Thursday 24 December 2009

Journey to the West

I WAS ALWAYS the odd one out. The one they stared at. It was my colour, you see, the gift of my seafaring father. Black as the sluggish rivers of his homeland is my skin. Dark as its endless forests. He’d sailed the spice boats, riding the azure waters of the Gulf, exchanging their precious frankincense and myrrh for Persian gold at the white-walled city ports. That’s where I was begotten, and where my mother raised me, calling me by my father’s name: Balthasar.

She was a priestess of Astarte, worshipping the Goddess in the cool cloisters of the Temple, making an altar of her own lithe body. She and her sisters raised me as a son of the Temple. Quick to learn, they said, and wise beyond my years, I was the High Priestess’s choice to travel to the wizard’s city of Saba, where the sky-watchers would make of me a magus.

IT WAS IN SABA that I witnessed the birth. Shivering atop the narrow stone staircase, alone on the wide platform beneath the twinkling ceiling of the world, I saw it come into being. Light out of darkness – just as my masters had taught. A shimmering star, low in the sky, where only seconds before there had been no star at all.

I called Melchior, my master. He was loathe to rise from his bed, but when I described what I’d seen, he threw a cloak over his robe and followed me up the stairs. And there we stood, high above the sleeping city, staring in wonder at this new thing in the heavens.

"What is it?" I asked. "Where did it come from? And what does it portend?"

My master did not answer. For a long while Melchior remained silent, long fingers pulling fitfully at his beard, dark eyes drinking in the new star’s light.

"Go, boy", he whispered. "Rouse Gaspar. Bid him join us here."

When I returned with the High Priest of the Order, Melchior did not appear to have moved. Gaspar joined him. His long ebony staff scattering echoes off the smooth stones of the observation platform.

When he saw the star he sighed. I could not tell whether it was a sigh of joy, or of sorrow. He turned to me and smiled.

"Few indeed are privileged to witness the moment of a new star’s birth, Balthasar. Although, some among our order say that what we have witnessed tonight marks not the birth, but the death of stars."

"What does it mean, Master?"

"That something new has come into the world. That something old is passing away. That far to the West matters are coming to a head. For as you know, young Balthasar, the Age of the Ram is dying, and the Age of the Fishes about to be born."

"Or, is being born as we speak", muttered Melchior, his eyes still fixed on the star. "I would give much to witness the birth of an age that will last for two thousand years."

AND THAT IS how our journey began. And what a journey it has been. Riding off into the teeth of winter. Climbing the high passes. Traversing the empty deserts. And in every village, every city, the suspicious eyes of men who recognised us for what we were – the Magi.

"Wise Men"; "Priests of Zarathustra"; "Sky-watchers"; "The Reckoners of Darkness and Light": thus were we called by those whose minds were still open. "Wizards and Sorcerers": by those whose minds were closed.

And on me, especially, their gaze lingered; whose eyes are as dark as my skin.

And every night of our journey, burning brighter and brighter – till its rays pointed a path across the heavens like Gaspar’s upraised staff – blazed the star.

I listened as Gaspar and my master debated its meaning. At day’s end, seated on rugs before the fire, they pored over the scrolls they had brought with them. One in particular – the writings of a stiff-necked people locked into a narrow land between the desert and the sea.

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

"Immanuel, Masters? What does the word mean?"

Gaspar and Melchior, turned towards me, smiling.

"It’s Hebrew, Balthasar."

"It means: ‘God is with us’."

The short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times on Christmas Eve 2009. 


Tauhei Notts said...

I sometimes doubt if you realise how much pleasure and enlightenment you bring to your readers' eyes.
Please keep up the wonderful work in 2010 and enjoy a lovely festive season.
My sincere thanks for a great 2009.

Chris Trotter said...

To you, Tauhei, and to all the readers of Bowalley Road: my sincere thanks; you are most welcome.

My best wishes to you and yours for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Olwyn said...

Beautiful, just beautiful. A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you and yours.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this Chris, and I am speaking as a big fan of your columns, but I am not really into the Christmas bible stories that you tend to produce at this time of the year.

In saying that, enjoy the holidays and look forward to your thoughts in the New Year, by the sounds of it, its going to be a big one, with no less than the future of this country at stake.


Anonymous said...

Neither am I into this Millsy, I mean what is the point here ?
Is God with us or what?
If its not about God being really really really with us, then we comfortable folks just have an extra spoon full of sentimentality to go with the whipped cream and drambuie, well, whatever gets you through the night I spose.

RedLogix said...

Thanks Chris, us guess us old dinosaurs enjoy this kind of thing, a tugging back at one little corner of the dark curtain, peering in and wondering a little.

BTW. It's not wholly tangential, but of course in the Middle East the Three Magi are well-known as priests of the Zoroastrian religion, an ancient mono-theistic faith originating in ancient Persia. The Book of the Magi contained a prophesy regarding the birth of Christ... and these three remarkable seekers found their object.

While these three characters are present at every Church nativity play, I often quietly mull over the irony of how few of the congregation gathered ever grasped their true significance.

Best Wishes Chris. I've really, really enjoyed your work and passion these last few years.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank-you RedLogix. And, yes, you are quite right, Zoroastrianism pre-dates Christianity by centuries - and it's still practiced in India today (though the number is decreasing).

Two other little factoids you might be interested in:

1) The supreme Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda, supplied the "brand-name" for the Japanese car.

2) The alternative spelling of the name of the religion's founding prophet, Zoroaster, which I use in the story, is Zarathustra - which is, of course, the inspiration for Neitzsche's famous philosophical tract "Thus Spake Zarathustra", as well as for the music by Richard Strauss (which in turn became the theme for Kubrik's "2001 - A Space Odyssey").

Olwyn said...

I know there are more aposite quotes by Simone Weil on this subject, but here is one which is close to the ball park: "...I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of centuries has nourished all of our European civilisation, as something one cannot renounce without becoming degraded."

It is easy to renounce,however, because one is often confronted with degraded versions of the Christian idea. But Chris's little story captures the haunting beauty of it, and its sources in the ancient world. A world in which 300 years earlier, Eratosthenes hypothesised the earth's diameter within 2% accuracy, using Euclidian geometry and empirical observation of the sun, and in which the questions that still play a part in our lives were first raised by people like Plato and Ariostotle, and in which Herodotus wrote the first historical record.

Although you get in Jewish tradition the idea of the "widow and the orphan, with only God to protect them," as people to be cared for, and with the Greeks the idea that "beggars and strangers are under the portection of Zeus," this distills in Christianity into the idea that the person of low or no rank is of real worth - an idea that is always under threat but which it would be terrible to lose.

Anonymous said...

Crikey Chris - go and mow the lawn or do something useful. You really do get carried away with your own verbosity.


Chris Trotter said...

Yes, yes, yes, Francesca - I'm getting on to It!

Anonymous said...

T S Elliot did it better, not so soppy.

Anonymous said...

Zoroastrianism had considerable influence on the developement of Judaism and consequently on its daughter religions, Christianity, Islam and (dare I add) Marxism.

Although Judaism is probably older than Zoroastianism, it retained many of the characteristics of a typical Middle Eastern temple cult until the time of Babylonian exile and the subsequent return, under Persian Zoroastrian tutelage, of the Israelites' intellectual elite to Judea.

It's probably from this period that we can date the inclusion of such potent and revolutionary ideas as History as the working-out of a divinely ordained purpose, of ethical universalism, social justice and of a coming Messianic age.

Apart from the concern for social justice, these are all themes that may have entered Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The traditional Christian view of Judaism as a static, established, rule-based religion fails to take account of either this dynamic, the subsequent development of rabbinic Judaism or the obvious intellectual and ethical ties between Christianity and the work of great rabbanim (plural for rabbi) such as Hillel.

Yet Christianity did not grow up in an ideological vaccuum but in a time and place of great spiritual and intellectual ferment of which it was one (but just one ) of the exemplars.

Irrespective of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), it's hard to deny the role of monotheism and ethical universalism in the development of Western civilization . And we owe a lot of that to Persian Zoroastrianism, as reinterpreted by Judaism .

Olwyn's quotation from Simone Weil emphasises the Hellenistic rather than Hebraic heritage of Christianity, a stance that is often espoused these days by Pope Benedict.

Yet, from the point of view of social justice, the Hebraic element has always been more significant, with its admonition to break all the chains and let the oppressed go free and its insistence that "Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue".

The Levellers of 17th century England, the Abolitionist movement in both the UK and US, the early Labour Party in both the UK and New Zealand ('more Methodist than Marxist') and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s all draped themselves in Old Testament imagery, with the moral fervour of the prophets.

Meanwhile, Chris, here are a few more factoids:

1. Ahura Mazda, the 'Lord of Light', was also honoured by the name 'Mazda' being given to the what became the largest-selling brand of light bulb through most of the twentieth century.

2. The Vulcan salute in the Star Treck series/franchise is adopted from the sign used by Cohanim (Cohens), members of the tradional priestly cast , when blessing an orthodox Jewish congregation on major festivals. The fingers make the Hebrew initials of what, to Jews, is the unmentionable name of God .

Leonard Nimoy, the original and only true Spock, was born a Cohen, which entitled him to make the gesture.

Live Long and Prosper


Olwyn said...

Yes, Victor, I did follow the Greek line of thought there, and I accept that the Hebraic element too contributes strongly to our sense of justice - which contributes most I could not hazard a guess. The Persians must have influenced everyone, since they were the great empire, and in later times Maimonedes & Avicenna were influenced by Plato, Aquinas by Aristotle. Then in the 20th century, you have Weil & Levinas, both of Jewish background & arguing for very similar ethical positions, Weil from a Helenistic/Christian position, Levinas from a tradtitional Jewish position, but drawing on Plotinus & Plato. One might think that the impetus in both cases came from their Jewishness. But what a wonderful discussion this is - we could all do with a little more meditation on the ancient world I think.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank you Olwyn and Victor - this is a wonderful thread!

Anonymous said...

Hi Olwyn

I have no quarrel with the proposition that Christianity was heavily influenced by classical Greek thought, including Hellenistic notions of Justice and attendent ideas on Natural Law etc. Reconciling Christian Doctrine with classical philosophy was, after all, a central concern of the Church Fathers.

But I think it was the Hebraic heritage that gave Christianity the notion of a Kingdom of God that was realisable on Earth, that was part of the divine plan and that would radically alter power structures and the way in which people live.

By the way, replace the term 'Kingdom of God' with something more secular and 'the divine plan' with 'historical inevitability' and you have something that Dr Marx, grandson of the Rabbi of Trier, might have happily signed-up for.

I'm not aware of anything in Hellenistic philosophy that relates to these notions, albeit that I can identify a similarity with Zoroastrianism, which also sees History schematically as a struggle between good and evil.

That's not to argue that either Judaism or Christianity are inherently socially transformative creeds. But they have a certain edge-iness about them and, from time to time, the sense of outrage at injustice bubbles to the surface.

And there's no doubt that when Christianity has been at its most socially transformative, it has drawn most fully on its Jewish biblical roots.

A good example from my youth was the US Civil Rights movement, with its clear Biblical imagery : "Go tell it on the Mountain!" etc.

You may recall Martin Luther King's startlingly prophetic speech just before he was murdered, when he compared himself to Moses, who had "gone to the top of the mountain and seen the other side".

A few days earlier, MLK had attended a seder service in the home of his friend and fellow freedom marcher, Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heshel (incidently a leading Jewish theologian of the last century), at which the Passover story of redemption from bondage would have been told in its time-honoured way.

I would hazzard a guess that the Passover narrative was playing on MLK's mind more than a little during the tense days before he was killed.


Olwyn said...

Victor: My argument was that it is difficult indeed to separate these lines of thought, after all Maimonides was Jewish, Avicenna Islamic, and they too took on the Greek Philosophers. And while I can compare Moses going to the top of the mountain to Plato's philosopher emerging from the cave, and put forward Plato's just man, stripped of everything bar justice, including the reputation for being just, there seems to be a pessimism in this aspect of Greek thought in comparison with the more transformative ideas in Judeo-Christian thinking; the idea that the world really can be changed for the better. This I think is what you are getting at. I do not know enough about Zoroastrianism to know how much they contributed to this, but I do take your point - that the force behind the search for transformative justice has its roots in Judeo-Christian history. Not to mention, it is difficult to read the Greeks now in a manner divested of a Judeo-Christian lens, and hence it is easy to attribute to them thoughts they did not actually hold. This is particularly true of some modern Aristotelians: virtue for Aristotle characterised the life of a nobleman, living up to his claims of nobility, while virtue for the modern Aristotelian is coloured by 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian history.

Anonymous said...


We are more or less on the same page.

I would add that the Judeo-Christian view differs from the Classical view not merely in its belief in the possibility of transformative justice but in its belief in an all-embracing , world historic process that will ultimately cause justice to triumph.The same is true of Islam, of Marxism and a range of other faiths and ideologies.

I'm certainly not an expert on Zoroastrianism and most of what I understand about its impact on Judaism, I gathered from a Continuing Education lecture by Lloyd Gearing at Auckland University, some fifteen years ago. Since then, I've done nought but a wee bit of sporadic and desultory reading on the subject.

But what I have read certainly seems to confirm the notion that Judaism and, consequently , Christianity borrowed deeply from Zoroastrianism.

To start with, it's more or less a Monotheism, albeit that there are some minor deities that seem to have emanated from the godhead.

Zoroastrianism also posits an all-embracing, world-historic struggle between Ahura Mazda and the forces of evil (druj), a struggle which Ahura Mazda will ultimately win.

It's up to humans to decide which side they're on and their decision will have ramifications for them on the Day of Judgment....all of which sounds not unfamiliar.

Interestingly, Zoroastrianism also seems to posit a saviour figure who will be born of a virgin. This suggests that some of its elements may have made their way directly into Christianity without necessarily being filtered through Judaism.

The Jewish Messiah is, of course, never conceived of as anything other than an ordinary mortal, albeit one of surpassing virtue and of direct descent from the Royal House of David.

As you rightly point out, Persia was a major power throughout the Hellinistic period and, earlier on, had ruled the greater part of the known world from the gates of India to the Balkans and Ethiopia. So it's not surprising to find Persian ideas cropping up all over the place.

I suspect that Westerners have always tended to undervalue the significance of the Persians. Their Greek foes loom large in our intellectual traditions and, for millenia, helped to define the educated mind.

As you say, a fascinating subject.


Olwyn said...

Thanks Victor for an interesting discussion - I shall try and make time to read up a little on Zoroastrianism (The brief comments Herodotus made on the Persian religion tally with what you say, but do not tell us much), and thanks Chris for the lovley post. And a Happy New Year to you both.

Chris Trotter said...

No, thank you Olwyn and Victor for a wonderfully stimulating colloquium!

Happy New Year to you both.

Anonymous said...

And to you, Olwyn and Chris


Robb said...

Kia ora Chris,
I am one of the readers behind the scenes, but am popping out to write I really enjoy your place here, and that it makes me think. And wanted to wish you and your a Happy New Year.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks Robb, glad to have you aboard!