In order to achieve competitive performance, abstract machines for Prolog and related languages end up being large and intricate, and incorporate sophisticated optimizations, both at the design and at the implementation levels. At the same time, efficiency considerations make it necessary to use low-level languages in their implementation. This makes them laborious to code, optimize, and, especially, maintain and extend. Writing the abstract machine (and ancillary code) in a higher-level language can help tame this inherent complexity. We show how the semantics of most basic components of an efficient virtual machine for Prolog can be described using (a variant of) Prolog. These descriptions are then compiled to C and assembled to build a complete bytecode emulator. Thanks to the high-level of the language used and its closeness to Prolog, the abstract machine description can be manipulated using standard Prolog compilation and optimization techniques with relative ease. We also show how, by applying program transformations selectively, we obtain abstract machine implementations whose performance can match and even exceed that of state-of-the-art, highly-tuned, hand-crafted emulators.