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.