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Prester John

Source: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages

About the middle of the twelfth century, a rumor circulated through
Europe that there reigned in Asia a powerful Christian Emperor,
Presbyter Johannes. In a bloody fight he had broken the power of the
Mussulmans, and was ready to come to the assistance of the Crusaders.
Great was the exultation in Europe, for of late the news from the East
had been gloomy and depressing, the power of the infidel had
increased, overwhelming masses of men had been brought into the field
against the chivalry of Christendom, and it was felt that the cross
must yield before the odious crescent.

The news of the success of the Priest-King opened a door of hope to
the desponding Christian world. Pope Alexander III. determined at
once to effect a union with this mysterious personage, and on the 27th
of September, 1177, wrote him a letter, which he intrusted to his
physician, Philip, to deliver in person.

Philip started on his embassy, but never returned. The conquests of
Tschengis-Khan again attracted the eyes of Christian Europe to the
East. The Mongol hordes were rushing in upon the west with devastating
ferocity; Russia, Poland, Hungary, and the eastern provinces of
Germany, had succumbed, or suffered grievously; and the fears of other
nations were roused lest they too should taste the misery of a
Mongolian invasion. It was Gog and Magog come to slaughter, and the
times of Antichrist were dawning. But the battle of Liegnitz stayed
them in their onward career, and Europe was saved.

Pope Innocent IV. determined to convert these wild hordes of
barbarians, and subject them to the cross of Christ; he therefore sent
among them a number of Dominican and Franciscan missioners, and
embassies of peace passed between the Pope, the King of France, and
the Mogul Khan.

The result of these communications with the East was, that the
travellers learned how false were the prevalent notions of a mighty
Christian empire existing in Central Asia. Vulgar superstition or
conviction is not, however, to be upset by evidence, and the locality
of the monarchy was merely transferred by the people to Africa, and
they fixed upon Abyssinia, with a show of truth, as the seat of the
famous Priest-King. However, still some doubted. John de Plano Carpini
and Marco Polo, though they acknowledged the existence of a Christian
monarch in Abyssinia, yet stoutly maintained as well that the Prester
John of popular belief reigned in splendor somewhere in the dim

But before proceeding with the history of this strange fable, it will
be well to extract the different accounts given of the Priest-King and
his realm by early writers; and we shall then be better able to judge
of the influence the myth obtained in Europe.

Otto of Freisingen is the first author to mention the monarchy of
Prester John with whom we are acquainted. Otto wrote a chronicle up to
the date 1156, and he relates that in 1145 the Catholic Bishop of
Cabala visited Europe to lay certain complaints before the Pope. He
mentioned the fall of Edessa, and also "he stated that a few years ago
a certain King and Priest called John, who lives on the farther side
of Persia and Armenia, in the remote East, and who, with all his
people, were Christians, though belonging to the Nestorian Church, had
overcome the royal brothers Samiardi, kings of the Medes and Persians,
and had captured Ecbatana, their capital and residence. The said kings
had met with their Persian, Median, and Assyrian troops, and had
fought for three consecutive days, each side having determined to die
rather than take to flight. Prester John, for so they are wont to call
him, at length routed the Persians, and after a bloody battle,
remained victorious. After which victory the said John was hastening
to the assistance of the Church at Jerusalem, but his host, on
reaching the Tigris, was hindered from passing, through a deficiency
in boats, and he directed his march North, since he had heard that the
river was there covered with ice. In that place he had waited many
years, expecting severe cold; but the winters having proved
unpropitious, and the severity of the climate having carried off many
soldiers, he had been forced to retreat to his own land. This king
belongs to the family of the Magi, mentioned in the Gospel, and he
rules over the very people formerly governed by the Magi; moreover,
his fame and his wealth are so great, that he uses an emerald sceptre

"Excited by the example of his ancestors, who came to worship Christ
in his cradle, he had proposed to go to Jerusalem, but had been
impeded by the above-mentioned causes."[19]

At the same time the story crops up in other quarters; so that we
cannot look upon Otto as the inventor of the myth. The celebrated
Maimonides alludes to it in a passage quoted by Joshua Lorki, a Jewish
physician to Benedict XIII. Maimonides lived from 1135 to 1204. The
passage is as follows: "It is evident both from the letters of Rambam
(Maimonides), whose memory be blessed, and from the narration of
merchants who have visited the ends of the earth, that at this time
the root of our faith is to be found in the lands of Babel and Teman,
where long ago Jerusalem was an exile; not reckoning those who live in
the land of Paras[20] and Madai,[21] of the exiles of Schomrom, the
number of which people is as the sand: of these some are still under
the yoke of Paras, who is called the Great-Chief Sultan by the Arabs;
others live in a place under the yoke of a strange people ... governed
by a Christian chief, Preste-Cuan by name. With him they have made a
compact, and he with them; and this is a matter concerning which there
can be no manner of doubt."

Benjamin of Tudela, another Jew, travelled in the East between the
years 1159 and 1173, the last being the date of his death. He wrote an
account of his travels, and gives in it some information with regard
to a mythical Jew king, who reigned in the utmost splendor over a
realm inhabited by Jews alone, situate somewhere in the midst of a
desert of vast extent. About this period there appeared a document
which produced intense excitement throughout Europe--a letter, yes! a
letter from the mysterious personage himself to Manuel Comnenus,
Emperor of Constantinople (1143-1180). The exact date of this
extraordinary epistle cannot be fixed with any certainty, but it
certainly appeared before 1241, the date of the conclusion of the
chronicle of Albericus Trium Fontium. This Albericus relates that in
the year 1165 "Presbyter Joannes, the Indian king, sent his wonderful
letter to various Christian princes, and especially to Manuel of
Constantinople, and Frederic the Roman Emperor." Similar letters were
sent to Alexander III., to Louis VII. of France, and to the King of
Portugal, which are alluded to in chronicles and romances, and which
were indeed turned into rhyme, and sung all over Europe by minstrels
and trouvA"res. The letter is as follows:--

"John, Priest by the Almighty power of God and the Might of our Lord
Jesus Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, to his friend Emanuel,
Prince of Constantinople, greeting, wishing him health, prosperity,
and the continuance of Divine favor.

"Our Majesty has been informed that you hold our Excellency in love,
and that the report of our greatness has reached you. Moreover, we
have heard through our treasurer that you have been pleased to send to
us some objects of art and interest, that our Exaltedness might be
gratified thereby.

"Being human, I receive it in good part, and we have ordered our
treasurer to send you some of our articles in return.

"Now we desire to be made certain that you hold the right faith, and
in all things cleave to Jesus Christ, our Lord, for we have heard that
your court regard you as a god, though we know that you are mortal,
and subject to human infirmities.... Should you desire to learn the
greatness and excellency of our Exaltedness and of the land subject to
our sceptre, then hear and believe:--I, Presbyter Johannes, the Lord
of Lords, surpass all under heaven in virtue, in riches, and in power;
seventy-two kings pay us tribute.... In the three Indies our
Magnificence rules, and our land extends beyond India, where rests the
body of the holy Apostle Thomas; it reaches towards the sunrise over
the wastes, and it trends towards deserted Babylon near the tower of
Babel. Seventy-two provinces, of which only a few are Christian, serve
us. Each has its own king, but all are tributary to us.

"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 with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies,
forty-ell-high giants, Cyclopses, and similar women; it is the home,
too, of the phA"nix, and of nearly all living animals. We have some
people subject to us who feed on the flesh of men and of prematurely
born animals, and who never fear death. When any of these people die,
their friends and relations eat him ravenously, for they regard it as
a main duty to munch human flesh. Their names are Gog and Magog, Anie,
Agit, Azenach, Fommeperi, Befari, Conei-Samante, Agrimandri,
Vintefolei, Casbei, Alanei. These and similar nations were shut in
behind lofty mountains by Alexander the Great, towards the North. We
lead them at our pleasure against our foes, and neither man nor beast
is left undevoured, if our Majesty gives the requisite permission. And
when all our foes are eaten, then we return with our hosts home again.
These accursed fifteen nations will burst forth from the four quarters
of the earth at the end of the world, in the times of Antichrist, and
overrun all the abodes of the Saints as well as the great city Rome,
which, by the way, we are prepared to give to our son who will be
born, along with all Italy, Germany, the two Gauls, Britain and
Scotland. We shall also give him Spain and all the land as far as the
icy sea. The nations to which I have alluded, according to the words
of the prophet, shall not stand in the judgment, on account of their
offensive practices, but will be consumed to ashes by a fire which
will fall on them from heaven.

"Our land streams with honey, and is overflowing with milk. In one
region grows no poisonous herb, nor does a querulous frog ever quack
in it; no scorpion exists, nor does the serpent glide amongst the
grass, nor can any poisonous animals exist in it, or injure any one.

"Among the heathen, flows through a certain province the River Indus;
encircling Paradise, it spreads its arms in manifold windings through
the entire province. Here are found the emeralds, sapphires,
carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyxes, beryls, sardius, and other
costly stones. Here grows the plant Assidos, which, when worn by any
one, protects him from the evil spirit, forcing it to state its
business and name; consequently the foul spirits keep out of the way
there. In a certain land subject to us, all kinds of pepper is
gathered, and is exchanged for corn and bread, leather and cloth....
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 any one
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. 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 altogether, yet fish are cast up upon the beach of various
kinds, very tasty, and the like are nowhere else to be seen. Three
days' journey from this sea are mountains from which rolls down a
stony, waterless river, which opens into the sandy sea. As soon as the
stream reaches the sea, its stones vanish in it, and are never seen
again. As long as the river is in motion, it cannot be crossed; only
four days a week is it possible to traverse it. Between the sandy sea
and the said mountains, in a certain plain is a fountain of singular
virtue, which purges Christians and would-be Christians from all
transgressions. The water stands four inches high in a hollow stone
shaped like a mussel-shell. Two saintly old men watch by it, and ask
the comers whether they are Christians, or are about to become
Christians, then whether they desire healing with all their hearts. If
they have answered well, they are bidden to lay aside their clothes,
and to step into the mussel. If what they said be true, then the water
begins to rise and gush over their heads; thrice does the water thus
lift itself, and every one who has entered the mussel leaves it cured
of every complaint.

"Near the wilderness trickles between barren mountains a subterranean
rill, which can only by chance be reached, for only occasionally the
earth gapes, and he who would descend must do it with precipitation,
ere the earth closes again. All that is gathered under the ground
there is gem and precious stone. The brook pours into another river,
and the inhabitants of the neighborhood obtain thence abundance of
precious stones. Yet they never venture to sell them without having
first offered them to us for our private use: should we decline them,
they are at liberty to dispose of them to strangers. Boys there are
trained to remain three or four days under water, diving after the

"Beyond the stone river are the ten tribes of the Jews, which, though
subject to their own kings, are, for all that, our slaves and
tributary to our Majesty. In one of our lands, hight Zone, are worms
called in our tongue Salamanders. These worms can only live in fire,
and they build cocoons like silk-worms, which are unwound by the
ladies of our palace, and spun into cloth and dresses, which are worn
by our Exaltedness. These dresses, in order to be cleaned and washed,
are cast into flames.... When we go to war, we have fourteen golden
and bejewelled crosses borne before us instead of banners; each of
these crosses is followed by 10,000 horsemen, and 100,000 foot
soldiers fully armed, without reckoning those in charge of the luggage
and provision.

"When we ride abroad plainly, we have a wooden, unadorned cross,
without gold or gem about it, borne before us, in order that we may
meditate on the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ; also a golden
bowl filled with earth, to remind us of that whence we sprung, and
that to which we must return; but besides these there is borne a
silver bowl full of gold, as a token to all that we are the Lord of

"All riches, such as are upon the world, our Magnificence possesses in
superabundance. With us no one lies, for he who speaks a lie is
thenceforth regarded as dead; he is no more thought of, or honored by
us. No vice is tolerated by us. Every year we undertake a pilgrimage,
with retinue of war, to the body of the holy prophet Daniel, which is
near the desolated site of Babylon. In our realm fishes are caught,
the blood of which dyes purple. The Amazons and the Brahmins are
subject to us. The palace in which our Supereminency resides, is built
after the pattern of the castle built by the Apostle Thomas for the
Indian king Gundoforus. Ceilings, joists, and architrave are of Sethym
wood, the roof of ebony, which can never catch fire. Over the gable of
the palace are, at the extremities, two golden apples, in each of
which are two carbuncles, so that the gold may shine by day, and the
carbuncles by night. The greater gates of the palace are of sardius,
with the horn of the horned snake inwrought, so that no one can bring
poison within.

"The other portals are of ebony. The windows are of crystal; the
tables are partly of gold, partly of amethyst, and the columns
supporting the tables are partly of ivory, partly of amethyst. The
court in which we watch the jousting is floored with onyx in order to
increase the courage of the combatants. In the palace, at night,
nothing is burned for light but wicks supplied with balsam.... Before
our palace stands a mirror, the ascent to which consists of five and
twenty steps of porphyry and serpentine." After a description of the
gems adorning this mirror, which is guarded night and day by three
thousand armed men, he explains its use: "We look therein and behold
all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our

"Seven kings wait upon us monthly, in turn, with sixty-two dukes, two
hundred and fifty-six counts and marquises: and twelve archbishops
sit at table with us on our right, and twenty bishops on the left,
besides the patriarch of St. Thomas, the Sarmatian Protopope, and the
Archpope of Susa.... Our lord high steward is a primate and king, our
cup-bearer is an archbishop and king, our chamberlain a bishop and
king, our marshal a king and abbot."

I may be spared further extracts from this extraordinary letter, which
proceeds to describe the church in which Prester John worships, by
enumerating the precious stones of which it is constructed, and their
special virtues.

Whether this letter was in circulation before Pope Alexander wrote
his, it is not easy to decide. Alexander does not allude to it, but
speaks of the reports which have reached him of the piety and the
magnificence of the Priest-King. At the same time, there runs a tone
of bitterness through the letter, as though the Pope had been galled
at the pretensions of this mysterious personage, and perhaps winced
under the prospect of the man-eaters overrunning Italy, as suggested
by John the Priest. The papal epistle is an assertion of the claims of
the See of Rome to universal dominion, and it assures the Eastern
Prince-Pope that his Christian professions are worthless, unless he
submits to the successor of Peter. "Not every one that saith unto me,
Lord, Lord," &c., quotes the Pope, and then explains that the will of
God is that every monarch and prelate should eat humble pie to the
Sovereign Pontiff.

Sir John Maundevil gives the origin of the priestly title of the
Eastern despot, in his curious book of travels.

"So it befelle, that this emperour cam, with a Cristene knyght with
him, into a chirche in Egypt: and it was Saterday in Wyttson woke. And
the bishop made orders. And he beheld and listened the servyse fulle
tentyfly: and he asked the Cristene knyght, what men of degree thei
scholden ben, that the prelate had before him. And the knyght
answerede and seyde, that thei scholde ben prestes. And then the
emperour seyde, that he wolde no longer ben clept kyng ne emperour,
but preest: and that he wolde have the name of the first preest, that
wente out of the chirche; and his name was John. And so evere more
sittiens, he is clept Prestre John."

It is probable that the foundation of the whole Prester-John myth lay
in the report which reached Europe of the wonderful successes of
Nestorianism in the East, and there seems reason to believe that the
famous letter given above was a Nestorian fabrication. It certainly
looks un-European; the gorgeous imagery is thoroughly Eastern, and the
disparaging tone in which Rome is spoken of could hardly have been the
expression of Western feelings. The letter has the object in view of
exalting the East in religion and arts to an undue eminence at the
expense of the West, and it manifests some ignorance of European
geography, when it speaks of the land extending from Spain to the
Polar Sea. Moreover, the sites of the patriarchates, and the dignity
conferred on that of St. Thomas, are indications of a Nestorian bias.

A brief glance at the history of this heretical Church may be of value
here, as showing that there really was a foundation for the wild
legends concerning a Christian empire in the East, so prevalent in
Europe. Nestorius, a priest of Antioch and a disciple of St.
Chrysostom, was elevated by the emperor to the patriarchate of
Constantinople, and in the year 428 began to propagate his heresy,
denying the hypostatic union. The Council of Ephesus denounced him,
and, in spite of the emperor and court, Nestorius was anathematized
and driven into exile. His sect spread through the East, and became a
flourishing church. It reached to China, where the emperor was all but
converted; its missionaries traversed the frozen tundras of Siberia,
preaching their maimed Gospel to the wild hordes which haunted those
dreary wastes; it faced Buddhism, and wrestled with it for the
religious supremacy in Thibet; it established churches in Persia and
in Bokhara; it penetrated India; it formed colonies in Ceylon, in
Siam, and in Sumatra; so that the Catholicos or Pope of Bagdad
exercised sway more extensive than that ever obtained by the successor
of St. Peter. The number of Christians belonging to that communion
probably exceeded that of the members of the true Catholic Church in
East and West. But the Nestorian Church was not founded on the Rock;
it rested on Nestorius; and when the rain descended, and the winds
blew, and the floods came, and beat upon that house, it fell, leaving
scarce a fragment behind.

Rubruquis the Franciscan, who in 1253 was sent on a mission into
Tartary, was the first to let in a little light on the fable. He
writes, "The Catai dwelt beyond certain mountains across which I
wandered, and in a plain in the midst of the mountains lived once an
important Nestorian shepherd, who ruled over the Nestorian people,
called Nayman. When Coir-Khan died, the Nestorian people raised this
man to be king, and called him King Johannes, and related of him ten
times as much as the truth. The Nestorians thereabouts have this way
with them, that about nothing they make a great fuss, and thus they
have got it noised abroad that Sartach, Mangu-Khan, and Ken-Khan were
Christians, simply because they treated Christians well, and showed
them more honor than other people. Yet, in fact, they were not
Christians at all. And in like manner the story got about that there
was a great King John. However, I traversed his pastures, and no one
knew anything about him, except a few Nestorians. In his pastures
lives Ken-Khan, at whose court was Brother Andrew, whom I met on my
way back. This Johannes had a brother, a famous shepherd, named Unc,
who lived three weeks' journey beyond the mountains of Caracatais."

This Unk-Khan was a real individual; he lost his life in the year
1203. Kuschhik, prince of the Nayman, and follower of Kor-Khan, fell
in 1218.

Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller (1254-1324), identifies Unk-Khan
with Prester John; he says, "I will now tell you of the deeds of the
Tartars, how they gained the mastery, and spread over the whole earth.
The Tartars dwelt between Georgia and Bargu, where there is a vast
plain and level country, on which are neither cities nor forts, but
capital pasturage and water. They had no chief of their own, but paid
to Prester Johannes tribute. Of the greatness of this Prester
Johannes, who was properly called Un-Khan, the whole world spake; the
Tartars gave him one of every ten head of cattle. When Prester John
noticed that they were increasing, he feared them, and planned how he
could injure them. He determined therefore to scatter them, and he
sent barons to do this. But the Tartars guessed what Prester John
purposed ... and they went away into the wide wastes of the North,
where they might be beyond his reach." He then goes on to relate how
Tschengis-(Jenghiz-)Khan became the head of the Tartars, and how he
fought against Prester John, and, after a desperate fight, overcame
and slew him.

The Syriac Chronicle of the Jacobite Primate, Gregory Bar-HebrAus
(born 1226, died 1286), also identifies Unk-Khan with Prester John.
"In the year of the Greeks 1514, of the Arabs 599 (A. D. 1202), when
Unk-Khan, who is the Christian King John, ruled over a stock of the
barbarian Hunns, called Kergt, Tschingys-Khan served him with great
zeal. When John observed the superiority and serviceableness of the
other, he envied him, and plotted to seize and murder him. But two
sons of Unk-Khan, having heard this, told it to Tschingys; whereupon
he and his comrades fled by night, and secreted themselves. Next
morning Unk-Khan took possession of the Tartar tents, but found them
empty. Then the party of Tschingys fell upon him, and they met by the
spring called Balschunah, and the side of Tschingys won the day; and
the followers of Unk-Khan were compelled to yield. They met again
several times, till Unk-Khan was utterly discomfited, and was slain
himself, and his wives, sons, and daughters carried into captivity.
Yet we must consider that King John the Kergtajer was not cast down
for nought; nay, rather, because he had turned his heart from the fear
of Christ his Lord, who had exalted him, and had taken a wife of the
Zinish nation, called Quarakhata. Because he forsook the religion of
his ancestors and followed strange gods, therefore God took the
government from him, and gave it to one better than he, and whose
heart was right before God."

Some of the early travellers, such as John de Plano Carpini and Marco
Polo, in disabusing the popular mind of the belief in Prester John as
a mighty Asiatic Christian monarch, unintentionally turned the popular
faith in that individual into a new direction. They spoke of the black
people of Abascia in Ethiopia, which, by the way, they called Middle
India, as a great people subject to a Christian monarch.

Marco Polo says that the true monarch of Abyssinia is Christ; but that
it is governed by six kings, three of whom are Christians and three
Saracens, and that they are in league with the Soudan of Aden.

Bishop Jordanus, in his description of the world, accordingly sets
down Abyssinia as the kingdom of Prester John; and such was the
popular impression, which was confirmed by the appearance at intervals
of ambassadors at European courts from the King of Abyssinia. The
discovery of the Cape of Good Hope was due partly to a desire
manifested in Portugal to open communications with this monarch,[22]
and King John II. sent two men learned in Oriental languages through
Egypt to the court of Abyssinia. The might and dominion of this
prince, who had replaced the Tartar chief in the popular creed as
Prester John, was of course greatly exaggerated, and was supposed to
extend across Arabia and Asia to the wall of China. The spread of
geographical knowledge has contracted the area of his dominions, and a
critical acquaintance with history has exploded the myth which
invested Unk-Khan, the nomad chief, with all the attributes of a
demigod, uniting in one the utmost pretensions of a Pope and the
proudest claims of a monarch.


[19] Otto, Ep. Frising., lib. vii. c. 33.

[20] Persia.

[21] Media.

[22] Ludolfi Hist. A†thiopica, lib. ii. cap. 1, 2. Petrus, Petri filius
LusitaniA princeps, M. Pauli Veneti librum (qui de Indorum rebus
multa: speciatim vero de Presbytero Johanne aliqua magnifice scripsit)
Venetiis secum in patriam detulerat, qui (Chronologicis Lusitanorum
testantibus) prAcipuam Johanni Regi ansam dedit IndicA navigationis,
quam Henricus Johannis I. filius, patruus ejus, tentaverat,
prosequendA, &c.

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