The ultimate origin of this belief in the region may come from the Egyptian concept of the throne on the "Island of Fire" i.e., Ta-Neserser. On this island was found the Primeval Hill from which the Sun and the Bennu Bird rise in the furthest East, and it was here that the dead traveled by ship where they entered the opening to the Underworld.
The food and herbs of Ta-Neserser filled the body with "magic," and at least by the Middle Kingdom period, the aromatics and products of Punt appear connected in some way with the Island of Fire. The throne in the latter location is associated with a serpent or cobra, and the Lord of Punt in the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which in this case refers to the location of spices like cassia and cinnamon, appears as a giant snake. Aromatics like cassia and cinnamon continued to be associated with an eastern Paradise or "Elysian Fields" in regional cultures influenced by Egypt for thousands of years.
The Book of the Dead depicts what might be called a "volcanic apocalypse" of fire and flood after which renewal begins again from the throne of the Island of Fire. As discussed in this blog, the theme of one or a few survivors after a cataclysmic flood repopulating the earth is quite a familiar theme in Southeast Asian mythology.
Concepts of cyclic change that began at least by the Middle Kingdom in Egypt appear to have contributed to Egyptian millennarianism in the first few centuries before the era among gnostic and Jewish apocalyptic sects. Interestingly at about the same time in China to the East, ideas of a future millennarian age initiated by a reincarnation of Laozi also come to fore. This was at about the same time that the Fangshi wizards preached the wisdom of venturing to Penglai, the isle of immortals. During this period, there is evidence of contact between East and West both overland via the Silk Road and by sea via the maritime spice routes.
Concepts of both a savior king and a destructive king of the "antichrist" type are clearly present during this period.
King from the Sun
The Potter's Oracle and the Sibylline Oracles both refer to a messianic "King from the Sun" who conquers Rome, which many interpret to mean a "King from the East," i.e., the direction of the sunrise.
This identification is strengthened by other works of around this time like the Oracles of Hystaspes and Phlegon's account in Mirabilia.
Phlegon tells of how the slain Syrian Bouplagus after the defeat of Antiochus III at Thermopylae appears to the Roman soldiers warning them that an angered Zeus would send a "bold-hearted race" to bring their defeat and contrition. Another prophecy tells of the the Roman general Publius who went into a prophetic frenzy foretelling the destruction of Rome and conquest of the world by peoples coming from "Asia where the sun rises." According to the story, Publius also foretold that he would be eaten by a wolf, which comes true except that his head is left to declare his prophecies about Rome would also come to past.
Hystaspes is mentioned by Lactantius, Justin, Clement and Aristokritos. He is sometimes said to be the father of Darius, but in another account he is a Median who lives before the "Trojans were born." According to Ammianus, Hystaspes went to study with the Brahmins of "Upper India" where he learned about astronomy, astrology and other mysteries. All the sources agree that Hystaspes tells of Rome's descent into a time of trouble, while Justin refers to the destruction of the world by fire before the coming of an oriental savior king.
The Oracles of Hystaspes have so much in common with the apocalyptic Bahman Yasht of Persia that F. Cumont and G. Widengren have suggested an Iranian source for the former. It is worthwhile to note here that the Bahman Yasht more specifically locates the King of the East in the "direction" of China and the Indies, something dealt with in greater detail in Pahlavi and New Persian messianic literature.
The Persian connection is important because it was from Iran that both Zoroastrian and Nestorian Christianity expanded in the Sassanian period. The Nestorian synod of 410 CE mentions a "Metropolitan of the Islands, Seas and Interior of Dabag, Chin and Machin" (Zabag or Insular Southeast Asia, China and mainland Southeast Asia), who was seated at the Iranian port of Bushehr.
King of the East in Christianity
Not surprisingly there arose some counter propaganda to the Jewish, gnostic and Persian oracles against Rome.
One example is the Tiburtine Sibyl of the fourth century CE that prophesied a King of the Romans and Greeks known as Constans who conquers the world for Christianity before the coming of the Antichrist. Such oracles later morphed into beliefs of a French Catholic king who would bring the world to Rome culiminating in the 16th century book of prophecies Mirabilis Liber.
The King of the East was contrarily often associated in Christian millennarian works with the Antichrist, and this concept is not foreign to earlier works like the Potter's Oracle. That both destruction and renewal would be associated with the Orient agrees well with the Egyptian descriptions of the cyclic Island of Fire.
However, Christian millennarian also adopted and adapted the earlier views of the King of the East as savior. Commodian, for example, writes of "Nero redivivus," the reincarnated Nero who brings misery to Rome and the world as the Antichrist but is vanquished by King Apollyon of the East.
The general concept of ex Oriente lux "From the East, the light; from the East, the Saviour," was a powerful theme that helped bring about the latter popularity of Prester John, the King of the Indies.
Sambatyon River and the Ten Tribes
The tales of Prester John were closely associated with a legendary river known as the Sambatyon beyond which supposedly were found the lost Ten Tribes of Israel.
By at least the fourth or fifth century, we find in the rabbinical literature and the Alexandrian Romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes mention of a river of sand and/or stones that ceases flowing on the Sabbath day.
Early Muslim sources also mention the river of sand and connect it with the "people of Moses" (qawm Musa). The people of Moses are mentioned twice in the Quran (7:159, 17:104) as living at the edge of the world and who in the future will be reunited with the other children of Israel.
Latter commentaries on these verses state that Muhammed converted the people of Moses on his trip to heaven, and that they will ally themselves with Muslims against Rome in the end-times. Muqatil b. Sulayman (767 CE) commenting on 17:104 states that the people of Moses live in China on the far side of a river of sand that solidifies on the Sabbath, and gives them the name Ardaf or Ardaq.
Against this tradition, was a version which has Dejjal, the Muslim Antichrist arising in Bartayil (also Bartail, Bratayil, etc.) an island where clove buds are found situated in or near Zabag. Dejjal is supposed to lead an army of renegade Jews in a final war against Muslims. Thomas Suarez believes the strange horse from the sea, a familiar apocalyptic motif connected with Bartayil, is linked with the Chinese sea-goddess Kuanyin who often takes the form of a horse. Kuanyin in her final incarnation as Miao Shan was the daughter of the King of Hsing Lin, whose empire stretched from the western boundary of India eastward and south of Siam through Insular Southeast Asia.
A parallel Jewish tradition to that of the "people of Moses" developed in the beney Mosheh "children of Moses" said to have been transported to the edenic land of Havilah in the East where they live on the east side of the Sambatyon River flowing with sand and rocks but congealing on the Sabbath. To this was added the story that on the Sabbath a great wall of fire formed around the river.
One belief arose claiming the beney Mosheh possessed a written form of the Torah superior to the Rabbanate oral traditions and copied according to some from the stone tablets of Moses himself.
Centuries later, Prester John, in the various letters attributed to him, regularly claims both the river of sand and the Ten Tribes belong to his empire. In the same sense, he lays claim to another apocalyptic people, the biblical nations of Gog and Magog.
The Ten Tribes are sometimes described as vast in number having 10 cities to every one in Prester John's realm. So much so that the king found it necessary to station garrisons at the river of sand to prevent the Israelites from conquering the world. At other times they are said to ally themselves with Prester John in his battles against Muslims and others. They frequently send friendly traders to the king's land.
Jews in the West had various opinions about Prester John, some considering him an enemy holding back the Ten Tribes from reunification with the Jews. Many associated the coming of the lost tribes with the advent of the Messiah.
In the middle of the 15th century, at about the same time we hear of the de Conti's last reports of activity from a Prester John of the East Indies and also a possible embassy from that king to the Vatican, Jewish writings circulated about wars between the Prester John and the Ten Tribes.
In that year , on the third day of the month of Nissan [early spring], there arrived here to the holy city of Jerusalem wise and respected elders from the lands of the Children of the East, and also men from the land of Babylonia, from the lands of Persia and Media, from India, from China, and from Yemen...which is as far from Jerusalem as the place of the Children of the East, five months' journey; and from there to our brothers, the Children of the Sambatyon River, is five months. They brought us letters from the heads of communities in the above-mentioned places...Know that the Sambatyon river stopped flowing altogether in the year 1453, at the beginning of the year, on the very first day of the month of Tishri. Our brothers are there battling the war of the blessed God, and they have a great and pious and exceedingly strong king who fights the battles of the Lord every single day with the great Christian king, Prester John of India. The great and pious king of our people captured many lands from him, and killed many thousands of his people...So gird yourselves and strengthen others in the name of the Lord God, for the Redeemer has been revealed, and he is about to redeem us with the help of blessed God.
Numerous explanations have given for what historical facts, if any, may explain the beliefs in the Ten Tribes and the Sambatyon River. The need to link these motifs with a king in the east may simply relate to the fact that both the Ten Tribes and the King of the East themes are integral to apocalyptic beliefs in the region.
It may be there is some connection with the Jewish communities in the more remote areas of China -- the southern coastal cities of Quanzhou (Zaiton), Canton, Ningpo and Yangzhou. Merchants from Fujian Province and other parts of South China settled at trading posts like the Parian in Manila and other Southeast Asian ports, and it may be these merchants were conflated with the Chinese Jews, if no real association existed.
Although the information on the King of the East as a savior or as antichrist is often confused, a consistent theme linking the monarch with the geography, aromatics, cosmology and other characteristics of the "East Indies" persists through the ages from the earliest times.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Buitenwerf, Rieuwerd. Book III of the Sibylline Oracles and Its Social Setting, Brill Academic Publishers, 2003, pp. 273-5.
Goldfish, Matt. The Sabbatean Prophets, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 31.
Halkin, Hillel. Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2004, p. 109.
MacGing, Brian C. The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus, Brill Academic Publishers, 1986, pp. 103-4.
Mingana, Alphonse, "The early spread of Christianity in India," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library X 1926, p. 455.
Reeves, John C. Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic: A Postrabbinic Jewish Apocalypse Reader, SBL, 2005.
Werner, E.T.C. Myths and legends of China, Courier Dover
Publications, 1994, p. 253. The manuscript containing the story of Miao Shan was given by the abbot of Hsiang-shan monastery to Chiang Chih-ch'i, the Ju-Chou prefect, in 1100 CE. The abbot had received the work from a monk who had come on pilgrimage to Hsiang-shan.