Gog and Magog: Crossing Boundaries

I spent much of this week at a wonderful conference in Erlangen on Gog and Magog legends, hosted by the generous Georges Tamer and his team.

The legends of Gog and Magog are one of those ‘memes’ (as Anna Ayşe Akasoy called them) that have relevance in many different Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions. One of the great things about the conference was that it opened up some exciting cross-cultural and cross-period perspectives, from Yaakov Ariel looking at talk of Gog and Magog in Christian evangelical movements dealing with Jews in 21st century America and Israel, to Majid Daneshgar talking about early modern Malay-Indonesian Islamic commentaries, to Helen Spurling exploring how the rise of Islam in the seventh century affected Hebrew traditions. Also there was an AMAZING performance/ disinformation campaign by the group Internil on Gog/ Magog – the kind of art that interrogates and plays with meaning and expression to remind us that, sometimes, humanities scholars could learn from more engagement with nearby conservatoires.

Internil's Gog/Magog
Internil’s Gog/Magog

The core foundational stories for Gog and Magog are not too numerous. In Genesis (10,2), Magog is listed as one of the sons of Japheth, as one of the people whose descendants would become nations of the Earth. In Ezekiel (38-9), God himself addresses Gog of the land of Magog at length, generally threatening him, and then prophecies how Gog’s people, in the last days, will go from the north to a land without walls and cause mischief. The only New Testament addition to this is in Revelation (20,7), when it said they will rise-up from all four corners of world in the final persecutions by the Devil. At some point, these were combined with a legend about Alexander the Great enclosing northern uncivilised peoples behind the Caspian Gates, and it seems that this is the version that influenced two passages in the Qur’an (18:94 and 21:96) about Dhul-Qarnayn enclosing Gog and Magog for a time.

The challenge for many people over the past 2,000 years has been to know what to make of these references, individually or collectively. Do they signify a real people or peoples? If so, are they called ‘Gog and Magog’ in real life, or do they have a different name? Do they actually live in the north? If so, where? Or should everything be understood more symbolically, perhaps as signifying evil in general? Or perhaps a type of evil (often either heretics or rampant capitalism)? How people tackle these questions can reveal a lot.

In my own paper in Erlangen, I talked about the challenge posed in Latin Christian world of the eighth and ninth centuries by the circulation of Pseudo-Methodius’s Revelation. Pseudo-Methodius wrote in Mesopotamia, in Syriac, around 691/2. His work is written in the manner of a (fantasy) world history that extends into the future, designed as a polemic to criticise accommodation between Christians and Muslims. He seized on the Ezekiel prophecy and the Alexander legend, so that Gog and Magog had been enclosed behind the Caspian Gates, ready to do near-unspeakable things in the run-up to the final showdown with Antichrist.

Pseudo-Methodius, strikingly, was swiftly translated into Greek, and thereafter into Latin, possibly as early as the 720s. In a ‘dark age’ in which people and ideas aren’t supposed to have travelled, it sticks out as part of a different story, in which cultural exchanges did happen. But the text got a mixed reception in the Latin world on various fronts. With Gog and Magog, for instance, the Book of Revelation provided a more important point of reference than it did in the Syriac or Greek world. In two early Latin adaptations of Pseudo-Methodius – still both eighth-century – one writer dropped the references to Alexander, and the other toned down the northernness of Gog and Magog to emphasise how they would caused destruction everywhere. The exegete Ambrosius Autpertus, writing in San Vincenzo al Volturno shortly before 767, explicitly addressed these issues, arguing in his unpacking of Revelation 20,7 that the prophetic Gog and Magog could not be a people enclosed by Alexander in the north, because they were explicitly said to be everywhere. Really, Gog and Magog reflected types of evil, and for him particularly the ‘internal enemies’, heretics. Haimo of Auxerre, reworking Ambrosius 70 or so years later, backed this reading of the texts – and in a world with real northern baddies (i.e. vikings), he added some extra real-world resonance of Gog and Magog for conceptualising what he saw as a particular evil in the world.

The same theme, different context, worlds of difference revealed.

Anyway, this is just my self-centred way of expressing the underlying point that study of the cross-cultural reception of a discrete theme can by highly productive. At the same time, it can help us to start to escape some of the problematic boxes we can end up in with scholarship. The Erlangen conference had a diverse group of people working in different ends of history, philosophy, religious studies, and cultural studies, each trying to communicate their ideas across disciplinary and other boundaries. After one paper (I won’t say which), a modern historian turned to me and said, nicely, “I bet you don’t know exactly how to respond to that with your medievalist training!” He wasn’t being rude or ignorant – his wife is a medievalist I know well, and it was a comment that came from his own experience of people talking slightly at cross-purposes because of the form of the argument. And it was true! Then about two hours later, I had a great conversation about why I didn’t know how to respond with a philosopher, which led to us outlining our different expectations of how argumentation should be presented at a conference. Neither, of course, was ‘right’ – but without knowing these things, without engaging with people with different ideas and expectations, learning and engagement was not going to occur in future. And maybe new inspiration and new communication will follow.

All of which I suppose is to say this: if you want to aspire to have more interdisciplinarity, diversity, and inclusivity, it is definitely worth setting up more of these kind of events, where the theme and questions can genuinely cross boundaries, and people can then have real conversations about them.