In A Word:
The word epiphany is derived from the ancient Greek epi and phano, the latter being the verb “to show”. It means “to show forth” or, in translation, “manifestation”.
In the Western Christian tradition today is the Feast of the Epiphany, which marks the presentation of the divine infant Jesus to the world, as represented by the Magi, or Three Wise Men, as they are also known.
In the Orthodox Christian world it is celebrated on January 19th and marks the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. Again it is about the presentation of the divine in Christ to the world.
This is also known as theophany, “to show God”, theus being the ancient Greek word for God. Hence too theology, knowledge of God.
But in the profane world epiphany has a much wider meaning indicating a sudden realization, a light-bulb moment when something finally becomes clear. You might even say a “eureka” moment.
It is said that “eureka” was what Archimedes shrieked from his bath on figuring out that when he stepped into it the volume of water he displaced must be equal to that of the part of his body submerged.
Eureka, also ancient Greek, means “I’ve found it/discovered it”. Archimedes being among that fortunate minority of men, he had found what he was looking for. Such was his excitement it is said that he rushed from his bath and ran through the streets of Syracuse in all his inglorious nakedness.
Of course, as everyone knows Eureka was also the name of Dorothy’s cat in The Wizard of Oz. And as we’re on a literary theme (we are?), where many James Joyce fans are concerned, epiphany is said to be at the kernel of much of his earlier works, particularly the short story collection Dubliners and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In Stephen Hero, an early draft of the Portrait, he wrote: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
Magi, by the way is also from the ancient Greek work “magus”, and referred to a caste of Persian priests said to be wise in the ways of astrology. It is also where the word “magic” comes from.