Prester John

Legendary King and Christian Priest of a faraway paradise, and according to the grail romance of Parzival, the nephew of Sir Perceval.

Some say there was a historical coming of one 'John, the Patriarch of the Indians', to Rome in 1122 to visit Pope Calixtus II. Later, a letter surfaced during the 1160s claiming to be from Prester (Presbyter or Priest) John. There were over one-hundred different versions of the letter published over the next few centuries. Most often, the letter was addressed to Emanuel I, the Byzantine Emperor of Rome, though some were addressed to the Pope or the King of France.

The letters said that Prester John ruled a huge Christian kingdom in the East, comprising the "three Indias." (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh?) His letters told of his kingdom, where "honey flows in our land and milk everywhere abounds." Prester John also "wrote" that he was besieged by infidels and barbarians and he needed the help of Christian European armies. In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent an expedition east to find Prester John; they never did. Later expeditions to India proved that there was no kingdom of Prester John there, and the search then focused on Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia, which had a fair-sized Christian and Jewish population.

The letters told of strange peoples that surrounded the kingdom and of the salamander that lives in fire, men with horns on their foreheads and three eyes, women who fought while mounted on horses (Amazon myth, anyone?), men that lived 200 years, unicorns, etc.

Though some think that the basis for Prester John came from the empire of Genghis Khan, others believe it was the wishful thinking of a culture engaged in the Crusades--as India is on the other side of the Middle East, had a small but ancient Christian community (believed to have been founded by St. Thomas), it would serve as comfort to the crusaders that on just the other side of their enemy lies a compatriot who may help them in their battles. With the Crusades more or less over by the start of the Age of Exploration, it makes sense that the kingdom would then move to the next unexplored place.


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Mary Jones 2004