Bithiserea, Melchior and Gathaspa
My incipient thespian career was curt short at the age of five by the trauma of falling over my cloak whilst playing one of the three kings of 'Orien Tar' in a nativity play. Frankincense flew everywhere and I was subsequently demoted to be the front-end of the Ass.
The Magi are mentioned only in one gospel, and then only as wise men from the east. We are not told how many, their names or their origin. We know only that they'd seen his star in the East and had come to worship him. They presented gold, incense and myrrh. The Gospel recounts that they did not return to Herod the way they had come.
The Epiphany, the feast dedicated to the the appearance of the Lord to the Magi, was the most popular, and most ancient, part of the celebration of Christmas in East Anglia, featuring strongly in the mediaeval church. The rich iconography of the Magi blazed in the in the pre-reformation local churches, particularly in the 14th century. The Feast of the Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holidays, dating back to the Oriental church of the second century. It was always celebrated on January 6th, and outstripped even Christmas day as a celebration. It had a particular resonance for the western Europeans as they saw it as symbolic of the heathens acknowledging the supremacy of Christ. It grew in popularity from 1164, when Reinald of Dassel, archbishop of Cologne, brought the relics of the magi from Milan to Cologne.
The Syrian tradition asserts that there were twelve Magi, but this was changed by the fifth century to three, probably because three gifts were mentioned in the gospel. They were even given names, Bithiserea, Melchior and Gathaspa. By the eighth century, this had become Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper. The church even engineered a happy ending, where St Thomas the Apostle wandered far to India and came across the elderly Magi, converting them and appointing them Bishops.
The number three began to take on a mystical significance. The three periods of humanity, the three parts of the known world (Europe, Asia and Africa), and the three gifts, Gold from Melchior in recognition of his kingdom, Myrrh from Balthasar to endorse his humanity, and Incense from Caspar in recognition of his deity.
I attended a candle-lit carol service in Long Melford Church this Christmas. I fear that I found it a gloomy occasion with its jocular secular interludes, and my mind wandered toward the glorious celebration that would have accompanied the Epiphany in that same church in the fourteenth century. The mediaeval celebration was an educational exercise undertaken by almost the entire parish with gusto and energy, and the layers of meaning of the myth were stripped and examined in song, plays and ceremony, using visual aids to reinforce the message. The Visit of the Kings, and the Adoration, was one of the Mystery Plays performed over Christmas, performed often by a Guild. The primary School Nativity is a poor and shrivelled memory of these complex and poetic dramas enacted in Church. I wonder if they ever slipped and dropped the Frankinsense.