In Search of Paradise
There was a time—our ancient scriptures tell us—when Immortality was
within the grasp of Mankind.
A golden age it was, when Man lived with his Creator in the Garden
of Eden—Man tending the wonderful orchard, God taking strolls in the
"And the Lord God caused to grow from the ground
every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for eating; and
the Tree of Life was in the orchard, and the Tree of Knowing good
and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from
there it was parted and became four principal streams: the name of
the first is Pishon... and of the second Gihon... and of the
third Tigris ... and the fourth river is the Euphrates."
Of the fruit of every tree were Adam and Eve permitted to eat—except
of the fruit of the Tree of Knowing. But once they did (tempted by
the Serpent)—the Lord God grew concerned over the matter of
Then did the
Lord Yahweh say:
"Behold, the Adam has become as one of us
to know good and evil;
And now might he not put forth his hand
and partake also of the Tree of Life,
and eat, and live forever?"
And the Lord Yahweh expelled the Adam
from the Garden of Eden ...
And He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden
the Cherubim, and the Flaming Sword which revolveth,
to guard the way to the Tree of Life.
So was Man cast out of the very place where eternal life was within
his grasp. But though barred from it, he has never ceased to
remember it, to yearn for it, and to try to reach it.
Ever since that expulsion from Paradise, heroes have gone to the
ends of Earth in search of Immortality; a selected few were given a
glimpse of it; and simple folk claimed to have chanced upon it.
Throughout the ages, the
Search for Paradise was the realm of the individual; but earlier in
this millennium, it was launched as the national enterprise of
The New World was discovered—so have we been led to believe—when
explorers went seeking a new, maritime route to India and her
wealth. True—but not the whole truth: for what Ferdinand and Isabel,
king and queen of Spain, had desired most to find was the Fountain
of Eternal Youth: a magical fountain whose waters rejuvenate the old
and keep one young forever, for it springs from a well in Paradise.
No sooner had Columbus and his men set foot in what they all thought
were the islands off India (the "West Indies"), than they combined
the exploration of the new lands with a search for the legendary
Fountain whose waters "made old men young again." Captured "Indians"
were questioned, even tortured, by the Spaniards, so that they would
reveal the secret location of the Fountain.
One who excelled in such investigations was Ponce de Leon, a
professional soldier and adventurer, who rose through the ranks to
become governor of the part of the island of Hispaniola now called
Haiti, and of Puerto Rico. In 1511, he witnessed the interrogation
of some captured Indians, Describing their island, they spoke of its
pearls and other riches. They also extolled the marvelous virtues of
its waters. A spring there is, they said, of which an islander
"grievously oppressed with old age" had drunk. As a result, he,
"brought home manly strength and has practiced all manly
performances, having taken a wife again and begotten children."
Listening with mounting excitement, Ponce de Leon—himself an aging
man—was convinced that the Indians were describing the miraculous
Fountain of the rejuvenating waters. Their postscript, that the old
man who drank of the waters regained his manly strength, could
resume practicing "all manly performances," and even took again a
young wife who bore him children—was the most conclusive aspect of
For in the court of Spain, as throughout Europe, there
hung numerous paintings by the greatest painters, and whenever they
depicted love scenes or sexual allegories, they included in the
scene a fountain. Perhaps the most famous of such paintings,
Titian's Love Sacred and Love Profane, was created at about the time
the Spaniards were on their quest in the Indies. As everyone well
knew, the Fountain in the paintings hinted at the ultimate
lovemaking; the Fountain whose waters make possible "all manly
performances" through Eternal Youth.
Ponce de Leon's report to King Ferdinand is reflected in the records
kept by the official court historian, Peter Martyr de Angleria. As
stated in his Decade de Orbe Novo [Decades of the New World], the
Indians who had come from the islands of Lucayos or the Bahamas, had
"there is an island ... in which there is a perennial
spring of running water of such marvelous virtue, that the waters
thereof being drunk, perhaps with some diet, make old men young
Many researches, such as Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth:
History of a Geographical Myth by Leonardo Olschki, have established that "the Fountain of Youth was the most
popular and characteristic expression of the emotions and
expectations which agitated the conquerors of the New World."
Undoubtedly, Ferdinand the king of Spain was one of those so
agitated, so expectant for the definitive news.
So, when word came from Ponce de Leon, Ferdinand lost little time.
He at once granted Ponce de Leon a Patent of Discovery (dated
February 23, 1512), authorizing an expedition from the island of
Hispaniola northward. The admiralty was ordered to assist Ponce de
Leon and make available to him the best ships and seamen, so that he
might discover without delay the island of "Beininy" (Bimini). The
king made one condition explicit:
"that after having reached the
island and learned what is in it, you shall send me a report of it."
In March 1513, Ponce de Leon set out northward, to look for the
island of Bimini. The public excuse for the expedition was a search
for "gold and other metals"; the true aim was to find the Fountain
of Eternal Youth. This the seamen soon learnt as they came upon not
one island but hundreds of islands in the Bahamas. Anchoring at
island after island, the landing parties were instructed to search
not for gold but for some unusual fountain.
The waters of each
stream were tasted and drunk—but with no evident effects On Easter
Sunday—Pasca de Flares by its Spanish name—a long coastline was
sighted. Ponce de Leon called the "island" Florida. Sailing along
the coast and landing again and again, he and his men searched the
jungled forests and drank the waters of endless springs. But none
seemed to work the expected miracle.
The mission's failure appears to have hardly dampened the conviction
that the Fountain was undoubtedly there: it only had to be
discovered. More Indians were questioned. Some seemed unusually
young for the old ages claimed by them. Others repeated legends that
confirmed the existence of the Fountain. One such legend (as
recounted in Creation Myths of Primitive America by J. Curtin)
relates that when Olelbis, "He Who Sits Above," was about to create
Mankind, he sent two emissaries to Earth to construct a ladder which
would connect Earth and Heaven.
Halfway up the ladder, they were to
set up a resting place, with a pool of pure drinking waters. At the
summit, they were to create two springs: one for drinking and the
other for bathing. When a man or woman grows old, said Olelbis, let
him or her climb up to this summit, and drink and bathe; whereupon
his youth shall be restored.
The conviction that the Fountain existed somewhere on the islands
was so strong that in 1514—the year after Ponce de Leon's unfruitful
mission— Peter Martyr (in his Second Decade) informed Pope Leo X as
At a distance of 325 leagues from Hispaniola, they tell, there is an
island called Boyuca, alias Ananeo, which—according to those who
explored its interior—has such an extraordinary fountain that
drinking of its waters rejuvenates the old.
And let Your Holiness not think this to be said lightly or rashly;
for they have spread word of this as the truth throughout the court,
so formally that the whole people, not few of whom are from among
those whom wisdom or fortune distinguished from the common people,
hold it to be true.
Ponce de Leon, undaunted, concluded after some additional research
that what he had to look for was a spring in conjunction with a
river, the two possibly connected by a hidden underground tunnel. If
the Fountain was on an island, was its source a river in Florida?
In 1521, the Spanish Crown sent Ponce de Leon on a renewed search,
this time focusing on Florida. There can be no doubt regarding the
true purpose of his mission: writing only a few decades later, the
Spanish historian Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas stated thus in
his Historia General de las Indias:
"He (Ponce de Leon) went seeking
that Sacred Fountain, so renowned among the Indians, as well as the
river whose waters rejuvenated the aged."
He was intent on finding
the spring of Bimini and the river in Florida, of which the Indians
of Cuba and Hispaniola "affirmed that old persons bathing themselves
in them became young again."
Instead of Eternal Youth, Ponce de Leon found death by an Indian
arrow. And although the individual search for a potion or lotion
that can postpone the Last Day may never end, the organized search,
under a royal decree, did come to an end.
Was the search futile to begin with? Were Ferdinand and Isabel and
Ponce de Leon, and the men who sailed and died in search of the
Fountain, all fools childishly believing in some primitive fairy
Not the way they saw it. The Holy Scriptures, pagan beliefs, and the
documented tales of great travelers, all combined to affirm that
there was indeed a place whose waters (or fruits' nectars) could
bestow Immortality by keeping one forever young.
There were still current olden tales—left from the times when the
Celts were in the peninsula—of a secret place, a secret fountain, a
secret fruit or herb whose finder shall be redeemed of death. There
was the Goddess Idunn, who lived by a sacred brook and who kept
magical apples in her coffer. When the Gods grew old, they would
come to her to eat of the apples, whereupon they turned young again.
Indeed, "Idunn" meant "Again Young"; and the apples that she guarded
were called the "Elixir of the Gods."
Was this an echo of the legend of Herakles (Hercules) and his twelve
labors? A priestess of the God Apollo, predicting his travails in an
oracle, had also assured him: "When this shall be done, thou shalt
become one of the Immortals." To achieve this, the last but one
labor was to seize and bring back from the Hesperides the divine
golden apples. The Hes-perides—"Daughters of the Evening
Land"—resided at the Ends of Earth.
Have not the Greeks, and then the Romans, left behind them tales of
mortals immortalized? The God Apollo anointed the body of Sarpedon,
so that he lived the life of several generations of men. The Goddess
Aphrodite granted to Phaon a magic potion; anointing himself with
it, he turned into a beautiful youth "who wakened love in the hearts
of all the women of Lesbos." And the child Demophon, anointed with
ambrosia by the Goddess Demeter, would surely have become immortal
were not his mother— ignorant of Demeter's identity—to snatch him
away from the Goddess.
There was the tale of Tantalus, who had become immortal by eating at
the Gods' table and stealing their nectar and ambrosia. But having
killed his son to serve his flesh as food for the Gods, he was
punished by being banished to a land of luscious fruits and
waters—eternally out of his reach. (The God Hermes restored the
butchered son to life.) On the other hand, Odysseus, offered
Immortality by the nymph Calypso if only he would stay with her
forever, forsook Immortality for a chance to return to his home and
And was not there the tale of Glaukos, a mortal, an ordinary
fisherman, who became a sea-God? One day he observed that a fish
that he had caught, coming in touch with a herb, came back to life
and leaped back into the water. Taking the herb into his mouth,
Glaukos jumped into the water at the exact same spot; whereupon the
sea-Gods Okeanos and Tethys admitted him to their circle and
transformed him into a deity.
The year 1492, in which Columbus set sail from Spain, was also the
year in which the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula ended
with the surrender of the Moors at Granada. Throughout the nearly
eight centuries of Muslim and Christian contention over the
peninsula, the interaction of the two cultures was immense; and the
tale in the Koran (the Muslim holy book) of the Fish and the
Fountain of Life was known to Moor and Catholic alike. The fact that
the tale was almost identical to the Greek legend of Glaukos the
fisherman, was taken as confirmation of its authenticity. It was one
of the reasons for seeking the legendary Fountain in India—the land
which Columbus had set out to reach, and which he thought he had
The segment in the Koran which contains the tale is the eighteenth Sura. It relates the exploration of various mysteries by Moses, the
biblical hero of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. While Moses was
being groomed for his new calling as a Messenger of God, he was to
be instructed in such knowledge as he still lacked by a mysterious
"Servant of God." Accompanied by only one attendant, Moses was to
go find this enigmatic teacher
with the aid of a single clue: he was to take with him a dried fish;
the place where the fish would jump and disappear would be the place
where he would meet the teacher.
After much searching in vain, the attendant of Moses suggested that
they stop and give up the search. But Moses persisted, saying that
he would not give up until they reached "the junction of the two
streams." Unnoticed by them, it was there that the miracle happened:
But when they reached the Junction, they forgot about their
fish, which took its course through the stream, as in a tunnel.
After journeying further, Moses said to his attendant: "Bring us our
early meal." But the attendant replied that the fish was gone:
"When we betook ourselves to the rock, sawest thou what had
happened? I did indeed forget about the fish—Satan made me forget to
tell you about it: It took its course through the stream, in a
marvelous way. And Moses said: "That was what we were seeking after."
The tale in the Koran (Fig. 1) of the dried fish that came to life
and swam back to the sea through a tunnel, went beyond the parallel
Greek tale by relating itself not to a simple fisherman, but to the
venerated Moses. Also, it presented the incident not as a chance
discovery, but as an occurrence premeditated by the Lord, who knew of
the location of the Waters of Life— waters that could be recognized
through the medium of the resurrection of a dead fish.
As devout Christians, the king and queen of Spain must have accepted
literally the vision described in the Book of Revelation,
"of a pure
river of Water of Life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the
throne of God. ... In the midst of the street of it, and on either
side of the river, was there the Tree of Life, with twelve manner of
They must have believed in the Book's promises:
"I will give
unto him that is athirst of the Fountain of the Water of Life"—"I
will give to eat of the Tree of Life which is the midst of the
Paradise of God."
And could they not be aware of the words of the
Thou givest them to drink of thy Stream of Eternities; For with thee
is the Fountain of Life.
There could thus be no doubt, as attested by the holiest Scriptures,
that the Fountain of Life, or the Stream of Eternity, did exist, the
only problem was—where, and how to find it.
The eighteenth Sura of the Koran seemed to offer some important
clues. It goes on to relate the three paradoxes of life that Moses
was shown once he located the Servant of God. Then the same section
of the Koran continues to describe three other episodes: first,
about a visit to a land where the Sun sets; then to a land where the
Sun rises—that is, in the east; and finally to a land beyond the
second land, where the mythical people of Gog and Magog (the
biblical contenders at the End of Days) were causing untold mischief
To put an end to this trouble, the hero of the tale, here
named Du-al'karnain ("Possessor of the Two Horns"), filled up the
pass between two steep mountains with blocks of iron and poured over
them molten lead, creating such an awesome barrier that even the
mighty Gog and Magog were powerless to scale it. Separated, the two
could cause no more hardship on Earth.
The word Karnain, in Arabic as in Hebrew, means both Double Horns
and Double Rays. The three additional episodes, following
immediately after the tale of the Mysteries of Moses, thus appear to
retain as their hero Moses, who could well have been nicknamed Du-al'karnain because his face "was with rays"—radiated—after he had
come down from Mount Sinai, where he had met the Lord face to face.
Yet popular medieval beliefs attributed the epithet and the journeys
to the three lands to Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who
in the fourth century B.C. conquered most of the ancient world,
reaching as far as India.
This popular belief, interchanging Moses and Alexander, stemmed from
traditions concerning the conquests and adventures of Alexander the
Great. These included not only the feat in the land of Gog and
Magog, but also an identical episode of a dry, dead fish that came
back to life when Alexander and his cook had found the Fountain of
The reports concerning Alexander's adventures that were current in
Europe and the Near East in medieval times were based upon the
supposed writings of the Greek historian Callisthenes of Olynthus.
He was appointed by Alexander to record the exploits, triumphs and
adventures of his Asiastic expedition; but he died in prison, having
offended Alexander, and his writings have mysteriously perished.
Centuries later, however, there began to circulate in Europe a Latin
text purporting to be a translation of the lost original writings of
Callisthenes. Scholars speak of this text as "pseudo-Callisthenes."
For many centuries it was believed that the many translations of the
Exploits of Alexander that were current in Europe and the Middle
East, all stemmed from this Latin pseudo-Callisthenes. But it was
later discovered that other, parallel versions existed in many
languages—including Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Armenian and
Ethiopic—as well as at least three versions in Greek. The various
versions, some tracing their origins to Alexandria of the second
century B.C., differ here and there; but by and large, their
overwhelming similarities do indicate a common source— perhaps the
writings of Callisthenes after all, or—as is sometimes claimed—
copies of Alexander's letters to his mother Olympias and to his
The miraculous adventures with which we are concerned began after
Alexander completed the conquest of Egypt. From the texts it is
neither clear in which direction Alexander set his course, nor is it
certain that the episodes are arranged in an accurate chronological
or geographical order.
One of the very first episodes, however, may explain the popular
confusion between Alexander and Moses: apparently Alexander
attempted to leave Egypt as Moses did, by parting the waters and
getting his followers to cross the sea on foot.
Reaching the sea, Alexander decided to part it by building in its
midst a wall of molten lead, and his masons,
"continued to pour lead
and molten matter into the water until the structure rose above its
surface. Then he built upon it a tower and a pillar, upon which he
carved his own figure, having two horns upon his head."
And he wrote
upon the monument:
"Whosoever hath come into this place and would
sail over the sea, let him know that I have shut it up."
Having thus shut out the waters, Alexander and his men began to
cross the sea. As a precaution, however, they sent ahead some
prisoners. But as they reached the tower in the midst of the waters,
"the waves of the sea leapt up upon them (the prisoners) and the sea
swallowed them up and they all perished. ... When the Two-Horned
One saw this, he was afraid of the sea with a mighty fear," and gave
up the attempt to emulate Moses.
Eager, however, to discover the "darkness" on the other side of the
sea, Alexander made several detours, during which he purportedly
visited the sources of the river Euphrates and of the river Tigris,
studying there "the secrets of the heavens and the stars and the
Leaving his troops behind, Alexander returned toward the Land of
Darkness, reaching a mountain named Mushas at the edge of the
desert. After several days of marching, he saw "a straight path
which had no wall, and it had no high and no low place in it." He
left his few trusted companions and proceeded alone. After a journey
of twelve days and twelve nights, "he perceived the radiance of an
angel"; but as he drew nearer, the angel was "a flaming fire."
Alexander realized that he had reached "the mountain from which the
whole world is surrounded."
The angel was no less puzzled than Alexander. "Who art thou, and for
what reason art thou here, O mortal?" the angel asked, and wondered
how Alexander had managed "to penetrate into this darkness, which no
other man hath been able to do." To which Alexander replied that God
himself had guided him and gave him strength to "have arrived in
this place, which is Paradise."
To convince the reader that Paradise, rather than Hell, was
reachable through underground passages, the ancient author then
introduced a long discourse between the angel and Alexander on
matters of God and Man. The angel then urged Alexander to return to
his friends; but Alexander persisted in seeking answers to the
mysteries of Heaven and Earth, God and Men. In the end Alexander
said that he would leave only if he were granted something that no
man had ever obtained before. Complying, "the angel said unto him: I
will tell thee something whereby thou mayest live and not die." The
Two-Horned said: 'Say on.'
And the angel said unto him:
In the land of Arabia, God hath set the blackness of solid darkness,
wherein is hidden a treasury of this knowledge. There too is the
fountain of water which is called "The Water of Life"; and whosoever drinketh therefrom, if it be but a single drop, shall never die.
The angel attributed other magical powers to these Waters of Life,
such as "the power of flying through the heavens, even as the angels
fly." Needing no further prompting, Alexander anxiously inquired:
"In which quarter of the earth is this fountain of water situated?"
"Ask those men who are heirs to the knowledge thereof," was the
angel's enigmatic answer.
Then the angel gave Alexander a cluster of
grapes whereby to feed his troops.
Returning to his companions, Alexander told his colleagues of his
adventure and gave them each a grape. But "as he plucked off from
the cluster, another grew in its place." And so did one cluster feed
all the soldiers and their beasts.
Alexander then began to make inquiries of all the learned men he
could find. He asked the sages:
"Have you ever read in your books
that God hath a place of darkness of which knowledge is hidden, and
that the Fountain which is called the 'Fountain of Life' is situated
The Greek versions have him search the Ends of Earth for
the right savant; the Ethiopic versions suggest that the sage was
right there, among his troops. His name was Matun, and he knew the
ancient writings. The place, he said, "lieth nigh unto the sun when
it rises on the right side."
Scarcely more informed by such riddles, Alexander put himself in the
hands of his guide. They again went into a Place of Darkness. After
journeying for a long time, Alexander got tired and sent Matun ahead
by himself, to find the right path. To help him see in the darkness,
Alexander gave him a stone which was given him earlier under
miraculous circum-stances by an ancient king who was living among
the Gods—a stone which was brought out of Paradise by Adam when he
left it, and which was heavier than any other substance on Earth.
Matun, though careful to follow the path, eventually lost his way.
He then produced the magical stone and put it down; when it touched
the ground, it emitted light. By the light, Matun saw a well. He was
not yet aware that he had chanced upon the Fountain of Life. The
Ethiopic version describes what ensued:
Now, he had with him a dried fish, and being exceedingly hungry he
went down with it to the water, that he might wash it therein and
make it ready for cooking... . But behold, as soon as the fish
touched the water, it swam away.
"When Matun saw this, he stripped his clothes and went down into the
water after the fish, and found it to be alive in the water.''
Realizing that this was the "Well of the Water of Life," Matun
washed himself in the waters and drank thereof. When he had come up
from the well, he was no longer hungry nor did he have any worldly
care, for he had become El-Khidr— "the Evergreen"—the one who was
Returning to the encampment, he said nothing of his discovery to
Alexander (whom the Ethiopic version calls "He of the Two Horns").
Then Alexander himself resumed the search, groping for the right way
in the darkness. Suddenly, he saw the stone (left behind by Matun)
"shining in the darkness; (and) now it had two eyes, which sent
forth rays of light." Realizing that he had found the right path,
Alexander rushed ahead, but was stopped by a voice which admonished
him for his ever-increasing ambitions, and prophesied that instead
of attaining eternal life he would soon bite the dust. Terrified
Alexander returned to his companions and his troops, giving up the
According to some versions, it was a bird with human features who
spoke to Alexander and made him turn back when he reached a place
"inlaid widi sapphires and emeralds and jacinths." In Alexander's
purported letter to his mother, there were two bird-men who blocked
In the Greek version of pseudo-Callisthenes, it was Andreas, the
cook of Alexander, who took the dried fish to wash it in a fountain
"whose waters flashed with lightnings." As the fish touched the
water, it became alive and slipped out of the cook's hands.
Realizing what he had found, the cook drank of the waters and took
some in a silver bowl—but told no one of his discovery. When
Alexander (in this version, he was accompanied by 360 men) continued
the search, they reached a place that shined though there were
neither Sun nor Moon nor stars to be seen. The way was blocked by
two birds with human features.
"Go back!" one of them ordered Alexander, "for the land on which you
stand belongs to God alone. Go back, O wretched one, for in the Land
of the Blessed you cannot set foot!"
Shuddering with fear, Alexander
and his men turned back; but before they left the place, they took
as souvenirs some of its soil and stones. After several days'
marching, they came out of the Land of Everlasting Night; and when
they reached light, they saw that the "soil and stones" they picked
up were in fact pearls, precious stones and nuggets of gold.
Only then did the cook tell Alexander of the fish that came to life,
but still kept it a secret that he himself had drunk of the waters
and that he had kept some of it. Alexander was furious and hit him,
and banished him from the camp. But the cook wished not to leave
alone, for he had fallen in love with a daughter of Alexander. So he
revealed his secret to her, and gave her to drink of the waters.
When Alexander found that out, he banished her too: "You have become
a Godly being, having become immortal," he told her; therefore, he
said, you cannot live among men—go live in the Land of the
Blessed. And as for the cook—him Alexander threw into the sea, with
a stone around his neck. But instead of drowning, the cook became
the sea-demon Andrentic.
"And thus," we are told, "ends the tale of the Cook and the Maiden."
To the learned advisers of Europe's medieval kings and queens, the
various versions only served to confirm both the antiquity and the
authenticity of the legend of Alexander and the Fountain of Life.
But where, O where were these magical waters located?
Were they indeed across the border of Egypt, in the Sinai peninsula—
the arena of the activities of Moses?
Were they close to the area
where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers begin to flow, somewhere north
Did Alexander go to the Ends of Earth—India—to find the
Fountain, or did he embark on those additional conquests after he
was turned back from it?
As the medieval scholars strove to unravel the puzzle, new works on
the subject from Christian sources began to shape a consensus in
favor of India. A Latin composition named Alexander Magni Inter Ad
Paradisum, a Syriac Homilie of Alexander by Bishop Jakob of Sarug,
the Recension of Josippon in Armenian—complete with the tale of the
tunnel, the man-like birds, the magical stone—placed the Land of
Darkness or the Mountains of Darkness at the Ends of Earth. There,
some of these writings said, Alexander took a boat ride on the
Ganges River, which was none other than the Pishon River of
Paradise. There, in India (or on an island offshore), did Alexander
reach the Gates of Paradise.
As these conclusions were taking shape in Europe of the Middle Ages,
new light was shed on the subject from a wholly unexpected source.
In the year 1145, the German bishop Otto of Freising reported in his
Chronicon a most astonishing episode. The Pope, he reported, had
received a letter from a Christian ruler of India, whose existence
had been totally unknown until then. And that king had affirmed in
his letter that the River of Paradise was indeed located in his
Bishop Otto of Freising named as the intermediary, through whom the
Pope had received the epistle, Bishop Hugh of Gebal, a town on the
Mediterranean coast of Syria. The ruler, it was reported, was named
John the Elder or, being a priest, Prester John. He was reputedly a
lineal descendant of the Magi who had visited Christ the child. He
defeated the Muslim kings of Persia, and formed a thriving Christian
kingdom in the lands of the Ends of Earth.
Nowadays, some scholars consider the whole affair to have been a
forgery for propaganda purposes. Others believe that the reports
which reached the Pope were distortions of events that were really
happening. The Christian world at the time, having launched the
Crusades against Muslim rule over the Near East (including the Holy
Land) fifty years earlier, met with a crushing defeat at Edessa in
1144. But at the Ends of Earth Mongol rulers began to storm the
gates of the Muslim empire, and in 1141 defeated the
carried the tale far and wide, the versions became increasingly
specific on this point: not only the appearance, but also the
manhood and virility of the aged soldiers were restored to
But how does one get to this Fountain, if the route to India is
blocked by the heathen Muslims?
On and off, the Popes attempted to communicate with the enigmatic
Prester John, "the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies
and beloved son of Christ." In 1245, Pope Innocent IV dispatched the
Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, via southern Russia, to the
Mongol ruler or Khan, believing the Mongols to be Nestorians (an
offshoot of the Eastern Orthodox Church) and the Khan to be Prester
John. In 1254, the Armenian ruler-priest Haithon traveled in
disguise through eastern Turkey to the camp of the Mongol chieftain
in southern Russia.
The record of his adventurous travels mentioned
that his way took him via the narrow pass on the shores of the
Caspian Sea called The Iron Gates; and the speculation that his
route resembled that of Alexander the Great (who had poured molten
iron to close a mountain pass) only served to suggest that the Ends
of Earth, the Gates of Paradise, could indeed be so reached.
These and other papal and royal emissaries were soon joined by
private adventurers, such as the brothers Nicolo and Maffeo Polo and
the former's son Marco Polo (1260-1295), and the German knight
William of Boldensele (1336)—all searching for the kingdom of
While their travelogues kept up the interest of Church and Courts,
it was once again the fate of a popular literary work to rekindle
mass interest. Its author introduced himself as,
"I, John Maundeville, Knight," born in the town of St. Albans in England who
"passed the sea in the year of our Lord Jesus 1322."
Writing at the
end of his travels thirty-four years later, Sir John explained that
he had therein,
"set down the way to the Holy Land, and to Hierusalem: as also to the lands of the Great Caan, and of Prester
John: to Inde, and divers other countries: together with many and
strange marvels therein."
In the twenty-seventh chapter, captioned "Of the Royal Estate of
Prester John," the book (The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Maundeville, Knight) states:
This emperor, Prester John, possesses very extensive territory, and
has many noble cities and good towns in his realm, and many great
and large isles. For all the country of India is divided into isles,
by the great floods that come from Paradise... . And this land is
full good and rich... . In the land of Prester John are many
divers things and many precious stones, so great and so large, that
men make thereof plates, dishes, cups etc....
Sir John went on to describe the River of Paradise: In his country
is the sea called the Gravelly Sea... . Three days from that sea
are great mountains, out of which runs a great river which comes
from Paradise, and it is full of precious stones, without a drop of
water, and it runs through the desert, on one side, so that it makes
the Gravelly Sea where it ends.
Beyond the River of Paradise, there was "a great isle, long and
broad, called Milsterak," that was a paradise on Earth. It had "the
fairest garden that might be imagined; and therein were trees
bearing all manner of fruits, all kinds of herbs of virtue and of
good smell." This paradise, Sir John states, had marvelous pavilions
and chambers, the purpose of which was diverse sexual enjoyment, all
the work of a rich and devilish man.
Having fired the imagination (and greed) of his readers with the
tales of precious stones and other riches, Sir John now played on
the men's sexual desires. The place, he wrote, was filled with,
fairest damsels that might be found under the age of fifteen years,
and the fairest young striplings that men might get of that same
age, and they were all clothed richly in clothes of gold; and he
said that they were angels."
And the devilish man—
Had also caused to be made three fair and noble wells, all
surrounded with stone of jasper and crystal, diapered with gold, and
set with precious stones and great Orient pearls. And he had made a
conduit under the earth, so that the three wells, at his will,
should run one with milk, another with wine, and another with honey.
And that place he called Paradise.
To that place, the crafty man lured "good knights, hardy and noble,"
and after entertaining them he persuaded them to go and kill his
enemies; telling them that they should not fear being slain, for
should they die, they would be resurrected and rejuvenated;
After their death they should come to his Paradise, and they should
be of the age of the damsels, and they should play with them. And
after that he would put them in a fairer Paradise, where they should
see the God of Nature visibly, in his majesty and bliss.
But that, said John Maundeville, was not the real Paradise of
biblical renown. That one, he said in Chapter XXX, lay beyond the
isles and lands which Alexander the Great had journeyed through. The
route to it led farther east, toward two isles rich in gold and
silver mines "where the Red Sea separates from the Ocean Sea":
And beyond that land and isles, and deserts of Prester John's
lordship, in going straight toward the east, men find nothing but
mountains and great
rocks; and there is the dark region, where no man can see, neither
by day nor night... . And that desert, and that place of darkness,
lasts from this coast unto Terrestrial Paradise, where Adam, our
first father, and Eve were put.
It was from there that the waters of Paradise flowed:
And in the highest place of Paradise, exactly in the middle, is a
casts out the four streams, which run by diverse lands, of which the
is called Pison, or Ganges, that runs through India, or Emlak, in
river are many precious stones, and much lignum aloes, and much sand
And the other river is called Nile, or Gyson, which goes through
Ethiopia, and after through Egypt.
And the other is called Tigris, which runs by Assyria, and by
And the other is called Euphrates, which runs through Media, Armenia
Confessing that he himself had not reached this biblical Garden of
Eden, John Maundeville explained:
"No mortal man may approach to
that place without special grace of God; so that of that place I can
tell you no more."
In spite of this admission, the many versions in many languages that
flowed from the English original maintained that the knight had
"I, John de Maundeville, saw that Fountain and drank three
times of that water with my companion, and since I drank I feel
The fact that in the English version, Maundeville complained
that he was sick with rheumatic gout and near the end of his days,
mattered not to the many who were thrilled by the marvelous tales.
Nor did it matter then, that scholars nowadays believe that "Sir
John Maundeville, Knight" may in fact have been a French doctor who
had never traveled, but very skillfully put together a travelogue
from the writings of others who did take the risk and trouble of
journeying far and away.
Writing about the visions that had motivated the exploration that
led to the discovery of America, Angel Rosenblat (La Primera Vision
de America y Otros Estudios) summed up the evidence thus: "Along
with the belief in the earthly Paradise was associated another
desire of a messianic (or Faustic) nature; to find the Fountain of
Eternal Youth. All the Middle Ages had dreamed of it. In the new
images of the Lost Paradise, the Tree of Life was converted into the
Fountain of Life, and then into a River or Spring of Youth."
motivation was the conviction that,
"the Fountain of Life came from
India... a Fountain that cured all ills and assured immortality.
The fantastic John Maundeville had actually encountered it on his
trip to India... in the Christian Kingdom of Prester John."
reach India and the
waters that flow from Paradise became "a symbol of the eternal human
desire for pleasure, youth and happiness."
With the land routes blocked by enemies, the Christian kingdoms of
Europe sought a sea route to India. Under Henry the Navigator, the
kingdom of Portugal emerged in the middle of the fifteenth century
as the leading power in the race to reach the Orient by sailing
around Africa. In 1445, the Portuguese navigator Dinas Dias reached
the mouth of the Senegal River, and mindful of the voyage's purpose
"men say it comes from the Nile, being one of the most
glorious rivers of Earth, flowing from the Garden of Eden and the
Others followed, pushing to and around the Cape
at the tip of the African continent. In 1499, Vasco da Gama and his
fleet circumnavigated Africa and reached the cherished target:
Yet the Portuguese, who had launched the Age of Discovery, failed to
win the race. Diligently studying the ancient maps and all the
writings of those who had ventured east, an Italian-born seaman
named Cristobal Colon concluded that by sailing west, he could reach
India by a sea route much shorter than the Eastern Route sought by
the Portuguese. Seeking a sponsor, he arrived at the court of
Ferdinand and Isabel.
He had with him (and took on his first voyage)
an annotated copy of the Latin version of Marco Polo's book. He
could also point to the writings of John Maundeville, who explained
a century and a half before Columbus (Colon) that by going to the
farthest east, one arrives at the west,
"on account of the roundness
of the earth ... for our Lord God made the earth all around."
In January 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel defeated the Muslims and
expelled them from the Iberian Peninsula. Was it not a divine sign
to Spain, that what the Crusaders could not achieve, Spain would? On
August 3 of the same year, Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag to
find a western sea route to India. On October 12, he sighted land.
Until his death in 1506, he was sure that he had reached the islands
which made up a great part of the legendary domain of Prester John.
Two decades later, Ferdinand issued to Ponce de Leon the Patent of
Discovery, instructing him to find without delay the rejuvenating
The Spaniards had thought that they were emulating Alexander the
Great. Little did they know that they were following footsteps of
far greater antiquity.
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