Historical and Legendary Sources at the Origins of the Ethiopian Prester John

Locating Prester John and his kingdom was once a major challenge for Europeans between the Late Middle Ages and the early modern era. Starting with the first appearance of this enigmatic ruler in the mid-twelfth century, his figure triggered enthusiastic expectations as a possible and decisive ally in the crusaders’ efforts to liberate the Holy Land: not only was he a mighty ruler, superior to every monarch on earth, as he claimed in the Letter that he allegedly sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel, but he was also a Christian and shared the same “crusading” intention of many Latin fighters who had crossed the Mediterranean. Indeed, as he claimed, “in voto habemus visitare sepulchrum domini cum maximo exercitu, prout decet gloriam maiestatis nostrae humiliare et debellare inimicos crucis Christi et nomen eius benedictum exaltare”.

The first sources that attested the existence of this Oriental monarch (respectively, Hugh of Jabala’s account reported in Otto of Freising’s Chronica and the most famous Letter of Prester John) elicited manifold attempts to solve the numerous riddles that this figure seemed to carry. Many attempts, in particular, were made in order to establish some kind of relationship with him, on both a diplomatic and military level, especially after the Fifth Crusade, when rumours about the imminent arrival of a “King David”, “qui vulgariter appellatur Presbyter Johannes” (Jacques de Vitry), inflated the hope of the crusaders’ camp for a decisive victory against the Muslim adversary. The legendary ruler did not appear and the outcome of the Fifth Crusade in Damietta proved to be disastrous, but from then on, a true “quest for Prester John” (that is, for potential Oriental allies in the struggle against the “infidels”) began. This “quest” was profoundly influenced by the various developments of European geographical knowledge between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, and in a way, we may assume that attempts to locate the kingdom of Prester John during this long timespan represented a decisive factor that elicited the investigation of previously unknown portions of the earth.

In fact, while at the beginning of his legend, Prester John presented himself as a mighty ruler over all “three Indies”, that is, over all unknown Asia (whose actual extension and contours were extremely vague to Europeans at that time), the first missionary travels to the Mongol Empire after the Council of Lyon in 1245 provided a rather accurate description of the central and far-eastern portions of the Asian continent, thus laying the groundwork for the downsizing of the legend of Prester John. Without dismissing it completely, missionaries such as William of Rubruk and, later, Odorico of Pordenone dramatically reduced the expectations placed in him, by identifying him with a Christian ruler who had been defeated and killed in the wars that he had to face with Genghis Khan just before the Mongols’ unstoppable westward onslaught. His power had thus been destroyed or, at least, considerably reduced; besides, Latin missionaries assumed that Eastern Christian heretics had exaggerated the power of Prester John, thus making the expectations placed in him entirely unreasonable.

As is well known from recent research, the first clear localization of Prester John’s realm in “Ethiopia” may be dated back to John of Carignano’s account on the 1306 Ethiopian embassy to Genoa. Nevertheless, this source is not completely reliable, since it was transmitted only by a text by Giacomo Filippo Foresti almost two centuries later, in 1481. In any case, the first appearance of Prester John in cartography dates back to Angelino Dulcert’s mappamundi, drawn in 1338, only three years after the account of Jacob of Verona, an Augustinian pilgrim to the Holy Land who called Prester John “dominus Nubie et Ethiopie”.[1]

“Ethiopian” characterizations of Prester John increased during the fourteenth century, though the original “Far Eastern” location was never completely abandoned until the fifteenth century, especially in literary texts. In any case, we should be very careful not to confuse the “Ethiopianization” of Prester John with an actual “Africanization” of this ruler: in fact, the term “Ethiopia” carried very vague geographic meanings until at least the period of the Portuguese exploration of the Indian Ocean, and did not necessarily mean the eponymous African kingdom, but a large portion of the earth, divided in several parts (generally three). Most of them were clearly located in Africa, but uncertainties as to the position of the “Ethiopia” that was east of Egypt, also called “India minor” or “India tertia”, remained even after the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography, which clearly distinguished between an “African” and an “Indian” Ethiopia.

That the characterization of Prester John remained “Indian” and not specifically “African” until the Portuguese discovery of the actual kingdom of Ethiopia may be inferred from many literary works of the Late Middle Ages and the early modern era. In these, the traits of Prester John (often embroidered with many other marvellous and legendary elements inherited from the encyclopaedic medieval tradition), though tending to underline the blackness of his complexion, were still associated with a traditional and rather conventional representation of “India”. Indeed, from this standpoint, we should not forget that the black complexion of one of the Magi, supposedly a forebear of Prester John, had often been noted in previous medieval tradition, without dismissing their association with India as the far-eastern part of the earth).

The definitive “Africanization” of Prester John occurred when, in a certain sense, the Portuguese achieved their quest for him by identifying this Christian ruler with an individual who carried the same traits as other kings on earth and who, contrary to the previous legend, proved to be a rather feeble ally for the crusading activity that the Lusitanian kingdom had never ceased to foster in the early modern age. The gradual erosion of Prester John’s Latin legend culminated with the insertion of the Abyssinian negus among the crowd of earthly kings and, consequently, with the complete removal of any marvellous attributes that had marked his legend since the twelfth century. In a certain way, Prester John suffered a process that led to a sort of “homogenization” of the world – similar to the “homogenization” of the universe after the Copernican revolution – in which there was no longer a place for marvellous lands on earth (with the possible exception of America at the beginning of the sixteenth century).


However, there is probably another wrong assumption that must be dispelled: that the shifting of Prester John and of his kingdom to Ethiopia (or, rather, the reduction of his kingdom’s extension solely to Ethiopia, that is, one of the “three Indies”) already occurred in the aftermath of the Fifth Crusade. As already mentioned, Prester John would still be located in the far-eastern regions of the Asian continent throughout the thirteenth century, and the first time the identification of his kingdom to Ethiopia occurred must be dated back only to the first half of the following century, that is, approximately two centuries after the events that took place in Damietta.

At the same time, however, the vivid expectations triggered on that occasion decisively contributed to a major adaptation of the Latin legend of Prester John. Moreover, from our contemporary perspective, they bear witness to the common eschatological tradition that marked the origin of Prester John’s legend as well as of other Eastern Christian conceptions on the End of Times. That the figure of Prester John is marked by apocalyptic traits is an assumption that has been investigated in depth only recently; however, very few studies have been devoted to examining how this Latin legend (at least of some aspects of it) contributed to a more general set of eschatological ideas that spread among various Eastern Christian communities, especially among the Copts and the Ethiopians. Such a “convergence” of conceptions (of which Europeans were naturally unaware) may be a significant reason that led to the increasing efforts to locate Prester John in what was the kingdom of Ethiopia in the fifteenth century, when contacts with its inhabitants and representatives intensified. In this way, accounts on Ethiopian eschatological beliefs could have made their way to a European audience, and similarities between them and older expectations of Prester John may have aroused the hope that the discovery of the mighty ruler who would help the Latins defeat the Muslim enemy was at hand.

The common ideas I have just mentioned are clearly to be ascribed to the Syriac eschatological tradition conveyed by Pseudo-Methodius’s Revelationes, whose fortune spread among almost all Christian communities – from the Syriac to the Latin, as well as the Egyptian and Ethiopian ones – and assumed various traditional and legendary elements drawn from other authoritative Syriac sources – the Cave of the Treasures and the legend of Alexander above all – that would play a considerable role in shaping later eschatological representations (suffice it to note the function ascribed to the Magi in the Cave of the Treasures and to compare it with Ethiopian sources on the one hand and several accounts about Prester John in Latin sources on the other).

A rapid comparison of sources will demonstrate this assumption and allow us to appreciate the remarkable convergence between Latin and Ethiopian eschatological expectations. The first source to be considered is naturally Pseudo-Methodius’s Revelationes, according to which a “king of the Greeks” will attack the “Ismaelites” from the “sea of the Kushites”, while the “sons of the king of the Greeks” will attack them “from the Western lands”. Very similar to Pseudo-Methodius is an almost contemporary Edessan Apocalypse, which extensively draws on the previous text and even more synthetically predicts that “the king of the Greeks from the West and his son from the South” will march against the Muslims. There is an interesting inversion of the two kings’ provenance, which probably bears witness to diverging interpretations among Christian communities on the eschatological role assigned to different Christian rulers. It is interesting, however, to notice that for Pseudo-Methodius it was the “king of the Greeks” who would emerge from the southern regions and attack from the “sea of the Kushites”, thus suggesting identification with a monarch coming from the lands south of Egypt – an identification that could easily point to the kingdoms of “Ethiopia”, that is, the Nubian (probably the best interpretation) or the Axumite one. In any case, it is noteworthy that the “king of the Greeks” is presented by Pseudo-Methodius’s narrative as the offspring of Kushat, the daughter of the legendary Ethiopian king Pil, who would bear Alexander the Great – the first prefiguration of the “Last World Emperor” – and be the mother of the rulers of various imperial cities. The final abdication of the “Last World Emperor” is intentionally presented as the fulfilment of the prophecy conveyed in Psalms 68:31, according to which “Ethiopia will precede, and hand over [or surrender] its power to God”. In other words, in the last Christian monarch the “Roman” and the “Ethiopian” lines are interwoven, making it impossible to distinguish between their respective providential functions.

The same motif of both kings of the Greeks and of Ethiopia cooperating for the final defeat of the Muslims appeared in later Coptic apocalyptic texts, as Martínez already demonstrated in his seminal work on this subject. Interestingly enough, the majority of these prophetic works do not limit themselves to presenting a victorious joint campaign of the “Roman” (that is Byzantine) and “Ethiopian” kings against the Muslim foes, but also add a detail retained in later Ethiopian sources: both rulers would discuss matters of faith and settle their doctrinal divisions, with the Byzantine ruler accepting the Nicene anti-Chalcedonian creed professed by the Ethiopian king. Only then could the “king of the Greeks” fulfil his mission and inaugurate the kingdom of peace and justice already predicted by Pseudo-Methodius (whereas the Ethiopian king disappears from the scene). According to the Sahidic Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius, “the Muslims will flee to the desert where they had been before, escaping from the king of Ethiopia coming from the East, and from the king of Rūm…. He will destroy them from the West”. In this case, the provenance of the king of Ethiopia resembles the texts discovered in Damietta in the thirteenth century; the fact that an “Ethiopian king” comes from the “East” may well confirm the extremely vague and indefinite location of the “Ethiopian” region, even from an Egyptian standpoint. In any case, after their victory, “the king of Ethiopia will marry the daughter of the king of Rūm, and there will be a great peace, reconciliation and agreement all over the earth for forty years”, a possible reference to settlement of all religious disputes.

If we now consider the Arabic “Letter of Pisentius”, probably the most influential work on the prophetic part of the Kebra Nagast, we find a king of Rūm called Constantine – a clearly “imperial” name, that does not necessarily refer to a historical character – who recovers Egypt from the Muslims. At this time, “the king of Ethiopia (who had not taken part in the military campaign) will arise; he will come to meet the king of Rūm. They will sit together for a few days, arguing with one another about the orthodox faith”. Great wars will break out, and only the intervention of the Patriarch of Alexandria will settle the dispute. After the conversion of the “king of the Greeks” to the Nicene faith, “agreement and great peace will come all over the earth” (exactly like in the Sahidic Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius). “There will be upon the earth great peace, as in the reign of Constantine the righteous. It will last for forty years [the same length as in the Sahidic Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius], and the peace of the Lord will rule the earth”.

The Arabic Second Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius has references to the Crusades. It conveys specific motifs that we can trace in other Latin and Ethiopic sources. According to this Apocalypse, the Muslims would be destroyed by internal civil wars. “The kings of Nubia and Ethiopia will hear (of these revolts) and come out, ruling over the whole land of Yemen, and coming to Egypt. They will find it (Egypt) devastated”. Such news was then heard by “the king of the Franks” (malik al-ifranj), once again called Constantine; after conquering Constantinople, he would take the Cross (a clear reference to the Crusades) and come to the devastated Jerusalem. At this time, the king of Rūm would accept reconciliation with the King of Ethiopia in Egypt, and his conversion to the Orthodox faith is presented in quite a similar way to the Letter of Pisentius. The travel of the “king of the Greeks” is conceived as the fulfilment of a prophecy contained in Psalms 68:31, the same excerpt that had inspired Pseudo-Methodius. And in this case as well, the prophecy is interpreted as an allusion to “reconciliation” between the Roman and Ethiopian kingdoms. “The faith and the divine love will become stable between the kings, the peoples and the nations. They will go to Jerusalem (the city of the king of Rūm) and God will reveal the crown that had come down from heaven. One single king will be established among them, namely Constantine.”

In the Visions of Shenute, the doctrinal disagreements are settled before the military campaign against the Muslims. After the conference, we find the usual representation: “Woe to the city of Mecca on that day, because of the multitude of the troops of the king of Ethiopia…. The standard of this king will be all beauty, straight and high. He will substitute the king of Egypt, take his wife captive with him, and place another instead of him. On his way home, he will come to the river Geyōn, to take the tribute from Egypt, and the king of Rōmē will rule over Jerusalem. And the standard of this king will be beautiful and high, and he will bear the sign of the cross in the midst of his chest…. At that time, the demons will be in chains for forty years. Rest, joy and peace will rule over the whole world”, just like in previous Coptic texts examined above. The traits of both kings are the same here, and it is quite tempting to understand the “king of the Greeks” and the “king of Ethiopia” as the doubling of a common archetypical ruler, the “Last World Emperor”, with the same essential traits presented in Pseudo-Methodius.

The so-called “Rolls of Pseudo-Clemens” (in Arabic Kitab al-Majall) have been intentionally left out until now, because they are basically one of the texts that, under the title of Liber Clementis, were found and translated into Latin during the Fifth Crusade. The Arabic text – which would later make its way to Ethiopia – portrays the wars led by a “king of the South” and a “king of the East” (another variation on the two kings’ origin), the frightening consequences of this campaign for Egypt (once again at the centre of the drama, just like in the events of 1219–20!), the destruction of Damascus and the liberation of the Christians through a victorious “lion’s whelp” (just like the Second Arab Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius). The same motifs would reappear in the Latin sources written by witnesses to the siege of Damietta, who eagerly applied the prophetic lines to the very events that were unfolding before their very eyes – with the notable exception (actually they may be present in the Prophecy of Agap, though considerably softened) of religious reconciliation through the conversion of the “Roman king” to the Nicene anti-Chalcedonian creed.

To conclude the analysis of the convergence between Latin and Ethiopian eschatological motifs, we could survey prophetic elements in the Kebra Nagast. As for the national epic celebration of the Solomonid dynasty, a certain “Dematyos” or “Dematewos” (seen as a deformation of “Methodius” by Pierluigi Piovanelli)[2] declared “that all the kingship of the world [belongs] to the king of Rome and the king of Ethiopia”, thus stressing yet again the complementary function of both rulers already examined. This “intermingling” appears once again – this time set in the past, but with evident references to previous Coptic apocalypses: “And the King of Rome, and the King of Ethiopia, and the Archbishop of Alexandria – now the men of Rome were orthodox – were informed that they to destroy them [the Jews who had instituted persecutions in Najran and Armenia, respectively territories of Ethiopia and Rome]. And they were to rise up to fight to make war upon the enemies of God, the Jews, and to destroy them…. Then the kingdom of the Jews shall be made an end of and the Kingdom of Christ shall be constituted until the advent of the False Messiah. And those two kings, Justinus the King of Rome and Kaleb the King of Ethiopia, met together in Ethiopia… and they were to divide between them the earth from the half of Jerusalem”.

Less than two centuries after the redaction of the Kebra Nagast (or at least of its final version), the prophetic motif of the “two kings” would still be alive in Ethiopia, and it would be recalled in the first half of the sixteenth century in order to strengthen the military alliance with Portugal against the Muslim neighbours of the Ethiopian kingdom. In 1508, ‘Eleni offered Manuel I military support: “That you may cause these Moors to be wiped off the face of the earth – and we by land, brother, and you by sea, for we are powerful on the land – that they may no longer give to be eaten of dogs the offerings and gifts made at the Holy Sepulchre. And now is the time arrived of the promise made by Christ and Saint Mary His mother, Who said that in the last times the King of the parts of the Franks would rise up, and that he would put an end to the Moors”.[3] The words of the Second Apocalypse of Pseudo-Athanasius resonate in this passage, as well as in Lebna Dengel’s letter to Manuel I, in which the new Ethiopian ruler reiterated his proposal for a joint military campaign, justify it as the fulfilment of the well-known “two kings” prophecy: for him, it “was first prophesied by the prophet in the life and passion of St. Victor, in the book of the Holy Fathers… that a Frank King should meet with the King of Ethiopia, and that they should give each other peace”. Omitted here is the conversion of the Chalcedonian ruler, although the motif of the reconciliation of the two kings is kept, thus suggesting a new interpretation of the prophecy applied to the current political situation. Finally, an explicit connection of the prophecy quoted by ‘Eleni and Lebna Dengel to some of the Coptic apocalypses can be retraced in a passage of Francisco Álvares’s account on his 1520 stay in Ethiopia, in which the chaplain of the Portuguese mission reported the prophecy heard from the Ethiopian bahr negus (“king of the sea”) and the ‘abuna: “The Abyssinians… had two prophecies one of St. Ficatorio, the other of St. Sinoda [an allusion to the Visions of Shenouté] who was a hermit in Egypt, saying that the Franks from the end of the earth would destroy Juda [Jedda], and Tero [Tor] and Meca [Mecca] and that so many people would hand the stones from one to another and would throw them into the Red Sea, and Meca would be left a bare plain, and that also they would take Egypt and the great city of Cairo”.[4]

The Portuguese actually responded to Ethiopia’s request and successfully repelled the Muslim army of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, imam and general of Adal, thus saving Ethiopia from falling into his hands. At the time, however, no other Europeans seemed willing to recognize Prester John as an eschatological figure who could complement the providential action of the “Frankish king” prophesied in ancient apocalyptic books. Paradoxically, the legend of Prester John was dismissed in Europe just when the Ethiopian leaders offered them the opportunity to realize the prophetic and eschatological meaning that this legendary figure had carried since at least the Fifth Crusade. In other words, the Portuguese failed to recognize the common source of the eschatological prophecies that had been fostering the political theology of Ethiopia on the one hand and the European hopes attached to the military alliance with Prester John on the other. To quote Marie-Laure Derat, “En dépit du fait que les apocalypses qui ont inspiré l’idéologie politique éthiopienne ont aussi contribué, à partir du XIIIe siècle, à orienter la quete du Pretre Jean du coté de l’Ethiopie, il semble bien qu’il s’agisse de deux courants concomitants d’une meme tradition, courants qui ne se sont jamais rencontrés”,[5] or at least that could have encountered if the Portuguese had maintained the eschatological meaning of Prester John. It was probably this loss that confirmed the definitive eclipse of his legend.

[1] Camille Rouxpetel, “‘Indiens, Ethiopiens et Nubiens’ dans les récits de pèlerinage occidentaux: entre altérité constatée et altérité construite (XIIe-XIVe siècles),” Annales d’Ethiopie 27 (2012): 71-90, here 77.

[2] Piovanelli, “Apocryphal Legitimation of a ‘Solomonic’ Dynasty in the Kəbrä nägäśt – A Reappraisal,” Aethiopica 16 (2013): 7-44, here 14.

[3] Henry Thomas, The Discovery of Abyssinia by the Portuguese in 1520: A Facsimile of the Relation Entitled Carta Das Novas Que Vieram a El Rey Nosso Senhor Do Descobrimento Do Preste Johann, London: British Museum 1938, 91, quoted in Matteo Salvadore, 142.

[4] Francisco Alvares, The Prester John of the Indies: A True Relation of the Lands of the Prester John, Being the Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520, Cambridge: Hakluyt Society 1961, 358-359, quoted in Matteo Salvadore, “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458,” Journal of World History 21/4 (2011): 593-627, here 622-623.

[5] Marie-Laure Derat, “Roi prêtre et Prêtre Jean: analyse de la Vie d’un souverain éthiopien du XIIe siècle, Yemreḥanna Krestos,” Annales d’Éthiopie 27/1 (2012): 127-143, here 139. See also Robert Beylot, “Origines de la localisation en Ethiopie du Royaume du Pretre-Jean,” Aethiopica 3 (2000): 188-189.

Cite this article as: marcogiardini, "Historical and Legendary Sources at the Origins of the Ethiopian Prester John," in Africana, 22/11/2017, https://africana.hypotheses.org/499.

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