Epiphany: The Cult of the 3 Magi
The Alchemy of Transformation
The Feast of Epiphany in the Christian calendar celebrates the arrival of the 3 Kings to the nativity. The idea of the spiritual journey is also found in Buddhism, this article looks at some of the reasons why a person may undertake such a journey.
The practice of striking medals for pilgrims dates back to medieval times. Such tokens could serve as mementos of fulfilled penance – that is, emergence from a fallen state and the return of an individual to God’s grace. They were also used as charms against danger, protecting the faithful during their pilgrimages.
Since the twelfth century, the great cathedral of Cologne has held the relics of the Three Magi (or Three Kings), courtesy of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who brought them from Milan. Since that time, the Magi have adjusted to the Northern European climate; something of a cult has arisen around them. The practice of calling for their aid and favour spread beyond Cologne’s city walls, all over Germany and to neighbouring France and Austria. Rites and rituals made express use of their particular talents.
The Three Kings were portrayed as African, Indian and European, symbolising the universality of the quest to pay respects to the newborn Christ child. Biblical sources give no details of their names, their number or even whether or not they were indeed kings. Much of the tradition surrounding them arose during the medieval period.
The virtues attributed to the Magi correlate directly with the two things for which they are known according to the original narrative in the Gospel of Matthew: that they had travelled a long way, and were wise men. Hence they were considered to protect travellers on their wanderings, avert the actions of sorcerers and even cure epilepsy – the “falling sickness” – a condition often mistaken in those times for possession and ascribed to sorcery.
Embarking on a journey then was fraught with difficulties and dangers. It meant leaving the familiar, entering into the unknown. However, a ‘journey’ can also indicate a symbolic pilgrimage; this should be kept in mind when exploring the resonances of the Magi. In the symbolism of the Tarot, the first card of the Major Arcana is The Fool. He is pictured setting out on a journey naïvely, with a dog biting at his heel as he is about to step off a cliff, unaware. Venturing out into the unknown is surely a silly affair, to be avoided at all costs – as every hobbit knows! Which brings us to the question of why someone would want to leave their familiar surroundings.
Often, there is some urgency about having to leave home. For a young adult, this can be a rite of passage, perhaps triggered by boredom and a reluctance to continue living under the tiresome yoke of parental authority. It may be triggered by crisis – say, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the death of a partner – or simply by a feeling of ennui and curiosity about life ‘outside’.
Traditionally, it is indeed often a crisis that sparks a spiritual journey, following a revelation that the comfort one has enjoyed up to a certain point is no longer dependable. In the case of Prince Gautama, this took the form of four fateful journeys from the palace and encounters with old age, sickness and death.
The spiritual journey is often prefigured by a loss of faith in the world. After all, exchanging one job or even one partner for another does not require such a complete reorientation. Yet the feeling that the world (or, more accurately, ‘my’ attitude toward the world) is somehow wrong and in need of renewal is considerably more groundbreaking … and therefore irksome. Thus few people are really prepared to take the fateful step – and, it must be said, there is good sense in that. After all, it would not do for everyone to retire from the world to undertake a full-time inner journey.
However, it does mean that a great many people can live vicariously through the successful completion of such a journey by another. Those who do return with some inner treasure are rightly hailed as heroes, just as the Buddha is our spiritual ‘hero’. It is as if, simply knowing that someone else has undertaken the journey, I can have faith that if called upon to do the same, it might just be possible. In each individual heart lives the same potential to embark on an inner voyage, which might just become necessary in a time of need. It is this potential that resonates with the symbol of the Magi: a power that is simultaneously beyond oneself, and yet inward, toward the heart. It is capable of generating the strength, capacity for endurance and skill to overcome both the outward and inward fear of the unknown, and reminds us – for danger always gives us the opportunity to remember – that each individual is never completely alone, even in the wilderness.
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