“Prester John” was the unlikely name of a legendary Christian king somewhere far in the East. From century to century, people kept hearing and passing on rumors of his wealth and piety. A medieval Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was thought to be the West’s only hope as the Turks and Mongols closed in.
There was a longstanding tradition that colonies of long-lost forgotten Christians were in India. Some said the Magi had gone back to Persia and India after seeing Jesus in Bethlehem, and that belief began there. There’s a firmer tradition that Jesus’ disciple Thomas sailed to the east, including a set of Jewish colonies on the southwest coast of India. The churches there all remember St. Thomas as their founder, and some accounts recall the names of his first converts among the Brahmins. Their liturgy has always been in Syriac, rather than Greek or Latin. They may be the original core of the legend of a lost Christian nation in the east.
In the 400s, followers of Bishop Nestorius left Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon declared their ideas to be heresy. Like Thomas, they went eastward. Christians in Persia wanted to be separate from the Roman-Byzantine church because they were being accused of disloyalty in Persia. When Nestorian priests came as banned refugees, they were welcomed. From Persia, Nestorian missionaries went further east, including south to the coastal Indian churches. Further, we know that in Genghis Khan’s time, some of his neighbor tribes were Nestorian Christians. All of the Great Khan’s sons married Christians!
But the stories of the lost King Prester John began before the time of Genghis Khan and persisted long after. “Prester” seems to be a corruption of Presbyter, or Elder. He was a king, but he was also a bishop and, additionally, a descendant of the Magi.
Bishop Otto of Friesing, who accompanied Conrad of Germany on the Second Crusade, believed that Prester John almost joined them. As King of India, he had beaten the Muslim Persians solidly just before the Crusade began. His army came as far as the Tigris River to help win back Edessa, but there he met with an unexpected check. Otto says that someone told him the river would freeze so that his army could ride across it. Prester John’s army went north to find the ice, but the Tigris never freezes over. They waited until another summer had passed and winter came again, but there was still no ice. His army gradually drifted away, and Prester John had to turn for home without ever seeing Jerusalem. What a near miss! He could have saved the whole Crusade from failure!
In 1165 a letter that Prester John supposedly sent to Emperor Manuel Comnenos began circulating around Europe. It was copied and recopied. They took it seriously enough that in 1177, the Pope sent a messenger eastward to find Prester John and give him a reply letter. The messenger never came back.
The much-copied letter tells us that Prester John, King of India, has 72 kings who pay tribute to him. Most of them are pagan, he says, but there are also ten tribes of Israel (the Lost Tribes found!). He provides a list of the amazing animals that live in India, starting with elephants and dromedaries, but quickly passing to crocodiles, red and white lions, white bears, silent grasshoppers, gryphons, pygmies, giants, and one-eyed and horned men. (I’m most curious about those silent grasshoppers.)
In one area of Prester John’s India, no venomous animals can live, while in another, a river coming from Paradise washes gemstones up on its shores. But in the region where pepper trees grow, the snake infestation is so severe that the only way to harvest the pepper is to burn down the forest. That way, the only snakes that survive are the ones who hid in caves, but the rest are piled into big heaps by the harvesters, who are now free to pick the pepper.
The rest of the letter goes on in that way: every legend of the far-off lands makes its way into the list. There are rivers flowing with gemstones (probably pearls), and local children learn to stay underwater for a long time to find them. There are worms called salamanders, who live in fire, and from them, women spin silk. The people live in unimaginable wealth and moral virtue. On and on. There’s just one problem, it turns out: they don’t have many good horses. Other than that, it’s pure Paradise. (Imagine being short on the one thing Europe had lots of! What a marketing pitch!)
As long as that letter circulated, Europeans were sure that Prester John’s army would show up soon. He would sack Baghdad and bring his army from the east, and then finally the Crusades would be successful.
In 1221, a Fifth Crusader brought back word that Prester John’s grandson King David had defeated the Muslims and was on his way. That rumor didn’t pan out; it was actually the Mongols who were on their way, and they did not at all intend to rebuild Jerusalem. In 1306, Ethiopians visited Europe, and rumor spread that finally, at last, Prester John’s kingdom had been located. It was just in Africa, not India.
So for several centuries, Europeans continued to believe that Prester John ruled in Africa, and in some legends, his kingdom was not only Christian but specifically white. Explorers might any day come around the corner of a mountain and find a native white tribe with churches! When the legend finally died out as supposed fact, it lived on in myth. Shakespeare mentions Prester John, and John Buchan wrote an adventure novel about him in the 20th century. His legend was useful for feeling better about colonizing Africa. What was Rhodesia but a sort of modern-day Prester John’s kingdom?