Every year brings new challenges to our myths. This year, astronomers turn our attention to the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn low in the night sky, an event said to have occurred two thousand and twenty years ago at the birth of Jesus Christ.
The three wise men, we are made to understand, found their way to Jesus’s birth manger guided not by a great star but by this rare astrological event.
In another challenge to the myth, it turns out the magi may have numbered a dozen or more. But three is a tidy Christian symbol, so we ran with it.
The magi came from “the East,” according to Matthew, the only Gospel to recount their appearance in Bethlehem that year.
Matthew was no more specific than “the East,” but scholars tell us the magi arrived from Arabia, Persia, and India. I don’t recall laying eyes on an image of the three kings and thinking — who’s the Indian chap? Caucasian, Arab, African features all appear in iconic visualisations of the Epiphany, but nothing calls to mind a son of India. Yet some scholars suggest all 12 wise men, if 12 indeed there were, hailed from the subcontinent.
More precise scholarship names the Indian traveller as Caspar, or Gaspar, a Malayalam from South India’s Kerala state. He is named King Gondopheres in his native land. His companions are named Balthazar and Melchior.
After visiting Jesus the wise men return to their homeland(s) via alternate routes, avoiding the paranoid King Herod, and are ultimately martyred for their newfound faith. What remains, in addition to their relics, are memories of their offerings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, one of which is still a fine gift today.
A finer gift, perhaps, would be greater cultural clarity, a portrait perhaps of the Malayali king high on his camel following an exquisite glow on the night’s horizon, honouring his sense of prophecy that a Messiah was born in Bethlehem.