The tale of Gog and Magog is, of course, Biblical in origins with elements in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. They appear in Genesis and Ezekiel as cursed grandchildren of Noah and are set up early on as enemies of the righteous. The most alarming mention of Gog and Magog appears in Revelation 20:7-8:
… And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed from his prison, and shall go out to seduce the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and shall draw them to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea…
But who exactly where Gog and Magog and where did this terrifying empire have its lands? The Biblical location “the four corners of the earth”, is not exceptionally helpful save that it puts these nations at the extreme edge of existence. The Jewish historian Josephus associates Magog with the Scythians. In antiquity Scythia was an empire to the north of Parthia or Persia that included much of central Asia as far east as India and Tibet.The Alexander Romance, a c. 300 CE compendium of stories and myths associated with Alexander the Great, brings Gog and Magog into a historical context. Apparently when Alexander marched his army into the Caucuses he discovered a people beset and harassed by the empires of Gog and Magog to the north. Alexander responded to this threat by constructing an enormous wall of adamantine between two mountains known as the “Breasts of the World”. Today this is commonly associated with the Caspian Gates of Derbent. This mighty wall, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, stretches some forty kilometers between the Caspian Sea and the nearby mountains, effectively blocking passage through the Caucuses. Though Alexander had nothing to do with this wall, it was actually constructed by the Sassanid Persians to defend against Gokturk invasions, it does once again place the lands of Gog and Magog somewhere to the north and west of the Caucuses.
Pliney too locates Gog and Magog behind a great set of gates in the Caucuses, describing a place where the mountains have been torn asunder and “gates have been placed, with iron covered beams, under the center of which flows a river emitting a horrible odor. On this side of it on a rock stands the fortress called Cumania, erected for the purpose of barring the passage of the innumerable tribes.”
The Qur’an next takes up this story and adds its own more mythical element. The great hero Dhul Qarnayan (literally “two-horned one”, a reference to the ram horns Alexander wears on coins minted during his rule to indicate his descent from the Egyptian god Amun) is said to have walled the infernal armies of Gog and Magog behind a great gate where they will remain – until doomsday. At this point,
when Gog and Magog are let loose and they rush headlong down every height (or advantage). Then will the True Promise draw near. (Qur’an 21:96-97).In the 9th century the Caliph Al-Wathik-Billa actually sent out an expedition, under one Sallam the Interpreter, to discover the Gates of Alexander. Sallam is said to have searched the Caucuses high and low without success before heading deeper into Asia where he discovered the mighty wall. Sallam’s report influenced a number of important Islamic geographies, most importantly for this story, the 12th century geographer Muhammed al-Idrisi, who was employed by the Sicilian monarch Roger II. Idrisi directly associates Alexander’s Gates, and consequently Gog and Magog, with the Great Wall of China. Idrisi’s work includes some of the most sophisticated and advanced cartographic work of pre-modern Europe and profoundly influenced European cartography for the next several hundred years. Though not widely distributed in his lifetime, nor solely responsible for the presence of Gog and Magog in later European maps, the influence of Idrisi’s map and geographical notations cannot be ignored in any consideration of how these Biblical kingdoms/figures entered the mainstream of later European cartography.
In the rest of Europe, tales of Gog and Magog and the horrors associated with them were a constant element in mediaeval religious rhetoric, which preached of an imminent “end of days”. Saint Augustine in his 15th century religious classic “City of God” discourses at length on the duo suggesting that when “final judgment is imminent . . . the whole city of Christ being assailed by the whole city of the Devil, as each exists on earth . . . which he names Gog and Magog”. Augustine did not associate Gog and Magog with an actual place, but rather with an evil that existed all around us. Even so, this concept must have been too abstract for the medieval man who continued to look for the lands of Gog and Magog. History was about to oblige.
In 1241 CE the hoards of Ghengis Khan swept out of Asia destroying and conquering everything in their path. The brutal, efficient, and alien Mongols must surely have seemed to be the wrath of god unleashed – the prophesied end of days had come and with it, Gog and Magog. One Russian chronicler says: “In those times there came upon us for our sins unknown nations. No one could tell their origin, whence they came, what religion they professed. God alone knows who they were, God, and, perhaps, wise men learned in books.” The period of the Mongol invasions lasted roughly from 1241 to 1285 CE. Nonetheless, after devastating the Chinese Empire, sacking Baghdad, laying waste to Russia, and storming into Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland, the invincible hoard simply vanished … or so it must have seemed in Europe. In fact, beset with internal political turmoil and the death of the Great Khan, the hoards retreated to Central Asia in order to reorganize. At this time Europe, who had yet to rediscover Ptolemy and truly develop a modern cartographic tradition, wasn’t actively making maps, but when it did, a place of origin Tartars or Mongols (Gog and Magog) would have to be identified.Marco Polo, in his Travels, is possibly the first European literary figure to identify Gog and Magog with the Tartars. Polo, claimed to have lived in China from 1271 to 1298, where he became an important functionary in the court of Kublai Khan. Polo worked for years as an emissary of the Great Khan and traveled extensively throughout the vast empire. Much of the information about Asia appearing on early maps of the continent, including the Vinland Map and the Waldseemuler Map, can be directly linked to Polo’s narratives. Polo associates Gog and Magog with the lands of Tenduk, a province to the north of China ruled by Prester John. In Polo’s narrative Gog is translated as Ung and Magog is the home of the Tartars. Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler, referring to the tale of Dhul Qarnayan, supports Polo by himself connecting the Great Wall of China with the gates setup to restrain Gog and Magog, “Between it [the city] and the rampart of Yajuj and Majuj is sixty days’ travel.” Though many dispute the validity of Polo’s journals, his impact on the European conception of the world was profound. With the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography by Italian humanists and the development of a sophisticated European cartographic tradition the need for more advanced and updated Ptolemaic maps emerged. Many of these maps referenced Polo and al-Idrisi in adding Gog and Magog in the unknown lands of east Asia, thus influencing the cartographic representation of this area for centuries to come.
Today Gog and Magog are considered by many scholars to be a Jungian representation of “the other”, “the frontier”, or both.
References: (partially researched by Lindsay McMullen)
Augustine, Saint, The City of God, (Translated by Marcus Dods), page 658.
Stoneman, Richard (editor and translator) (1991). The Greek Alexander Romance. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044560-9.
Boyle, J. A., “The Alexander Romance In The East And West”, Bulletin Of The John Rylands University Library Of Manchester, 60 (1977), pp. 19–20.
Yule, Henry; Cordier, Henri (1923), The Travels Of Marco Polo, Mineola: Dover Publications, ISBN 9780486275864.
Pliny, Natural History, (translated by H. Rackham).
Lester, Toby, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map, pp. 45-64.
Anderson, A. R., Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations, 1932.
The Chatauquan, Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, Chautauqua Institution, vol 3, pp. 304.