Saturday, January 05, 2008

An Epiphany Midrash

By chance it happens that this Sunday falls on the date of real Epiphany, January 6. While Epiphany was originally the date assigned to Christmas in the Greco-Syriac parts of the Christian world, it has now come to be associated with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

In honor of this occasion, I would like to reproduce a story from Marco Polo (in Ronald Latham's translation), a travel writer who gets far less than his deserved respect. Make of it what you will:

Now let us leave Tabriz and turn to Persia, a very great province and at one time a very splendid and powerful one, but now ravaged and devastated by the Tartars [i.e. the Mongols, who conquered Iran in the thirteenth century].

In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepluchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. [Post-mortem incorruption is a vital sign of sanctity in all medieval religions.] One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior. Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt what I will now tell you.

Three days farther on, he found a town called Kalah Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-Worshippers. [That is, town of the adherents of the Zoroastrian religion, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Magus is in fact the name for Zoroastrian priests.] And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said: 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.' When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the other what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together. So in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.

After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief. The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building. They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with the fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.

That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire-worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.

Now that I have told you of this matter at full length, I will go on to tell you the facts about many other cities in Persia and the custom of the inhabitants . . .

Labels: , , ,