Whilst there may have been stories of a mysterious priest king in the Far East before around 1145, it was the Letter of Prester John in the mid-twelfth century that really started everything off.
Its origins are almost as opaque as its motives. Given that it is written in multiple languages, including a smattering of Italian and Hebrew, the consensus is that the Letter of Prester John originated in either Northern Italy or the Languedoc. And I have my reasons for thinking it’s the latter.
Much of the content is fairly typical for the eleventh century. The geographical descriptions are almost as inaccurate as the tales of flora and fauna. But there are quite a few phrases… and particularly the use of numbers… that potentially marks the Letter of Prester John out as a very curious survival.
Firstly, there was the belief that he was descended from one of the Three Magi, and he carried a sceptre of pure emerald. (That should be a hint for you right there.)
Let’s have a quote from the letter, detailing how to get to Prester John’s kingdom:
And also they dread the long way. And therefore they go to Cathay, for it is more nigh. And yet it is not so nigh, but that men must be travelling by sea and land, eleven months or twelve, from Genoa or from Venice, or he come to Cathay. And yet is the land of Prester John more far by many dreadful journeys.
And the merchants pass by the kingdom of Persia, and go to a city that is clept Hermes, for Hermes the philosopher founded it. And after that they pass an arm of the sea, and then they go to another city that is clept Golbache.
So, to get to the kingdom of Prester John, you have to pas through a city founded by Hermes the philosopher?
Inside this kingdom, which covers “the three Indias”, is a river -the Idon- that runs from Paradise/Eden, through every corner of his realm. Three days from Paradise is Mount Olympus, at the base of which is a forest with a marvellous, magical spring in it.
This Emperor Prester John is Christian, and a great part of his country also. But yet, they have not all the articles of our faith as we have. They believe well in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. And they be full devout and right true one to another. And they set not by no barretts, ne by cautels, nor of no deceits.
And he hath under him seventy-two provinces, and in every province is a king. And these kings have kings under them, and all be tributaries to Prester John. And he hath in his lordships many great marvels.
This Emperor Prester John hath evermore seven kings with him to serve him, and they depart their service by certain months. And with these kings serve always seventy-two dukes and three hundred and sixty earls. And all the days of the year, there eat in his household and in his court, twelve archbishops and twenty bishops. And the patriarch of Saint Thomas is there as is the pope here.
72, of course, the number of decans in a complete zodiac (and a number Graham Hancock so rigorously tracked through the great monuments of the world.) Those ‘seven kings’ who go in and out of his service depending on the month don’t need further explanation, do they? There are also “ten tribes of Jews” who are subject to him… which, tantalisingly, is the number of Sephiroth.
Various forms of the letter go on to describe some fairly Masonish stone and crystal combinations; including 5×5 alternating stones leading up to a magic mirror with which Prester John surveys his realm.
His hall has two golden apples that give light during the day, and during the night, each gives off light from a gemstone hidden within each apple. Oh, and there are loads of salamanders.
The esoteric symbolism is extremely advanced for a period of time so long before the Renaissance… when most of Europe was supposed to have “rediscovered” the Classical cosmology. But then… the Languedoc is right next to Al-Andalus, isn’t it?
Is this just the first flowering of a Troubador blockbuster, or is it something else?
Given the location -either of them- that the letter first emerged, we may speculate that it was something else. It may have been a wizard psy op. Prester John is described as a Christian but “not like us”. (Ie not Catholic.)
The patriarch of St Thomas may well be a reference to the fact that the Nestorians and the St Thomas Christians of India were known to have existed at this point. But when he is surrounded by reference to emeralds and ‘other kinds of Christianity’ and ‘cities founded by Hermes the philosopher’ and patent astrological symbolism, Saint Thomas becomes a cipher.
Meaning ‘twin’ and explicitly referred to as such by Jesus in apocrypha… from the Catholic Church’s perspective, he is one of the most dangerous gateway
drugs saints to esoteric Christianity… particularly with his textual support for Mary Magdalene.
And I think that the location of his realm, covering “three Indias”, out to the islands of the Far East and the border of Babylon, is a way of re-contextualising the spiritual current that Prester John represents. An alternative spiritual current. It places whatever Prester John stands for in the grand current of mankind’s holistic spiritual journey.
But, alternative to which spiritual current?
Well, the “intended recipient” of the letter is telling. The Byzantine Emperor. And Pope Alexander III sent a reply letter to Prester John. In “Prester John’s” letter to the Emperor, he says very lovely things, but then goes on to thank the Emperor for the gifts and then implies in his description how it is he, Prester John, who runs the biggest, most magical, kingdom in the world, complete with jewels and rivers of milk and honey.
A kingdom with no Pope.
This is the letter that ‘suddenly’ spreads all over Europe, like leaked disinformation handed to broadcast journalists? One that implies there might be more than one route back to the Christ, and -whisper it- potentially a better one?! Those wiley Cathars, eh?
Both Northern Italy and the Languedoc (obviously) were lousy with Cathars and Bogomils at this time. And this letter… exactly what in its content could the Pope argue about? He may have wanted to and not quite known why… After all, it’s a letter from a Christian ally on the other side of the occupied Holy Land. That would definitely come in handy. Never mind, for now, the fact that Prester John’s subjects are all clearly living much better lives than European Christians and they don’t have a pope.
So, intentional or not, Prester John became the spiritual allegory heard around the world.
This odd, little magico-political advertising campaign had some presumably unintended consequences over the next few centuries. As India and the East was rediscovered by Europeans, the location of Prester John’s realm kept moving. People just didn’t want to let go of the idea that the kingdom wasn’t real. And so lessened the inexplicability of the complete system of hermetic magic, hinted at in the original document, appearing out of no where centuries before the Renaissance.
When the kingdom moved to Abyssinia after a 1340 edition of the letter, expeditions and voyages began to head to Africa to rescue the kingdom. Portugal sent expeditions to find Prester John throughout the fifteenth century. The legend lived on as cartographers continued to include the kingdom of Prester John on maps through the seventeenth century.
Throughout the centuries, the editions of the letter kept getting better and more interesting. They told of strange cultures that surrounded the kingdom and a “salamander” that lived in fire, which actually turned out to be the mineral substance asbestos. The letter could have been proven a forgery from the first edition of the letter, which copied exactly the description of the palace of Saint Thomas, the Apostle.
As it’s terrestrial location moved, the stories of the realm grew and accumulated other denizens and moving parts over the centuries (including getting tangled up in the bloodline of Genghis Kahn), but the core of what it was, what it meant, remained. A wealthy, enlightened land ruled by a wizard king descended from one of the Three Magi. An alternative worth seeking out, worth keeping on the map.
Because Prester John doesn’t preside over a kingdom, but The Kingdom.
Let’s close with the poem that opens the early twentieth century novel, Prester John, written by the former Governor General of Canada:
Time, they say, must the best of us capture,
And travel and battle and gems and gold
No more can kindle the ancient rapture,
For even the youngest of hearts grows old.
But in you, I think, the boy is not over;
So take this medley of ways and wars
As the gift of a friend and a fellow-lover
Of the fairest country under the stars.
I get that.