Tourist traps in the land of Prester John

Prester John, in his letter, was kind enough to point out some of the hottest destinations in his many kingdoms.

  1. A land without poison, venom, & frogs. “In one region grows no poisonous herd, nor does a querulous frog ever quack in it; no scorpion exists, nor does the serpent glide amongst the grass, not can any poisonous animals exist in it or injure anyone.”
  2. A Paradise of gems, with no evil spirits. “Among the heathen flows, through a certain province, the River Indus. Encircling Paradise, it spreads its arms in manifold windings through the entire province. Here are found the emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrsolites, onyxes, beryls, sardius, and other costly stones. Here grows the plant Assidos which, when worn by anyone, protects him from the evil spirit, forcing it to state its business and name — consequently the foul spirits keep out of the way there.”
  3. Pepper fields. “In a certain land subject to us all kinds of pepper is gathered and is exchanged for corn and bread, leather and cloth.”
  4. The Fountain of youth and Pebbles of keen sight. “At the foot of Mount Olympus bubbles up a spring which changes its flavor hour by hour, night and day, and the spring is scarcely three days’ journey from Paradise, out of which Adam was driven. If anyone has tasted thrice of the fountain, from that day he will feel no fatigue, but will, as long as he lives, be as a man of thirty years. Here are found the small stones called Nudiosi which, if borne about the body, prevent the sight from waxing feeble and restore it where it is lost. The more the stone is looked at, the keener becomes the sight.”
  5. The sea of sand and tasty fishes.“In our territory is a certain waterless sea consisting of tumbling billows of sand never at rest. None have crossed this sea — it lacks water all together, yet fish of various kinds are cast up upon the beach, very tasty, and the like are nowhere else to be seen.”
  6. The river of rolling stones. (Closed Friday-Monday) “Three days’ journey from this sea are mountains from which rolls down a stony, waterless river which opens into the sandy sea. As soon as the stream reaches the sea, its stones vanish in it and are never seen again. As long as the river is in motion, it cannot be crossed; only four days a week is it possible to traverse it.”
  7. The lands of lost tribes of Israel. “Beyond this stony river there are ten tribes of the Jews. Though they presume they are kings, yet they are subject to us, and are tributaries to our majesty.”
  8. The pool of healing (Closed to non-Christians) “In a certain plain, is a fountain of singular virtue which purges Christians and would-be Christians from all transgressions. The water stands four inches high in a hollow stone shaped like a mussel-shell. Two saintly old men watch by it and ask the comers whether they are Christians or are about to become Christians, then whether they desire healing with all their hearts. If they have answered well, they are bidden to lay aside their clothes and to step into the mussel. If what they said be true, then the water begins to rise and gush over their heads. Thrice does the water thus lift itself, and everyone who has entered the mussel leaves it cured of every complaint.”
  9. An underground stream, filled with gems.“A subterranean rill which can only by chance be reached, for only occasionally the earth gapes, and he who would descend must do it with precipitation, ere the earth closes again. All that is gathered under the ground there is gem and precious stone.”
  10. Zone, a land with fire-salamanders. “These worms can only live in fire, and they build cocoons like silk-worms which are unwound by the ladies of our palace and spun into cloth and dresses which are worn by our Exaltedness. These dresses, in order to be cleaned and washed, are cast into flames.”
  11. The mirror of all-seeing. “Before our palace stands a mirror, the ascent to which consists of five and twenty steps of porphyry and serpentine … This mirror is guarded day and night by three thousand men. We look therein and behold all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our scepter.”
  12. Towers of true-seeing. “Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognized who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.”

The last item is mentioned in a slightly longer but more archaicly phrased text here.

Gygaxian/adversarial DMs may want to take assume the all regions not noted for lacking poisonous creatures and evil spirits are infested with them.

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Published in: on March 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.)

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