Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jonitus and the development of Prester John

Medieval Syriac works like the Book of the Cave Treasures (6th century CE) and Revelations of Pseudo-Methodius (7th century CE) introduce us to the character of Jonitus, the fourth son of Noah.

Although not mentioned in biblical texts, the Jonitus figure becomes very important in latter European Christian apocalyptic tradition. The name occurs in many variations including Jonitho, Ionitus, Ionitum, Ionton, Yonton (Jonathan), Yoniko, Yoniton, Maniton, Baniton, etc.

For centuries, commentators have linked the origin of Prester John's name, Joannes or Johannes in Latin, with that of Oannes, the maritime sage mentioned in the Mesopotamian works of Berossus.

Various theories find the origin of the name "Oannes" in forms like U-khan-na "Lord of the Fish," or Ea-khan "Ea the Fish" in the Akkadian language. Oannes shares attributes of the fish-like god Ea/Enki and also of the sage Adapa.

It becomes apparent that if some form of these Akkadian originals Eakhan or Ukhanna had been preserved in the Middle East along with "Oannes" that they could serve also as a source for the name "Ionton."

The connection of Ionton/Jonitus with Oannes has been previously proposed (see Stephen Gero below). According to tradition, Ionton like Oannes is located in the very far east across the ocean and brings the art of statecraft and the sciences including astronomy to Mesopotamia. In the case of Ionton, he passes on these arts, which he receives directly from God, to Nimrod, the king of "Babel."

Jonitus is generally known to have been born after the Flood, although latter tradition including probably the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Sceaf appears to interpret Jonitus as the ark-born son of Noah.

Noah sent Jonitus to the farthest East, to the hiliu chora, which would mean either the "Region of the Sun (regio solis)," or the "Fire of the Sun," where the Sun is said to rise. This region, according to Pseudo-Methodius, is the same as, or includes, the biblical land of Nod, east of Eden.

Many theories exist as to why a fourth son of Noah was created. At least one of the reasons appears to be the need to account for the pre-Christian idea of the Earth as divided into four quarters or "corners." One son of Noah establishes a kingdom in each of these corners of the Earth.

Lineage of Jonitus
Pseudo-Methodius writes that at the end of the world a king of the lineage (cognatione) of Jonitus, the son of Noah, would reunite the four corners of the world into a single world empire.

The author also mentions in the end-times a king who shall trace his descent to Chuseth, the daughter of King Phul of Ethiopia, who shall rise from the Ethiopian Sea (Indian Ocean) and become emperor of the Greeks and Romans.

It is unclear whether this is the same person as the Jonitus king. In previous tradition, I have mentioned that as early as Middle Kingdom Egypt, there may have been dual apocalyptic traditions, one involving an eastern king of the "Isle of Fire" and the other associated with eastern Africa, south of Egypt, a royal descendant of a "daughter of Ta-Seti (Cush/Nubia)."

In late ancient and medieval tradition, Tarshish and Ophir become associated with the East Indies, and in biblical end-times prophecies like Psalm 72 and Ezekiel 38, Tarshish is often mentioned in conjunction with Sheba and Saba. These latter locations in medieval times were generally conflated with "Ethiopia" and "Abyssinia."

Prester John was a king of the Indies, the latter geographical concept covering the region from Southeast Asia to East Africa. Even in Pseudo-Methodius, the terms hendu and hendwaie are often used for "Ethiopia" and "Ethiopian."

Like the coming king of Jonitus lineage, Prester John had apocalyptic attributes. It was this latter king who would release Gog and Magog and the Ten Tribes in the last days.

In the famed letter of Prester John to the Christian emperors, he claims that one of his sons, a future Prester John, would accept the Christian empire of Europe after saving the region from Gog and Magog:

"These accursed fifteen nations will burst forth from the four quarters of the earth at the end of the world, in the times of Antichrist, and overrun all the abodes of the Saints as well as the great city Rome, which, by the way, we are prepared to give to our son who will be born, along with all Italy, Germany, the two Gauls, Britain and Scotland. We shall also give him Spain and all the land as far as the icy sea. The nations to which I have alluded, according to the words of the prophet, shall not stand in the judgment, on account of their offensive practices, but will be consumed to ashes by a fire which will fall on them from heaven."

Here we have a reference to the "Last World Emperor," a concept that developed in medieval times from works like the Tiburtine Sybil and Pseudo-Methodius.

Thus, the "John" in "Prester John" could refer to the prophesied king of the line of Jonitus, both names linked with Oannes and Joannes possibly through an Akkadian original form Eakhan or Ukhanna.

Prester John is a priest or priest-king (presbyter) of the Jonitus family, one of whom will figure in apocalyptic events. The idea of the the sage transformed to that of the the priest was a natural one, or the idea of priesthood may have been preserved directly from Oannes who taught and performed priestly rituals.

Pseudo-Methodius wrote during a time when Muslim invaders had conquered much of Christendom in Asia and Africa. In latter periods, there arose a series of Byzantine millennial prophecies of the Last World Emperor whose great duty was to vanquish the Muslim enemy. This theme also caught on in Western Christendom.

Centuries later, Prester John was viewed as the Eastern king to fulfill this role and reconquer Jerusalem.

It seems not unlikely that Pseudo-Methodius and those who followed him took earlier themes like the fourth son of Noah, and combined them with the prophetic Rex Orientis "King of the East" of late antiquity to construct a Christian savior from Muslim onslaught who eventually becomes the medival Prester John.

The title Prester John is used to describe, at first, an East Indian king (of Sanfotsi or Zabag) who is worried about Muslim interference in the spice trade routes between Southeast Asia and eastern Africa.

Paul Kekai Manansala

Aerts, Willem Johan, George A.A Kortekaas and Pseudo-Methodius. Die Apokalypse Des Pseudo-Methodius: die ältesten griechischen und lateinischen Übersetzungen, Peeters Publishers, 1998.

Gero, Stephen. "The Legend of the Fourth Son of Noah," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 73, No. 1/2, Dedicated to the Centennial of the Society of Biblical Literature (Jan. - Apr., 1980), pp. 321-330.

Hill, Thomas D. "The Myth of the Ark-Born Son of Noe and the West-Saxon Royal Genealogical Tables," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), pp. 379-383.

Su-Min Ri. Commentaire de La Caverne Des Tresors: étude sur l'histoire du texte et de ses sources, Peeters Publishers, 2000.