Dear (Prester) John

Few urban legends have had as great an influence over a civilization as the story of Prester John held over the people of medieval Europe. Prester John’s origins are traced back to a lengthy letter originally addressed to the Kings of Constantinople and Rome, purportedly sent from Prester John himself (Prester is an archaic term for presbyter, or priest– meant to convey the piety of the person so entitled). In the letter, Prester John introduced himself as a powerful Christian king of far off lands near “the Three Indias.”

The king described his kingdoms and wealth, the pristine purity of his territory and the pious humility of his subjects. Prester John inhabited a land where serpents lost their poison and even noisy frogs became unable to croak. The kingdom’s copious spice trees were watered by a river that flowed from paradise, in a bed laden with sapphires and rubies. Perhaps not coincidentally, Prester John also mentioned that his domain flowed with two commodities in particular abundance: milk and honey. The European kings were invited to come and visit Prester John, where they would be welcomed royally, and sent home with unimaginable treasures.

This tale of an exotic Christian kingdom in a near-edenic setting gripped the medieval European mind. In 1177, Pope Alexander III issued a reply to Prester John’s letter, seeking to unite the two halves of the Christian world. Explorers set out to find Prester John’s kingdom, and build ties with one who could be a very helpful ally. Even those, like Magellan and Marco Polo, who set out with more realistic objectives, were motivated in part by the chance that Prester John’s treasures might greet them at the end of the journey. (Polo wrote back claiming to have seen Prester John’s kingdom, and reported that the great King had fought against Genghis Khan in the greatest battle in history).

But beyond the motivation provided by the prospect of spices and gems and gold, Prester John, who was probably the creation of a few enterprising European monks, served a more domestic purpose. According to one historian: “In an era of violent conflict between Christianity and Islam, and unsuccessful Crusades, it was vastly reassuring to the faithful to believe that a sprawling and wealthy Christian outpost existed beyond Europe.” Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World, Perennial, 2004. To Europeans living a cold, often miserable existence, the legend of Prester John presented a new reason to be proud of Christianity and to “hope for a better world.”

Does any of this sound familiar? I am struck by the similarity of the Prester John myth, in its form and function, to the rich cannon of folklore passed around by Mormons. Mormon folklorist William Wilson had this to say about the purpose of our folk tales:

The bulk of Mormon folklore functions to persuade church members that their beliefs are valid and that individuals must devote themselves valiantly to the cause– indeed, may suffer dire consequences if they fail to do so. In brief, this folklore falls into two broad categories: lore that shows how God protects the church in its battle with the world, and lore, remarkably like that of the early Puritans, that shows how God brings about conformity to church teachings by intervening directly in the lives of church members.

Wilson, “Mormon Folklore,” in Handbook of American Folklore, Richard M. Dorson, ed. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1983), 157.

It’s easy to see how so many of the tales we pass on function to buttress our confidence in our faith. This missionary’s experience of rebuking vicious rottweilers and that sister’s protection by the three Nephites offer comfort and build a community around our beliefs. Still, I think the Prester John story is more closely related to a different practice used by Mormons to prop themselve up– our obsession with prominent Mormons. In essence, although the Prester John story fits well into the folklore model, I think it’s more of a celebrity claim than a simple folk tale. It illustrates the human desire to be related in some way to a rock star. Thus, Prester John performed the same function of wish-fulfilment that is now carried out by Steve Martin, Gladys Knight, Steve Young, Jewel, Lionel Ritchie, etc., etc., etc., etc. (It’s also interesting to notice who started the Prester John stories. What would be the Latter-day Saint version of creative monks?)

The common European dreamer in the middle ages would never get a chance to meet Prester John, but if they did get the chance to travel to the other side of the globe, they could imagine that they’d probably be welcomed glamourously by a pretty amazing and powerful person, due to their shared ground of Christianity. I may not know Danny Ainge, but I bet if I was in his neighborhood I could go to his church and maybe even talk to him– he’s a Mormon, you know. I guess I sort of get a little bit of a warm feeling out of that, and would get an even bigger boost if the church were more beleaguered than it is currently.

Prester John and Mitt Romney stand as a testament that rock star worship is a universal human trait, like organizing governments and throwing rocks. Holding similarities to amazing, important people makes us feel powerful and confident. Even when they’re on the other side of the world, and beyond reach, and made up. Sort of like the Mormon Steve Martin.

17 thoughts on “Dear (Prester) John

  1. Nathan: he’s in my brother’s friend’s ward, or was in that ward before my brother’s friend got there, according to a copy of a letter my dad’s mission companion found in the mission office in Germany. 😉

    But seriously, there’s a chance I know how the Steve Martin legend got started. I had a professor at BYU whose son served in Arcadia, California, and there baptized a man by the name of Steve Martin. This missionary wrote home about having baptized this man, and the missionary’s family took it to be referring to THE Steve Martin, at least until the misisonary clarified in subsequent letters. Who knows how many people heard the story in the interim. Of course that doesn’t explain the rumors that Martin appeared on Dave Letterman wearing a CTR ring, but it’s conceivable that that story arose spontaneously to buttress the original tale.

  2. I met Danny Ainge at a frozen yogurt place in 95. I walked over to him, shook his hand, said I was a fan. He asked how I was doing, and we chatted for a minute. I was getting married soon, and he wished me luck.

    For someone who looks relatively short on the screen next to all the 7 footers, he’s a really tall guy in real life with really long arms and legs.

    He was wearing sandals with socks, I might add.

    (Word was that he frequented that yogurt shop a lot, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected to see him there — still, it was the only time I ever saw him there, and I hit that place relatively often too).

  3. This is something I have thought about. Is a trait of the repressed or non dominant minority to try to associate with celebrity to validate the groups social status?

    During my time in the Philippines, I repeatedly heard that this and that Filipino celebrity were LDS. Was this a trait that was passed on by North American missionaries or is there something else going on?

    I also noticed that the Filipinos were quick to point out Filipinos that had risen to international prominence – a performer in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway and a swimmer that was invited to Olympic trials (the standard of international prominence was pretty low).

  4. I agree with RS. Ryan, I think there is definitely some celebrity worship going on too, but mostly don’t you think we all just think if we got a truly famous person to convert it would somehow validate us to the rest of the world?

    kaimi, what yogurt shop was it? I used to live in AZ and am curious if I frequented the same place you and Danny Ainge did.

  5. Legends and celebrity are both interesting, but I don’t think the connection between the two is going to carry much weight. The mechanisms by which a cult of celebrity is created and perpetuated are too different than legend formation. The star has to be prominently displayed in order to maintain an illusion of presence. The whole point is to get every detail of one’s life in the newspapers, the closer to page 1 the better. To be a celebrity is to be ever-present before the eyes of one’s fans. Devotion to celebrity can be many things, but the fan is always trying to experience the star’s presence.

    Legends of Prester John and the hitchhiking Nephites are all about absence. The stories don’t have authors, even the protagonists have pseudo-names or no name at all. Where celebrities are front and center, simulating a here and now that doesn’t exist, the figures of legend are gone, departed, elsewhere. By their nature they are unverifiable. The three Nephites do not do Oprah.

  6. Jonathan, I think you miss the point. Steve Martin and Jewel may be present in a mainstream sense, but in terms of the verifiability of their Mormon-ness, they remain every bit as absent as Prester John. These myths are scintillating precisely because of the difficulty in verifying them. People enjoy speculating about whether Christina Aguilera is Mormon because nobody knows her, and it’s very hard to find reliable information on that question, regardless of her omnipresence in mainstream media. In that sense, these celebrities are just as distant as the three Nephites and Prester John. Or, in other terms, the crucial criterion is not absence, but distance from the teller and hearer of the story.

  7. Ryan: Right. Legends about famous people who might be Mormons tell us something about the function of legends, but little about the function of celebrity–there are enough real Mormon celebrities to study. Prester John, Brother Steve Martin, and the 3 Nephites legends belong in one group, while Steve Young and Mitt Romney are altogether different beasts. The legends of the one group are created and maintained by altogether different processes than the fame of the second group, and I think that each has different functions in Mormon culture.

    Christina Aguilera, for example: the poster on the wall above my bed says that she is present, and the TV furthers the illusion of presence. Her Mormonness, on the other hand, is absent from her public persona. Instead, it’s hidden knowledge to be passed on in secret. Legends of LDS celebrities are a subcategory of legend, not a subcategory of celebrity: Steve Young makes the cover of Meridian Magazine, Christina does not; you confide to your neighbor that Christina Aguilera is really a Mormon, but you’d look silly if you tried the same about Steve Young. I think you’re conflating two distinct phenomena that aren’t all that closely related.

    You could treat Prester John only as an example of a Famous Co-religionist legend, but I still think the comparison doesn’t work well because Prester John did not participate in the medieval cult of fame.

  8. “Christina Aguilera, for example: the poster on the wall above my bed says that she is present”

    I assume that’s Rose’s poster, right?

  9. Actually, Rose has Justin Timberlake. Christina is mine.

    Let me irritate Ryan some more. “A handful of European monks” is not a source. I don’t know if Bergreen offers anything more specific, or even if anyone has proposed a more specific source for the letter, but a good proposal would identify one monastic order, and hopefully one house of that order, at one historical moment. How did it serve their interest to fabricate a document that appeared to substantiate a pre-existing legend? Promoting a general belief in the church, or shoring up hope in ultimate success in the crusades, is not enough; how does a forged document serve the needs of the order (or the needs of whoever was the presumed author)?

    This line of questioning is entirely beside the point. I bring it up only to illustrate that the question Ryan raises–“What would be the Latter-day Saint version of creative monks?”–is potentially a very interesting question indeed. There’s a huge difference between passing on a legend as a story you once heard, either skeptically or credulously, and inventing a story or fabricating a document. Someone had to have written the first “Letter from Prester John,” just as someone had to fabricate the pseudoprophecies attributed to modern prophets and other latter-day legends. In both cases, a certain amount of material can be attributed to simple misunderstanding (see Ryan’s comment in #2). When words go down on parchment/paper/some website on the Internet the first time, though, a conscious embrace of fiction masquerading as truth is going on.

    Wilson’s explanation of Mormon folklore is OK as far as it goes, but I’m not entirely satisfied with it. The snippet offered above (which corresponds to my very superficial and brief forays into the subject, and I may be missing something) looks at stories as promoting a general belief in the church as a whole. But faith-promoting stories also serve very specific institutional functions. “What would be the Latter-day Saint version of creative monks?” is an interesting question because it suggests that personal and institutional agendas at a specific historical moment may lie behind the origin and circulation of our own legends. For example: the “prophecy” of global thermonuclear war unleashed by a president of Greek descent may, in some way, have increased somebody’s faith in continued revelation, I suppose. What I find more interesting is the institutional ends served by the tale’s circulation just in time for the 1988 presidential election.

  10. Thanks for continuing to annoy me, Jonathan. 🙂

    To state something you may already know, my question “What would be the Latter-day Saint version of creative monks?” was rhetorical– I expected readers to see that I was suggesting the modern Mormon Missionary as the correllate. And I think that this comparison is helpful in understanding the agendas you’re searching for. What is the institutional and personal purpose of the missionary who passes on, and perhaps embellishes the folk tale? First of all, I would suggest the individual missionary has very little institutional agenda at all. Given that most of these stories are passed around in informal environments– a group of elders sitting around before bedtime– I think they are used mostly as interesting conversation (with touches of the confidence building mentioned by Wilson). Thus, it’s hard for me to infer a devious motive, or any concerted effort to build the kingdom/mission/church.

    I do quibble with your skepticism about someone actually taking the time to write this stuff down. I’ve seen several actual documents that were written down by someone (probably missionaries) that were patently false. For example, you may have run into the document that purports to be a letter from a high-ranking Catholic Cardinal, next in line to be the Pope, that converted to Mormonism and used the letter to expose the sitting Pope’s relationship with Satan. As another example, there’s a document known only as “As Treze Paginas” floating around missions in Brazil, which purports to be the secret musings of a high-ranking General Authority on the Church’s real reasons for the Priesthood Ban. While I agree that most passers-on of folk tales are pretty casual and less intentional in their embellishments, I certainly don’t put it past people to spend some real time documenting their fictions.

    As to the further sourcing of the Prester John letter, I have no idea whether that’s been studied or documented in any greater detail than Bergreen reports. As you mention, though, it’s beside the point. Even in the paucity of details, I find these facts highly believable, given what I know about modern missionaries, and imagining that medieval monks were probably motivated by many of the same things that motivate our yound Elders and Sisters today.

  11. I’m interested that you make such a big distinction between tales of verifiably Mormon celebrities and tales of unverifiably Mormon celebrities. To me, they grow out of exactly the same impulse. While I recognize that there may be an added bit of scintillation accompanying the latter, I think it’s still all about one’s desire to make connections with fabulous people, and infer legitimacy from that connection.

    P.S., if you look closely at that poster of Christina above your bed, you’ll see an RULDS2? tattoo above the insole of her right foot. Crazy, huh?

  12. Ryan, I have met Prester John and believe me, you are no Prester John.

  13. Ryan, your equation of modern missionaries and medieval monks is problematic. It’s not that there’s nothing to it, but that the differences are so many and, especially, that the varieties of monasticism are so numerous that similar motivations for the two groups can’t be assumed. There are interesting parallels between oral literature such as folk tales and the literature of manuscript culture, but outside of specifically monastic medieval literature, monks influenced literature primarily in their role as scribes but not as monks. That is, their role in the circulation of folklore is related to their being the primary source of literate copyists, not as the particular engine of folklore creation or circulation. The “Letter of Prester John” is not by its nature monastic literature. Without reading Bergreen, it’s hard to say how it gets attributed to monks. [I see it’s in my library. I’ll check it out and get back to you on that one.]

    Setting aside monks for now, you’re suggesting that missionaries are the source of Mormon folklore. I wouldn’t call them the sole source, but I agree there are good arguments for seeing missionaries as an important source. The small communities of missionaries (2-8 or so) living and working together intensely, while separated from the surrounding community by barriers of language, dress, and profession, and with an unusual reliance on infrequent oral and manuscript communication (i.e. zone conferences and letters home) creates an echo chamber for oral literature, which transfers then set in circulation.

    I’m not sure why you interpreted my previous comment as skepticism that people write legends down. I’m not. I’ve read the same stuff you have, or its equivalent. Where we differ is in interpretation.

    Personal and institutional agendas need not be devious. In a community of four elders, parcelling out stories is one way to earn respect. Or think of it this way: missionaries baptize people. They harass the members for referrals. That is what they do, and why we have the institution of missionary work organized as it is. Other institutions–wards and branches–have to deal with the consequences of convert baptisms, sometimes unwillingly, and members are often reluctant to get involved in missionary work. You have competing institutional agendas. Legend A (“This thug wanted to hurt a missionary, but an angel stopped him!”) supports the notion that missionaries are to be respected. Legend B (“Once this missionary was bad, and a thug beat him up!”) suggests that missionaries are imperfect and annoying adolescents whose counsel and wishes can be safely ignored. Both stories similarly promote a general belief, but each has very different institutional functions.

    Finally, as for Mormon celebrities: when Steve Young graces Sports Illustrated or Mitt Romney appears on TV, I share with them a bond that is acknowledged by the rest of the adoring audience, so that part of the adoration is directed at me as well. Other people love Young/Romney/Reid, and they know they are Mormons at the same time. That’s what was so thrilling about watching Donny & Marie. On the other hand, when Ronald Reagan was taking the discussions, it was a secret shared only between him and the rest of the initiated. Knowing Ronnie was this close to baptism was like knowing that the Dead Sea Scrolls proved the church was true. It was a secret understanding that the rest of the world did not share or acknowledge. With real celebrities, you share in the world’s adoration; with celebrity legends, you have something the world doesn’t. Unless the Mormon fan of Steve Martin is completely deluded, different things are going on.

    Could we look at LDS celebrity legends as one element of the star’s cult of celebrity? That seems to work. It’s in the star’s interest to have as many people as possible think they have a secret connection to the star when he stands for re-election or releases a new movie. That subset of fans may have a different psychological relationship to the star than other fans, but it serves the star’s institutional agenda equally well. From the average Mormon’s perspective I think the two sets of celebrities are much different, but from the celebrity’s perspective the difference is much less, perhaps.

  14. A fun read is Baudolino by Umberto Eco. Baudolino sets out in search of the kingdom of Prester John on behalf of Frederick Barbarrosa. It wasn’t as good as some of his other books, however.

  15. Leaving aside the Prester John thing, here’s a thought about how these rumors get started. While in grad school, I took a class in folklore and got really into it, although it’s not my area of expertise by any means. One of the questions that inevitably arises is why so many cultures have lore that is so similar–Joseph Campbell’s work documented how consistently one will find similar motifs and characters in cultures all over the world. A modern example. One day, towards the end of my mission, a neighbor came running up to us in great excitement. He told us that his minister’s wife and been driving and picked up a hitchhiker. After a few moments, the hitchhiker siad, “Jesus is coming soon,” and–wait, wait, don’t tell me–yes, he vanished. Within two weeks, I was home and heard the exact same story, except that it was three hitchhikers in Idaho, and they used the phrased “the Second Coming.” These are all variants of the vanishing hitchhiker legend–a legend that’s b een around for years.

    How do they get started, and why are they so common? One idea is based on Jung’s theory of archetypes and essentially says that because as humans, we all have certain common experiences and needs, our folklore will always have similar elements. The other theory is diffusion. I’m simplifying a bit, but basically, this would suggest that an event did happen once–but then news of it spread and travelled and people began adding their own local variants.

    I have scoffed at the missionary rebuking the dog story–until, someone close to me, a trustworthy sober person who wouldn’t lie, was on a walk, was being threatened by some dogs. He raised his right hand to the square and rebuked them and they left.

    So, might some of these mormon rumors be true, or at least have a basis in truth given that the Lord works through a pattern? I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

    By the way, when I lived in New York, several missionaries told me about Christina Aguilera’s father, divorced from the mother, who is the mission leader in the Staten Island branch or ward.

  16. Jan Brunvand talks about Mormon legends of the three Nephites in his book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings.” Braden, you probably read something by Brunvand in your course on folklore, I’d guess. What I really liked about Brunvand’s approach is how he connected folk legends to widespread anxieties. For example, he connects the resurgence of hitchhiker legends in the 1950’s to growing concern about the automobile as an instrument of social mobility and cultural breakdown. (Read Brunvand; he explains it better than I can.) Brunvand sees the earliest recorded form of the hitchhiker legend in Acts 8:26-39, where Philip converts a chariot driver and then disappears. (But what about the Road to Emmaus of Luke 24; 13-35? Can it be read as another version of the same legend?)

    I suspect that most legends have kernels of truth; the pernicious thing about the legendary encrustation is that the truth gets obscured. (And, uh, Braden, did any of those missionaries know if Brother Aguilera had an inside line on autographed posters of Christina? ‘Cause, you know, if that’s the case, you got one, right? Do you still need it?)

    Ryan, if digging up institutional agendas is not exciting enough as an approach to folklore, what about analyzing them as expressions of cultural anxiety? For example: do you remember when missionaries were being called on 3-year missions to Russia via letters containing only a telephone number in the church office building? It was a ridiculous story, but it expressed quite vividly the hope and fear wrapped up in wondering where one will be sent. By being more exotic than any real call could possibly be, the legendary secret mission to Russia helped even out the distinction between domestic and foreign missions.

    (By the way: Bergreen’s discussion of Prester John is pretty dreadful, but mostly in ways that are tangential to your argument. I’m irritated by the fact that I can’t yet confidently point to something better. I’m trying to change that, but it won’t happen until this thread is long dead. Until then, the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is worth a look.)

    Bill: my attempt at reading Eco’s fiction was repelled by the first few pages of “The Name of the Rose,” and I haven’t given it another try. I really liked the essays in “Travels in Hyperreality,” though, especially “Dreaming of the Middle Ages.”

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