Gifts of the Magi—Linguistically Speaking

By Maeve Maddox

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A ubiquitous symbol of the Christmas season is the image of the Magi, the “wise men from the east” mentioned in Matthew 2.

Matthew doesn’t say how many magi made the journey, but because they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—tradition has settled on three.

Whereas Matthew calls them merely “wise men,” they have come to be called “kings” and “magi.”

Magi is the plural of magus, a word associated with the ancient Persian priestly caste that included mathematicians and astronomers. Although nowadays most folks probably have warm feelings for the three magi of the Christmas story, early Christians tended to associate the word magus with illicit magic. One of the villains in the Book of Acts is a Samaritan convert named Simon Magus, i.e., Simon the Magician. In time, magus in English came to be attached to various non-Christian priests. For example, nineteenth-century writers referred to Druid priests as magi.

The magi’s three gifts have acquired various symbolic interpretations.

Gold, a word inherited from Germanic, symbolizes earthly wealth and glory, a suitable gift for a king because it is the most precious of metals. On the spiritual plane, gold represents the sum of human perfection.

The word frankincense derives from Latin incensum, “that which is set on fire,” and Medieval Latin francus, “free.” In reference to an object, frank denotes quality or value. Frankincense, “an aromatic gum resin, yielded by trees of the genus Boswellia,” is not cheap today. In the first century, both frankincense and myrrh were probably worth more than their weight in the third gift.

Both frankincense and myrrh are used in worship. The smoke and scent represent prayer rising to a deity. In the context of the Nativity story, frankincense symbolizes divinity, whereas myrrh, from a Semitic root meaning “bitter,” foreshadows suffering and sorrow. Frankincense is said to have a pleasant woody, lemony scent, whereas myrrh is said to have a less pleasant, medicinal odor. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to sniff either.

Artists’ depictions of the Magi usually show them carrying their gifts in ornate boxes, but for use, incense is burned in a perforated container suspended from chains. This device is called a censer or a thurible, from the Latin word for censer: turibulum.

I was delighted to find the word thurible in a non-liturgical context, a drama review in The Economist, of the West End production of Schiller’s Don Carlos:

At the start of this production, a thurible breathing incense swings across the stage, which is lit by shafts of light from high windows.

No post about the Magi would be complete without mentioning the “star” they are said to have followed. I put star in quotation marks because the ancients referred to most of the heavenly bodies as “stars,” even though they recognized the difference between the fixed stars and the moving planets. The Greek word for planet means “wanderer” and both the Greeks and Romans referred to the planets as “wandering stars.”

The gospel relates how “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

Anyone who has ever sung “We Three Kings” can be forgiven for imagining that the Magi followed the star like a tail light on the road ahead, visible every night as they traversed field and fountain, moor and mountain, until they got to Bethlehem, where it stopped.

According to an article by David Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University (on a science site called The Conversation) the “star” was probably not a star, but a planet. The English phrases “in the east” and “stood over” correspond to specific astronomical terms in the Greek original.

Weintraub says there’s no need to imagine the wise men literally following the heavenly body. They would have been able to calculate its position and trajectory by means of math.

As Lear said, “Reason not the need.” I like the image of the star leading the way.

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4 Responses to “Gifts of the Magi—Linguistically Speaking”

  • Raymona Anderson

    Interesting and as typical for Maddox, written in a readable manner.

  • Tim Slager

    “priestly cast”
    Would that be “priestly caste”?

    Or was it a troupe of actors? 😉

  • Maeve

    Tim Slager—oops! I’ll see if I can get that corrected. Thanks.

  • Barbara Youree

    I loved this enlightening post about the Magi. Since childhood I have wondered how they “followed” the star, but rather than thinking they followed the tail light of a vehicle, I tried to figure out how anyone could follow a heavenly body that’s billion of miles away. We can observe the moon and sun creep across the the sky, but they are so much closer. As astronomers, of course, they would have know how to figure the direction mathematically. Problem solved!

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