jesus (Iesa). This artist clearly shows the three travelers as Caucasian. The number 3 is used in the bible as a symbol representing the Druids and their gnosis. The three gifts they bore are all symbols of the sun. The gifts identify the magi as members of the Solar Cult.

They were the stellar priesthood of Ireland, and closely associated with the Chaldean and Egyptian magi. We find them obliquely referred to in the New Testament "Nativity" story. Apparently, three of their number followed the sun (the bright star in heaven) and visited the birthplace of Jesus, the king of light. It appears that the authors of the bible wished to incorporate information about the Druids early on in the story of Jesus. The references to the "three kings" and "three shepherds" are cryptic references to them, or to members of their worldwide colleges. The bible, however, does not elaborate on the visiting magi or explain why and how they came to a remote inn when Jesus was being born there."

Huh? Sorry, but there's not enough Irish in me to swallow all of this without a really, really big spoonful of sugar... I wondered if the Zoroastrians laid claim to the three men from the East. Sure enough, I found that Farsinet embraced the story, although with a slightly different twist on symbolism:

"While oftentimes conflicting lore muddles the story of the Magi, those bearing gifts for the Christ child are Caspar of Tarsus, Melchior of Persian and Balthasar of Saba. Weary from desert travel, the Magi humbly offer their gifts. Caspar is young, European and offers gold. Gold finances the Holy Family's coming flight to Egypt and also symbolizes Christ's immortality and purity. For his generosity, Caspar receives the gifts of charity and spiritual wealth. Melchior is middle-aged, Persian and offers myrrh. Myrrh is a fragrant gum, which the ancient Israelites believed to strengthen children. This symbol of Christ's mortality was blended with wine and offered to him on the cross, and also mixed with aloes to wrap his body for the tomb. Melchior receives the gifts of humility and truth. Balthasar is elderly, Ethiopian and offers frankincense. Frankincense is a resin used in incense for worship and also symbolizes prayer and sacrifice. Balthasar receives the gift of Faith. And Christ, humbling himself to become man, offers us the greatest gift of all, the light that forever burns in the darkness. "

This version uses similar references to origin as the medieval sources. It also goes on to talk about Marco Polo's reference to a visit he made to where the three wisemen were buried:

"In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior."

Wikipedia confirms this and also mentions that the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral still contains the bones of the three kings.

All very interesting. A Turkotek discussion on Zoroastrian clothing caught my eyes as I travelled the Google road. Turkotek is a wonderful resource for any textile enthusiast, especially concerning Central Asia. Expert members share their knowledge over different textiles that they find. In this discussion, they examine a pair of brightly colored bridal trousers, beaded and embroidered.

Apparently, women by the 19th Century wore these bright colors, while men unadorned costumes, much more subdued than the women. The mosaic suggests richer garb for the men of Jesus' time, but perhaps styles can change quite a bit in several hundred years...

This was about all the time I was willing to give to expanding my thoughts on the three wise men. Perhaps it is a big mind boggling to think of Iranians giving a baby Jew any kind of obeisance today. But, let us remember two things. In the first place, there was strife in the air two thousand years ago, too. After the wise men left, Herod had all babies under two killed as he was afraid the infant Jew would threaten his throne. Secondly, that whole region of the world shares much more in common than they do in difference. I believe that despite the blood shed of recent history, the people want peace. They are cousins and with good leadership (their own!), they can once again find not only tolerance, but prosperity and good will. At least that is my hope. And, I believe that is the gift the wise men saw in that little baby, the King of Peace.



  1. The Zoroastrian woman's headscarf is just how my Kurdish mother-in-law and all the women of her generation wear theirs - a waist length white cotton scarf draped under the chin, with a bright or dark kerchief on top. After all, the Kurds were Zoroastrian before they were Muslim (actually, not all Kurds are Muslim...) And some Kurdish legends lay claim to the Magi as well. Since Kurds are of same distance origins as Iranians, who knows?

    And "Isa" is Turkish for Jesus, which ties back to the story as well. Complicated, the old world!
    Great post - thanks!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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