Follow TV Tropes


The Three Wise Men

Go To
"Guys, I think we should go to that town..."

In Christian tradition the Magi (Greek: μάγοι magoi), Three Wise Men, Three Kings or Kings from the East are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts. They are mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, which says that they came "from the east to Jerusalem" to worship the Christ, "born King of the Jews". Because three gifts were recorded, there are traditionally said to have been three Magi, though Matthew does not specify their number.

According to Matthew, the magi followed a star which came to be known as the Star of Bethlehem. As they approached Jerusalem, King Herod tried to trick them into revealing where Jesus was, so that he might be put to death. Upon finding Jesus, they gave him three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The tradition of gift giving for Christians dates back to this story. In many countries, they're the equivalent of Santa Claus. Furthermore, they have dreams from God warning them of Herod's murderous true intentions for Jesus and return home by a different route to ensure they tell him nothing. Unfortunately, this inadvertently leads to Herod committing the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem to attempt to remove this threat to his throne. (Of course, Jesus and his family manage to escape in time; Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!.)


The Eastern church gives a variety of different names for the kings. In the West, the kings are traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but the New Testament never explicitly identifies any of the Magi by name, nor, for that matter, does it say that there were specifically three, only that Jesus and his family received three different types of gifts.

No relation to The Three Wise Monkeys, nor to the film Three Kings.


Appearances of the Magi in Fiction:

  • They appear in From the Manger to the Cross, a film about you-know-who.
  • The three wise men appear during the opening of Ben-Hur (1959). About thirty years later Balthasar appears again, looking to find Jesus a second time and befriends Judah, the main character.
  • They are the main characters of an eponymous animated movie made in Spain by 2D animators from Don Bluth and Disney who'd been put out of a job when Don Bluth's studio and Disney's European subdivision, respectively, were dissolved. It centers on the three's quest to get the gifts in the first place so that they can give it to "the newborn King of all Kings". Their efforts are countered by King Herode and his demonic advisor Belial.
  • In the Justice League of America comic story "2000 Light Years to Christmas" the League helps three aliens counterparts of the Magi recover the gifts they bore for a messiah born on another planet that they had lost on Earth.
  • In The Twilight Zone (1985) episode "Paladin of the Lost Hour" the old man who holds back doomsday from happening hints that he's really Caspar.
  • In the short story "The Fourth Wise Man" the Mage Artaban arrives too late to meet baby Jesus, as he had stopped along the way to help people in need. He only finds Jesus on the day he was crucified, and fails to rescue him because, again, he stopped to help someone. A voice (presumably Jesus') tells him however that his kindness to others was just the kind of real gift he wanted from people.
  • The Magi themselves do not appear in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi", but they inspired the characters to give each other presents.
  • The Three Sages in Chrono Trigger are named after the Magi, at least in the English version.
  • The Three Sages motif is also used in Xenogears, befitting the game's Gnostic themes, though Melchior is more often referred to as Taura. All three provide advanced technological assistance for the party.
  • The three Magi arrive with gifts for Brian at the start of Monty Python's Life of Brian, though it turns out that the real Messiah had been born across the street.
  • In The X-Files episode "Existence", which likens Baby William's birth heavily to the birth of Christ (including a prominent Star of Bethlehem), the Lone Gunmen step into this role, bringing gifts and admiring the baby.
  • The Magi are the night visitors in Amahl and the Night Visitors.
  • In the Ed, Edd n Eddy Christmas Special "Jingle Jingle Jangle", the Kanker sisters travel into town following a "star" while wearing paper crowns from Christmas crackers, and on their way they find a piece of moldy bread, some pennies and a string of sausages, and an old fur coat. At the end of the cartoon, they present the Eds with the gifts of "mold, franks and cents, and fur."
  • An SCTV Christmas show has an extended commercial with Edna Boil and her line of holiday fashion for dogs, modeled by little yappy dogs. Creepy enough, then she highlights the true meaning of Christmas with Magi costumes worn by "We Three Pups".
  • The Tom Holt novel Grailblazers reveals that Santa Claus was one of the Wise Men, doing community service to expiate the sin of Convenience Store Gift Shopping for the Messiah; unlike his colleagues who planned ahead, he left things until the last minute and couldn't come up with anything better than a pair of socks.
  • The French movie Les Rois Mages (lit. "The mage-kings", which is how they're called in France) is a comedy about the Magi suddenly finding themselves in modern-day Paris. They end up finding a baby underground... at the Place de l'Étoile ("Star square").
  • In Mike Royko's humorous column "Mary and Joe: Chicago Style," the Nativity is set in 1960s Chicago, where the Magi are mistaken for hippies and detained for illegal possession of gold and suspicious herbs. Meanwhile, there's no room for a poor couple from out of town in any of the city's social services, but Mary gets treated for post-partum delusion when she mentions who the baby's father is...
  • In Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino, the Magi are thought to have come from the legendary kingdom of Prester John. In order to get Emperor Frederick's support for an expedition to the kingdom, the protagonist produces the relics of the Magi, found in a church in Constantinople, though he and the canon he gets the relics from both acknowledge that they're not the real remains (and according to the sources they're working with, there were 12 magi).
  • Played by Quagmire, Joe and Cleveland a Family Guy parody.
  • A popular Christmas card reads "Fortunately, a few hours later, three wise women stopped by..." Mary's exclaiming "Diapers, receiving blankets and an infant mule seat! Now these I can use!"
  • In Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, Jesus' childhood buddy Levi, (but mostly called by his nickname Biff) is resurrected to tell his version of the Gospel. In this version, the years where Jesus disappears from the Bible he spent looking for the 3 wise men, trying to learn how to be the Messiah. In the book, the three turn out to be an immortal (and rather immoral) magician, a Shaolin master, and a hermetic Yogi. Jesus learns important things from all of them, even if sometimes the most important thing he learns is what not to do.
  • Referred to once as the "Three Wise Guys" in The Far Side.
  • In Neon Genesis Evangelion, the MAGI supercomputer consists of three systems named, appropriately enough, after the wise men.
  • The 1999 Christmas Episode of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue had a Sound Charades round in which Barry and Graeme played Caspar and Melchior ... who sounded strangely similar to Hamish and Dougal. "You'll have had your myrrh?" They were a bit annoyed to learn a family of carpenters had taken the last room in the inn, and persuaded the innkeeper to move them to the stables.
  • In a Cutaway Gag in Family Guy, two of the wise men are upset that the third has brought an expensive gift of gold, upstaging their gifts of frankincense and myrrh which they bought assuming a $5 limit. They propose putting the three gifts together and labeling them collectively, but this starts an argument.
  • A Christmas sweatshirt in the Signals catalog had the slogan "3 Wise Men? Be Serious."
  • David Jaffe originally planned for the God of War series to end with Kratos as well as his Norse & Egyptian equals becoming this after killing their respective pantheons together.
  • They have roles in The Nativity Story, naturally enough, journeying to the manger to give their gifts and providing some comic moments.
  • In short film Star Of The Night, which is a Setting Update of the Nativity story to the American southwest, they're three cowboys who bought Christmas gifts for no particular reason. They see a blinking star and follow it—turns out it's the sign atop a motel. Then a man and his heavily pregnant wife show up at the auto court.
  • 3 Godfathers: When the three bandits wind up in charge of a newborn baby in the middle of the desert, one of them compaires the three of them to the Three Wise Men. That same one notes that there's a star above the town they're headed towards, which happens to be called New Jerusalem.
  • A series of interludes in American Born Chinese tells an immigrant-fusion version of Journey to the West with Christian iconography replacing the Buddhist elements of the original, and it turning out in the end that rather than going west to find Buddhist scriptures, the Chinese pilgrims are the Wise Men From the East who visited the infant Jesus.
  • "Epiphany" by Connie Willis is about two men and a woman who might have been Chosen as the new Three Wise People, called to witness the Second Coming. (The story is ambiguous to the end, because faith in the absence of solid evidence is a big part of what it's about.) One of the men is an atheist who is convinced the other two are delusional but comes along to make sure they don't come to any harm, and only starts to consider the possibility near the end of the story that he's been Chosen too.
  • In A Cosmic Christmas, three travelers from outer space arrive on Earth and are shown the traditions of Christmas. To set them apart from the Earth people, they are animated using limited animation while the Earth people are fully animated.

Tropes involving the Magi:

  • Astrologer: The Magi interpret the Star of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus; they're exactly right.
  • Away in a Manger: Canonically, the Gospel of Matthew says that the Magi arrived "at the house", not the manger, indicating that their visit likely occurred some time later when Mary and Joseph had found a more permanent accommodation. (This might also explain why Herod ordered all male children under two years to be killed, not just newborns.) However, they are often portrayed in Nativity scenes, probably a fair case of Artistic License.
  • Badass Beard: All have it.
  • Canon Foreigner: The Fourth Wise Man.
  • Court Mage: Some historical interpretations of the word "Magi" see their role as closer to this rather than being kings themselves.
  • Cross Cultural Kerfuffle:
    • Should kids in Hispanic America—especially in Puerto Rico— get their presents from Santa or the Magi? The eternal debate!
    • The Magi are often pictured in Arabic gear.
    • In the Oriental Orthodox church, it's maintained that at least one of the Magi was from China.
  • The Determinator: Artaban spent *his whole life* trying to deliver his present to Jesus.
  • "Gift of the Magi" Plot: Trope namers, indirectly.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: So cool, multiple kings show up to give him birthday presents!
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!: The Wise Men see through Herod's ruse and give him the slip without showing him where the Messiah was, setting up this trope.
  • Numerological Motif: Three Kings, three presents.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Like traveling on camel to deliver presents to the Son Of God personally.
  • Rule of Three: Naturally. (Except in "The Fourth Wise Man.")
  • Samaritan Syndrome: What kept Artaban from finding Jesus.
  • Star of Bethlehem: Led them to Jesus.
  • Token Minority: Balthazar is often depicted as being Black. Many versions actually make the three different races to symbolize the entire world coming together in awe of Christ. As noted above, in some Eastern Orthodox traditions, at least one of the wise men is described as coming all the way from China.
  • Word of Dante:
    • The Bible never specifies exactly how many Magi there were; the number three is a later tradition due to them bringing three gifts. A few Eastern Orthodox traditions say there were as many as twelve.
    • Nor does it describe them as "kings" - the Greek word "magoi" which Matthew uses originally referred to Iranian priests. The identification of them as kings comes from several Old Testament passages stating that kings would pay tribute to the Messiah.
    • The non-canonical names "Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar" apparently came from a Greek manuscript from Alexandria that was written around AD 500.

Alternative Title(s): Three Wise Men


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: