The Magi are popularly referred to as Three Wise Men. The word magi comes from the plural of the Latin word magus, in turn borrowed from Greek μάγος magus, which was used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew. Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi; in the Christian church they have been commonly known as Melchior, a Babylonian scholar, Caspar, a Persian scholar, and Balthazar, an Arab scholar. Each bore a gift: one gold, one frankincense, one myrrh. The significance is debated, but one theory is that each of the three gifts had a spiritual meaning: 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.
Gold has been a valuable and highly sought-after precious metal for coinage, jewelry, and other arts since long before the beginning of recorded history. Gold standards have been the most common basis for monetary policies throughout human history, being widely supplanted by fiat currency only in the late 20th century. Gold has also been frequently linked to a wide variety of symbolisms and ideologies. A total of 165,000 tonnes of gold have been mined in human history, as of 2009.
Gold has been highly valued in many societies throughout the ages. In keeping with this it has often had a strongly positive symbolic meaning closely connected to the values held in the highest esteem in the society in question. Gold may symbolize power, strength, wealth, warmth, happiness, love, hope, optimism, intelligence, justice, balance, perfection, summer, harvest and the sun. Great human achievements are frequently rewarded with gold, in the form of gold medals, golden trophies and other decorations. Winners of athletic events and other graded competitions are usually awarded a gold medal (for example, the Olympic Games).
Aristotle in his ethics used gold symbolism when referring to what is now commonly known as the “golden mean”. Similarly, gold is associated with perfect or divine principles, such as in the case of the “golden ratio”.
Frankincense, also called olibanum, is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the Boswellia tree, a hardy, scraggy plant mainly found on the northern Somalian coast. It is extensively used in incense and perfumes. There are four main species of Boswellia which produce true frankincense and each type of resin is available in various grades. The grades depend on the time of harvesting, and the resin is hand-sorted for quality.
Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5000 years. A mural depicting sacks of frankincense traded from Egypt adorns the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who died in 1458 BC.
Finally, myrrh is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the flowering plant Commiphora, which grows in dry, stony soil in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. Myrrh resin is a natural gum. When the tree bark is punctured, the tree bleeds a thick resin; when people harvest myrrh, they wound the trees repeatedly to bleed them of the gum. Myrrh gum is waxy, and coagulates quickly. After the harvest, the gum becomes hard and glossy. The gum is yellowish, and may be either clear or opaque. It darkens deeply as it ages, and white streaks emerge.
Myrrh is used frequently in Ayurvedic medicine, which ascribes tonic and rejuvenative properties to the resin. In ancient times, Myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians, along with soda ash, for the embalming of mummies.
What Of It? Gold, frankincense and myrrh are of course the foundation of modern gift-giving, the original Christmas presents. Interesting to contrast the deeply symbolic (and rare) nature of each of them vs. today’s harried last minute Toys ‘R’ Us run. Nonetheless, each has its own interesting backstory and are heavily debated in theological circles. For me, it’s just worth taking a second to pause and think less about What presents we are giving each other and ask: Why?
I Am Curious about traditions and their origins, about stories and myths and where they originated, and about understanding the deeper meaning behind things that we seem to be taking for granted.