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The Kingdom of Prester John, Christianity’s Imaginary Ally
Prester John as virtual as he was virtuous, the legend literally too good to be true.
In 1145, the Syrian bishop Hugo of Jabala brought Pope Eugene III the news of the Muslim reconquest of Edessa, an important Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land. The bishop softened the blow – and hoped to encourage the Pope to a new Crusade – with tales of a mighty Christian king attacking the Muslims from behind: Prester John, a descendant of one of the Three Magi and ruler of a Christian Empire beyond the Muslim-ruled lands in India, on the very edge of the world then known to Europe. According to Otto von Freising’s contemporary Chronicles, Hugo spoke of “a certain Prester John who lives in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia, King and Priest, Christian but Nestorian (1), having waged war against the Persian and Median dynasty of the Sarmiads, having chased them from their capital Ectabana.” This raised the possibility of a Christian pincer attack on the Muslim world.
Twenty years later, a letter addressed by Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus caused a great stirring of hope in all of Christendom. Pope Alexander III sent out an envoy to the Prester, but without result (the fate of the papal diplomat is unknown). The letter, however, remained a powerful tonic to a Europe feeling hemmed in by the Muslim ascendancy in the Middle East and Northern Africa. It was copied (and embellished) for many decades afterwards. The letter described a Christian empire with 72 tributary kingdoms, in an area of the world with a fantastic ecology inhabited, among others, by vampires and dog-headed people. The Fountain of Youth and a river flowing from Paradise itself and filled with precious stones helped complete a picture of thrilling exoticism. And of perfect piety, happiness and wealth: “All Christian values are respected to the letter. Theft, greed and lies are unknown. There is no poverty.”
But the letter was a forgery, Prester John as virtual as he was virtuous, the legend literally too good to be true. All Prester John ever was king of, was Wishful Thinking. Prester John’s fictional empire proved as movable as the imagination of beleaguered Christianity required. First inferred in India, the kingdom was later situated in Central Asia, and eventually assumed to be in Africa. The ease of these huge locational shifts was due not just to Europe’s dim perception of geography at the time, but also to the elasticity of the contemporary concept of ‘India’, which in its broadest interpretation could stretch all the way from Africa to China.
Whatever its location du jour, Prester John’s legend required his kingdom to be beyond Muslim lands, and in a little-known corner of the world. The last, longest and strongest association of the legend was with Abyssinia (2) – mainly because, apart from conforming to the legend’s geographical requirements, it also did happen to be a Christian empire. In his Mirabilia (1323), Jourdain de Séverac identified the Abyssinian Negus (i.e. Emperor and supreme leader of the Abyssinian monophysite church) with Prester John, spurring European expeditions to the African empire. In 1490, the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã managed to convey a letter from the king of Portugal to the Negus… even though the letter itself was addressed to Prester John. This must have surprised the Negus, but that did not stop Europeans from continuing to the conceit – even though the Ethiopians in their intermittent contacts with European Christendom tried to clarify that their Emperor certainly wasn’t anyone’s “Prester”. Only in the 17th century did Europeans realise their mistake, and Prester John finally faded from maps, and from memory. Prester John might never have been real, but his influence can be felt clearly; in the push of European exploration around Africa towards India and Ethiopia, and in cultural references ranging from William Shakespeare and Umberto Eco to Marvel Comics (3).
This map, dating from the 1570s, still takes Europe’s devout wishes for geopolitical truth. It was produced in Antwerp by Ortelius, entitled A Description of The Empire of Prester John, Also Known as the Abyssinian Empire. It delineates Prester John’s empire as follows: its borders almost reach north to Aswan (noted on the map as Aßuan) on the Nile, then follow the Nile, Niger and Manicongo rivers south to the Mountains of the Moon (Lunae montes, hinc Austrum versus Africa veteribus incognita fuit: The Mountains of the Moon, ‘Africa south from here was unknown to the Ancients’). The kingdom extends from these western and southern borders all the way to Africa’s eastern shores.
Ortelius’ map mixes up familiar and imagined names and locations into an intriguing mess of real and imagined geography.
* In northern Africa are Barbaria (the Barbary Coast) and Egypt, on the western African coast are other place names that still sound familiar: Benin, Biafar (Biafra?), Rio de los Camarones (Cameroon), Manicongo (Congo), Angolia (Angola).
* The Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa were known to Greek geographers as early as Ptolemy (although he might have referred to the Kilimanjaro instead). On this map, they are situated far south of the Equator. Mozambique, named by Portuguese explorers in the late 15th century, possibly after a lokal sheikh called Moussa ibn Mbeki, is on the coast and appears north of the Mountains of the Moon.
* The interior is dominated by a few great lakes, probably a garbled reference to the actual Great Lakes. They are named Zaire lacus (or Zembre lacus), near which amazons live and in which sirens swim, and Zaflan lacus. Zaire, the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1971 and 1997, is a Portuguese corruption of the Congolese word nzere, ‘the river that swallows all rivers’.
* In the interior of Prester John’s kingdom is a legend that appears to read: ‘Mount Amara, here the sons of Prester John are held in captivity by [a] governor’.
* On the Arabian peninsula, two cities are referenced: Mecha, patria Mahumetis (‘Mecca, the home of Muhammad’), and Medina Talnabi, ubi Mahumetis sepulcrum magna frequentia visitur (‘Medina Talnabi, where the tomb of Muhammad is visited with great frequency’). Two other cities, Aden and Zibir (possibly Sana’a) are located in (or to)the south of Aiman, quae olim Arabia Felix (‘Yemen, formerly Happy Arabia’).
This map was taken from this page at Princeton University Library. The page quotes Jonathan Swift, as “[t]his is certainly one of the maps that [he] had in mind when he wrote: So Geographers in Afric-maps With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps; And o’er uninhabitable Downs Place Elephants for want of Towns – On Poetry: A Rhapsody (1733)
Strange Maps #434
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) a Christian heresy regarding Jesus as two persons, human and divine, that at one time spread deep into Central Asia.
(2) synonymous with the Ethiopian Empire, which existed from 1137 until well into the 20th century. After the coup d’etat in 1978 which deposed the country’s last emperor, it has generally only been referred to as Ethiopia.
(3) in Much Ado About Nothing, Baudolino and the Fantastic Four, respectively.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.