April 5, 2021

J is for John

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Kingdom of Prester John was a legendary place that appeared in European stories in the twelfth through seventeenth centuries.  Prester comes from Greek presbuteros and means “elder.”  It was a title for high-ranking priests.  (In fact, the etymology of priest is from the same root, as is presbyterian.)  So, Prester John was a Christian king, descended from one of the Three Wise Kings of the Christmas story, of fabulous wealth and power.  The important thing about Prester John, however, was that his kingdom was not in Europe along with all the other Christian nations.
        Where was the Kingdom of Prester John?  About the only thing Europeans were sure of was that it was somewhere exotic, to the east.  Originally Prester John’s Kingdom was reported as being in India, but stretching as far as western Iran, as Prester John was on his way to conquer Jerusalem for the Christians.  The idea that help against the Muslims was coming from the East was an extremely appealing one to Europeans, and inspired continuing crusades.
        In the thirteenth century the story got mixed in with tales of the Mongols.  Prester John was conflated with Genghis Khan’s Christian foster father, and his Kingdom was then supposed to be in Central Asia.  While the Mongol Empire was stable during the thirteenth century, Europeans were able to travel in relative safety to areas they hadn’t been able to reach before, and the idea that they might be able to connect with the Kingdom of Prester John somewhere in or beyond the Mongol territories helped fuel this new flood (relatively speaking) of ambassadors, missionaries, and merchants.  When the Mongol Empire collapsed, however, and travel became more difficult again, the Kingdom of Prester John shifted back to its original location somewhere in India.
        By the fourteenth century Europeans began to connect Prester John with Ethiopia.  Ethiopia was known to be a powerful Christian nation on the other side of lands controlled by Muslim powers, and Europeans had only the vaguest notions of a distinction between India and Africa anyway.  My first picture above shows John on his throne in a map of Africa, but you can see that his kingdom is labelled as “India Major Ethiopia,” so there’s still quite a bit of confusion.  In the mid-fifteenth century, Ethiopian ambassadors to Florence were confused by the insistence of Europeans on calling their emperor Prester John.  His name was Zar’a Ya’eqob.
        Wherever the Kingdom of Prester John might be found, what’s so great about it anyway?  It is full of precious stones so large that people make them into platters and cups, and the entire palace and everything in it is built of gold and precious stones.  The Kingdom of Prester John contains something called the Gravelly Sea, which is not water but sand and gravel (and more of the precious stones).  Despite that, it ebbs and flows in waves and tides just like water, and moreover people catch in it large numbers of fish that are excellent for eating.  In the actual seas around various islands in the realm there are great magnetic rocks, so that if a ship sails too near, all the iron nails get sucked out of the hull, and the ship falls to pieces into the ocean.  There is a plain where each morning at sunrise trees sprout, which grow until at noon they are full-sized and covered with fruit.  Then all afternoon they shrink back down until by evening they disappear back into the earth.  Living in the Kingdom are not only elephants, crocodiles, and tigers, but also griffins, lamias, centaurs, satyrs, pygmies, giants, and the phoenix.  However, there are no scorpions, serpents, or poisonous animals.  Contradicting that statement is the fact that salamanders are raised there, and their cocoons are gathered for fiber, which is fireproof.  (Prester John himself wears robes of salamander cloth.)  Prester John also possesses a magic mirror which allows him to see all that is happening across the whole of his marvelous kingdom.  His Kingdom is really an empire, as 72 kings pay him tribute, and they are not all Christian, but a whole variety of different religions and cultures.
        These descriptions of the Kingdom of Prester John circulated in published accounts of traveller’s tales, including Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, as well as a famous letter that spread across Europe starting in the mid-twelfth century, that claimed to be from Prester John himself to the emperor of Byzantium.  There really weren’t any pictures of the lands, since any illustrations tended to focus on the king Prester John rather than his kingdom.  Map-making didn’t really advance until the sixteenth century, by which time mapmakers were placing the Kingdom of Prester John in Africa.  The second map here also shows John on his throne.  He’s looking a little smudgy, but there are some other fun things, too.  You can see an excellent dragon to the east and a more wyvern-ish dragon in a cave to the north.  There’s a unicorn to the northeast, and to John’s west is the Garden of Eden, source of multiple rivers and with the serpent coiled around the treetrunk.  I include also an illustration of two of the wonders to be found in the Kingdom of Prester John according to Mandeville: feathered men, and an orchard of fruit that confers long life.  Next I have a nice woodcut frontispiece from another book about the Kingdom of Prester John, although I suspect it may simply be showing the author setting off on his journey, rather than showing the Kingdom of Prester John.  I’m really not sure.  Finally, I have a picture of Prester John greeting some Europeans.  You can see some amount of landscape in the background, including a unicorn.
        There were tales of marvelous lands all over the world, so why did the Kingdom of Prester John have such a hold upon the European imagination?  Because it was ruled by a Christian king and therefore it was seen as an ally.  To the beleaguered European Christians, watching the advancing threats of Islam and the Mongol hordes from all land directions, the idea that a powerful kingdom was out there somewhere, ready to join them if they could only make contact…  That was not a hope anyone wanted to give up on.  It’s like a hundred sci fi stories about aliens invading Earth intent on our annexation or destruction, and then finding one wise and powerful advanced alien civilization that is actually on our side, ready to save us from all the hostile invaders.
        The MORAL of the Kingdom of Prester John:  Surely we must have friends out there somewhere!
              OR:  My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (hey-la,hey-la)…
        So, alien first contact: invaders or allies?

[Pictures: Detail from portolan map by Diogo Homem, c 1555-59 (Image from British Library);

Portolan chart by Vesconte Maggiolo, 1516 (Image from The Huntington);

Feathered men and Orchards with fruit that brings long life, from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, c 1425-1450 (Image from British Library);

Frontispiece from The Lands of Prester John by Francisco Alvarez, 1540 (Image from rowan);

Decoration from a Map of North-East Africa and Arabia by H. Lobo and M. Almeida, 1707 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]


Olga Godim said...

Never heard of Prester John. I'm fascinated by the legend of salamanders and their cocoons as the source of fireproof clothing. Our firefighters would appreciate those.

Melanie Atherton Allen said...

Hello! Anne, this is great. I've always wanted to know more about Prester John, but I have this thing where I'm lazy and don't do the things I want to do sometimes if they seem like they are going to involve effort. And here you are with this lovely overview! Thanks! And I didn't know that the thinking on where the place was has shifted around so much: I thought that people always thought of it as being in Africa, though of course (as you point out) Europeans back then would have been pretty vague on what was meant by Africa anyway.

AJ Blythe said...

I have never heard of Prester John, so this was a really interesting read. I love mythology.

Lisa said...

You have given a few of us something new to think about! I had not heard of Prester John either!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Olga, one theory is that "salamander wool" was really asbestos, in which case firefighters have used it!

Melanie, I can be kind of the opposite: I will spend so much effort on "fun" things that hours, days, or weeks later I finally realize -- oog, why on earth was I putting so much work into something I didn't even have to do?!?

So glad to have found something new for you, especially as I know many of you are very knowledgeable!

JadeLi said...

This is a totally new place to me. I enjoyed the trip through the photos and your explanation of the allure of this mythical place.

My "J"ethro Tull song of the day is here:

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

The story of the Gravelly Sea made of sand and gravel, and the magnetic rocks that sucked the iron nails out of ships' hulls intrigues me. Such perils of nature.

Frédérique said...

I like the morals of the story, both of them ;)
Quilting Patchwork & Appliqué

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I have always heard of this but never knew what it was all about. Thanks for the education!

Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

This made me remember Umberto Eco's Baudolino, when a bunch of university students get high and make up the whole Prester John thing :D

The Multicolored Diary

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Haven't heard of this one before.

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Jengu: The Mermaid from Africa

Grace Robinson said...

I've heard of Prester John, but knew nothing about him or his kingdom. Great info!