The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Magi

Author - Robert Farwell


The story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel is of course very familiar, but there is much in addition in Ethiopian texts that is curious and interesting. In the Miracles of Jesus for example it is told how the Magi, ‘Les Rois-Mages’, see the star from a mountain far away, and within it an image of the Virgin. Knowing of prophecies, they hasten to their King’s treasury, where they consult a work, the Book of the Commandment of Adam to Seth his Son, saying (translation from French) :

The Son of God will take flesh and live on earth. A star will appear. Its light will form a column from the heavens to the earth. In that light the Virgin will be seated, holding her Son, a diadem of glory on his head. When the star appears, seek the place where the Child is born.

The three at once take gifts, originating from an ancient ‘Mountain of Treasures’, and set out. For two years they travel, and eventually in Jerusalem they are greeted as Kings of Persia, and sent on by Herod. They find the Child, with Mary, and see fulfilment of a prophecy of King David ‘La reine se tiendra à ta droite, vétue et chamarré de vêtements d’or’ (Ps. 45: 9, she who was the King’s daughter, all glorious within; her clothing of wrought gold). They offer the Child gold for kingship, incense for divinity, and myrrh for a saving death in the flesh, and leave for their own country.

The story of the ‘Mountain of Treasures’ is in the Book of Adam and Eve, which gives a long account of the life they lead on a mountain near the Garden of Eden, after the Fall. Their shelter is a cave, subsequently known as the Cave of Treasures, where they are constantly assailed by Satan in one guise or another. They are however comforted by shining rods of gold, brought from India and given them by God for light in the hours of darkness, and by frankincense and myrrh brought for them from Eden by an angel at his command. In time, they have a numerous progeny with them, sprung from their third son Seth and a twin sister born with Abel. Below the mountain live Cain and his descendants, sprung from himself and a twin sister born with him.

After many years, Adam feels that his time is at last coming and gives commands to Seth his son that his body is to be embalmed at his death and laid in the cave, preserving with it the treasures of gold, incense and myrrh. Seth is to know that a flood shall come and destroy the earth, all but a few saved in a ship, the Ark, and he is to see that, at the time of the flood, his father’s body, with the treasures, is taken into the Ark. Then, when the flood has gone down, he is to see that all are buried ‘in the middle of the earth’. A city will arise, Adam prophesies, and after many years it will be plundered and the treasures found. But they will be kept:

and nought of them shall perish, until the Word of God, made man, shall come; when kings shall take them, and shall offer to Him, gold in token of His being King; incense in token of His being God of heaven and earth; and myrrh in token of His passion.

The Adoration of the Magi from Debre Sina Maryam at Gorgora
Photo - © Bob Friedlander

The ‘middle of the earth’ is what is to become the Mount of Golgotha and the city is Jerusalem. After the Flood it is Melchizedek, himself a descendant of Adam, with Shem Noah’s son and an angel sent to show the way, who carries out Adam’s command. Thereafter Melchizadek stays alone at the Mount, sowing his own wheat and tending his own vines. He meets Abram there (not until later is the name Abraham), bringing forth bread and wine in a prefiguration of the eucharist (Genesis 14: 18-20). Later again it is there that the sacrifice of Isaac is offered. The treasures do survive, to pass eventually into the hands of Persian princes and become the Magi’s gifts, while Adam’s body remains, to receive Christ’s redeeming blood at the Crucifixion – his skull is seen at the foot of the Cross in Ethiopian representations of it.

The story of the Magi themselves is in the Synaxary, the Ethiopian calendar of saints and feast days. They are named as descendants of Balaam, the soothsayer of Pethor on the Euphrates, summoned by the king of the Moabites (Numbers 22: 5) to stop the Israelites advance to the Promised Land. (It was he whose donkey, three times on his journey, saw an angel barring the way; Balaam did not, until the donkey was given the power of speech and told him). Balaam, the Synaxary says, prophesied that a great king was to be born in Judaea: ‘There shall come a Star out of Jacob, And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel’ (Numbers 24: 17). Long years after, his descendants saw a star in the form of a virgin, with a child in her bosom. Their ‘Kings’ forthwith set out for Palestine, each with a retinue of one thousand and seventy cavalry (no wonder Herod was ‘troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’!), to visit the Child and his Mother.

There is a similar account in certain manuscripts of the Ethiopian Miracles of Mary, where it is recorded that Balaam himself saw and painted a vision of a Virgin, a child and a star. The painting was shown to each generation of his descendants until finally, two years before the Nativity, a star recognised from the picture appeared and the journey was begun.

Ethiopian tradition no doubt absorbed elements from elsewhere at various times. The Armenian Infancy Gospel for example has details of the wise men as three kings, Balthasar of Arabia, Gaspar of India and Melkon of Persia, and it is Ethiopian tradition that indeed they represented all the nations of the earth. They saw Christ in varied ways, Balthasar as ‘commander of the Lord’s hosts’; Gaspar as ‘a child, “Son of God incarnate, seated on a throne of glory” ’; Melkon as a ‘man, dying in torment’. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh corresponded, and in Ethiopian tradition likewise the Child is offered ‘gold for his royal dignity, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his death’. To the Magus who carried gold, the child appeared as a man 30 years old; to the one who carried incense, as a child; to the one who carried myrrh, as an old man.

The Adoration of the Magi from Debre Sina Maryam at Gorgora on the north shore of Lake Tana is pictured above. The Magi kneel, with their crowns before them and their horses waiting nearby. They, the Child, and Mary all raise cups in, surely, a toast ! It is a lovely spot.

First Published in News File Winter 2008

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