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Prester John

Prester John (also Presbyter John) was a legendary Christian ruler in Asia (some say his kingdom was in Northern Africa), combining the roles of patriarch and king.

"If I want him to remain alive until I return what is that to you? Because of this the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die." (The Gospel of John 21:22-23)

Another kernel of the myth may have been in Eusebius' quotes from Papias, whose apostolic tradition had been imparted by the prespyter John.

The legend of Prester John began in earnest in the 12th century with two reports of visits of an archbishop of India to Constantinople and of a Patriarch of India to Rome at the time of Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124). These visits cannot be confirmed, evidence of both being second hand reports.

Otto of Freising in his Chronicon of 1145 reports that in 1144, he had met, in the presence of pope Eugene II in Viterbo, a certain Hugo, bishop of Gabala, who told him that Prester John was a Nestorian Christian, was descended from one of the Three Magi, and had defeated the Mohammedans in a great battle "not many years ago". After this battle, Prester John allegedly set out for Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land, but the swollen waters of the Tigris compelled him to return to his own country.

What is very definite is a letter, the Letter of Prester John, believed to be a forgery, which was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180) by Prester John, the King of India. This letter, appearing around 1165, which recounted many marvels of richness and magic, captured the imagination of Europeans and circulated in ever more embellished form for centuries and shortly after the invention of printing in printed form, being still current in the popular culture during the period of European exploration . During the Second Crusade there was also hope that Prester John would come to the aid of the holy cities and capture back Palestine from the Muslims.

The reports were so far believed that Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John via his emissary Phillip, his physician, on September 27, 1177. Phillip was never heard of again. Several Asian tribes were identified with Prester John by travellers, but from the 14th century onward his empire was sometimes placed in Africa, and in the 15th and 16th centuries it became considered to be equivalent to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia.

Prester John was often identified as a descendant of the Magi, or a descendant of St. Thomas, who had supposedly founded an early (and therefore more pure) church in India. When the Mongols invaded Palestine in the 13th century, the Christians inhabiting the remnants of the Crusader States also believed Genghis Khan was Prester John, coming to rescue them from the Muslims.

Another possible origin for Prester John is Toghrul Khan , a Nestorian Khan defeated by Genghis. The lingering belief in a Nestorian kingdom in the east accounts for several Christian embassies to the Mongols, in particular the one of William of Rubruck, who was sent to the Tartars by Louis IX in 1253.

Further Reading

  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science: During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, Volume II, pp. 236-245, Columbia University Press, 1923, New York and London, Hardcover, 1036 pages ISBN 0231087950
  • Edition and study of the "Letter of Prester John to the Emperor Manuel of Constantinople": The Anglo-Norman rhymed version, Johannes Presbyter, Robert Anthony Vitale, College Park, Maryland, 1975
  • Wilhelm Baum, Die Verwandlungen des Mythos vom Reich des Priesterkönigs Johannes, Klagenfurt 1999
  • Umberto Eco, Baudolino ISBN 0156029065 -- Baudolino and his ragtag friends engage in typical scholastic debates of the period, trying to determine the dimensions of Solomon's Temple and the location of the Earthly Paradise. And when the Emperor needs support in his claims for saintly lineage, who but Baudolino can craft the perfect letter of homage from the legendary Prester John, Holy (and wholly fictitious) Christian King of the East?
  • Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, which tells much of Prester John's supposed history, written in 1298. See especially Book I, Chapters 46-50, 59; and Book II,Chapters 38-39.
  • Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John ISBN 1842124099
  • Charles Beckingham, Prester John, the Mongols and the Ten Lost Tribes, Aldershot 1996, ISBN 086078553X -- Assembly of the essential source texts and studies.

External Links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 08:31:06
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04