Christine Hayes is Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, she was Assistant Professor of Hebrew Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
Those who follow my articles will know that I have all the time in the world, but not much for dogma. This is one those short pieces that ask about the origin of things. To get to the root of ideas, we could do much worse than study the Creation myths of a given culture. We will find that there is a great deal more in common across cultures than was once believed,
The interpretation of Pisces is, by and large, cliched and vague. This is in no small part due to the modern astrological mis-association with Neptune. This is regrettable and I find that even some traditional astrologers have not been able to shake off all this misinformation off. It ought to be clear that a sign ruled by the Greater Benefic (Jupiter) and exalted in the Lesser Benefic (Venus) must have better qualities than are usually assigned to Pisces.
There has always seemed to be something not quite right about the assumption and teaching that the Fishes are bound together, causing all manner of difficulties, including psychological and spiritual pathology. I recently read comments on Pisces which claimed that the upper fish was Christ and the other, Antichrist. At very least, the bound fish represent conflicting natures
that almost always work against each other, in a never-ending tug of war. Yet the venerable Vettius Valens also tells us that Pisces is “in conflict with itself because one Fish is northern, the other
southern.” (Anthologies, Book I. p.6). In the same paragraph, however, he states that the sign is ” scaley, sinewy, humpbacked [and] leprous. He by no means stops there. He adds “lewd, with some limbs missing” to his description. While admitting the great value of his Anthologies in the study of Classical Astrology, I think most of us are baffled by this and numerous other passages in his work. It doesn’t engender great faith in his views regarding the Sign. One has the sense that he’s actually referring to something else or he chose to write like this to put off casual readers.
Moreover, there is no particular myth that would insist on the binding of the fishes. The Pisces myths most familiar to us are variations on one Greek myth. The essence of all the variations is for all intents and purposes the same.
According to different versions of this legend, either Aphrodite and Eros turn into fish, two fish approach them and swim them away to safety, or they turn into fish AND two other fish take them to safety. Whichever version you prefer, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, the two escape from Typhon, thanks to two fish.
Threatened by Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros either turn into fish or else two fish approach and rescue them. In either case, Aphrodite and her son, Eros are saved by fishes. The Greeks were also familiar with the original Syrian story in which the fish of Pisces assisted at the birth of Ashtarte. The theme of Venus born from the sea foam is most famously portrayed in Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere. In other versions of the myth, Aphrodite and Eros are specifically on the shores of the Nile when Typhon, a chthonic force. tried to take them. This points again to an oriental origin of the story. Zeus is in an eternal struggle with Typhon. Again, this sounds more Oriental than Classical Greek.
Typhon corresponds to a significant extent to Seth, an Egyptian god associated with winds, storms, chaos, evil, darkness, strength, war, conflict. Zeus as a perpetual adversary of Typhon Ra shares many of the attributes of Zeus, such as being credited as the creator of all things. He was also the father of other gods like Zeus. Jupiter is of course now associated with Jupiter, but in this myth, he is primarily Solar.
The name for the constellation that has come down to us as Pisces which comes from the Indo-European root *peisk– ‘Fish’. Derivatives: fish (from Old English fisc, fish). Suffixed form *pisk–i; piscary, piscatorial, Pisces, pisci-, piscina. [Pokorny peisk– 796. Watkins]
As Ovid tells the tale “”Piscis [Pisces], heaven’s horses. They say that you and your brother–for your stars gleam together–ferried two gods on your backs. Once Dione [Aphrodite], in flight from terrible Typhon [Typhoeus]–when Jupiter [Zeus] armed in heaven’s defense–, reached the Euphrates with tiny Cupidos [Eros] in tow and sat by the hem of Palestine’s stream. Poplars and reeds dominated the tops of the banks; willows, too, offered hope of concealment. While she hid, the wood roared with wind. She pales with fear, and believes a hostile band approaches. As she clutched son to breast, she cries : ‘To the rescue, Nymphae (Nymphs), and bring help to two divinities.’ No delay; she leapt. Twin fish went underneath them; for which, you see, the present stars are named. Hence timid Syrians think it wrong to serve up this species; they defile no mouths with fish.” (Fasti 2. 458 ff . Trans. Boyle). There’s not a cord in sight.
The associations of Babylonia, Sumerian, Assyrian, Greek, Persian Indian, Persian, and Greek were highly significant. We are only now realizing the full extent of this exchange, adoption, adaptation and assimilation. The meaning of Pisces actually becomes clearer the further back we go. In doing so, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Ikhthus with an unbreakable cord forever holding it in thrall is probably both apocryphal and misleading.
“There is every reason to believe that the idea of the cord would only have been applied to these stars in the latter half of the 1st millennium when they came to mark the position of the spring equinox. Before this time the two component parts of the cord would have been envisioned as the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris, and Euphrates. The origin of the ‘knot’ that unites the two cords represents the Shat-al-Arab where the two great rivers join together before flowing into the Gulf of Bahrain.” (White, Gavin. Babylonian Star-Lore p 216)
Ancient cultures understood that whatever appeared or happened on the Earth corresponded to the heavens. I have mentioned that the Egyptians referred to the Milky Way as the true Nile. Hindus believe the same of the Ganges. The Tigris and the Euphrates are of up-most importance for creating a fertile land that was home to some of the most ancient civilizations and believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden, variations of which abound in ancient narratives.
The place of the confluence of the two rivers corresponds to the Fishes, with the fixed star at the point of contact. None of the stars in Pisces are particularly bright. but if you know where to look, this star should easy enough to find. The name that has come down to us through Arabic means knot, but the image we usually see of Pisces with two fishes yoked and swimming in different directions is only one interpretation, unfounded in any definitive source. However, if remember that the cord is actually two rivers supporting civilizations and a great variety of agricultural endeavours.
The symbol of the Cosmic Fish is ubiquitous. I personally `find explorations of how such symbols manifest in various cultures, and even more so of those cultures have influence one another. The Fish is recognizable from Babylonian Cosmology, Greek Myth, and symbols in Hindu Metaphysics. From there, we can take a deeper, more informed understanding of the Sign and Constellation of Ikhthus
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot:
The Nativity story is powerfully evocative, even for those who do not profess to be Christian, despite the fact that it is almost or entirely apocryphal. For centuries the festival of Christmas, allegedly marking the birth of the Messiah, has almost seamlessly blended with parallel traditions and folklore, such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees, flying reindeer and gift-giving. Few theologians still believe that 25 December is the actual birthday of Jesus. As we will see, literalism is not at home here. The original Christian Nativity narrative is related only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The two remaining canonical Gospel writers don’t mention the Nativity and Paul never refers back to it. The Christ of Paul is Christ Crucified. He shows no real interest in the life of the historical Jesus.
I doubt very much that there could ever be a definitive explanation of The Procession of the Magi which could take all elements and traditions into account. Rather, this is an exploration of the theme as it has expressed itself, even before the Christian narrative. I suggest that the story itself has so much power that it can accommodate, expand and deepen several traditions that coincide in some way with Christmas. It’s as if nature itself anticipates the “return” of the Sun. Yet there are no records, either Jewish or Roman that could confirm or deny the event. Nevertheless, the story endures and is passed on even by people who have little idea of its origin.
Interestingly, Luke makes no mention of the Magi. Surely such an extraordinary event would have been recorded, if only by the other apostles. The meaning or identity of the star they followed has also given also rise to a great deal of speculation, but no clear evidence has settled the debate. In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (KJV) the apostle writes:
2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
The two accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great to a betrothed virgin whose name was Mary.
There are, however, major differences. Matthew has no Census to report, no annunciation to the shepherds or a presentation in the Temple.and has him born in a house there and an unnamed angel appears to Joseph to announce the birth.
In Luke there are no Magi, no flight into Egypt, or Massacre of the Innocents, Joseph is a resident of Nazareth, the birth appears to take place in an inn instead of the family home, and the angel (named as Gabriel) announces the coming birth to Mary.
While it is possible that Matthew’s account might be based on Luke or Luke’s on Matthew, the majority of scholars conclude that the two are independent of each other. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that tale of the Magi may well pre-date Christianity. The inclusion of them adds another dimension and underscores the status of The Prince of Peace.
This is neither plagiarism nor wishful thinking. Those with a familiarity with the Gospel of John and the work of Philo will find them speaking the same language. Philo was a Hellenized Jew and prolific author of a large body of Neo-Platonic thought, set in the context of Judaism. His work On Creation is almost certainly the immediate source of the Logos or Word, which gives us the opening of John’s Gospel.
Philo wrote well before any Christian writing. John appears to be strongly influenced by Philo throughout hos own writings. Christianity and Neo-Platonism have enjoyed a harmonious relationship at the heart of much of Christian theology.
The Persian Magi were philosophers and priests. They were learned and skilled in medicine and natural science, including Astrology. They were prophets, although Christians preferred to use the term “soothsayers.” The Magian religion was Zoroastrianism. Which had greatly informed Judaism, Sorcery was forbidden. They resembled the Brahmans in function and status. Their position and role in society were very much like that of the Druids.
Tradition has it that the Magi arrive at their destination on Epiphany, the final day of what became the Twelve days of Christmas. The Twelve Days is associated with Saturnalia. Twelfth Night is a holiday on January 5 that marks the 12th and final night of the Christmas season. The Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days beginning on the night of Christmas (December 25) and ending on Epiphany on January 6. We can say that among other interpretations, the Epiphany is the recognition of Christ
Moreover, the number twelve has great significance. It’s the number of astrological Signs and the Apostles. It should come as no surprise that in ancient times the Sun was worshiped as a god. If there is no Sun, there is no life. The association of the Sun with life itself became spiritualized, perhaps we should say internalized – a guiding light. We are in fact made of stardust. The Solstice is an astronomical event with major implications for life on Earth.
By the time of the European Renaissance, the Magi are invariably portrayed in the finery one might expect of a courtier. It became common to portray the Magi as representing the three stages of life. In fact what we find over the centuries is a practice of applying ever more meaning, as if projected upon them. This is surely the intent and the effect is to create a Universal story, with clear roots in the Solar Mithraism and Zoroastrianism expressed through Christian mysticism. The favoring of evocation over definition is part of the nexus.
The “three kings” have also been associated with the three bright stars in Orion’s belt. Depending on your point of view, this either confuses or enriches the story. The “Three Kings” illustrated here is part of a much grander design in the “Chapel of the Magi” commissioned by the elder Cosimo and the family has been insinuated into the paintings, creating the sense that the Magi and the Medicis are part of the same story. The artist has included the three sisters of Lorenzo which offers up the idea that the Procession or Adoration of the Magi is a Universal, one in which we all share in one way or another. Our culture will determine the details and some may never understand the mystical significance. It would be a mistake to insist on literalism or historicity.
Similarly, it is not at all out of the question that the Three Kings are related to the Trinity in the Renaissance Magi, but in the sense of one to adore each Person of the Trinity. These kinds of associations were in congruence with the syncretic philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, a Catholic Priest who was also a Magus, translator of the Hermetica and almost all the works of Plato. His magnum opus was his Theologia Platonica. They were also at home in the antiquity of India, Persia, Egypt and other rich cultures who, to a greater or lesser extent, informed each other.
The origin of the word Magi is Persian. They are astrologers and sages. not kings. The star in the East was almost certainly Sirius. The coincidence with the Winter Solstice is no accident. What we have is a Solar festival, but also a mystical vision. The Epiphany and the Procession of the Magi are not just something that happened more than two thousand years ago. If that were the case, the story would have little relevance. They were perhaps not so much following a star as acknowledging and venerating a great light that drew them to an epiphany. We can associate it of course with the Winter Solstice, the longest night followed by the waxing of the light. The Yule log, the lighting of candles and merry-making seem to fit seamlessly into the story.
In Polish tradition, the “star of Bethlehem” is the first star seen to rise on Christmas Eve. Gwiazdka is a symbol of the “Star of Bethlehem, whose appearance was accompanied by the birth of Jesus. Thanks to the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi could reach the place of birth of the Savior. Today, we expect the first star, which appears in the Christmas sky during Christmas Eve (Wigilia). Only after it shines, Poles sit at the table, divide the wafer and exchange Christmas greetings.” ( see Polish Toledo) The spirit of Christmas takes precedence over identifying a particular star. Literalism misses the point.
The Epiphany and the Procession of the Magi are not just something that happened more than two thousand years ago. If that were the case, the story would have little relevance. They were not so much following a star as seeing a great light that drew them to an epiphany. We can read the event as a Solar pilgrimage and celebration that includes a rich tapestry of related traditions, with sources reaching back to remote antiquity.
Ficino is most eloquent on this point: that the Magi were embraced in the same way that the Academy of Florence had embraced Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras and of course, Plato. Ficino accepted that all these sages had drunk from the same well of the prisca thelogia. He often referred to the Nativity in his writings, particularly in his letters and in the Apologia. He had a life-long fascination with the Magi.
Just as the Zoroastrian is not worshipping fire. The flame is an outer manifestation of an inner state of being. We are drawn to the light in many ways and in many vessels.
In Part II of this article, I will examine the astronomy and astrology of the event as seen from 7BC.
(This article was originally published December 21, 2016)
Narration: Marit Haar. Scripted & Produced by Kaizad Bhabha
The identity of the Magi, the nature of the star they followed and when it all took place has been subject to debate for centuries. We cannot even be certain that the event took place at all in the historical sense. Personally, I doubt that it did. That doesn’t take anything way from the power of the symbolism and the bringing together of divergent traditions. Our vision of what occurred will be evocative rather than definitive and the language we use will be the language of the stars.
We know that Persian Magi were familiar with the Judaic prophecies of a Messiah. or a Great King. There were celestial events in the Summer of 7 BC that would not have been missed by watchers of the heavens. For a brief time all the planets and luminaries, with the sole exception of Saturn, were in their own domiciles while Saturn and Jupiter were conjunct in Jupiter’s domicile of Pisces. These conjunctions happen approximately every 20 years. The Superior Conjunctions have been watched with great interest since early antiquity. They are part of even larger cycles that auger for social change of some sort, including the birth of a great King.
Ahura Mazda is the Iranian sky god, the Lord of Wisdom. He is the creator of the sky, water, earth, plants, animals, and fire. Persian Kings believed Ahura Mazda to be their special protector and equated him with Zeus. He was also equated with the gods Yahweh and Bel. As Ahura Mazda is the giver of kingship. He is Jupiter.
In the chart below, we find the Sun on the MC in his own domicile with Regulus. The previous Superior Conjunction had been in Leo. There was a change in triplicity but the water triplicity went back to 165 BC.
There are Zoroastrian legends about the Star of the Magi, that identify it as Tishtrya, or Sirius, the star whose heliacal rising coincides with the annual inundation of the Nile. The period following this is an important Egyptian festival known as the Lights of Isis.
Kepler had made much of the Superior Conjunction. Occurring in Pisces it made for a particularly attractive proposition as the candidate for the Magian star. However, Kepler later had doubts about his theory because it appeared that the conjunction wasn’t visually close enough to give the impression of a single star. The astronomer Roy K. Marshall illustrated in his booklet The Star of Bethlehem (1949, Morehead Planetarium) that Jupiter and Saturn, throughout the period of their proximity, were never closer together than twice the diameter of the Moon as it appears in the sky.
The chart I present should be of interest for several reasons, all of which depend. to some extent. on the orientation of the Magi themselves. It ought to be one of the charts considered in relation to the Adoration.
Finally, it is not strange to be reminded of Exodus 13:21-22. The light followed is a theophany which is exactly what the Magi would follow.
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire” (KJV) Epiphany and Theophany are core to the story of the Magi.