Tag Archives: three magi moved to Cologne

A Carol That Welcomed Sacred Skulls & Bones – “I Saw Three Ships”

(This is the second installment in a series where I will explore the rich history of music surrounding the holiday of Christmas)

This one may not be so popular with everyone, but maybe I’m just saying that because I only vaguely remember the melody, let alone the words.  I got reacquainted with it as we were playing it on our playlist of Christmas Carols, and a question was just not let my mind go; “What’s up with the three ships?”  Are they an allusion to the Trinity, but in the song they only mention Jesus and Mary.  Is it because a city’s savior in the form of a military squadron of three boats came sailing in that morning?

As history would have it, the three ships came bearing gifts on Christmas, but not any ol’ gift you would give your wife or sister.  It is thought the three ships were carrying the remains of the Biblical Magi (which is a word, by the way, that comes from Old Persian, magus, meaning sorcerer, referring to a highly revered caste of Zoroastrians, of which one of the magi probably came) spoken of in the Christmas narrative in the Bible.  In agreement with the medieval churches interesting infatuation with saintly remains, their skulls and the rest, were being transported to the Cologne Cathedral, after of course, being wrapped in beautiful bows and ribbons.  They were a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa to Cologne, as a gift after capturing Milan, which is where the bones were before.  So yes it’s a nice carol, but it was also a song dedicated to the arrival of some very important relics.

“But”, you may say, “the lyrics say the ships came into Bethlehem.”  One quick look at a map of Israel shows you that disappointingly the city of Bethlehem is very land-locked.  So, I’m not sure what to say.  Perhaps some Broadway genius decided to take a Christmas themed play and mixed in it with a dash of Peter Pan and his flying ship.  The world may never know the reason for this discrepancy.

Happy Caroling!