Marco Polo and the three wise men

January 17, 2005

FASCINATING SUPPORT FOR THE TRADITIONAL STORY OF THE THREE WISE MEN comes from Marco Polo, that intrepid Venetian explorer who opened up the thirteenth-century European mind to the east. WW-reader William Bouman drew my attention to Polo’s account in The Travels, as translated by Ronald Latham for Penguin Classics. So I took my own copy off the shelf, and sure enough, on pages 58 to 60, read the strange story reproduced below.

Now, this doesn’t have much direct bearing on current events in Europe, as the w e e k l y w o r d usually tries to address, but last week’s treatment of the wise men and new spirituality in general seemed to generate a lot of interest. So let me indulge in a ‘trivial pursuit’ here.

Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled with his father and uncle to China in 1271, and spent the next twenty years travelling around the Mongol Empire in the service of the ruler, the Kublai Khan. After returning home to Venice in 1295, Marco became a prisoner of war at Genoa. In prison he met a writer of romances, Rustichello of Pisa, who helped Polo produce The Travels. The book’s prologue claims that its author had travelled more extensively than any man since the Creation – a claim few would challenge.

How much the account of the three Magi was truly Marco Polo’s own experience, or how much simply a popular story circulating in the Holy Land and inserted by Rustichello, may never be known. (Magi, defined by the dictionary, is plural for magus, meaning ‘a: a member of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians; b, often capitalized: one of the traditionally three wise men from the East paying homage to the infant.) This story definitely assumes there were three such wise men, and refers to them also as kings. So who knows?

Here is the Ronald Latham translation:

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 sepulchres 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. 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 tell you.
Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-worshippers. 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 others 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 this 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.

(from Marco Polo, The Travels, Penguin Classics,1958, p58-60)

Well, as I said, this may not have provided any answers for today’s pressing questions. But it’s an intriguing account, all the same.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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