At this time of year, interest begins to increase in the motif of the “Star of Bethlehem” and “Three Kings” who supposedly followed it to the birth place of the baby Jewish messiah. The depiction of the “kings,” “wise men” or magi as three comes not from the Bible specifically but represents a tradition based on the number of the gifts in the gospel story: To wit, gold, frankincense and myrrh, totaling three. Thus, we have the song “We Three Kings,” which purports to reflect a historical event of magi/wise men visiting the historical messiah Jesus Christ in his manger at the inn. (Mt 2)
A significant amount of literature has been written about the subject of the Star of Bethlehem and Three Kings, much of it from the perspective of the gospel story as history, attempting to place the star at a specific time and place in the sky. Most of these efforts suffer from a lack of knowledge about ancient mythology, including the latest such tomes that purport to be the “end-all” discussion of the subject.
In my book Christ in Egypt, I include an entire chapter on the subject of “The Star in the East and Three Kings,” an excerpt of which can be found at the attached link. To summarize: Egyptian mythology appears to be the source of this mythical, not historical, motif found also in the New Testament gospel story, with the Star in the East signifying the star Sirius and the Three Wise Men the stars in the belt of Orion. Again, while these “wise men” are not specifically “kings,” the tradition associated them with the three stars in the belt of the Orion constellation, which came to be called the “Three Kings” in Christian astronomy.
The information provided in my book and online excerpt should suffice to demonstrate that the Egyptians did indeed consider the three stars in the belt of Orion to lead to the bright star Sirius, which in turn both pointed to the place of the sun at the horizon at various times of the year and heralded the flooding of the Nile, which the Egyptians considered to be the savior. Hence, the star pointed to the place where the savior would be born, led there by the three kings.
While many books ignore the Sirius-Orion mythology, professional astronomer Dr. Edwin C. Krupp, director of the famed Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, discussed both stellar subjects extensively, demonstrating the theme of the three stars pointing to the bright star, indicating the “birth of the savior” at the horizon, both a solar motif and the annual flooding of the Nile.
The image on the right is a photograph from Krupp’s book Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths & Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets (206) shows the three stars in Orion’s belt, pointing to the rising of Sirius on the horizon. The caption by Krupp reads:
“After the big Dipper, Orion the Hunter is probably the most recognized pattern of stars. The three stars of its belt point upward from the center of the photograph. Close to the dawn glow on the eastern horizon, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, has just risen.”
As we can see, the stars are lined up fairly straight and strikingly indicate the brightest star, highly noticeable, especially to the ancient stargazers. Again, in Egyptian mythology, Sirius or Sothis – Isis – was viewed as the herald of the coming messiah, Osiris, the Nile’s water flooding its banks and bringing with it the renewal of the harvest along its banks. Without this annual flood, which took place in late June, around the solstice, the Egyptians could expect crop failure and famine. Hence, one can fathom why this event was so important and why it was considered a time of salvation. The star in the east was noticed also to herald the rising sun at the horizon, another extremely important messianic figure who was likewise represented by Osiris, as his son Horus, born again in the dawn.
The association with Orion with the dawn is also important and can be found in ancient mythology as well, leading to the notion of the three stars pointing to the place where the solar savior would be “born” in the morning. In this regard, Krupp (27-28) states:
“Stars like Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, also died when they disappeared in the daytime sky, but they were reborn when they reappeared again in the twilight before sunrise….
For the Egyptians, cosmic order was also visible in the return of the goddess Isis as the star Sirius to the predawn sky. At about the same time of year, the Nile, no longer bound to its banks, flooded and refertilized the land. Every year Sirius put in an appearance in the right place at the right time, and the Nile made life possible in Egypt for another year.”