Thursday, December 23, 2004

The "King of the East" in ancient and medieval tradition

The concept of the King of the East is intimately linked with that of the King of the Underworld.

In Sumerian literature, Enki, the King of the Abzu, swims to Sumer from the island of Dilmun in the east. The entrance to both the underworld and skyworld was found on Mt. Mashu in Dilmun in the Sea of the Rising Sun.

Enki in the form of a fish-human is the main advisor to humanity from among the Annunaki who had come to Sumer. Among the things conveyed was the idea of the priest-king. Each Sumerian city had a patron god whose instrument was the priest king. The temple of the god was usually in the form of a ziggurat.

The ziggurat is a terraced, truncated pyramid that symbolized the holy mountain of the Sumerians. The flat top of the ziggurat is similar to the appearance of a volcano's profile. Enki would send fish-being sages known as abgal (Akkadian apkallu) from Dilmun to advise the priest-kings.

In ancient India, the first king Yama is also the lord of the underworld both for good souls (Devachan, Yamasabha, Pitriloka, etc.) and bad souls (Kamaloka, Patala, etc.).

Although the location of the underworld is a bit more ambigious here there are both eastern and southern indications. Devachan in Buddhist tradition is placed in Sukhavati, a blessed land to the east of India. The Devas themselves in Vedic literature always come from the East and one faces in that direction when praying to the Devas. On the other hand, one faces the South when praying to the Pitris, the departed ancestral fathers. The southern course of the Sun is known as the way of the Pitris.

The underworld was also associated with the ocean. Patala was said to be located under the earth and in the ocean.

As Dharmaraja, Yama was associated with dharma, the mundane and spiritual law. In fact, the word yama can also mean dharma. Although kingship and priesthood diverged in Indian society, the spiritual law or yama is personified by Yama. He is also the model for kingship in Indian tradition according to the dharmasastras (lawbooks).

The Indian view of the renewal of the ages involves the rise of the king known as Kalki, an avatar of god Visnu, from the village Sambhala. This is similar to the Tibetan tradition of the Golden Age prophesied king Rigden Drakpo who comes from Shambhala, which is likely the same place as in the Indian prophecy. Shambhala is associated with the Sita River, which among the four great rivers of Indian tradition is the river of the East. Shambhala is likely also linked with the Milky Ocean where Visnu is said to slumber on a bed of serpents. The Puranas state that Kalki rises out of the ocean on a white horse during the last days. In the Churning of the Milky Ocean myth, the white horse Ucchaisravas ascends from that ocean.

Indian tradition links the apocalypse with an underwater fiery formation known as the Vadavamukha or "Mare's Head" located far to the east and south. The Vadavamukha sounds much like an underwater volcano and in Indian literature the world is destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion.

Among the Hebrews we also find the idea of an apocalyptic King of the East contained in the prophecies of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation. These prophecies were likely the source of the King of the East motif in the writings of the medieval astrologer Nostradamus.

In Persia also during medieval times, the King of the East as a future savior appears in the Rivayats and other works. The savior king is said to come from the direction of Hind (the Indies) and China.

In Hebrew literature, Melchizedek, the priest-king who meets Abraham may be modeled after the Sumerian prototype. The name Melchizedek means "King of Righteousness" and Hebrew tzedek "uprightness" is roughly the equivalent of the word dharma in India. Thus Melchizedek is very close in meaning to Dharmaraja, the title of Yama.

In medieval times, the King of the East becomes the King of the Indies. The model for Prester John, the king of the Three Indias, and Shahriyar, the 'king of the Indian Isles and China,' in the One Thousand and one Nights is likely the real-life medieval king of the kingdom known to the Muslims as Zabag and to the Chinese as Sanfotsi.

This was a late Nusantao realm located in the eastern Malay Archipelago.

The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag

Paul Kekai Manansala


Meisami, Julie S. "The King from the East and the End of Days: Myth,
History, and Politics in the Samanid Milieu" (Oxford: Oriental
Institute: 1997.

Moens, J.L., "Srivijaya, Yava en Kataha," Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol XVII, 1940.