The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xlix.

How Prester John Marched to Meet Chinghis.

Now the story goes that when Prester John became aware that Chinghis with his host was marching against him, he went forth to meet him with all his forces, and advanced until he reached the same plain of Tanduc, and pitched his camp over against that of Chinghis Kaan at a distance of 20 miles. And then both armies remained at rest for two days that they might be fresher and heartier for battle.1

So when the two great hosts were pitched on the plains of Tanduc as you have heard, Chinghis Kaan one day summoned before him his astrologers, both Christians and Saracens, and desired them to let him know which of the two hosts would gain the battle, his own or Prester John’s. The Saracens tried to ascertain, but were unable to give a true answer; the Christians, however, did give a true answer, and showed manifestly beforehand how the event should be. For they got a cane and split it lengthwise, and laid one half on this side and one half on that, allowing no one to touch the pieces. And one piece of cane they called Chinghis Kaan, and the other piece they called Prester John. And then they said to Chinghis: “Now mark! and you will see the event of the battle, and who shall have the best of it; for whose cane soever shall get above the other, to him shall victory be.” He replied that he would fain see it, and bade them begin. Then the Christian astrologers read a Psalm out of the Psalter, and went through other incantations. And lo! whilst all were beholding, the cane that bore the name of Chinghis Kaan, without being touched by anybody, advanced to the other that bore the name of Prester John, and got on the top of it. When the Prince saw that he was greatly delighted, and seeing how in this matter he found the Christians to tell the truth, he always treated them with great respect, and held them for men of truth for ever after.2

NOTE 1. — Polo in the preceding chapter has stated that this plain of Tanduc was in Prester John’s country. He plainly regards it as identical with the Tanduc of which he speaks more particularly in ch. lix. as belonging to Prester John’s descendants, and which must be located near the Chinese Wall. He is no doubt wrong in placing the battle there. Sanang Setzen puts the battle between the two, the only one which he mentions, “at the outflow of the Onon near Kulen Buira.” The same action is placed by De Mailla’s authorities at Calantschan, by P. Hyacinth at Kharakchin Schatu, by Erdmann after Rashid in the vicinity of Hulun Barkat and Kalanchinalt, which latter was on the borders of the Churché or Manchus. All this points to the vicinity of Buir Nor and Hulan or Kalon Nor (though the Onon is far from these). But this was not the final defeat of Aung Khan or Prester John, which took place some time later (in 1203) at a place called the Chacher Ondur (or Heights), which Gaubil places between the Tula and the Kerulun, therefore near the modern Urga. Aung Khan was wounded, and fled over the frontier of the Naiman; the officers of that tribe seized and killed him. (Schmidt, 87, 383; Erdmann, 297; Gaubil, p. 10.)

NOTE 2. — A Tartar divination by twigs, but different from that here employed, is older than Herodotus, who ascribes it to the Scythians. We hear of one something like the last among the Alans, and (from Tacitus) among the Germans. The words of Hosea (iv. 12), “My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them,” are thus explained by Theophylactus: “They stuck up a couple of sticks, whilst murmuring certain charms and incantations; the sticks then, by the operation of devils, direct or indirect, would fall over, and the direction of their fall was noted,” etc. The Chinese method of divination comes still nearer to that in the text. It is conducted by tossing in the air two symmetrical pieces of wood or bamboo of a peculiar form. It is described by Mendoza, and more particularly, with illustrations, by Doolittle.1

But Rubruquis would seem to have witnessed nearly the same process that Polo describes. He reprehends the conjuring practices of the Nestorian priests among the Mongols, who seem to have tried to rival the indigenous Káms or Medicine-men. Visiting the Lady Kuktai, a Christian Queen of Mangu Kaan, who was ill, he says: “The Nestorians were repeating certain verses, I know not what (they said it was part of a Psalm), over two twigs which were brought into contact in the hands of two men. The monk stood by during the operation” (p. 326).2 Pétis de la Croix quotes from Thévenot’s travels, a similar mode of divination as much used, before a fight, among the Barbary corsairs. Two men sit on the deck facing one another and each holding two arrows by the points, and hitching the notches of each pair of arrows into the other pair. Then the ship’s writer reads a certain Arabic formula, and it is pretended that whilst this goes on, the two sets of arrows, of which one represents the Turks and the other the Christians, struggle together in spite of the resistance of the holders, and finally one rises over the other. This is perhaps the divination by arrows which is prohibited in the Koran. (Sura, V. v. 92.) It is related by Abulfeda that Mahomed found in the Kaaba an image of Abraham with such arrows in his hand.

P. della Valle describes the same process, conducted by a Mahomedan conjuror of Aleppo: “By his incantations he made the four points of the arrows come together without any movement of the holders, and by the way the points spontaneously placed themselves, obtained answers to interrogatories.”

And Mr. Jaeschke writes from Lahaul: “There are many different ways of divination practised among the Buddhists; and that also mentioned by Marco Polo is known to our Lama, but in a slightly different way, making use of two arrows instead of a cane split up, wherefore this kind is called da-mo, ‘Arrow-divination.’” Indeed the practice is not extinct in India, for in 1833 Mr. Vigne witnessed its application to detect the robber of a government chest at Lodiana.

As regards Chinghiz’s respect for the Christians there are other stories. Abulfaragius has one about Chinghiz seeing in a dream a religious person who promised him success. He told the dream to his wife, Aung Khan’s daughter, who said the description answered to that of the bishop who used to visit her father. Chinghiz then inquired for a bishop among the Uighúr Christians in his camp, and they indicated Mar Denha. Chinghiz thenceforward was milder towards the Christians, and showed them many distinctions (p. 285). Vincent of Beauvais also speaks of Rabbanta, a Nestorian monk, who lived in the confidence of Chinghiz’s wife, daughter of “the Christian King David or Prester John,” and who used by divination to make many revelations to the Tartars. We have already said that there seems no ground for assigning a daughter of Aung Khan as wife to Chinghiz. But there was a niece of the former, named Abika, among the wives of Chinghiz. And Rashiduddin does relate a dream of the Kaan’s in relation to her. But it was to the effect that he was divinely commanded to give her away; and this he did next morning!

(Rawlins. Herod. IV. 67; Amm. Marcell. XXXI. 2; Delvio, Disq. Magic. 558; Mendoza, Hak. Soc. I. 47; Doolittle, 435–436; Hist. of Genghizcan, pp. 52–53; Preston’s al-Hariri, p. 183; P. della V. II. 865–866; Vigne, I. 46; D’Ohsson, I. 418–419).

1 [On the Chinese divining-twig, see Dennys, Folk-lore of China, 57. — H. C.]

2 [With reference to this passage from Rubruck, Mr. Rockhill says (195, note): “The mode of divining here referred to is apparently the same as that described by Polo. It must not however be confounded with rabdomancy, in which bundles of wands or arrows were used.” Ammianus Marcellinus (XXXI. 2. 350) says this mode of divination was practised by the Alans. “They have a singular way of divining: they take straight willow wands and make bundles of them, and on examining them at a certain time, with certain secret incantations, they know what is going to happen.”— H. C.]

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24