Sunday, January 3, 2010

For Epiphany: "Journey of the Magi"

In many countries the January 6th Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings' Day was celebrated today, this being the Sunday closest to the holiday.
The events are recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 2:

". . .behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem . . . .
and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was."

"And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him."

"They offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way."
Various traditions later added that the men were magi, that there were three either kings or magi, and that they came on camels.

I think these days we know mostly the romanticized creches showing royally-dressed clean kings at the manger. But I prefer the poet's telling of it. If you have time and patience, read the strong words of his rougher version:

UPDATE: Hear the poet himself read his poem here.

by T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


  1. We love Epiphany in our tradition and I have to say I have not read that work before. It is 20 degrees here in Oklahoma today. I would not relish that journey right now. It is so easy in our way to read over the words and not envision the realness of what occurred. This work expresses very well what it must have been like. What I like about it was that it was the journey itself that changed them and when they returned, they were not the same. Isn't that the way of travel and experience? Wishing you well in 2010.

  2. Dina,
    Thank you for this reflection on Epiphany. The poem is beautiful too in a very real way. This story is far from the cutsie Christmas pageant one we love to tell!

  3. Look at all those nice natural incense resin pellets! I love these as much as I hate the artificially flavoured joss sticks.

    Epiphany in Italy is still a major holiday and is celebrated on the 6th January with small gifts for the kids (previously that is when the children did receive their gifts and not at Christmas).

  4. Avtcoach, thanks for your wise words. Yes.

    Suzanne, "cutsie," why couldn't I think of that word? That's what I meant.

    Spacedlaw, wish I could come over on Wednesday to see.
    Yeah, the incense in the Old City souk/shuk is great -- if you have a thurible to swing. :)
    "Come into my shop" :

    And Susie of Arabia tells how some people chew frankincense as gum:

  5. Dear Dina - Just wanted to say thanks for all your fantastic posts. You are such an amazing writer. Always learning something when I visit your blog and I live in Israel LOL. HUGS

  6. When I was a kid Epiphany here was more important fur us than Christmas, because we got our gift on that day.
    Then everything changed...

  7. Ah! Eliot!

    His lines from Murder in the Cathedral where Beckett was tempted before being murdered. To a particularly difficult temptation, Beckett replies: That last temptation's the greatest treason/to do the right deed for the wrong reason.

    «Louis» will make a Galette des Rois for Epiphany.

  8. Horses and camels and lovely thoughts!

    ShAloha, Dina

    Comfort Spiral

  9. beautiful Dina, I love your photos they are charming charmed by the star.

    Actually, after a local romantic poet my favourite poet is Elliot but I don't personally like this version he is not allowing strength to seep through the vision and after all this is the birth of a divinity, I know the paradox, nevetheless oh well this interpretation of mine I felt strenghthening.

    have a beautiful day filled with love and light

  10. Avtcoach says it well, "that it was the journey itself that changed them and when they returned, they were not the same." It's a beautiful poem, hard and well-considered. We so often don't really consider the story with any kind of realism today. Great post.

  11. Thanks for the T.S. Eliot. I had not read that before. In fact, I had forgotten about Epiphany. I like your blog celebration. :)

  12. What a lovely post with much to view and read...the pictures are wonderful, and a story all their own.

  13. Always wondered how "raw" myrrh and frank incense looked like -thank you for the info. I like to come closer to the reality of the stories surrounding the birth.

  14. I always love the story of the 3 magi and the figurines showing them. Wonderful photos Dina..

  15. I loved your post yesterday. I love horses and think that they are next to dogs I would live with if I could.

    I don't mind them at all.

    Here is what I had to say on my blog this morning in reply to your comment about me being feisty...

    You could begin to think that I am pretty well drugged up. I go back to the doctor this morning in less than an hour or so, and I am trying to convince myself that I am better -- just hoping that she will see me as better and then that I will be better. Right now, my nose is plugged up, tight as a snare drum, my chest wheezes, and ...

  16. Enjoyed reading your post and looking at your photos. I learned something too. Knew of the three wise men, as I have viewed so many paintings where they are included, but I never read the poem. The comments are so interesting too. They complete your post.

  17. That's a gritty poem and will definitely make me look at the magi in a totally different light. Thanks for sharing it, Dina. I'm a bookworm but not a poetry reader, I'm afraid.

    I was fascinated by your photo of the different types of incense. I've never seen them sold in such large chunks. All we have here are the commercially produced ones — sticks and tiny cones.

  18. 206 BCE Han Dynasty. I caught that on the edge of the camel image which is so beautiful it makes me tear up. I read once where camels are the most googled animal. I don't know if this still stands.

    btw: I've had one Epiphany in my entire life and it lead to me stopping a 27 year two pack a day habit.

    Happy New Year D

  19. Happy Three Kings - Epiphany! I have a 3 kings painting on my office wall which Anne and I bought in Puerto Rico!

  20. That is an amazing poem and feels more real than the romanticized version. Your photos go well with the poem.

  21. I can only imagine, after such a journey, how "clean" they might have been.

  22. Thanks for sharing T.S. Elliots poem! It was great to see your photos and reflect on the images he created.

  23. Dina, thanks for this very fine post about Epiphany. Beautiful the landscape!

  24. Yes, this is a late comment; only just started perusing your site.

    Just wanted to correct something you wrote: "Various traditions later added that the men were magi...".

    The original Greek of Matthew 2:1 reads:

    ...ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα.

    [...behold, magi from the east came unto Jerusalem.]

    The bold word is "magoi", the plural of "magos", the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, to the wise men, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, etc. Even the Latin Vulgate called them "magi".

    It was the later tradition of English-speakers that added that the men were "wise men"; due primarily to the reading in the KJV.

    Interestingly enough, the Bible Society in Israel used the term "חכמים" [Chakamim], meaning "scholars", in their Hebrew NT based on the KJV. Other, newer Hebrew translations use the transliteration "מגושים" [Magasim].

    God Bless!

  25. Martus, shalom and welcome.
    Khachamim can also mean wise men.

    is the Hebrew plural for the Persian word magus and magi is the Latin plural of magus.

  26. That's a lot of languages, Dina. Do you speak or read them all?

  27. Petrea, ha, I WISH! Hebrew I know, but the rest of my comment came from Wikipedia.


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