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“The three magi from the East”


In Christian tradition the Magi, also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men, (Three) Kings, or Kings from the East, are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts.The Gospel of Matthew, the only place in the Bible which describes the visit of the magi, says that they came “from the east” to worship the Christ, “born King of the Jews”. Although Matthew does not mention their number, because three gifts are recorded as having been given to the Christ Child, traditionally there are thought to have been three Magi. The Magi, as the “Three Kings” or “Three Wise Men” are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity and in celebrations of Christmas.

The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophesies such as that in Isaiah 60:3, which describe the Messiah being worshiped by kings. Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. This interpretation was common until the Protestant Reformation.

from Matthew 2:1-12:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied, for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem, an act called the Massacre of the Innocents, in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne. Jesus and his family had, however, escaped to Egypt beforehand. After these events they passed into obscurity. The story of the nativity in Matthew glorifies Jesus, likens him to Moses, and shows his life as fulfilling prophecy.

Names

The word Magi is a Latinization of the plural of the Greek word mago, from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e. the religious caste in which Zoroaster was born into. The term refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. Translated in the King James Version as “wise men.”

Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known since the 8th century as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These derive from an early 6th century Greek manuscript in Alexandria. The Latin text Collectanea et Flores continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details. This text is said to be from the 8th century, of Irish origin.

Caspar is also sometimes given as Gaspar or Jaspar.

In contrast, the Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. These names have a far greater likelihood of being originally Persian, though that does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity.

In the Eastern churches, Ethiopian Christianity, for instance, has Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenians have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.

Origin and journey

The phrase “from the east” is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. Traditionally the view developed that they were Babylonian or Arabs or Jews from Yemen as the Makrebs or kings of Yemen then were Jews, a view held for example by John Chrysostom. The majority belief was they were from Babylon, which was the centre of Zurvanism, and hence astrology, at the time. The author of Matthew probably did not have a specific location in mind and the phrase from the east is for literary effect and added exoticism.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found Jesus by following a star, which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem. Various theories have been presented as to the nature of this star.

After the visit the Magi leave the narrative by returning another way so as to avoid Herod, and do not reappear. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptised by St. Thomas on his way to India. Another has their remains found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople, and eventually making their way to Germany and the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.

Gifts

The Magi are described as “falling down”, “kneeling” or “bowing” in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with the use of kneeling in Luke’s birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church. While prostration is now rarely practiced in the West, it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.

Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh which is found only in Yemen. Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure.

All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.

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.

Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.

Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The “holy oil” traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as “receiving the Myrrh”.

John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews’ traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God.

What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas.

Relevance to Christmas

This visit generally referred to as the visit of the Magi must have taken place several months after the birth of Jesus. Evidence for that conclusion can be found in the Gospel of Matthew in the second chapter. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother…” (Matthew 2:11) A careful observation of that verse reveals two things, firstly, Jesus Christ was not a baby when the wise men visited he was a young child of about two years old. Secondly, the visit did not take place at the manger where he was born but in a house Joseph (saint Joseph) and Mary (mother of Jesus) moved into after Jesus was born in a manger. The strongest indication that Jesus was about two years old at the time of the visit can be found in verse 16 of the second chapter in the Gospel of Matthew, which reads thus, Then Herod ,…, was exceedingly wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16) It is safe to assume that there’s no way Herod would have ordered a massacre of the innocents from two years old and under if the Wise Men gave him the impression that the child they sought was born just a couple of days earlier. It can also be implied from the last line of Mathew 2:16 that from Herod’s inquiries he figured out that the Wise Men set out from their base from the day Jesus was born, when they saw the star and did not arrive in Bethlehem until two years later. “For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Religious significance

Christianity celebrates the Magi on the day of Epiphany, January 6, the last of the twelve days of Christmas, particularly in the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. In these Spanish-speaking areas, the three kings (Sp. “los Reyes Magos de Oriente”, also “Los Tres Reyes Magos”) receive wish letters from children and magically bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. In Spain, each one of the Magi is supposed to represent one different continent, Europe (Caspar), Asia (Melchior) and Africa (Balthasar). According to the tradition, the Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children; much like Santa Claus with his reindeer, they visit everyone in one night. In some areas, children prepare a drink for each of the Magi, it is also traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels, because this is the only night of the year when they eat.

A tradition in most of Central Europe involves writing the initials of the three kings’ names above the main door of the home to confer blessings on the occupants for the New Year. For example, 20 + C + M + B + 08. The initials may also represent “Christus mansionem benedicat” (Christ bless this house). In Catholic parts of Germany and in Austria, this is done by so called Sternsinger (star singers), children, dressed up as the Magi, carrying the star. In exchange for writing the initials, they collect money for charity projects in the third world.

In France and Belgium, the holiday is celebrated with a special tradition: within a family, a cake is shared, which contains a small figure of baby Jesus, known as the broad bean. Whoever gets the “bean” is “crowned” king for the remainder of the holiday and wears a cardboard crown purchased with the cake. The practice is known as tirer les Rois: drawing the Kings. A queen is sometimes also chosen.

In Mexico they have the same ring-shaped cake Rosca de Reyes (Kings Bagel or Thread), it contains figurines of the baby Jesus. The figurine of the baby Jesus is typically hidden inside the cake. Whoever gets a figurine is supposed to take the figurine to the local church and buy tamales for the Candelaria feast on February the second, which is the feast of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

In Puerto Rico children cut grass or greenery on January 5th and put it in a box under their bed. The grass is for the camels. Children receive gifts on January 6, which is called Epiphany, and is traditionally the day in which the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the Christ child. Christmas starts in December and ends in January after Epiphany.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, parts of south Texas, and surrounding regions, a similar ring-shaped cake known as a “King Cake” traditionally becomes available in bakeries from the Epiphany through Mardi Gras. The baby Jesus is represented by a small, plastic doll inserted into the cake from underneath, and the person who gets the slice with the figurine is expected to buy or bake the next King Cake.

Adoration of the magi in art

In Byzantine art they are depicted as Persians, wearing trousers and phrygian caps. Crown appear from the 10th century. Medieval artists also allegorised the theme to represent the three ages of man. Beginning in the 12th century, and very often by the 15th, the Kings also represent the three parts of the known (pre-Columbian) world in Western art, especially in Northern Europe. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor and Caspar may be depicted with distinctive Oriental features.

These images use Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the 4th century. Crowns are first seen in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by now lost any Oriental flavour in most cases.

From the 14th century onwards, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi’s clothes are given increasing attentention. By the 15th century, the Adoration of the Magi is often a bravura piece in which the artist can display their handling of complex, crowded scenes involving horses and camels, but also their rendering of varied textures: the silk, fur, jewels and gold of the Kings set against the wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus’s manger and the rough clothing of Joseph and the shepherds.

sources:

The book is finished!

Yes, indeed. I finished the book in the end! Or rather, I stopped writing it. A book like this can easily be revised and improved for another 10 years, but I’ve been at it for 5 years already and perhaps now is a good time to stop. I’m actually pretty happy with it. All material, as you know, is available on this web page, but you can also buy it as a regular book when it appears sometime next year.

How to pronounce “yogurt”

In English there is considerable confusion regarding the proper pronunciation of the word “yogurt.” Basically, “yog-urt” is the UK pronunciation whereas Americans say “yo-gurt.”

Meanwhile, the French say “yaourt” and this is also how they spell it. That is, the French don’t pronounce the “g.” Weird, right?

Well, as it turns out, the French pronunciation is the most accurate. The word is originally Turkish, yoğurt, from yoğurmak, meaning “to kneed,” “to become curdled or coagulated.” As a people of the Central Asian steppes, the Turks ate a lot of milk products and they do so to this day. In fact, their yoğurt is phenomenally delicious and it contains none of the weird emulsifiers and sickening sweeteners that one finds elsewhere.

So why do the French swallow the “g”? Well, because the Turks do. The letter “ğ” — yumuşak ge, a “g” with a squiggle — is not pronounced in Turkish but it only extends the length of the previous vowel. The French must have met actual Turkish people and learned the pronunciation from them. English, Americans and Swedes must only have seen it written and they consequently mispronounce the word to this day.

This is how to pronounce it correctly —

Turkey, hen from Kalikut

When one comes to live in Turkey, one of the first questions one might ask oneself is what “turkey,” the bird, is called in Turkish. The answer, it turns out, is hindi. Hmmm, interesting. In fact, as a quick internet search will establish, this terminology follows a common European pattern. The birds, native to North America, first turned up in Europe at a time, in the 16th century, when people still believed that it was “India” that the Europeans had discovered. This is why the French called it dinde (“from India”) and the Russians called it indeyka. In some other European languages, however, it is called kalkon (Swedish), kalkoen (Dutch) or kalkun (Estonian). Also here there is an Indian connection. As the popular lore would have it, the birds where shipped from the Indian city of Kalikut — today’s Kozhikode — and hence they were known as “hens from Kalikut.”

So, why are the English and the Americans alone in calling it “turkey”? The reason, it seems, is that the first turkeys that arrived in England originally were shipped via the Levant, or, possibly, that there was a mix-up with another sort of bird that originated here. Turkeys were thought to come from Turkey! Really, Americans should know better — the bird is native only to North and Central America.

Non-European IR history in Turkey

The new semester is upon us and as always I’m teaching my course on “Comparative International Systems.” Only this time I’m doing it at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s going to be very exciting to see what all my new students will make of the material — next to all of them will, I suspect, be from distinctly non-European kinds of places. I’ll keep you updated.

Btw, the new version of the reading list is here — it works on phones too.

Erik

Erik in Berlin, “Dancing with Strangers”

This is a Youtube clip of a presentation I did at conference in Berlin in June — “Dancing wiht Strangers: Bodies in Inter-civilizational Encounters.”

Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, Berlin, 19 June 2018.  Workshop: ‘From Huntington to Trump: 25 years of the “Civilisations’”. Organized by the very excellent Jeff Haynes.

Atlas of Mauretania

I always thought “atlases” — books of maps, that is — were named after Atlas, the Greek titan who carries the earth on his shoulders (see above). And it is indeed he who appears on an engraving of Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori , a collection of maps published by Antonio Lafreri in 1572. However, it was Gerardus Mercator, the legendary map-maker, who invented the term and apparently he did not have the Greek titan in mind at all but rather “Atlas of Mauretania,” a famous philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, who also was king of Mauretania.  Not very much is known about this man, however. Wikipedia has next to nothing.

“Mauri,” from which “Mauretania” is derived, was the Roman term for the Berber kingdoms of North Africa. But this is also where the Atlas mountains are located. In fact ádrār in Berber means “mountain.”  The Atlantic Ocean was named after Atlas and so was the lost island of Atlantis. Moroccans seem to have been great geographers. Ibn-Batuta was from Morocco too.

Twitter war about the Barbary Coast

I’m writing about the “Barbary Coast.” I’m interested in the corsairs who were roaming the coast of North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries since I’m interested in non-territorial ways of organizing politics. The corsairs were nomads of the sea, as it were.

I put a twitter feed on this page and one of the first tweets that popped up was this:

I couldn’t help myself.  I had to point out to Sue that it’s called the “Barbary coast” because it’s the part of North Africa where the Berber people live.  “Barbary,” that is, refers to “Berber” not to “barbarian.” Few people realize this but North Africa is still predominantly Berber, not actually Arab.

My new friend Sue is consequently wrong: there are some 50 million Berbers in the area.

A second question, and this is more interesting, is why the Berbers got their name. The reason it seems is that the Arabs who arrived in North Africa in the 7th century called them bárbaros.  This was the generic label which the Greeks applied to all foreigners.  They were “barbarians” since they stuttered and spoke incomprehensible gibberish — ba, ba, ba, ba.  “Barbarian” to the Greeks was not necessarily a pejorative term, but it was at the same time obvious to them that foreigners were not quite human. For one thing they had no poleis, no city-states.

“Barbarian” as a term applied to people who loot, destroy and in general fail to respect the lives of others caught on in Europe in the 18th century when it came to serve as the antithesis of “civilization.”  Yet the Europeans, as already Michel Montaigne pointed out, were often greater barbarians than the alleged barbarians themselves. I wrote a book about this.

Were the Manchus nomads?

 

In a seminar last week, Martin Hall, my colleague here at Lund U, presented a paper on state-making among the nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. In the course of the discussion, Martin mentioned that “the Manchu were not nomads.” “What,” I said, “the Manchu were not nomads? Everyone knows the Manchu were nomads!” “No,” Martin insisted, “they were not.”

Why did I think the Manchu were nomads? Two reasons really.  First of all since I took it for granted that all the various peoples living to the north and west of China itself were nomadic. Of course there were some, such as the Xixia, Jin or the Liao, who formed states during the Song period. Since they formed proper states they must have been predominantly sedentary, but I always thought of this as a “sinification” of what originally were nomadic tribes. Secondly, and most importantly, since the Manchu emperors of China always invoked nomadic traditions in their rhetoric — horse-back riding, archery and all that stuff.

So was Martin right? Well, as so often it depends on how we define the terms. The word “Manchu” itself was invented only in 1636 — once the invasion of China already was under way — and it was a political rather than an ethnic identity. More than anything it was used as a way for the leaders to rally various groups of people behind a common cause. Ethnically speaking, the Manchu were predominantly made up of Jürchen. By the Chinese authorities, the Jurchen had always been divided into three separate tribes of which the Yeren Jürchen — known as the “wild Jürchen” — were nomadic and the other two tribes were not. The sedentary Jürchen lived in villages north-east of Ming China, but they seem to have been more occupied with trade — in pearls, fur, and above all in ginseng — than with agriculture. All three Jürchen tribes descended from the Tungus people who were “sedentarized” some time in the 11th century, but hunting and fishing remained important occupations for all of them. I guess there was no other way to survive on the steppe.

China, we should remember, was overrun by an army and not by an ethnic group. The army was referred to as the “Eight Banners.” It was based on cavarly and archers, and was organized — much as the Mongol army of Genghis Khan — with the explicit purpose of uniting previously feuding factions. There were a lot of Mongols in the Eight Banners, together with Koreans and various nomadic peoples of the steppes. In fact, there were Han Chinese deserters and frontiersmen in the army too. The “Manchus” were more than anything the name for this military force, and the new rulers always counted themselves as its descendants. When the Qing dynasty emperors claimed an identity for themselves, they would always refer to this military legacy, including its strong nomadic elements.

There is first-rate scholarship on all of this, including: Mark Elliot, Evelyn Rawski and Pamela Crossley. Btw, the photo above is from an amazing web page on Manchu archery.

Seminars are a great way to learn things. Especially if we make our points clearly and take the opportunity to disagree with each other.

Triumphs in Palmyra

It seems ignorance and barbarism are about to triumph in Palmyra. It makes sense. ISIS’s version of the caliphate will always be an outrage for anyone who knows anything at all about history. Not even the Almohad  Caliphate was this bad. Yesterday they destroyed the triumphal arches in Palmyra, Syria, erected by the Romans in the 2nd century CE to celebrate their victory against the Persians. Previously ISIS have destroyed temples dedicated to Baal, a god of pre-Islamic Syria, which they regarded as idolatrous, but the triumphal arches have no religious significance. In fact, if ISIS had known more about history, they might have realized that they and the Romans both have the Persians as their common enemy.

Today’s New York Times reports the story: “ISIS Destroys Triumphal Arches in Palmyra, Syria.”

A photo such as the one below reminds me of what it must have looked like when the Europeans destroyed the Yuanmingyuan. There must be a place in hell reserved for people who behave this way.