[St. Pachomius Library]

St. Pachomius Library

GOG AND MAGOG: The Clans of Chaos in World Literature,
edited by A. A. Seyed-Gohrab et al.

Amsterdam: Rozenberg, 2007.
Reviewed by Norman Hugh Redington, 2011 October 11.

According to the second book of Plato's Republic, an earthquake in Lydia once brought to light the buried wreckage of an enormous, hollow, and strangely horse-shaped metal object. A local shepherd found that the horse had doors, and, opening one, discovered behind it the preserved body of a giant charioteer. He took a ring from the corpse's finger; when twisted correctly, it proved able to make its wearer invisible. The humble shepherd Gyges was at once corrupted: he seduced the queen, overthrew the king, and established himself as tyrant of his country. Plato wondered if anyone, however virtuous, would act differently.

This story influenced not only Wagner, Tolkien, and the economy of Roswell, New Mexico, but also early commentators on Scripture, some of whom pointed out that Lydia and its neighbours are the Biblical Gomer. This and the similarity of names suggested a remarkable possibility: perhaps King Gyges was connected, if not identical, to the arrogant Prince Gog, who "thought an evil thought ... to take a spoil and to take a prey."

Although the book under review purports to deal with Gog and Magog "in world literature", none of its contributors mentions Gyges the Lydian. Neither can there be found in it any reference to the famous tale spread across Europe by Geoffrey of Monmouth, according to which Gogmagog and his rude band of giants terrorised Britain until defeated by the knightly Trojans. (The production staff at the publishing house, however, seem to know that story, having placed on the cover a stock photo of the Gog and Magog statues in London's Guildhall.) Even more surprisingly, the original Biblical accounts are given only one paragraph. The most comprehensive treatment of the Gog-and-Magog theme is still A. R. Anderson's 1932 monograph Alexander's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations, to which this book is at best a supplement. It is strongest, ironically enough, when dealing with recent popular sources hardly describable as "world literature": extremist Internet postings and radical Muslim pamphlets. To those unaware of it, the fairly conspicuous presence of Gog and Magog in this "literature" may be the book's biggest surprise.

Gog and Magog appear briefly but spectacularly in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures among the main end-times adversaries of the Elect. Sinister, shrouded in mystery, and memorably named, they have been for centuries the focus of both wild speculation and sober exegesis, but, as the papers in this collection shew, no universal consensus ever emerged about them, even in traditional societies. Are they peoples or persons? If the latter, are they two persons or one? Where do they live? Is their great invasion a future event, or has it already taken place?

A Magog is listed among the sons of Japheth, and was the brother or uncle of men with the names of northern and western countries: Gomer, Javan ("Greece"), Kittim ("Cyprus"), and so on. Ezekiel, retaining many of these, adds Persians, Ethiopians, and Libyans to the allies or subjects of Prince Gog; the Apocalypse of John refers to "the ends of the earth, the Gog and Magog". The ultimate foreigners, Gog and Magog are remote from the Biblical world until the day of their appearance with the vast army whose destruction is so gruesomely related by Ezekiel: it will take seven months to bury the dead, seven years to burn the discarded weapons as firewood.

"I will put hooks in thy jaws and bring thee forth with thine army," says the Lord through His prophet, and the Apocalypse, evidently describing the same war, tells of an anabasis or "march upcountry" by Gog and Magog epi to platos tês gês. The phrase could be a Johannine way of saying "onto the plains", but it literally means "onto the flat surface of the earth", and this, with Ezekiel's hooks and the Koran's ambiguous reference to Gog and Magog swarming "out of" every hill, seems to have inspired the widespread belief that they live underground.

Remarkably, nearly all the extrabiblical accounts include one common element which, while not incompatable with Scripture, is certainly not explicit in it: Gog and Magog are "the enclosed ones", walled up by an ancient king behind a barrier which alone prevents their incursions into the known world. The story first appears in Hellenistic literature romanticising the mighty deeds of Alexander the Great. There is at this stage no direct Biblical connexion -- the enclosed ones are just barbarian nomads of some kind -- but Jews were interested in this particular act of the Macedonian conqueror from the beginning: the earliest writer to mention it (in passing) is Josephus. By the Seventh Century, it was common knowledge that Alexander, that proto-Christian "Cosmocrator" and ancestor of the Roman and Ethiopian Emperors (!), had preserved civilisation by fencing the Caucasus against Gog and Magog. The Koran includes the story, but refers to the wall-building king only obliquely and enigmatically as "The Two-Horned One". Persian writers identified some Sassanian ruins at Darbend as the "Iron Gate", a relic of the Wall, but this raised a serious problem: if the Wall is in ruins, what keeps Gog behind it? By the Middle Ages, the answer seemed to be: nothing.

For obvious reasons, the peoples of the Mediterranean and Islamic worlds associated the mysterious barrier with the edge of civilisation, and the "clans of chaos" with Central Asian nomads, an interpretation going back at least to the influential (though heretical) church-historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus. At first Scythians and Alans were specified (a suggestion revived by Cold War Protestants, for whom "Rosh and Meshech" meant "Russia and Moscow"). As the Scythians faded, Huns, Turks and Tartars emerged on the world scene, and their invasions seemed to many the literal fulfillment of prophecy. Scholarly Muslims adopted Christian and Jewish opinions on the subject, but added much speculation about the identity of "the Two-Horned One". Was he Alexander of Macedon, or a different Alexander mentioned in the story of the Sufi hero Khidr, or perhaps a forgotten king of Yemen? The most popular theory in pious Islamic circles today identifies him with Cyrus the Great, but some modern writers prefer Qin Shi Huangdi, who indisputably built a Great Wall against the barbarians! It is with such later traditions and speculations, rather than the Biblical text itself, that the authors of the present book are mainly concerned.

Willem Gerritsen's opening essay on "Gog and Magog in Medieval and Early Modern Western Tradition" looks at some familiar sources: Marco Polo (who, like many in his time, considered "Magog" to be the Hebrew spelling of "Mongol"); Mercator (whose world map shows "Ung and Mongol" at what we would call the Bering Straits); the armchair-traveller John Mandeville (here depicted as a wise geography teacher spicing up his lessons with exciting if mendacious first-person flourishes). These Western accounts (especially the most detailed, by the fourteenth-century Dominican missionary Ricoldo, who spent ten years in Iraq) have an interestingly technological and rationalistic aspect. Alexander, knowing that his empire would collapse and his world-preserving wall go ungarrisoned, erected on the ramparts statues of angels whose trumpets would blow automatically with a terrifying sound under the influence of the wind alone. This device, it was said, kept the superstitious Tartars at bay for generations until a brave hunter saw through the trick.

Gerritsen's is the only essay to address another oddity of the legends: a widespread tendency, in many cultures, to conflate Gog and Magog with the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. This association is all the more remarkable in that it contradicts the Bible's repeated assertion that Gog and Magog are Japhethites. One might point out, of course, that a Reubenite named Gog and a possibly Hebrew woman named Gomer are mentioned in Scripture; also that, as the Samaritans proved, Israelites could acquire an ambiguous identity by mixing with strangers. Even so, the issue seems puzzling -- as it did to Ricoldo in the 1300s, who ended his own discussion of the subject: Solucionem relinquo ("It beats me.")

Orthodox readers will naturally be interested in W. J. Aerts's "Gog, Magog, Dogheads, and Other Monsters in the Byzantine World". Aerts wants to determine how Gog and Magog became characters in the legend of the Wall -- the assumption, as usual, being that tradition is an accretion of unrelated elements -- but finds the task difficult, the data sparse. Apparently there are a number of patristic commentaries on Ezekiel, including one by St. Nicholas Cabasilas, which are unstudied or even unedited. Nicephorus's Life of Andrew the Fool-for-Christ says that, in the age of Antichrist, Alexander's Gates will open and seventy-two nations of cannibals, frog-eaters, and the like emerge with an horrible stench, but Gog and Magog are not mentioned. Abandoning the quest, Aerts goes off on a tangent about dog-headed humans and other exotics whom most students of ancient geography will find tiresomely familiar.

This is disappointing. Aerts is among the academic world's leading experts on the Apocalypse of St. Methodius, a perennial Byzantine best-seller which fused the Bible and the Alexander Legend into a united, if obscure, narrative of history and futurity. (Its hints that the Emperor of Ethiopia would rescue Constantinople from the Muslims were a significant source of hope to embattled East Romans; the full history of this text, and of its relation to the Prester John myth and to the Ethiopians' own Kebra Negast, would be of great interest. It has long puzzled me that modern Orthodox believers, unlike professional mediævalists, seem to be almost entirely unaware of this strange book of prophecy.) Despite his expertise, Aerts devotes only one page of his essay to this work's clearly enormous influence on Byzantine views of Gog and Magog. He also seems strangely surprised that "Gog" is called "Og" in two of his sources, and wonders whether this suggests direct influence. In fact, as can be seen from any list of Septuagint manuscript textual variations, confusing "Gog" with "Og" is a common scribal error, and I suspect a natural one in societies where the Psalms were recited daily. One hopes that Aerts will someday return to this essay and revise it.

Faustina Doufikar-Aerts pursues some of the same themes in "Dogheads, Snake-Tongues, and the Wall Against Gog and Magog". She points out the irony in the history of the Alexander legends: used as propaganda for the Emperor Heraclius against the Persians, and later for Eastern Christendom in general against the Muslims, they were nonetheless retold with great enthusiasm everywhere in the Islamic world.

The book's remaining essays will be of less interest to the Orthodox reader, but have their own fascination. Asad Jaber's "Is My Firewall Secure? Gog and Magog on the Internet" describes, in great detail, the treatment of the theme on Jewish and Muslim prophecy-websites. It was interesting to learn that some Jewish critics of US foreign policy in the 2000s made the following observation in all seriousness: the Yemenite pronunciation of "Gog" is "Joj", which is the Texas pronunciation of "George", which is the name of ... !

Remke Kruk's essay discusses the image of Gog and Magog in the pamphlets and mass-market religious books found in Islamic bookstores. For the most part, these popular works are written by enthusiasts rather than officially-recognised Islamic scholars, and (unsurprisingly) resemble the Muslim websites described by Jaber. They draw uncritically on the Koran, hadiths, mediaæval geographers, Eastern folklore, and Western popular culture to present Gog and Magog as "clans of chaos" indeed, Byzantine dogheads from the edge of the map. Although Kruk emphasises the unofficial status of these writers, many recognised Islamic authorities of the past and present, as discussed in the essays by Faustina Doufikar-Aerts, A. A. Seyed-Gohrab, and J. G. J. ter Haar, describe precisely this Gog and Magog:

They are giants, sixty cubits tall, or else they are pygmies or mermen. They are descended from Adam, and indeed represent nine-tenths of the human race, but perhaps are not human at all. Their behaviour suggests that of zombies, mindlessly eating everything in their path. They have claws, fangs, huge ears (one for a matress and the other for a blanket), the palates of camels, and, yes, the faces of dogs. Their method of tearing down the Wall is to lick it with their sharp tongues, but they always stop for a break a little too soon and the Wall is miraculously repaired while they rest. Although in some tellings they seem too anarchic to have a leader, others say they will elect one -- a little boy named God's Will -- when the literal-minded giants hear one of their number remark: "By God's Will, we shall conquer the world!" They live underground, or under the ocean, or (unexplainedly) just over the Caucasus; some recent pamphleteers apparently suggest that they are lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and will emerge on flying saucers. Others propose that they will be "clone warriors" -- hence their vast numbers.

The last essay, by Edwin Wierma, gives a nineteenth-century Javanese version of the story which even the patrons of Islamic bookstores might find hard to accept: Gogmagog, an avatar of the Antichrist, is the wicked grandson of the Prophet Jesus. The latter is himself an unexpectedly negative figure in this telling, and is weirdly conflated with Noah (Magog's actual grandfather, so the Javanese author clearly knew quite a bit about the standard version of the tradition). Wierma interprets the story in post-colonial fashion as a metaphor for the struggle between traditional rulers and the Christian Dutch, but his arguments are circumstantial in the extreme. I suspect it is instead one of those deliberately shocking Sufi teaching fables.

Mongol, doghead, clone warrior, Antichrist: there is a wide spectrum of opinion "in world literature" about Gog and Magog. The tradition of the Orthodox Church does only a little to narrow it. This book of essays provides a fair sampling of the range of views in circulation today (with one notable exception: apart from a passing reference to Jerry Fallwell, I do not think there is any mention of the vast Protestant literature on the subject). Which, if any, of these views bears the most resemblance to reality, we may perhaps be better off not knowing in this earthly life.