Posted by: Jack Henry | December 17, 2020

Editor’s Corner: We Three Kings

It’s December and to some folks that means Christmastime. I know, not everyone celebrates Christmas, but I’m going to keep this focused on our language instead of the holiday. Rather than “The 12 Days of (Christmas) Grammar” I used to subject you to, this year I’m looking at “We Three Kings” as a musical inspiration. And I can’t even take credit for this; most of the material is borrowed from an article in Daily Writing Tips. Here is a little background on the words used to tell (or sing) the “wise men’s” story.

A ubiquitous symbol of the Christmas season is the image of the Magi, the “wise men from the east” mentioned in Matthew 2.

Matthew doesn’t say how many magi made the journey, but because they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—tradition has settled on three.

Whereas Matthew calls them merely “wise men,” they have come to be called “kings” and “magi.”

Magi is the plural of magus, a word associated with the ancient Persian priestly cast that included mathematicians and astronomers. Although nowadays most folks probably have warm feelings for the three magi of the Christmas story, early Christians tended to associate the word magus with illicit magic. One of the villains in the Book of Acts is a Samaritan convert named Simon Magus, i.e., Simon the Magician. In time, magus in English came to be attached to various non-Christian priests. For example, nineteenth-century writers referred to Druid priests as magi.

The magi’s three gifts have acquired various symbolic interpretations.

Gold, a word inherited from Germanic, symbolizes earthly wealth and glory, a suitable gift for a king because it is the most precious of metals. On the spiritual plane, gold represents the sum of human perfection.

The word frankincense derives from Latin incensum, “that which is set on fire,” and Medieval Latin francus, “free.” In reference to an object, frank denotes quality or value. Frankincense, “an aromatic gum resin, yielded by trees of the genus Boswellia,” is not cheap today. In the first century, both frankincense and myrrh were probably worth more than their weight in the third gift. [KC – Mmmm. I like the smell of frankincense. I think it is the Catholic upbringing and all that incense they’d swing around
at church—sorry, the incense that Father Canole “… burned in a perforated container suspended from chains…called a censer.” But the granola girl in me has recently tried some Frankincense laundry detergent from the people that make
Zum soap. It is definitely not for the faint of heart or people
that didn’t have hippie parents.]

Both frankincense and myrrh are used in worship. The smoke and scent represent prayer rising to a deity. In the context of the Nativity story, frankincense symbolizes divinity, whereas myrrh, from a Semitic root meaning “bitter,” foreshadows suffering and sorrow. Frankincense is said to have a pleasant woody, lemony scent, whereas myrrh is said to have a less pleasant, medicinal odor. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to sniff either.

There you are! A quick tour of the words we hear in the song of the Magi. For the full article you can check Daily Writing Tips.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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  1. Love the smell and medicinal properties of frankincense as well….reminds us of church also.

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