Gaspar lived in Tharsis. Today, Tharsis is a small town in Spain, with a few mines, a wind-farm and a pretty little church surrounded by palm trees, but in Gaspar’s time, over two thousand years ago, it was a village with a small castle, a library and a little tower for looking at the stars.
Gaspar was in charge of the library and the tower. As a wealthy, wise man he had learned a lot about the stars when he was younger and now, a little older, he spent his nights looking through his star charts and his books of predictions. In those days, before the internet or even newspapers, it was the stars that told people the news, but only if they were clever enough, and careful enough, to read them.
One night, Gaspar was in his tower, checking where all the stars were, when he saw a new star that seemed to be rising in the East. Quickly checking his charts, he found it really was a new star, so he marked its position and hurried along to his library.
In those days there weren’t books, or even printing, as we know them. Instead everything was written on scrolls of vellum or parchment, bits of stone or lumps of pottery. This was interesting, but made it difficult to find things. This didn’t trouble Gaspar, though. Each one of his scrolls meant a lot to him, and he could remember exactly where each had come from, who had sold or given it to him and exactly where he’d put it. In those days, getting a new book could mean a journey of hundreds of miles, and a wait of many days if it needed to be copied. So Gaspar went to exactly the right shelf and unrolled exactly the right scroll and checked what it said in its strange-looking language with strange-looking letters, about a star appearing in the East.
Gaspar already knew what it said, naturally. He may still have been young, but he had been studying the stars for most of his life and on cloudy nights – for there are cloudy nights even in the South of Spain – he would read his scrolls and learn what they said so he would know what something might mean almost before he saw it.
And so, when he lit his lamp and reached for the scroll and unrolled it to exactly the right place, he was only making sure. And sure he now was. A star in the East meant a new king had been born and that he, as a noble scholar, would have to hurry to pay homage to the new ruler in the neighbouring lands.
Quickly, he woke his servant and told him to prepare for a long journey. They would need the swiftest horses and the least amount of luggage and, no, he didn’t know how long they’d travel or exactly where they’d be going.
He did know he’d have to take a gift. Something light and easy to carry, but also very precious.
He looked glumly through his collection of jewels. There wasn’t much, as he preferred star charts and almanacks to rubies and diamonds. The best he had was a good-sized sapphire but, though it was worth a lot of money, it didn’t seem precious to Gaspar.
Then he remembered a little box he’d been given by a monk he’d met in Seville. The monk had travelled all over Africa and had told such tales of strange beasts and vast temples and singing sands that Gaspar had invited him to his castle, where they’d studied the stars together for months.
When the monk finally left the castle, he had insisted on giving the box to Gaspar. Gaspar had tried to refuse, but the monk had said, with surprising seriousness, that its contents, though precious to a monk and useless to Gaspar at that time, would in future serve them both, being exactly as precious as needed. “You will know when that is”, the monk had said. And, sure enough, Gaspar did.
So Gaspar took the little box and, with a jar of honey from his mother to eat along the way, set off lickety-split on his very best horse, with his servant on his second-best horse behind him.
Off they rode for days and nights and, after ten of each, they reach a crossroads near Jerusalem.
“Which way now?” The servant asked, but Gaspar did not know, for the star had vanished.
Gaspar looked around and saw another man, also with two horses and a servant, also looking bewildered at the crossroads.
“Excuse me,” he asked the man, “but did you see where that star went?” and, without thinking, gestured to describe the star.
“Me?” said the stranger, “I didn’t see where it went, but that star is why I’m here.”
“Oh.” said Gaspar, “Then I guess you’re here to find the new king, too.”
And the two men got talking, Gaspar from Tharsis and Balthazar from Sheba, in what we now call Yemen, about the books they’d read and written. In fact they had so much to talk about that they almost forgot why they were there at all.
But then another pair of horses rode up and a voice asked “Excuse me, but did you see where that star went?” and the newcomer also described the star in gesture.
Before long the new stranger had introduced himself as Melchior, another famous astronomer, who lived in Arabia. And, happily, Melchior knew exactly what to do.
“If we go straight on, we’ll get to Jerusalem and we can ask at the palace. If there are any new kings around, they’re bound to know at the palace.”
But they didn’t know at the palace. In fact they were quite surprised by the news and even King Herod himself came out to see them.
“This is all very interesting” said Herod. “I’m afraid I can’t help, but I wish you well and hope that, if you do find a new king, you’ll come back and tell me where to find him. I’d be delighted to pay him a visit.”
And so the three wise men went away from the palace, none the wiser. But as they did, they looked up in relief (for Herod was not always thought of kindly) and saw the star in the East again, as if it had never been gone at all.
The star was clear in the sky, and shone brighter than ever, so they trundled off on their tired horses with their tired servants, to see where it would take them.
Before long they came to a little town, called Bethlehem, and there the star seemed to hang in the sky above one particular, peculiar old building.
“Is that it?” asked Gaspar.
“It doesn’t look likely” said Melchior.
“I don’t like the look of it at all” said Balthazar.
But, all the same, they pushed their way through the crowded streets towards the ramshackle outbuilding.
“There are a lot of people about,” thought Gaspar, “so something special must be going on.” But when he asked a passer-by what all the fuss was about, they said “Fuss? We’re just here to pay our taxes”, which didn’t sound very special, or even fun, at all.
Nevertheless, they continued towards the building which, now they could see it properly, seemed to be a stable.
Gaspar dismounted and peered through the door. There he saw a donkey, some sheep running about and, at the back, a pair of oxen who looked up and gloomily around before going back to staring into the corner. Following their gaze, Gaspar looked into the corner too. And then, ever so quietly, he tiptoed back to the others.
“Here it is” he said. And so it was.
Then the three approached and paid homage. Balthazar offered his gift of myrrh. Melchior offered his gift, which was of gold. And Caspar offered his precious little box, which was filled with frankincense.
After the wise men had paid their homage they slept, exhausted, wherever they could find room.
Strangely, when they woke, they found they’d all had the same dream.
A dream that told them it would be best if they journeyed home by different routes, avoided Jerusalem and didn’t trouble Herod with their news.
There are lots of versions of the ‘adoration’ tale, involving any number of kings or astronomers or priests from any number of places, bearing all sorts of gifts. The most common, at least in the West, involves Gaspar/Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, and so I’ve started with that. Gaspar, who we follow in this tale, was reputedly from Tharsis, though whether the Tharsis mentioned had anything to do with the town of that name in modern Spain I have no idea. However, as the only other Tharsis in the atlases is a volcanic plateau on the planet Mars, I have chosen the least unlikely option.
A fair point may be made that Spain hardly counts as ‘the Orient’, which is where the three kings are traditionally based. Having looked at a number of different versions of the tale, however, I think this has two origins. The first is the perfectly natural misapprehension that anyone ‘following’ a star ‘of the East’ must necessarily be travelling West, trotting along behind it like a hunter after a deer. Astronomers, however, ‘follow’ stars much like tennis-players ‘follow’ the ball. They use their eyes as much as their feet and are interested more in where it is going than where it’s come from. The second is that most English versions of the tale begun in the 9th Century, where ‘the Orient’ could mean almost anywhere. The 13th Century Mappa Mundi from Hereford, for example, has Jerusalem at the centre, with England stuck on the western rim of the world as they then knew it. It seems likely that versions of the tale from 5th Century Persia (which mentioned the ‘Magi’ – Zoroastrian priests) became known to English priests also around that time, and may have strengthened the ‘oriental’ origins of the three kings.
A slight quibble might be raised in that frankincense, a resin from tropical Boswellia trees that mostly grow in and around Somalia, might not have been easy to find in Spain. I suppose Gaspar, wealthy and well-travelled as he was, might simply have bought some from a merchant for a suitably princely sum, but as gifts are always more precious than purchases I’ve invented a presentation.
I have no clear idea exactly when the Star appeared, or how long a journey from Tharsis to Jerusalem would have taken. I have taken poetic licence, guessing that the star appeared the night after the Nativity, and allowing an extra day for the travellers to spend in Jerusalem.
If any credit is due for this version of the tale, it should go to the patient staff of Toronto’s Public Library.