Random encounters in the Land of Prester John

The famous 1165 letter of Prester John to the Pope catalogs some of the creatures of his empire:

“Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.   We have some people subject to us who feed on the flesh of men and of prematurely born animals, and who never fear death. When any of these people die, their friends and relations eat him ravenously, for they regard it as a main duty to munch human flesh. Their names are Gog, Magog, Anie, Agit, Azenach, Fommeperi, Befari, Conei-Samante, Agrimandri, Vintefolei, Casbei, and Alanei. These and similar nations were shut in behind lofty mountains by Alexander the Great, towards the north. We lead them at our pleasure against our foes, and neither man nor beast is left undevoured, if our Majesty gives the requisite permission. And when all our foes are eaten, then we return with our hosts home again.”

Some of these creatures are familiar, and some appear nowhere else but this list, possibly attesting to the hoaxer’s bad spelling or imperfect Latin?

White and red lions.” Medieval Europeans did sometimes call tigers “red lions,” but having tigers appear as well in the list is a little confusing — then again leopards and other big cats might be called “tigers” too, so really I’d assume any period reference to big cats should be taken generically and not too strictly, just as the Conquistadors might call llamas “camels” or call capybaras “pigs.” (And BTW when I spell checked ‘capybara’ in Google, holy shit there are adorable capybara pictures.)  Where were we?  Right, the list of animals.  As these are worth mentioning in his letter, I’d want both red and white lions to be variants of normal lions.  The obvious path would be to make white lions have a cold/frost theme and the red lions a fire theme, like the big-cat equivalent of winter wolves and hell hounds.

A “merule” has been identified as a blackbird or crow, so the “white merule” might just be a white blackbird, whatever that means.  “Merule” also seems to be used in classifying certain types of mold, specifically dry rot.  So we could crank up the horror-fantasy a little and assume a “white merule” is a blackbird infected with a fungal disease that turns it white.  No doubt the fungus also affects their behavior, and they seek to infect other creatures, especially humans and demihumans.  So there’s one new monster, unless there is some kind of plague-bearing bird already in D&D.

The “meta-collinarum,” “cametennus,” and “tensevetes” have defied scholars, as far as I can tell without resorting to actual research.  I did find this inconclusive discussion which gives the light-hearted suggestions that these terms could refer, respectively, to hill-dwellers, a third kind of camel (assuming “camels” means Bactrian camels, since it follows dromedaries?), and either a “devourer of the young” or a tin rodent.

Three varieties of camels seems excessive.  So instead let’s assume that the hill-dwellers are obviously hill giants, and the “devourers of the young” must be either witches or ogres, let’s say witches since we already have hill giants, and all those cannibal hordes to the north.  I hate to give up on the “tin rodents” though so maybe that’s an ironic term for the D&D “gorgon” — the metallic bull with the petrifying breath.

As long as I’m revising things, “fauns” are actually the same thing as “satyrs” in my book*, so let’s replace them with, say, generic beastmen, and “pygmies” is a little hate-speechy so let’s substitute a more generic “little people” like gnomes.  Later on in the letter we also hear he has salamanders who live in fires and, like silkworms, weave cocoons that can be used to make fire-resistant fabric.  Our d30 encounter chart then reads:

  1. elephants
  2. camels (dromedary or Bactrian, 50-50 chance)
  3. crocodiles
  4. meta-collinarum (hill giants)
  5. cametennus (gorgons)
  6. tensevetes (witches)
  7. wild asses
  8. lions (white or red, 50-50 chance)
  9. white bears (polar bear)
  10. white merules
  11. crickets
  12. griffins
  13. tigers
  14. lamias
  15. hyenas
  16. wild horses
  17. wild oxen
  18. wild men with horns
  19. one-eyed wild men
  20. wild men with eyes before and behind
  21. centaurs
  22. fauns (beastmen)
  23. satyrs
  24. pygmies (gnomes?)
  25. forty-ell (that’s 150 feet!) high giants
  26. cyclopes
  27. phoenix
  28. [nearly any other] animal, use some other chart
  29. cannibal berserkers of the tribes of Gog, Magog, etc.
  30. salamanders

Granted some of these are more nuisance encounters than dangerous, but that’s a feature more than a bug for travel in a strange kingdom.  Would an encounter with “crickets” mean the party is bothered by the unusual sounds of the local crickets (which sound like something very different than the crickets they know back home, and maybe disrupts an attempt to rest, as the watch keeping hearing strange noises in the dark?) or an annoying talking cricket like the one Pinocchio smashed with a mallet?**  The wild oxen is strange — how do they reproduce?  who gelds them in the first place? —  and they and wild asses might cause problems by depleting forage, stampeding, and just getting in the way.

Later the letter mentions that Prester John’s land has no poisonous animals or plants, so there’s some good news for adventurers.

The letter goes on and on, and other medieval writers embellished their travelogues with descriptions of this kingdom, so maybe next time I’ll pull out some special locations for hex-map stocking, like the river of stones and the pool of healing in Prester John’s lands.

===============

*Actually I just looked this up and it turns out that ‘fauns’ were originally the jovial, trickster half-goat forest dwellers and ‘satyrs’ were ugly, woman-chasing woodwoses with the tails and ears of asses, and more wise than fauns which were more on the foolish side.  So really the “fauns” should be read “satyrs” in D&D terms and the “satyrs” would be beastmen, mongrelmen, or something like that.

**Yeah, the original version of this story was pretty dark.  In fact the serialized version that first appeared had Pinocchio die from being hanged by bandits (which he deserved) but outraged fans demanded he be saved and the book version has him survive and get a relatively happy ending with the Fairy with Blue Hair.  (Not that kind of happy ending.)

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Published in: on March 13, 2014 at 10:06 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hahaha!

    I keep reading “tensevetes” as transvestites. Oh, god, it really made the post a lot more interesting until I figured out what I was doing and then I was all, “Oh, he’s talking about animals not drag queens.” 😦

    • It’s a fair bet that the fifteen tribes of cannibals include at least one tribe that cross-dresses or something. But you probably want the anonymous De Rebus In Oriente Mirabilibus which describes a race of women who wear horse-hide clothes and hunt with trained tigers, leopards, and other wild beasts, and oh yeah, have full beards.

  2. I would totally be down for playing a wilderness adventure based on the second half of Baudolino.

    • I’m reading Eco’s “The book of legendary lands” right now and it is clear that much of his research for Baudolino is doing double duty here. He appends a bunch of sources to each chapter and that is what brought the letter of Prester John to mind. He also goes on and on about many other places we visit in Baudolino. I’m tempted to compile all the fantastic places in this book to key a wilderness hex map.

      • As tempting as a hex-map is, it almost defeats the running theme in Eco’s books about the unreliable and abstract nature of maps and their relationship with the world they attempt to represent. If I were to map it, it would be in such a way that the map would be of no actual use to the party and instead I’d have a secret flowchart of where crap actually was. If I caught the party actually mapping, I’d probably change things up so that their map was wrong (or only correct in the early morning and late evening or something)


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