Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 61: What myth of eternal youth in Africa inspired Europeans for centuries?
Whenever he encountered a counterintuitive fact, my mother’s brother, my Uncle Ed, was fond of saying, “That’s another one of those things that ‘they’ just don’t tell us,” as if key bits of information about the order of things were systematically being withheld from black people. At the top of my own list of things we weren’t told in school is the fact that the legendary Fountain of Youth was not only thought for centuries to be located in Ethiopia, but that the man who had discovered it and ruled over it was a black man.
European artists even painted portraits of him and sometimes decorated their maps of Africa with his image. European kings, popes and explorers from Marco Polo to Ponce de León knew of him and his magical realm. That’s right: When de León and his Spanish compatriots were wandering around the swamps of Florida, trying not to be eaten by alligators, it was a black man and his mythical fountain for which they were likely searching. In fact, one way to think of the conquest of the oceans and the eventual navigation around the Cape of Good Hope in the late 15th century was that it was motivated, among other things, by the desperate search to find this black patriarch and tap into his wealth and military might. The goal wasn’t only to help liberate the Holy Land, but also to experience this king’s secrets of immortality.
Whatever his true name might have been, he was known throughout Europe as “Prester John,” the formidable priest-king of ancient Ethiopia.
The Fountain of Youth in Ethiopia
While most of us associate the fountain of perpetual youth with the New World, especially Florida, that has only been the case for the last 500 years. For a much longer stretch of history, actually, dating all the way back to the fifth century B.C., its home was believed to be in Ethiopia. Back then, the First Persian Empire touched three continents, but Ethiopia resisted invasion. In his voluminous History of the Greco-Persian War, the first grand historical narrative (440 B.C.E.), Herodotus recounted how the king of Ethiopia, protective of his lands, scoffed at the average life span of a Persian—80—while “most” of his people, “the long-lived Ethiopians … lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age.”
At first, Herodotus writes, the king attributed this feat to the Ethiopian diet, “boiled flesh” and “milk,” but when his visitors “showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.”
In 1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think, Robert Arp suggests this was “[t]he first recorded mention” of the Fountain of Youth in history. There had to be a reason Ethiopians appeared to live longer, and in Herodotus’ account, that reason was what Italian author Umberto Eco describes in his latest work, The Book of Legendary Lands, as “the underground spring of Ethiopia” (though Eco is quick to point out the near universality of fountain imagery in world culture, from variations on the Garden of Eden and the Romance of Alexander to the ancient myths of the Far and Middle East). In the Judeo-Christian context, man’s obsession with defying what seemed to be his inevitable fate—aging and death—sprang from his banishment from the original “earthly paradise.” Another lesson from the Bible—Psalms, 68:31, to be specific—was the prophecy: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
Introducing Prester John
We think the arrival of Beyoncé’s latest album on ITunes this month was meteoric, but 800 years earlier, the mysterious arrival in European courts of the so-called “Letter of Prester John” ignited a search for an African king and his kingdom unrivaled in its geographic scope, one lasting centuries in endurance. Let’s just say that the quest to find this black king was no passing fad. Malcolm Letts, author of the distinguished 1947 article, “Prester John: A Fourteenth-Century Manuscript at Cambridge,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, believed the story of Prester John had been transmitted orally well before his letter, so that when it arrived in Europe in the 12th century, witnesses were ready to receive—and believe—it.
Already, there had been word of a representative from Prester John visiting the Pope from “India” in 1122. (“India,” as we will see, often referred to the horn of Africa.) Then, in 1158, Otto, Bishop of Freising in Germany, published his famous Historia de duabus civitatibus. In it, he told of a visit he had observed a decade before between then-Pope Eugene III and a Bishop Hugh, of Jabala, Syria, who, in pressing for another crusade, referred to “Presbyter Iohannes” as the Christian king who had scored a decisive victory against his Persian, Median and Assyrian rivals on the other side of the Tigris River before his own horses had been stymied in crossing over it into the Holy Land.
In describing the encounter, Otto traced Prester John’s ancestry to the Magi we know as the Three Wise Men or Kings who, from the East, brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus during the first Christmas season. And one of the Magi, Balthasar, was said to be black, making him the Ethiopian’s king's nth-great grandfather.
The Letter of Prester John
Nothing added to Prester John’s luster like the letter attributed to him that landed on an emperor’s desk in the year 1165 A.D., and then spread across Europe in reproductions in an astonishing multitude of translations and reproductions in the mid- to late-12th century. To be clear, no source I have read believes the “Letter of Prester John” was actually written by one of the kings of Ethiopia. In fact, the best current thinking is that it originated in Western Europe and was, as Letts writes, a Latin tapestry of borrowed sources well-known at the time, including Alexander, the Vulgate Bible and the writings of Pliny, Solinus, St. Augustine, Isidore of Seville, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor and even Jewish Rabbinical writings. Yet the myth of this African king was “irresistible,” Letts concedes, because of its “miraculous powers” to conjure a distant world, cut off from Christian Europe, so that it soon “filled the early maps with monsters and fables, gave a new impulse to geographical discovery, brought fresh hope to Christendom and provided story-tellers with material which lasted for centuries.”
The letter that would soon become fabulously famous was, as Umberto Eco reports, addressed without a date or return address to Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor (1143-1180), but it also reached Pope Alexander III and Frederick I. Its sender’s full name was “Presbyter Johannes, rex potential et virtue dei et domini nostril Iesu Christi.” Among his many fantastical boasts about his kingdom was that it had peace without poverty, an abundance of wealth and precious stones, a sprawling palace, an invincible army, an array of ever-more intriguing creatures and a hierarchy in which 70 kings paid him tribute. “If indeed you can number the stars of heaven and sands of the sea,” its author wrote, “then you may calculate the extent of our dominion and power.”
The difficulty in tracking the original letter, Letts writes, is that it was copied and recopied so many times and in so many languages it eventually swelled to 100 paragraphs with “various interpolations.” And the more that it was reprinted, the more fanciful it became as “an early contribution to the literature of Utopias.” By Letts’ count, there were 100 different manuscripts of the letter, including 10 in the British Museum. John Mandeville was the first to introduce it in English in the 14th century, and, Letts notes, in the 13th-century German poem “Der Jungere Titurel” it was “woven directly into the story of the Holy Grail.”
Whether the letter was meant to be a piece of “anti-Byzantine propaganda” or “one of the rhetorical exercises so beloved of the learned of the period,” Eco writes, “the phantasm called up by some imaginative scribe served as a pretext for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia, a friendly prop for the white man’s burden.” Adding to its seductive powers was its “description of a land inhabited by all kinds of monsters, rich in precious materials, splendid palaces and other marvels.” Even if it was a “monstrous fable,” as Letts writes, a fable with monsters and miracles sells, especially during the Crusades, when Christian Europe desperately needed military allies.
The scramble to find Prester John was almost immediate—but where did he actually reign? In the letter, Prester John had identified himself vaguely as ruler “in the three Indias,” which, in the 12th century, included “Nearer and Lesser India (the northern subcontinent), Further or Greater India (the south), and Middle India (Ethiopia),” according to Charles F. Beckingham in Prester John, the Mongols, and the Ten Lost Tribes. At one time or another, all were in play. When Pope Alexander III learned of him from his physician, he sent him off with a letter addressed “to his dearest son in Christ, John, illustrious and magnificent King of the Indians” (in which he cautioned him against excessive immodesty). The year was 1177, and the doctor was most likely headed for Ethiopia, Beckingham writes. Unfortunately, he was never heard of again.
For much of the 13th century, following the opening of the Mongol empire east of Europe, explorers searched for Prester John in Central Asia and the Far East, including Georgia, Mongolia, even China; then in India, home of the shrine to St. Thomas. But as men like Marco Polo struck out in finding their man, the target shifted to what they hadn’t yet seen: Ethiopia. In his letter, Prester John had described a mirror in which he could look out and see the world, but so far, the world (at least, in Europe) couldn’t see him.
The Link to Africa
“My own impression is that it was as a general title that it [‘Prester John’] first reached Europe,” Sir E. Denison Ross wrote in 1926; “that from the outset it referred to the King of Ethiopia, and that the confusion which arose in the twelfth century was partly due to the wide application of the term ‘India,’ and partly to the inaccessibility of Ethiopia.” Did race also have anything to do with this confusion?
Not really, Matteo Salvadore argues in his 2011 article, “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458,” in the Journal of World History. While it is certainly true that white Christians had inherited associations of blackness with evil, and of black people with the cursed descendants of Ham, given their ongoing struggle against Islam, the potential alliance offered by an African Prester John “trumped” the divide of race. “Unlike those Africans who did not qualify as either Christian or civilized and were mistreated as others,” Salvadore writes, “Ethiopians enjoyed a status of belonging within the Christian world,” starting in 341 A.D. when Christianity became the official state religion of the kingdom.
Influencing the shift of the search for John and the Fountain of Youth to Ethiopia in the 14th and 15th centuries was a series of actual diplomatic missions from Ethiopia—first to Jerusalem, then to mainland Europe. Believe it or not, Ethiopians were present in Europe as early as 1306 (at the behest of Ethiopian King Wedem Ra’ad) and in later years participated in important councils that helped form a benign impression of Prester John’s realm; though, to be clear, Ethiopians never understood why Europeans persisted in calling him “Prester John” when the real title was Negus. Whatever differences existed between Ethiopians’ practice of Christianity and Christianity in Rome, they both focused on the enemy they shared. The most faithful of Prester John’s believers even argued he was able to control the flow of the Nile River at its source, which, if enforced, could put a serious hurt on its Muslim neighbors.
Prester John and the Fountain of Youth
To account for Prester John’s age, and work around it, Robert Silverberg writes in his 1972 book The Realm of Prester John that the legend of the Fountain of Youth in Ethiopia was blended in as an interpolation. Here’s the version transcribed from “a slightly later manuscript” in Silverberg’s book:
“ ‘Whoever drinks of its water three times without having eaten will have no illness for thirty years; and when he has drunk of it, he will feel as if he has eaten the finest meat and spices, for it is full of God’s grace. A person who bathes in this fountain, whether he be of a hundred or a thousand years, will regain the age of thirty-two. Know that we were born and blessed in the womb of our mother 562 years ago and since then we have bathed in the fountain six times.’ ”
In other words, Prester John was letting readers know that, by the miracle of the Fountain of Youth, he was 562 years old and going strong. As a result of this interpolation, building on the Fountain of Youth Herodotus had identified in Ethiopia 1,500 years before, “Europe’s difficulty in making contact with Prester John, then, was of no moment,” Silverberg argues; “for he was immortal, and could wait a while longer to be discovered.” Prester John was in that most exclusive club of personalities who had staying power for centuries, not years or minutes.
The Portuguese Encounter
So, did anyone actually meet Prester John? The answer is, yes, sort of. The winners of that amazing race were the Portuguese, who, from their small country on the Atlantic coast of Europe, saw in Africa the key to their burgeoning empire. In the 1400s, Prince Henry the Navigator ordered his ships down the West coast of Africa in search of Prester John, Christian allies and, he hoped, gold, spices, and that elusive Fountain of Youth. Slaves followed, first to Europe and then across the Atlantic.
In 1497, Vasco da Gama became the first European to circle the Cape of Good Hope, eventually traveling up the coast of East Africa, as we all know. What our teachers didn’t tell us was that da Gama was also carrying with him a personal letter from Manuel I, the King of Portugal, which he had commanded da Gama to present to the black king himself. Ten years before, Sir Ross notes, the king of Portugal sent another man, Pedro de Covilham, to find Prester John; and in 1490 de Covilham made it to Ethiopia after stopovers in India. The only catch: De Covilham was kept from returning by the King of Ethiopia, who considered it against “the custom of his land to allow foreign visitors to leave,” Silberberg writes. Another overture was made from Ethiopia itself in 1512, when Queen Eleni, the dowager regent for the still too-young Ethiopian king, sent an envoy to the Portuguese in Goa, India, asking for a military alliance to help smash her country’s Muslim neighbors; apparently, she even included a tiny black cross that was cut from the True Cross.
The year to remember, however, was 1520, when a Portuguese expedition under Don Rodrigo da Lima entered the realm of Prester John in Ethiopia. Critical to the embassy’s enterprise (and its memory) was the lone priest on board, Francisco Alvares, who in 1540 published his account, A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John of the Indies. In analyzing it, Cates Baldridge, author of Prisoners of Prester John: The Portuguese Mission to Ethiopia in Search of the Mythical King, 1520-1526, shows how Alvares temporized what could have been a far uglier scene of disappointment and misunderstanding. Let me cut to the chase: What Alvares found in Ethiopia of the 1520s wasn’t the proof of a myth but a young, though battle-tested ruler named Lebna Dengel, also known as Dawit or David II (1496-1540).
“His complexion might be chestnut or bay, not very dark in colour,” Alvares wrote in his journal. “He is very much a man of breeding, of middling stature.” Baldridge explains: “Since it had long been the custom for the Neguses of Ethiopia to marry the daughters of Moslem potentates on the fringes of their empire, it may well have been the cases that the successive Lions of Juda had cumulatively inherited more of the distinctly Semitic characteristics of Arabian peoples than the average Abyssinian commoner.”
Unlike in Otto’s account of the Magi connection, Negus Dengel said he believed he was descended from a long line of kings reaching back to the Old Testament’s King Solomon, who, legend had it, fathered a son, Menilek of Abyssinia, with the Queen of Sheba. As Baldridge explains, this was written down in the Ethiopian holy book, the Kebra Nagast, or “Glory of Kings” (dating from the 14th century), so that “there was a kind of rough equivalence of self-regard between the European phantasm called Prester John and the Lebna Dengel who had just laid stealthy eyes upon our priest” Alvares wrote.
While no fountain of youth was found by the Portuguese in Dengel’s realm, there was a poetic parallel: Just as Prester John had eluded European eyes for centuries, in actuality the Ethiopian Negus lived in a migrating capital of 20,000 to 40,000 people in makeshift tents that could be moved easily to keep their enemies on their toes. Because Dengel had just recently killed his Muslim rival, Mafouz, he was not immediately keen on an alliance with Portugal. However, by the time the embassy departed in 1526, Dengel was ready to reach out for what his predecessors had sought from Europe. The goals, Salvadore writes, were technology, artisans and the fulfillment of an inverse prophecy: that Ethiopia would one day be strengthened by the outstretched arms of a Frank king.
The problem was that by the time Dengel’s letters made it to the kings of Portugal, Europe’s interest in Prester John was fading. Not surprisingly, reality was less alluring than myth, and with the crusades a thing of the past, Europe was increasingly focused on its own internal struggles over Christianity, Baldridge explains. Making matters worse was the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in Ethiopia in the mid-16th century searching for converts to Roman Catholicism—not exactly the best way to build bridges. “The kingdom of Ethiopia matched the taste for the exotic that was part of the search for Prester John, but it fell far short of utopia and failed to make a serious ally against the Islamic powers,” Andrew Kurt writes in “The Search for Prester John, a Projected Crusade and the Eroding Prestige of Ethiopian Kings, c. 1200-c. 1540,” in Journal of Medieval History. As a result, “[t]he elevated status of the monarch in European minds was deflated.”
De León’s Legendary Search
That didn’t mean the search for the Fountain of Youth was over, however. While we must be careful not to exaggerate Ponce de León’s obsession with finding it in the New World (some even call it a myth), Umberto Eco describes him, in historical memory, as “the apostle of the fountain of eternal youth.” The searchers included Juan Garrido, the “first African American” we met in Amazing Fact No. 2 and in Episode 1 of my PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, as well as the Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh.
While the successors of de León eventually moved onto other anti-aging cures, Prester John lived on in world literature, from Shakespeare to Voltaire to Umberto Eco’s own contemporary novel, Baudolino. In this way, art has served as the true fountain of youth, constantly remaking Legendary Lands for each generation. As a devotee of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I know nothing can popularize a scholarly find greater than a novelization of a classical myth. When, at last, an African mythic hero is transformed from page to screen, let it be the story of the mighty black king, Prester John, and his magical Fountain of Youth, still hidden away somewhere deep in the marvelous mountains of Ethiopia.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.