Today I'm going to tell you about the weirdest historical figure you've never heard of: Prester John, the mythical Priest-King of the Indies.


Let's say you're a 13th century European. Things are pretty grim. You're locked in a hopeless war in the middle east, poverty is rampant, and your leaders abuse their power.

But you've got a role model! You know that somewhere in the East, there's a place where things are going better - in Prester John's kingdom.

It started (probably) with a guy named Bishop Hugh of Jabala. He was visited by a priest, who claimed to hail from the Kingdom of Prester John - somewhere East in the Indies, there was a rich, peaceable Christian kingdom.

Christians in India? It's not so crazy. Xianity has been around for millennia and had spread to many places. But mainly, geography was pretty fuzzy - the "Indies" could mean anything east of the Nile, from Egypt to Japan.

And also, every European knew at least two stories of Christianity traveling to India: One of the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus was from India, and 'Doubting' Thomas went there when Jesus' apostles dispersed.

So the rumor made sense. Then about 50 years later, a letter shows up in Europe - written by Prester John to various heads of state. He introduces himself and his kingdom!

First, he says, we are militarily mighty. I have subjected 77 other kings, and they all pay me fealty. Let's win this Crusade thing together.

You should know that I am both a Priest and King to my people. I combine the best of all forms of government, and I don't abuse my power.

My people are virtuous; there are no liars, cheaters, or adulterers here. In fact, remember St. Thomas? His perfectly-preserved body comes to life once a year and gives out communion to the faithful.

BTW: I am fabulously wealthy (here Prester John spends a long time enumerating his wealth). We have gold and jewels and elephants and pepper!

Oh yes, Pepper! As a 13th Century European, you know Pepper is more valuable than gold. And we have trackless forests of it.

Those pepper forests are infested with poisonous snakes, however. But no problem: we burn the forests down to kill all the snakes, and the fire makes the pepper taste spicy.

Oh, also! We have TONS of weird animals. Every strange creature you've ever heard of: lions, leopards, camels, unicorns, griffins, you name it.

One of my favorites is the Salamander, which lives inside fiery volcanoes and spins magic thread that we collect and make into clothes. They're beautiful, and can only be cleaned by purifying them with fire.

If you think our animals are cool, wait until you see our human diversity: we have cyclops and unipods, hermaphrodites, people with tails, and people with faces in their chests.

And if you think our people are interesting, just wait until you see our natural features. Eden, the original Garden of Paradise, is just across my border.

I'm not going to actually claim the Fountain of Youth, but we do have a magic pool that makes you years younger. I myself am actually 527 years old.

That's the gist of Prester John's letter. As you can imagine, this spread through Europe like wildfire.

And as you can imagine, people went looking for Prester John.

One of the first: Pope Alexander III sent his personal physician to go find Prester John. He disappeared, and was never heard from again!

John of Plano Carpini went looking for Prester John as part of a mission to the Mongols. His book about this (History of the Mongols) is hilarious, by the way.

William of Rubruck also asked around for Prester John while traveling to the East. The Mongols told him that they'd conquered the Kingdom years ago.

You know who else looked for Prester John? Marco Flipping Polo. That's what I love about Prester John - he was famous for centuries, but we've barely heard of him today - even though he's in Marco Polo!

One of the best is John Mandeville - he wrote a hilarious travelogue about visiting the Holy Land and wild countries beyond like Prester John's. The book is a riot, you should read it.

Friar Jordanus was a Portuguese who was traveling to China and got waylaid in Africa. He found a Christian kingdom in Abyssinia and thought: THIS must be Prester John!

So. After a few hundred years, Europe had more or less covered the rest of Asia, without finding Prester John. They more or less gave up.

So was it all just a dream? No - there were definitely some real figures behind the rmours.

SO let's back up. About the time of Bishop Hugh of Jabala, the Kara Khitai people from what is now China attacked the muslim world from the East. And they even had Christians among them, but they were no Prester John.

Then, the next-most powerful Muslim empire, Kwarezmia, was defeated by an opponent from the East. Maybe this was Prester John?

Nope. It was Genghis Khan. And you don't have to know much history to know that Genghis is no friend of Europe.

After the Mongol Empire fell apart, it was rebuilt (after a fashion) by Tamerlane. He conquered as much of the world as Genghis did, just with less style and more murder.

And what about Ethiopia? Well, there really were (and still are) Christians there, who trace their cultural decent from the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon.

So. There were a lot of possible sources for the rumor, but no single Prester John figure.

So what's our takeaway here? Is there a moral to this story? Did we learn anything?

If this were a TED talk, I'd say something like, 'Curiosity Breeds Discovery!' Europe went looking for Prester John, but instead they found the WORLD.

But that's awfully cute. I mean really, it was the Mongols and the spice trade that encouraged Europe to 'discover' the East, right?

Maybe our moral here is that wishful thinking is very attractive. The idea that somewhere, somebody has their shit together is really powerful.

Another possible moral: Prester John is referenced in the canon (Marco Polo! Shakespeare! TONS of medieval literature!), but we still haven't heard of him. It's hard to notice something in front of your face, unless you're prepared to notice it.

Or maybe, and this seems likely - the only true thing is that History is Weird.

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