January sixth is the Epiphany when the three wise men reached Jesus with their gifts. Often, in central Mexico nativities, there is a devil since he is believed to have distracted the three kings and is why they arrived late.
It is the three Kings – Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar – that bring the toys to local children (not Santa on Christmas). A dozen years ago I received my dog on the Epiphany so I named him Jasper (English for Gaspar, and the name of Tallulah Bankhead’s home town). Every child that pets Gaspar/Jasper knows he is a king that brings them gifts and are pleased to meet him. Not one knows of Jasper, Alabama or Miss Bankhead.
There is a legend, however, that there was a fourth wise man, whose name was Artaban. Artaban was a Persian King whose study of the planets and the stars led him to predict the birth of the King of Kings. It is said that he sold everything he possessed and purchased a large blue sapphire, a flawless ruby and a lustrous, transparent pearl. All three jewels Elizabeth Taylor would have been proud to have in her infamous jewelry collection. Artaban planned on presenting them to baby Jesus setting out to meet up with the three other kings, or Magi, to find this newborn King.
On his travels to the royal rendezvous, Artaban came across an old Jewish man lying in the road, suffering from a deadly fever, begging for help. Artaban hesitated. If he stopped to minister to a dying stranger he could unwisely miss his three king pals, but if he left now, the man would surely die. Artaban sells his sapphire to fund the lengthy recuperation of the man he sticks around for.
Suffice to say Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar went on without Artaban to find Mary, Joseph and Jesus, presenting them with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Honestly, I never saw the appeal of frankincense and myrrh having, as any new parent, preferred onsies or some casseroles, but, at the time, they were apparently swell presents.
Artaban, meanwhile, roams endlessly unaware the holy family had long skipped town to escape King Herod’s murder of all the baby boys having gone to Egypt for safety.
During this time Artaban runs into a terrified young mother fearful for the fate of her own baby son, begging Artaban for help. Artaban, upon arrival of King Herod’s henchman, held out the ruby to the soldier, who snatched it eagerly and turned a blind eye to the baby’s existence.
King Artaban is now down to one gift, the pearl, which he carries around for over three decades in search of baby Jesus. One day he passes another young woman in distress (Artaban had a weakness for damsels in distress) about to be sold into slavery to cover her parents’ debts. Resigned, Artaban dazzles the soldiers with his translucent pearl which they quickly swap the girl for.
Artaban’s life work, searching for baby Jesus to present his gifts to, was pointless to him now. At that moment he witnesses adult Jesus carrying his cross to die on Golgotha (skull hill). If only he hadn’t foolishly given his gifts away he could have used any one of them to secure Jesus’ freedom from Pontius Pilate. What an utter fool he had been!
Just then the skies grew dark, despite only being 3PM, and a violent earthquake shook the city. A flying roof tile hit Artaban on the head and fatally wounded him. He sank half-conscious to the ground, and the young woman pillowed his head in her lap. Artaban hears Jesus whisper to him “In as much as you have done kind things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done all these things for me!”’
King Artaban smiles in death because he knew that the King of Kings had indeed received the gifts he had brought for him!
A mid-eighties film of Artaban’s life starred Charlie Sheen and Eileen Brennan, while several books, operas and paintings have portrayed his life. A large sapphire named for Artaban is featured in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
by Joseph Toone