Sunday, January 20, 2013

Prester John, Part 2

Prester John on his throne
Almost 100 manuscripts exist that are part of the legend of Prester John, mostly copies of the letter supposedly written from him to one or more popes. The European Middle Ages was fascinated by the exotic tales of the Far East, and excited at the idea of a powerful Christian Priest-King responsible for promoting Christianity in areas not yet reached by western missionaries.

So what was the world of Prester John like?

He ruled over 72 countries, for one thing. In those lands could be found men who lived for 200 years, men with horns on their foreheads or three eyes, unicorns, and women warriors who fought on horseback. Several of the features of his world were apparently "borrowed" from the 3rd century Romance of Alexander, such as cannibals, elephants, headless men whose faces were on their torsos, pygmies, rivers that flowed out of Eden, and the fountain of youth.

Inhabitants of Prester John's land
Exactly where these fabulous creatures and locations could be found was debatable. Marco Polo identified Prester John's kingdom with a Nestorian Christian tribe in Mongolia. India was often listed as his location, but India was a vague concept to most Europeans. A legend that Ethiopia was Christian led many to assume that Prester John ruled that land. The Portugese on their 15th century maritime excursions searched the coasts of Africa hoping to find access to his kingdom. Once the globe had been circumnavigated in the 1600s and Africa and India were discovered to be lacking in any ruler named Prester John, the legend was given up.

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