We live in a time scrubbed clean of myths—one reason why, for most of us (not least our soldiers engaged all over the Middle East), the name “Prester John” produces, at best, a vague sensation of having heard it before but little else; and for those born after the 1950s, probably nothing at all. The myth of Prester John is perhaps the most thoroughly forgotten among others. Among the others are the Lost City of Atlantis, El Dorado, The Flying Dutchman, and the Wandering Jew.
To take these going backwards, the Wandering Jew was a man who, having taunted Jesus, was condemned to live until the Second Coming—and therefore still wanders the earth. The Flying Dutchman is a sailing ship condemned to sail the oceans until some crime has been atoned for—sometimes (at least until the satellites came) still seen by sailors in storms. El Dorado was a mythological chief among the tribes of present-day Columbia who covered himself in gold dust as an initiation rite; the conquistadores transmuted the man, originally El Hombre Dorado, into a kingdom, eventually into a hidden empire where gold was more common than dirt. And Atlantis was a great island and city somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which, after long dominance, fell out of the favor with the Greek gods; they caused it to sink; it has now disappeared. Until it did Atlantis, much like El Dorado and Prester John’s kingdom, was the object of endless, if mostly literary, voyages of discovery.
Let me now tackle Prester John; that Prester was originally Presbyter. That word can mean “priest” or “elder” being derived from the Greek word for “old man”—thus Old Man John. The myth is that John had been a missionary of the Nestorian version of Christianity (dated to the fifth century (link)) and that he had established a wealthy kingdom in the Middle East somewhere. The myth arose in the twelfth century, thus toward the end of the time of the Crusades. It was evidently started by Crusaders. Those people, of course, operated over much the same area as our troops are now operating in various capacities—thus Syria,Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. By contrast with our troops, the Crusaders had no satellites, had only a sketchy knowledge of distant cultures, but great ambition to strike it rich somehow. Therefore to find Prester John and his domain was a kind of ambition that produces enduring myths.
The old myths are gone. We have modern varieties, of course. There is ET; and the little green men; there are flying saucers; the satellites can’t see them either—but people driving by night are not so blind. As for the ancient and the older legends, they are fading in proportion to the spread of tiny smart-phones. That great, powerful island in the Atlantic? Since the Crusades that island has risen from the Ocean; why didn’t anybody notice? We call it the United States of America. El Dorado is now on Wall Street but, despite hedge funds and their kin, it is still refusing to yield great wealth to ordinary veterans. The Flying Dutchman hasn’t been seen in recent times, but we have yet to find Flight 370 of the Malaysian Airlines; that plane’s absence suggests that a modern version of the old myth is now in the making. Let me give it a start. I would suggest that that famous Boeing 777-200ER may still be flying up there—but hidden from sight by a Romulan cloaking device. As for the Wandering Jew, he disappeared even more effectively behind a cloak of political correctness. Maybe he will reappear again if Donald Trump is elected president.