|Giotto's Adorazione dei Magi (early 14th c.)|
The following story appears in Beginning Readings In Italian and originates with Marco Polo, who lived and traveled in 13th and 14th century Asia and Asia Minor. Polo was Venetian by birth and died there in 1324. The Fire Worshipers tells the story of three kings (Magi) who traveled to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus. The story was first told to Polo in Persia after he visited the tombs of the three kings. link
The story is fascinating in that it gives a different perspective on a well known story. I have appended the mention of the kings according to the Gospel Matthew. Particularly interesting is the account of the origin of the gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--and also the symbolism of the stone as it later appeared in the person of Peter and in the founding of the Church.
The Fire Worshipers
Three kings of that country [Persia] went to worship a new-born prophet and brought with them three offerings--gold, frankincense and myrrh--in order to know if the prophet was a god, or an earthly king, or a healer. They reasoned that if he took the gold, he was an earthly king; if he took the frankincense, he was a god; if he took the myrrh, he was a healer.
Now when they came to the place where the child was born, the youngest of the three kings went in alone to see him: what he found looked like himself: a child of his age and appearance. The young king came out full of wonder. The second king (of middle age) entered after him, and to him the child also seemed a likeness in appearance and in age. The second king came out dumbfounded. Then the third king, the oldest, went in and the same thing happened as with the other two. And he came out very upset. When the three kings found themselves together, they told each other what they had seen. They were very much amazed and decided to all go in together. They went in together to look and found a child who looked the expected age of only thirteen days.* Then they worshipped him and offered him gold, frankincense and myrrh. The child took all three offerings and gave them a sealed box. And the three kings left to return to their country.
After riding for a few days, they decided to see what the child had given them. They opened the box and found a stone inside. They were surprised and uncertain. Because the three kings had seen that the child had taken all three offerings, they had concluded that he was god, a king and a healer. And the child, knowing well the faith born in the three kings, gave them a stone to signify that they had to be firm and steadfast in their belief. But the three kings took the stone and threw it down a well: they did not know why it was given to them. And just as the stone was thrown into the well, a burning fire descended from the heavens and came straight to the well in which they had thrown the stone.
Seeing the great miracle, the three kings were all amazed and regretted having thrown away the stone; they clearly saw that this was a symbol, both great and good. Taking of that fire immediately, they took it back to their country and put it in their church, a very beautiful and rich building. They keep the fire perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is made with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and who also worship fire and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.
These are the reasons why the inhabitants of that country worship the fire.
The following is an except from the Gospel according to Matthew and is the only one of the four Gospels to mention the wise men from the East:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, 'Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I too may come and worship him.' When they had heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star that they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw that star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
Matthew 2:1-12 (RSV)_________________________
*The visit of the Magi is commemorated by the observance of Epiphany on January 6th.
This is how the original text which I translated appears in Beginning Readings In Italian:
Gli Adoratori Del Fuoco
Tre re di quella contrada vanno ad adororare un profeta nato da poco e portano con loro tre offerte--oro, incense e mirra--per conoscere se quel profeta è dio o re terreno o medico. Poiché pensano: se prende oro, è re terreno; se prende incenso, è dio; se prende mirra è medico. Venuti al luogo dov’ è nato il bambino, il più giovane di questi re va da solo a vederlo: e lo trova che somiglia a lui stesso, chè pare della sua età e della sua figura. Esce fuori pertanto molto meravigliato. Dopo di lui entra il re ch’è d’età mezzana: ed il bambino gli pare come all’altro, della sua figura e della sua età. Esce fuori anche lui tutto stupefatto. Ci va quindi il terzo, il più anziano, e gli succede il medesimo che agli altri due. Ed esce fuori anche lui molto turbato. Quando si ritrovano tutti e tre insieme, i tre re si raccontano quello che hanno visto. Ne fanno le più grandi meraviglie e decidono di andarci tutti e tre insieme. Si recano quindi tutti insieme a vedere il bambino, e lo trovano dell’aspetto e dell’ età che ha: chè ha soltanto tredici giorni. Allora lo adorano e gli offrono l’oro, l’incenso e la mirra. Il bambino prende tutte e tre le offerte. Poi dà loro un bossolo chiuso. Ed i tre re partono per ritornare nella loro contrada.
Dopo aver cavalcato per alcuni giorni, decidono di vedere ciò che il bambino ha dato loro. Aprono il bossolo e vi trovano dentro una pietra. Restano meravigliati ed incerti. Il bambino l’aveva data loro per significare che dovevano essere fermi come pietra nella fede incominciata. Poiché i tre re, vedendo che il bambino aveva preso tutte e tre le offerte, ne avevano conchiuso ch’egli era dio, re terreno e medico; e il bambino, ben sapendo che nei tre re era nata quella fede, aveva dato loro pietra per significare che dovevano essere fermi e costanti nella loro credenza. I tre re prendono la pietra a la gettano in un pozzo: chè non sanno perchè è stata loro donate. Ed appena la pietra è gettata nel pozzo, scende dal cielo una fiamma e viene diritto al pozzo dove hanno gettato la pietra.
Veduta quella gran meraviglia i tre re ne rimangono tutti stupiti, e si pentono di aver buttata la pietra, ben comprendendo allora che quello è un simbolo grande e buono. Prendono subito di quell fuoco, lo portano nel loro paese, e lo mettono in una loro chiesa, molto bella ricca. Non cessano mai di farlo ardere e lo adorano come un dio. Cuociono con quell fuoco tutti i loro sacrifizi e olocausti. Se per caso quell fuoco viene a spegnersi, ricorrono agli altri che hanno la medesima fede e sono pure adoratori del fuoco, si fan dare del fuoco che arde nella loro chiesa e tornano a riaccendere il loro; nè mai lo riaccendono con fuoco diverso da quello di cui v’ho parlato. E molte volte devono fare, per trovar di quell fuoco, dieci giornate di marcia.
Sono questi i motive per cui gli abitanti di quela contrada adorano il fuoco.