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Friday, January 10, 2014

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

This month is traditionally the time in which the [1]‘wise men from the east’ brought their gifts to the new-born [2]Jesus. Scripture is low on specifics about them: any details beyond the above brief phrase – that they were kings, that there were three of them and what their names were – are all details added by later hands, but not mentioned in scripture.

The third eye - follow the star.
The assumption that these ‘wise men’ were a trio originated with the 2nd-3rd-century theologian Origen, who took his lead from the number of gifts mentioned. And it is here that the Gospel, so vague about these distinguished visitors up till now, suddenly becomes very specific. Each gift is carefully named in turn, as if there should be no mistake to the record. The gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. When scripture glosses over apparently otherwise-important circumstances, and then appears to become suddenly specific on [3]details, we can take it as a signal that something beyond the surface text is being conveyed: an extra layer of knowledge which more receptive minds would recognise and know how to access. Such specific details are, as it were, knowledge travelling in disguise. 

'Wise men from the east'.
I remember learning in Sunday School that these three gifts were ‘very precious’. Well, I knew that gold was valuable, and I took it on trust that the other two things with the strange names must therefore also have great value as well. And although the scriptural term ‘wise men’ is brief, it still tells us something about these men: that they were not just ‘wise’ in the sense of ‘being wise’, but in the sense of being men of knowledge. That is: knowledge of those things that in the Ancient World seamlessly blended art and science – astronomy, astrology, alchemy and the healing arts. And they were from ‘the east’ – the traditional lands (Persia, India, and other trade route countries) where these subjects were studied and practiced. Later tradition strengthened this idea by referring to these men as ‘magi’, from which comes the term ‘magic’, not in the sense of mere stage illusion, but in its original sense of practicing these ‘secret arts’.

Medieval stargazers. Astronomy and astrology were for centuries interchangeable subjects.
So we have three specifically-named gifts bestowed by ‘men of knowledge’ – men who would have known very well the true nature of what they were giving. All three gifts were certainly valuable commodities in the currency of the time. Gold still is, and there has been recent speculation about the possible healing properties of the other two. Gold is still so prized that it is a marketable currency which never tarnishes – literally and figuratively. The other two are resins obtained from two different trees. But the ‘gold’ given as a gift by the magi could have been more precious even than the gold of jewellery and bullion…

Gold in purported white powder and original nugget form.
Gold has long been associated with kings. It is the metal of royalty, and is found in every crown worthy of the name from the Ancient World onwards. We might infer that the magis’ gift of this metal was a recognition of the infant’s status as ‘king of kings’, and leave it at that. But supposing that this particular ‘gold’ was even more special? Supposing that this magis’ gift was pure alchemical gold? This mysterious substance apparently does exist. Under specific conditions gold is transformed – transmuted – into a different ‘monatomic’ structure, when it becomes a fine white powder. This remarkable alchemical powder, which apparently could extend life, promote good health, and even alter time and states of visibility, was known to the Dynastic Egyptians, and was ingested by the Pharaoh (and only by the Pharaoh) to prolong life. Even in Renaissance times and later it was believed that possession of alchemical gold would prolong life – even confer bodily immortality. Was this the true gift of the magi – an alchemical gold that would confer immortality and even miraculous changes of state? Even symbolically, the idea of this most precious form of gold as a gift now gathers a real power.

The resin and plant of frankincense.
Frankincense is a resin extruded by the Boswellia sacra tree. It has associations with the hormone melatonin manufactured by the pineal gland in the brain – a gland long associated with the ‘third eye’ of consciousness-expanding experiences and enlightenment. For this reason frankincense has been associated with the priesthood, with the ceremonies of an inner sanctum, whether that place is the inner shrine of a temple or within the individual initiate. Knowing this about the frankincense resin allows us to see this second gift of the magi in a very different light from the mere ‘precious’ gift of my Sunday School days. Frankincense was ‘precious’ for a good reason – and that reason lay beyond its material value of the time.

The resin and plant of myrrh.
Myrrh is also a resin, this time from the thorny Commifora myrrha tree. This particular resin has soporific properties, and for this reason is associated with a [4]death-like state – even with death itself. It has been found among the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, and its use in the mummification process is indicative of its associations with an apparent death – apparent, because the state was believed to be only the appearance of death. For how could death be real when the rich afterlife awaited? In many cultures and beliefs, death is merely the door to the other side: a necessary bridge that needs to be crossed. And that bridge was represented by the resin myrrh. This third gift of the magi, this ‘shamanic death’, was therefore indicative of death as a state that, however seemingly-powerful, nevertheless could be transcended.

In this detail from the painting, the artist - perhaps intuitively - has chosen to show a jewel embedded in the magi's forehead in the position of the third eye. 
In these specifically-named [5]three gifts we have the symbolic – perhaps even the actual – qualities of a priestly ‘kingship’ beyond mere earthly royalty, and mystical, symbolic death. For in resurrection even death is transcended, and true and glorious immortality awaits. The gifts of the magi together suggest a biography of their recipient’s life to come, even up to the crucifixion and beyond. Intriguingly, after their mention in this single verse in Matthew, these three extraordinary gifts then disappear completely from scripture. What became of them? Perhaps their symbolic use had now been served. And if actual, then their practical use would be applied in the infant’s life to come.

[1] Matthew 2:1-11. Contrary to tradition, the ‘wise men’ did not visit the infant at his place of birth, but some considerable time (weeks or even months) later at his ‘house’ (annotation on page 1354 to Matthew 2:11 in the Zondervan King James Study Bible).

[2] Jesus’ place of birth was not a ‘stable’, there was no census at that time held by the Roman authorities, there was no ‘inn’, and there certainly was no ‘massacre of the innocents’. The personal agendas of the original unknown writers of the Gospel texts (supplying the apparent fulfilment of Hebraic prophesies) together with accreted folklore growing around mistranslations of the original text has entrenched itself into a tradition which comprises the elements of the Nativity tableau as we know it today.

[3] Another classic example of this scriptural ‘knowledge travelling in disguise’ is in the 153 fishes of John 21:10-11, discussed in my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish. Disguising such Gnostic teachings as details in stories became a way of slipping them under the radar of those who sought to eradicate such teachings from scriptural texts, and thus a way of preserving such knowledge.

[4] The symbolism of myrrh is particularly telling: the tree’s large thorns echo the crown of thorns of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the myrrh resin is harvested by deliberately ‘wounding’ the tree. A stake is driven into the tree deeper than bark level, which forces the tree to ‘bleed’ its precious resin.

[5] If you remain unconvinced by the symbolism which I describe here, then consider the words of the famous American carol We three Kings of Orient Are, written in 1857 by Rev. John Henry Hopkins. The relevant verses (sung in turn by each ‘king’ and then in chorus) are:

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav'n replies

Laurence Gardner: Genesis of the Grail Kings. Bantam Press, 1999. The idea for this post comes from a brief paragraph in chapter 13 of this title. While I might not always agree with this author’s conclusions, his collating of information and his insights into such material have been exemplary, and his researches in this field have become his legacy. Those wishing to know more about monatomic gold (a.k.a. white powder gold, the philosopher’s stone, manna, among other terms) can find much information in this and the author’s other title Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark, Element Books, 2003.

The 19th-century painting is The Star of Bethlehem, by Edward Burne-Jones. It was the largest watercolour painted at that time - a remarkable accomplishment of technique in an unforgiving medium which allows little latitude for correction or alteration. The artist has here followed the traditional Nativity interpretation, folkloric rather than scriptural, of the 'kings' visiting the infant in a stable. But the created scene is of such verve that in this case passionate belief counts for more than scriptural accuracy.  

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