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The Three Wise Men

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"Guys, I think we should go to that town..."
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 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 — 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, 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. Another interpretation that became common starting with 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 a different age — 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.

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?"

    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: They 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.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian: The three Magi arrive with gifts for Brian at the start, although it turns out that the real Messiah had 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.
  • Les Rois Mages (lit. "The Mage-Kings", which is how they're called in France) by Les Inconnus 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").
  • Star Of 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.

  • 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."

  • 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.
  • 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 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."
  • 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".
  • 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.

  • 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 
  • 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 Skinner, Dr. 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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