Thursday, January 10, 2008


by Sharon Cumberland


They appeared on the brink of Judea, like the pluck
of a tuning string: Gatháspa, Melchias, Pudizar,
their shared language astronomy (unscrolling their charts,
gesticulating at the sky). It wasn't luck
that brought them together in the desert,
but the quality of their separate magic.
Truth to tell, the ushering star
was combined with the old constellations,
and when wind whipped clouds through the chilly night,
they couldn't see anything very well.
Until they found each other they had begun to doubt
they would find anyone, much less a monarch
nobody knew about.
But now they were three: a Babylonian mage,
a Persian seer, and from the land of Ind
a wizard who could derive gold from the ores of Malabar.
Now they had their triple art to take them
toward the thing they sought: a Hebrew king
in the nest of Rome.

Then imagine their alarm
when they found the king a newborn
in a lean-to of date fronds and olive branches.
How quickly they erected an incense altar
to ward off the seven evil demons!
How they sang incantations, wove spells against Pazuzu
who brings contagion, and Lamashtu
who poisons breast milk. They tried to explain,
through clouds of myrrh and cinnamon,
which rites the baffled parents should perform.
But the girl and her old spouse seemed as innocent of danger
as the infant son, or the sheep and mules
they sat among. Gatháspa pressed an amulet of gold
into the father's fist: Keep it no matter what
he insisted in his tongue so that Namtaru
will not take him to the underworld!
They left the parents plenty of resins, oils,
and frankincense to burn, though doubted
they'd comply with instructions.
Each magus thought sadly, turning back to the East:
This poor little king will die. May the gods hide his name from the evil ones.

Sharon Cumberland is a member of St. Paul's and an Associate Professor of English at Seattle University.

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