In A Nutshell
Prester John was the 12th-century equivalent of an Internet hoax. According to 500 years of popular legend and misconception, Prester John was a Christian priest who ruled a fantastic kingdom in the middle of Asia; surrounded by Muslims and pagans, this holy man was the lord of a sacred land that contained such marvels as the Fountain of Youth and a paradise on Earth. Crusaders from Europe were even sent on missions to find this mystical, magical land; unfortunately, they never did.
The Whole Bushel
No one’s really sure about how the stories of Prester John started, but as far as we can tell, the first written accounts of him are in the works of Bishop Otto of Freising. These writings tell of a Christian priest (or prince, depending on the translation) that ruled a land beyond Persia. Supposedly, this priest was the descendant of the one of the Three Magi that attended the birth of Christ, and had sent letters to European rulers either appealing for help in driving back the Muslims and pagans he was surrounded by, or promising succor and aid to any Christian crusaders who ventured into the surrounding territories in an attempt to liberate them from heathen hands.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the letters were presented to Pope Alexander, the Roman Emperor Frederick, and Emperor Manuel Comnenus of Byzantium. The letters (either written by Prester John himself or an ambassador of his), told stories about a kingdom free of vice and crime, where 72 kings ruled 72 equally divine and blessed kingdoms, all beneath the benevolent rule of Prester John, his bishops, and his archbishops.
The claims about the kingdom made it a paradise on earth. It contained every animal on Earth, save those who were poisonous or could do harm to humans. There were no thieves or adulterers; there was no crime and no poverty. Resources like milk and honey were abundant, and no one wanted for anything. Rivers made of precious stones instead of water flowed through the kingdom; the stones were so large that plates and dishes were carved from them. There was a never-ending supply of fish (from a sea that was gravel rather than water, to keep an enemy navy from sailing up to the city), fruits, cheeses, and rice, so no one ever went hungry.
Prester John’s palace in the city of Susa was made of gold and hosted 30,000 people each day. Thrones were made of onyx, crystal, and amethyst. He had seven of his kings with him at all times, to act as his stewards and his marshals, and he carried no banners but golden crosses when he rode into battle against surrounding kingdoms who envied him. And of course, all good persons who came to the kingdom would be welcomed into paradise, where they would live among the angels.
Unfortunately, the letters told of greedy heathens who surrounded him, and wanted his kingdom. So convincing were the letters that Pope Alexander sent representatives to find this marvelous kingdom; not surprisingly, they were never heard from again. (It sounds a little like a “Nigerian prince” spam email scheme, doesn’t it?)
From there, the stories of Prester John are blended into a weird mix of fiction, legend, and historical misconception. By the middle of the 12th century, it was presented as fact that a man named Prester John ruled over a wonderful Christian kingdom in the Far East—usually around India, occasionally in Ethiopia. Marco Polo reported on his discovery of Mongolian Christians, adding fuel to the fire. As late as the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were searching the African continent looking for the legendary kingdom. As the original Prester John would have been long dead by then, they were mostly encouraged by stories of pockets of Christian worship, tales of warriors riding elephants, and stories of “black priests”—all clearly pointing to the validity of a mysterious, magical Christian kingdom.