Joyful Preparations for Epiphany

  The Adoration of the Magi , by Morris & Co. One of these tapestries hangs in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, where I first saw it, to this day.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Morris & Co. One of these tapestries hangs in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, where I first saw it, to this day.

As many of my friends and family will attest over the last couple of years, I have a thing about the Three Magi. It is an increasingly devotional approach to exploring and integrating  the Three Kings of Orient into a magical and spiritual practice. Whether invoked by adorably stuttering children in countless school plays, enshrined as up-lit plastercast nativity scenes arranged in the fronts of churches (and even on the lawns of some devout Brooklynites), or as part of the Italian and Italian-American presepe traditions, where they are accompanied by upto seventy-two other stock Christmas characters: from the Devil to a young maiden and her chickens said to represent the Kore Persephone. (Seriously, you should check out Neapolitan presepe)

The core of the Three Kings' celebrations are, of course, the festivities of January 6th. For those still side-eyeing the idea of a spiritual practice informed by the Three Wise Men, I would respectfully remind them that Tres Reyes is celebrated in Hispanic cultures and it is A Big Deal: from its cultural impact in childhood - Epiphany is the day of gift-giving not the 25th December - to its expressions in popular piety, foodways, procession, protest, and pride. The Germanic Sternsinger custom likewise preserves a guising tradition of mummery and wassailing once popular throughout Europe, which was carried into the Americas through colonisation. Cologne was once a rival to Santiago and Canterbury as a major hub of pilgrimage precisely because its cathedral houses the bones of the Three Holy Kings. And that is all without touching upon the various ways the Magi and the Star are found to this day in Afro-Diasporic traditions across the so-called "New World". Also, from New Orleans to Mexico and beyond, there is cake.

As such, I've been busy preparing to honour the Magi who have formed a significant hub in my practice as a diviner, as a consultant sorcerer, and as a necromancer. The chief form of this preparation and devotion has been researching, experimenting and writing a chapbook on their starry history, their devotional cultus and their grimoiric sorcery, about which I will soon be saying much more!

But just as there are many ways to honour the Magi, there are many ways to ritually or ceremonially prepare for their arrival. The Three Kings' mythic significances cohere not simply around their Adoration after all, but their Journey.

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The most obvious and arguably traditional ritual crescendo is that Epiphany comes at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas - it is Twelfth Night. Along then with decoding whether "seven lords a'leaping" might signify the occult mysteries of the Leaper-in-Between or whathaveyou, several augury traditions of the Twelve Days do exist. The Twelve Days are approached as the year ahead in miniature - another reason why professional Year Ahead readings are an excellent idea at this time of year. Each Day of Christmas is allotted a month in your approaching year, and an omen received on that day will speak to the character and quality of the corresponding month. (We English also have a variety of other less-well-known Twelfth Night traditions - including our own stock characters, cakes, cards, and crowns - but that will wait for another post too, as arguably the Three Kings are not terribly central to them.)

I have seen it floated on a few forums and message-boards of the occult-o-sphere (a phrase I coin and immediately vault so no-one need ever use it again) that a novena to the Kings might be a good idea. Certainly the nine days of rosaries, prayer, contemplation and candles of a novena can be a powerful ritual. Its garland circle also places me in mind of the Journey not simply to Adore the Christ-child, but to return via 'a different route'. There and back again.

While it is certainly not my place or intention to criticise such a notion, I must admit I have a certain reservation about incorporating such a practice myself, which is this. The nine days of a novena are indicative of mourning: they are a contemplative and transformative place for the power and lessons of grief. Whether the sorrow of loss of innocence after the Fall, of the martydom of the Holy Saints, of the Passion of the Saviour, of the swords that pierce the Holy Mother's Sacred Heart, or simply of the suffering we all endure through this veil of tears. If that seems a morbid indictment or precursor to some anti-Christian rant, I would gently remind you dear reader that mourning and the howls of lamentation are of course (to take an example entirely at random) the likely basis for a variety of archaic Mediterranean funerary and spiritwork practices that lie at the tangled bloodied roots of goetia. Melancholy mysteries are an important part of life and magic, and especially an obviously necessary, nay ineluctable, part of ancestor veneration.

So why might I have concerns about mysteries of mourning in a Three Kings practice if sorrowful mysteries are so important? Well, to be blunt, there is a time and a place for such things, and now is not it. Quite the reverse in fact. Although the myrrh of the last Gift is often understood to point to the Infant's sacrifice upon the Tree of the Cross, on the whole even the medieval Christian cultus of the Three Kings repeatedly and consistently emphasises Joy: joy at the arrival of the Child of Light in the dead of winter's darkness, the joy of a new mother cradling her babe, the joy of a proud father and partner standing ever by her side, the joy of devotional service, the joy of trust in a Star's guidance rewarded at the fulfillment of its promise, the joy of travel. Prayers citing precedent and historiolae of the Three Kings (which will certainly be included in my coming chapbook!) consistently centre around joy and gladness.

This joy associated with the Three Kings can also be located in the grimoiric record. The Experiment of Two Hazel Rods of One Year’s Growth found in the 'Book of Magic' of Shakespeare Library MS Folger Vb.26, (f. 140 or pages 363-364 for those reaching for their copies of Book of Oberon), the hazel rods are used for discovery; both the detection of dowsing or treasure-hunting, and the sort of knowledge-generating that sounds more like broader divination: 'that they may be unto me aiding, both now and at all other times as when I shall have cause to use them, so that the rather by them I may come to the knowledge of that thing I desire'. We might even consider this kind of knowing as being "in the Biblical sense". Observe the historiola in action: 'I adjure you, O hazels of one year’s growth, by the three kings of Cullen, Jasper, Melchior, and Balthazar, that, as they being wise and prudent men, were conducted and led by a star where as they found Christ, that so you may bring me into the certain and sure place where any treasure is or metal is hid or hath any being, and that this be done.' This is of course already extremely pertinent to the sorcery of the Magi, but what of Joy?

'When thou wilt gather them [the hazel rods], let it be upon the first Friday of the Moon before the Sun rising, in saying ‘In the name of the Holy Ghost, I do cut thee,’ either of them at four strokes, and that being done, say, ‘In principio erat verbum, etc.,’ which being said, say three Pater Nosters, in the honour of the Trinity, seven Ave Marias, in the honour of the seven joys of Mary the Virgin.'

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The Seven Joys of Mary are of course the Annunciation, the Nativity of Jesus, the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrection of Christ, the Ascension of Christ to Heaven, the Pentecost or Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Mary, and the Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven. I humbly suggest these seven mysteries might form an apt historically and traditionally situated basis for a devotional and/or sorcerous period leading up to an Epiphany.

My appeal to tradition here is not intended to quash or lambast innovation and experimentation in one's personal practice in the slightest, but rather comes from the jouney of my own Magi work that has lead me to connect more deeply with the shades of my predecessor magicians, astrologers, cunning-folk, conjurers, and pilgrims who have also looked to the Three Kings. Mine is not simply a practice built around calling upon Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar as three patron saints, but rather the praxis itself of a coherence of distant powerful magicians about a common Star, Journey and Adoration: A Star in the East of prophecy and power. A Journey across time, space and the veil of tears to impart new joy. An Adoration of the light of life, both pointing to that which we kneel before and grasping the means to secure and extend that light. Tradition and history for me are not a stick with which to Slaughter the Innocence of invention, but a Star to light the way as we ride upon the backs of our ancestors. And especially the Magi thus form as a necromantic locus of the spirits of what might be called in other traditions the Mighty Dead: ancestor magicians of many colours, creeds and culti.

 Three Kings Drawing by Richard Hook

Three Kings Drawing by Richard Hook

All that said, I offer this as a potential use of a rosary in Magian practices. The incredibly popular medieval hagiography the Golden Legend declares a five-part understanding of the Star of the Magi, keyed to events in the story of their Journey, Adoration, and Return, which might well inform experimentation with the structure of a typical Marian rosary.

'Note that the star the Magi saw was a fivefold star - a material, a spiritual, an intellectual, a rational, and a supersubstantial star. The first star, the material star, they saw in the East. The spiritual star, which is faith, they saw in their hearts, for if this star of faith had not shone in their hearts, they never would have come to the vision of that first star... The third, the intellectual star, is the angel they saw in sleep, when they were warned by an angel not to go back to Herod... The fourth, the rational star, was the Blessed Virgin, whom they saw with the Child. The superstantial star, which was Christ himself, they saw in the manger, and of these two last stars we read: "Entering into the house they found the Child with Mary his Mother." Each of these five is called "the star". Thus the first, Ps. 8:4: "The moon and the stars which thou hast founded"; the second, Ecclus. 43:10: "the glory of the stars (i.e. of the virtues) is the beauty of heaven (i.e. of the celestial man)"; the third, Bar. 3:34: "the stars have given light in their watches and rejoiced"; the fourth in the hymn Are maris stella; the fifth, Apoc. 22:16: "I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star."
At the sight of the first and second of these stars the Magi rejoiced. Seeing the third, they rejoiced with joy. The sight of the fourth made them rejoice with great joy, and of the fifth, with exceeding great joy.'

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This is by far and away not all I have to say on the Magi in the coming days. But I leave you with what I have gleaned of their messages so far: be joyful in your travels, though travails they may be. Prepare for Epiphany with an eye on both the horizon and where you have come from. Meet your fellows at a three-way crossroads and bring gifts.