As I do occasional research for my novels, I like to look at the way people used to imagine faraway lands in a fantastical mode. In the medieval times in particular, travelers told tales of the most incredible creatures and places, things that would not be out of place in a Star Trek episode. One of the more interesting of these “magical kingdoms” is the India of Prester John. (Most of this blog post is my translation of this Russian article).
Who is Prester John?
Christian tradition concerning Apostle Thomas preaching in India has long given rise to legends of a faraway and mysterious India. It was a Christian kingdom, ruled by a certain “Prester (priest) John.” This legend, widespread especially in the late middle ages, even reached Russia, where the legendary priest-king was known as “The Tsar and Priest Ivan.”
The first mention of Prester John is found in the “Chronicle” of Otto, Bishop of Freising. In an entry dated to 1145, Otto explains that he heard an interesting story in Rome. The Bishop of Gabala told of a Christian ruler in the distant lands of the East. At roughly the same time, someone wrote a false letter from “Prester John” to the Byzantine Emperor Emanuel Comnenos. The “India” ruled by this Prester John was a half-legendary country, found in various parts of the empire. In Medieval Europe, people imagined there to be “three Indias.” The Prester John who wrote the letter claimed to be ruler of all three, including the one where the body of Apostle Thomas was buried.
The lands of this Prester John are filled with all manner of strange creatures and peoples:
Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.
It is a land of unexplained and mysterious phenomena:
In our territory is a certain waterless sea consisting of tumbling billows of sand never at rest. None have crossed this sea — it lacks water all together, yet fish of various kinds are cast up upon the beach, very tasty, and the like are nowhere else to be seen.
It even holds the secret of immortality, the very Fountain of Youth itself:
At the foot of Mount Olympus bubbles up a spring which changes its flavor hour by hour, night and day, and the spring is scarcely three days’ journey from Paradise, out of which Adam was driven. If anyone has tasted thrice of the fountain, from that day he will feel no fatigue, but will, as long as he lives, be as a man of thirty years. Here are found the small stones called Nudiosi which, if borne about the body, prevent the sight from waxing feeble and restore it where it is lost. The more the stone is looked at, the keener becomes the sight.
Fascinated by this mysterious Christian ruler, travelers, missionaries, and embassies from Europe in the thirteenth century (including Marco Polo) repeatedly tried to find the descendants of Prester John in Asia.
Russian Legends of Prester John
The Old Slavonic version of Prester John’s letter to Emperor Emanuel, called “The Legend of the Indian Kingdom,” appeared in Russia in the thirteenth century. In it, “The Tsar and Priest Ivan” is called a “champion of the Orthodox Faith in Christ.”
During the Tatar-Mongol invasions, new life was breathed into the legend. In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, rumors abounded of Genguis Khan’s many conquests. After Crusaders took back the Egyptian city of Damietta, a certain bishop began to preach that Genguis Khan was actually David, the ruler of the “two Indias,” and he would soon come with his savage armies and help the Christians destroy the Saracens. More news from the Holy Land gave Europe hope that the Mongols would be that powerful army that would help the Crusaders win back the Holy Land. However, when Batu-Khan systematically destroyed the Russian princedoms, the idealistic hopes that the Mongols were the warriors of “King David” quickly disappeared.
Soon afterward, Batu reached Hungary. Since the Mongols had “discredited” themselves in the eyes of the Europeans, the legend of Prester John had to evolve once again to survive. Very soon a new variant of the legend appeared, in which the Mongols rose up against Prester John and killed him.
The Third India
Not having found the legendary kingdom in Asia, Europeans from the end of the thirteenth century began to seek it in Africa, where the “third India” was supposed to be found. In 1321-1324, a missionary Dominican named Jordanus de Severac wrote a book called the Mirabilia, a description of the “far India,” in which he equates the king of Ethiopia with Prester John.
Interestingly, the search for the treasures of the Indies, associated with Columbus and a host of other navigators of the fifteenth century, was at least partially a search for the kingdom of Prester John. The Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was one of these. He traveled farther and farther in hopes of finding the riches of the mysterious kingdom. The Portuguese followed him to Ethiopia and did find a Christian kingdom. However, this kingdom was a poor comparison to the legend. There were few treasures and even fewer miracles. And so, Ethiopia soon began to lose its luster and its association with the Kingdom of Prester John.
1530 was the last year that a “letter from Prester John” made its way across Europe. People were basically fed up with the legend. All the same, in European cartography, the kingdom of Prester John continued to be drawn until the seventeenth century. Even today, the legend continues to exert fascination, from Umberto Eco’s novel Baudolino to the songs of the Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov to Catherynne M. Valente’s fantasy novel The Habitation of the Blessed.
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