As mentioned in a previous posting, the characters commonly called “The Three Wise Men” in the West are known as Magoi in Greek and Volsvi in Slavic. Here they are in a fresco:
Let’s take a look at the Greek inscriptions
The first two should be easy for you. They are:
ΜΡ ΘΥ and ΙωCΙΦ
As you already know, ΜΡ ΘΥ abbreviates Meter Theou — “Mother [of] God”, and you should be able to easily recognize the second as the name IOSIF — JOSEPH — with the first I written above and as a part of the letter ω.
Next comes this inscription:
As is usual, the words are not separated, but all run together. When we separate them, we get:
Ἡ ΠΡΟCΚΥΝΗCΗC ΤΟΝ ΜΑΓΟΝ
HE PROSKYNESES TON MAGON
He, you will recall, is the feminine form of “the” in Greek.
Proskyneses is a phoneticized spelling of the Greek word common in the Bible and church literature, proskynesis (προσκύνησις). Greek inscriptions often confuse Η (e) and Ι (i), because in later spoken Greek they both were pronounced as “ee.”
Prokynesis means to bow or prostrate yourself as a sign of respect or abnegation. It began as an eastern custom in the royal court of Persia, and was adopted by Alexander the Great as the means of showing honor to him, though previously the Greeks had regarded proskynesis as something done only before a god or goddess. Proskynesis — which could originally have been as mild as a kiss (pros means “toward,” kyneo means “kiss”) varied in its nature, and whether it was just a kiss or a bow or a full prostration on the ground (“kissing the ground”) depended on the status of those meeting. The bow or prostration was a sign of obeisance or submission — and, in the case of a deity, of worship.
In the Gospel called “of Matthew” (no one knows who really wrote it; the earliest manuscripts are anonymous), we find this in 2:1-2:
Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα 2 λέγοντες Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ.
“Now when Jesus was born in Behtlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is the one born King of the Jews; for we have seen his star in the East and are come to give him obeisance.”
Obeisance here is proskynesai — to perform proskynesis in front of him].
The King James translation commonly translates proskynesis as “worship,” so in that version the Magi say,
“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.“
So that is what we have in the fresco inscription:
Η ΠΡΟCΚΥΝΗCΗC ΤΟΝ ΜΑΓΟΝ
HE PROSKYNESES TON MAGON
“The Proskynesis [Obeisance] of the Magi.”
There is a lot of discussion in theological circles over whether the writer of Matthew intended to indicate the proskynesis of the Magi as that done to show honor to a king (as would make sense here), or whether proskynesis before a deity was intended (if Matthew considered Jesus to be a deity). In any case, proskynesis was something done before a deity, a ruler, or it could even be before a highly-respected person, as a show of the performer’s subordinate status. In Eastern Orthodox Church usage, proskynesis is done before icons and relics of the saints.
You may recall the common inscription on Russian crosses:
“We honor [bow before] your cross, Lord, and praise your holy resurrection.”
In the Greek liturgy of John Chrysostom, we find it as:
Τὸν Σταυρόν σου, Χριστέ, προσκυνοῦμεν καὶ τὴν ἁγίαν σου Ἀνάστασιν ὑμνοῦμεν καὶ δοξάζομεν·
Ton stauron sou Khriste proskynoumen kai ten hagian sou anastasin hymnoumen [praise in song] kai doxazomen.
“Your cross, Christ, we proskynoumen [perform proskynesis before] and your holy resurrection we hymn and glorify.”
On to the last inscription. It is:
ΟΙ ΜΑΓΥ ΑCΤΡΟΛΟΓΟΥΝΤΕC
This again has a phonetic spelling in ΜΑΓΥ (Magy), which should be ΜΑΓΟΙ (Magoi). Here again, in later Greek oi and y have the same “ee” sound when spoken. But we should understand the inscription as:
ὉΙ ΜΑΓΟΙ ΑCΤΡΟΛΟΓΟΥΝΤΕC
HOI MAGOI ASTROLOGOUNTES
“THE MAGI ASTROLOGERS.”
We see in the fresco that one of the Magi is looking up in the sky, where the Star of Bethlehem would be.
In the next posting, we will take a closer look at who the Magi (Magoi) were, and trace their development in Christian art and icons.