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The Three Wise Men

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We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star...
— "We Three Kings", John Henry Hopkins Jr.

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 once, in the Gospel of Matthew, which states 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 — precious gold as a gift for a king; frankincense, burned during religious ceremonies, as a gift for a deity; and myrrh, an embalming oil, as a symbol of His eventual death. The tradition of gift-giving for Christians dates back to this story. In many countries, the Magi are the equivalent of Santa Claus. Furthermore, they have dreams from God warning them of Herod's murderous true intentions for the infant king, and return home by a different route to ensure they tell Herod nothing. Unfortunately, this inadvertently leads to Herod committing the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, in an attempt to remove this would-be threat to his throne. (Of course, Jesus and his family manage to escape in time; Nice Job Breaking It, Herod.)

The Eastern church bodies give a variety of different names for the kings, while in the West they are traditionally called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but the New Testament never explicitly identifies any of the Magi by name, nor, again, does it say that there were specifically three, only that Jesus and his family received three different types of gifts. Another tradition, which became common starting in the Middle Ages, is to depict each of the three Magi as belonging to a distinct racial group, or at least as hailing from a different continent — typically one is African, one European and one Asian, although which is which varies between traditions — and as being of different ages — one elderly, one middle-aged and one young. The idea behind these triads is to metaphorically represent the entirety of humanity coming to worship Christ. Sometimes they're associated with Zoroastrians by focusing on the etymology of the word magi.

This has no relation to The Three Wise Monkeys, nor to the film Three Kings.

Appearances of the Magi in Fiction:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: The MAGI supercomputer consists of three systems named, appropriately enough, after the wise men.

  • Jasper Carrott once poured scorn on David Icke's claim to be the Son of God by pointing out that he was from Leicester. "Where are you going to find three wise men and a virgin there?"
  • In one of Joyce Grenfell's nursery teacher monologues, she's organising the nativity play, and admits that traditionally the Wise Men and the Kings are one and the same, but she does need to give everyone a role, and it would be a shame not to use the cardboard crowns.

    Comic Books 
  • American Born Chinese: A series of interludes 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.
  • Justice League of America: In "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.
  • Viz: Spoofed in a festive edition as "We Three Kays" in which Peter Kay, Vernon Kay and, err, Gorden Kaye go to Bethlehem to give gifts to the Son of God. While Gorden's gift is by far the most underwhelming (in addition to which he's the only one who has to explain to Mary and Joseph who he is), Baby Jesus likes him the best because he lets him touch the (very noticeable) scar on his forehead.

    Comic Strips 

    Films — Animated 
  • The 3 Wise Men: The movie has the three Magi as its main characters and centers on their quest to get the gifts in the first place so that they can give them to "the newborn King of all Kings". Their efforts are countered by King Herod and his demonic advisor Belial.
  • Los tres Reyes Magos: The magi are the main characters, enduring the hardships Satan, in the form of Prince Olbaid and his minion Murcio, puts on them.
  • The Star: While they appear as secondary characters, it's their camels who have the spotlight.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 3 Godfathers: When the three bandits wind up in charge of a newborn baby in the middle of the desert, one of them compares 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.
  • Ben-Hur (1959): The three wise men appear during the opening. About thirty years later Balthasar appears again, looking to find Jesus a second time ,and befriends Judah, the main character.
  • The Day of the Beast is a twisted parody of the biblical story, where a Catholic priest, a Heavy Metal fanatic and an Occult TV show host journey through Madrid to prevent the birth of the Antichrist on Christmas Eve. It also features three men dressed like the Magi being gunned down by the police.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian: The three Magi arrive at Brian's birth with their gifts at the start, although it turns out that the real Messiah has been born across the street. So they take their gifts back and go to see him instead.
  • The Nativity Story: The Magi journey to the manger to give their gifts and providing some comic moments.
  • Star in the Night, a Setting Update of the Nativity story to the American southwest, has the Magi as 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.
  • Star of the Kings: The movie follows the path of three men from disparate backgrounds who come together on a journey to meet the messiah.
  • The Three Magi by Les Inconnus is a comedy about the Magi suddenly finding themselves in modern-day (2001). They end up finding a baby underground... at the Place de l'Étoile ("Star square").

  • 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!"
  • A Christmas sweatshirt in the Signals catalog had the slogan "3 Wise Men? Be Serious."
  • Here's a political one: "The Supreme Court has ruled that there cannot be a Nativity Scene on Capitol Hill this Christmas season. This is not for any religious reason. They simply have not been able to find Three Wise Men in the nation's capital. The search for a virgin also continues. There was no problem, however, in finding enough asses to fill the stable."
  • A common Outside Joke is the other two Wise Men being angry at the first for splurging on gold while they got more modest gifts of frankincense and myrrh, even though all three were rare and highly valued substances in that era.

  • 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, although 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 twelve magi).
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • "Jim Button": While the Magi don't appear themselves, the main character is revealed to be the direct descendant of one and heir to his throne. It also gives some new details about this Magos' (Casper's) life, like having been the king of a now sunken continent called Jamballa and the arch-enemy of Mrs. Grindtooth, the main antagonist of the first book.
  • Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff: 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 three 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.
  • The Gift of the Magi: The Magi themselves do not appear, but they inspired the characters to give each other presents.
  • Unholy Night: The three wise men are actually three thieves who escaped their execution by knocking out the priests sent to give them last rites and disguising themselves with their clothes, and their encounter with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus is pretty much by accident, thanks to Balthazar choosing the manger as a hiding place.
  • In Yesterday We Saw Mermaids by Esther Friesner, the protagonist travels to the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who reveals to her that he was one of the Wise Men, and that his stewardship of his mystical realm is actually a penance he's doing for being the one who tipped off Herod about the birth of the Messiah (in a snit because the King of Kings he travelled all that way to greet was just a peasant's child in a manger) and inadvertently inspired the Massacre of the Innocents.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: In the episode "A Star to Guide Them", Iolaus and two strangers are drawn by an irresistible urge to visit Bethos and bear witness to an unspecified but momentous event, heavily implied to be the birth of Christ. When they reach the manger, Hercules stays back, insisting that he is just the Hero of Another Story and what Iolaus and the others are about to witness is "more important than anything we've ever done."
  • Newhart: In a Christmas episode where the inn is fully booked, and a couple named Joseph and Mary show up, with Mary pregnant, the stinger has a man looking for rooms for himself and his two brothers. His last name? Wiseman.
  • SCTV: A 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".
  • Sesame Street: In the direct-to-video release Elmo's World: Happy Holidays, Prairie Dawn tries to organize a Nativity play starring the Sesame cast. Grover brings the gold, Herry brings the frankincense, and Cookie Monster brings... well, guess. When Prairie Dawn scolds him and tells him he was supposed to bring myrrh, he promptly devours his present for the Christ Child (played by Baby Natasha).
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "Paladin of the Lost Hour", the old man who holds back doomsday from happening hints that he's really Caspar.
  • Whose Line Is It Anyway?: On a couple of occasions, the show provides examples of other gifts the Wise Men might've given Jesus.
  • The X-Files: In "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.
  • Top Gear (UK): In 2010 Middle East Special Clarkson, Hammond and May made a journey from Iraqi Kurdistan to Bethlehem in three second-hand sportcars to recreate a journey of three wise men. In the end they even found a baby Stig.
    James May:
    We, three blokes from BBC2
    one colour gold car one colour poo
    Oh, brought the wrong cars,
    brought the rights
    working heater, working lights
    westward going,
    gasket may be
    blowing what a piece of sh-

  • 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...

  • I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: The 1999 Christmas Episode has a Sound Charades round in which Barry and Graeme play Caspar and Melchior... who sound strangely similar to Hamish and Dougal. "You'll have had your myrrh?" They're a bit annoyed to learn that a family of carpenters have taken the last room in the inn, and persuade the innkeeper to move them to the stables.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers wrote two different radio plays for BBC radio that feature the Magi:
    • "He That Should Come", broadcast in December 1938, is set in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The Three Wise Men show up near the end, and are depicted according to the tradition of being three different ages and from three different corners of the earth.
    • This led to Sayers being commissioned to write a sequence of radio plays covering the entire life of Jesus, The Man Born to Be King. The first in the sequence, "Kings in Judea", was broadcast in December 1941 and revolves around the Eastern Kings' meetings with King Herod.

    Standup Comedy 
  • Joy Behar theorizes that Mary was upset at bringing baby Jesus myrrh as a gift, having her refer to them as "the Wisemans".

    Video Games 
  • Chrono Trigger: The Three Gurus are named after the Magi, at least in the English version.
  • God of War: David Jaffe originally planned for the series to end with Kratos as well as his Norse and Egyptian equivalents becoming this after killing their respective pantheons together.
  • Xenogears: The Three Sages motif is used, befitting the game's Gnostic themes, though Melchior is more often referred to as Taura. All three provide advanced technological assistance for the party.

    Western Animation 
  • Claymation Christmas Celebration: The three wise men sing "We Three Kings", with their anachronistic, bebopping camels providing the chorus.
  • 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.
  • Dexter's Laboratory: "Dexter vs Santa's Claws" starts with Dexter telling Dee Dee that Santa isn't real. In the latin american version they had the gag of him adding "The ones that DO exist are the three wise men!"
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: In the Christmas Special "Ed, Edd 'n Eddy's 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."
  • Family Guy:
    • "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas": In a Cutaway Gag, 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.
    • "Jesus, Mary & Joseph!": Parodied with the wise men played by Quagmire, Joe and Cleveland.
  • The Simpsons: Parodied in "Simpsons Christmas Stories", where they're played by Principal Skinner, Professor Frink and Dr. Hibbert.

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 states 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 visiting the manger in Nativity scenes and crèches, probably a fair case of Artistic License.
  • 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.
  • 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: As noted, because the Bible names three gifts they brought, the Magi themselves are almost always portrayed as three in number (except in "The Fourth Wise Man").
  • Star of Bethlehem: The original — they state that they followed a star eastward to locate where the King of the Jews was born.
  • 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.note  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