Of Magi and Moral Imbeciles – the Three Kings’ Play at Epiphany

I recently wrote of the three Oberufer Christmas plays and said that at Epiphany I would also be writing something more about the third of those, the Three Kings’ Play, which is traditionally performed at Epiphany on 6th January.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “vision of God” and in the Christian tradition it refers to the visit to the newborn Jesus child in the stable at Bethlehem by the Three Kings; or in other words, the revelation of God the Son as a human being to the Three Kings or Magi. Epiphany is sometimes called the Festival of the Three Kings for this reason, and Rudolf Steiner had some interesting things to say about it. He said that in our present time less importance is attached to Epiphany than to the Christmas festival itself but in the future, Epiphany will assume greater and greater significance as we begin to understand its symbolism.

The Oberufer Christmas plays tell us of two proclamations of the birth of Jesus: the Shepherds’ Play shows us that one proclamation is made to the shepherds in the fields, while the Three Kings’ Play shows us the proclamation made to the three Magi from the East, who follow a star leading them to the Jesus child. This is the Nativity as related in the Gospel According to St Matthew.

So the plays are showing us two ways in which higher knowledge came to exceptional individuals in earlier times. Individuals such as the simple shepherds in the fields who with their great purity and kindness of heart still possessed a certain power of clairvoyance that came over them like a dream.

And the Three Kings’ Play shows us that there were individuals who had reached the heights of learning, like the three Magi from the East, in whom the ancient faculty of gazing into the how and why of cosmic happenings had been preserved.

The Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer

The Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer

The plays therefore point the way to two definite but quite distinct forms of knowledge:

  • To the Shepherds – revelation through the last echoes of the old instinctive clairvoyance
  • To the Magi – revelation through heart-filled scientific knowledge

Since we are contemplating the Three Kings’ Festival of Epiphany, let’s take a closer look at the knowledge possessed by the three Magi. It’s clearly indicated in the Three Kings’ Play that these Magi (another word for spiritual masters or initiates), were able to read the secrets of the movements of the stars. This ancient knowledge of the secrets of the stars also contained the secrets of happenings in the world of human beings.

Steiner posed the question: “What has become of the wisdom possessed by the Magi?” And his answer was that it has become the mathematical astronomy of today. Unlike today’s astronomers, the Magi were able to gaze at the world of the stars, not only with their eyes but also with their inner vision and their esoteric knowledge and thus they were able to see the secrets of the universe and of humankind. In a way we can scarcely understand today, the Magi could also perceive the stars talking to them. However in our age of the consciousness soul, today’s mathematics has become pure abstraction, says Steiner, but he also says that the same forces that are unfolded in mathematical thinking can again be filled with life, enriched and intensified in imaginative perception. Then, from our own inner forces, we can once again behold the heavens through inner perception, inner vision, as the Magi discerned the secrets of the Christ child.

Perhaps it is thoughts like these that prompted Steiner to give the following meditative verse at Christmas 1923:

The stars once spoke to Man.

It is world destiny that they are silent now.

To be aware of this silence

Can become pain for Earthly Man.

But in the deepening silence

There grows and ripens

What Man speaks to the stars.

To be aware of this speaking

Can become strength for Spirit Man.

In our present age of the consciousness soul, the verse seems to suggest, we need to recognise that the spiritual world has withdrawn from us so as to advance the next step of our own evolutionary journey. We are not alone, however; help is all around us. We must find the courage and imagination to speak to the stars and re-establish our links with the spiritual world; but this time in full consciousness.

Turning to the Magi themselves, one of them is portrayed as a Moor, an African; the second as a white man, a European; and the third as an Asian from India. And about this Steiner says something which I find very moving (and which gives the lie to those people who accuse him of racism):

“What must never be forgotten is that the proclamations to the Shepherds and to the Kings contained a message for all mankind – for the earth is common to all. In that the revelation to the shepherds was from the earth, it was a revelation that may not be differentiated according to nationality. And in that the Magi received the proclamation of the sun and heavens, this too was a revelation destined for all mankind. For when the sun has shone upon the territory of one people, it shines upon the territory of another. The heavens are common to all; the earth is common to all. The impulse of the ‘human universal’ is in very truth quickened by Christianity. Such is the aspect of Christmas revealed by the twofold proclamation.”

But there is another king in the Kings’ Play – King Herod. Unlike the three Magi, who are working out of love, or more precisely, who are applying the intelligence of their hearts to their knowledge of the stars, Herod is working out of the opposite of love.

What is the opposite of love? Not hate. No, the true opposite of love is fear. Herod is afraid. He is afraid of losing his throne to this new-born king, whom he assumes will be a temporal rather than a spiritual ruler. And out of Herod’s fear, and his ignorance of spiritual laws, he is willing to commit the most terrible atrocity imaginable: the mass slaughter of all boy-children in his kingdom under the age of two.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Lodovico Mazzolin

Massacre of the Innocents by Lodovico Mazzolino

Actually, one feels almost sorry for Herod, who in his fear and ignorance is preparing a truly appalling karma for his future lives. In the play, Mary appears to Herod in a vision and tries to warn him about what he is doing to himself:

“Great King, to Mercy mend your mind

Lest grief come suddenly behind;

If so much guiltless blood you shed

What call you, King, on your own head?”

But Herod is not to be dissuaded from his terrible crime and orders his servants to kill all the children, “to make the children’s blood gush out.”

And at this point, I can’t help but ask myself what has changed in the last 2000 years? Still today we have rulers who are acting out of fear and ignorance rather than a heart-filled wisdom. A prime example is president Assad in Syria, where the death toll of Syrian citizens killed by their own government forces is now estimated to be over 133,000 and where well over four million people have been forced into exile to escape the violence.

President Assad of Syria

President Assad of Syria (photo-montage courtesy of Vine of Life)

Why is this, I wonder? Why is it that so many politicians and leaders today still lack “the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts, the light that enlightens the wise heads of kings?” Why are so many of them, to use a 19th century term that deserves to be revived, such moral imbeciles?

Whatever the answers to those questions, each of us can help to improve matters. None of us is powerless – our thoughts, our example, our daily interactions with other people can all help to create a better future, even if the numbers of those working consciously for good seem like an impossibly diluted homeopathic dose within the great mass of humankind.

To quote the closing lines from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

“And when we have built an altar to the

invisible Light, we may set thereon the little

lights for which our bodily vision is made.

And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.

O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory.”



Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner

7 responses to “Of Magi and Moral Imbeciles – the Three Kings’ Play at Epiphany

  1. Hello Jeremy,

    Many years ago, I was quite dissatisfied with all the extant English translations of that Steiner verse, so I forged a new one, more expressive of our Consciousness Soul Age. Do recite it out loud and slowly, pronouncing each word with majesty to feel the power of those sibilant consonants. (All those “s”-es and that one “f”)



    Stars once spoke to us.

    Their silence now is cosmic fate.

    Listening to this silence

    Can make us suffer on the earth.

    But swelling in that silent stillness

    Is what we are speaking to the stars.

    Listening to this speech

    Can make us stronger in the spirit.


  2. Jeremy,

    Now that the date of Epiphany 2016 is upon us, I would like to quote you excerpts from a lecture Rudolf Steiner gave in 1904 about the 3 Magi because it explains a later lecture he gave in 1923 about the human races.

    You will then understand why I have re-written the title to the traditional carol: “We Three Kings of Orient are” to the more anthroposophical title:

    “We Three Kings of Root-Races Are”

    I first call attention to the controversial sketch of the 3 racial figures that Steiner drew on the blackboard that evening for the workers at the Goetheanum. (March 3, 1923, GA 349)

    On the right is the Caucasian figure = Melchior
    In the middle is the Asian figure = Balthasar
    On the left, the Negro figure = Kaspar

    I will now quote from the 1904 lecture, identifying my own insertions with {….} so you may see how the 3 Kings of the Orient described in 1904 correlate with the 3 racial figures from the 1923 lecture sketch.

    Lecture Cycle: The Festivals and Their Meaning: Christmas
    Extract from a lecture: On The Three Magi
    Berlin, December 30, 1904, GA B60


    “Who are the Magi? They represent the Initiates of the three preceding races or epochs of culture, the Initiates of mankind up to the time of the coming of Christ, the Bringer of the Love that is free of egoism — the resurrected Osiris. The Initiates — and so too the Three Magi — were endowed with Manas. They bring gold, frankincense and myrrh as their offerings.

    And why are their skins of three colours: white, yellow and black?

    One is European — his skin is white; {see Caucasian figure on the right}
    One is Indian — his skin is yellow; {see Asian figure in the middle}
    One is African — his skin is black. {see Negro figure on the left}

    This indicates the connection with the so-called Root Races.
    The remaining survivors of the Lemurian race are black;
    those of the Atlantean race are yellow;
    and the representatives of the 5th Root Race, the Post-Atlantean or Aryan race, are white.
    Thus the Three Kings or Magi are representatives of the Lemurians, the Atlanteans and the Aryans. They bring the three offerings.

    {5th Root Race = Aryan = White = Melchior = Caucasian figure on the right!}
    The European brings gold, the symbol of wisdom, of intelligence which comes to expression paramountly in the Fifth Root Race.

    {4th Root Race = Atlantean = Yellow = Balthasar = Asian figure in the middle}
    The offering of the Initiate representing the 4th Root Race is frankincense, connected with what was intrinsically characteristic of the Atlanteans. They were united more directly with the Godhead, a union which took effect as a suggestive influence, a kind of universal hypnosis. This union with the Godhead is betokened by the offering. Feeling must be sublimated in order that God may fertilise it. This is expressed symbolically by the frankincense, which is the universal symbol for an offering that has something to do with Intuition.

    {3rd Root Race = Lemurian = Black = Kaspar = Negro figure on the left}

    In the language of esotericism, myrrh is the symbol of dying, of death. What is the meaning of dying and of resurrection, as exemplified in the resurrected Osiris? I refer you here to words of Goethe: “So long as thou hast it not, this dying and becoming, thou’rt but a dull guest on the dark earth.” Jacob Boehme expresses the same thought in the words: “He who dies not ere he dies, perishes when he dies.”

    Myrrh is the symbol of the dying of the lower life and the resurrection of the higher life. It is offered by the {Negro} Initiate {Kaspar}representing the Third Root Race {Lemurian}



  3. Tom H Shea

    Thank You, Jeremy. I enjoyed reading this post. It is a lucid yet moving reflection on the phenomena of the Magi.


  4. Elizabeth Candelario

    Dear Jeremy,

    I really enjoyed this post, especially at this time of year in these times. Thanks for sharing.


    elizabeth candelario
    co-director | demeter USA
    board chair| stellar organic certification services
    p. 707.529.4412

    Facebook: Demeter USA | http://www.demeter-usa.org| Twitter: @DemeterUSA


  5. Sarah Greenleaf

    Dear Jeremy~ Thank you for your Inspiring & Insightful Interpretation of one of Rudolf Steiner’s writings on the “Calendar of the Soul”… Peace~ Sarah (Greenleaf)


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