Today's Puzzling Passage from Dr Ian Elmer flow on from last week's examination of the Book of Revelation but also represents an interesting change of direction. Ian today examines the legend of Gog and Magog with a particular objective of explaining the presence of these two legendary figures in one of the City of Melbourne's oldest shopping arcades, the Royal Arcade.
How did these legends come to have a place of honour in Melbourne?
Visitors to Melbourne's Royal Arcade will no doubt be familiar with Gaunt's Clock and the two giant figures (measuring 1.3 metres) that having been striking the time since 1842. The inscription that accompanies the Melbourne landmark tells us that the figures represent "Gog and Magog", two characters from British mythology who according to legend "were captured in battle by the Trojans and made to serve as porters at the gateway of an ancient palace".
It is certainly true that Gog and Magog did earn a jersey in British mythology. But long before they were dragooned into that role, they played a minor (although clearly noteworthy) part in the Book of Revelation (20:7-8); and, even before that, they were known to the prophet Ezekiel (30:1-4) — which is probably where the author of Revelation first encountered them. But the roots of this legend probably go back even further, testament to the intertextuality of many of our Biblical texts.
The Biblical Gog and Magog...
Revelation 20:1-6 tells us that after the defeat of the Beast and its evil empire there will be a period of 1,000 years wherein Satan will be "bound" and the people of God will "reign" in peace and harmony. As elsewhere in Revelation, numerology places a significant role here. Just as the number seven represents completeness or perfection (since creation was completed in seven days), a 1000 represents an immense number; and a thousand years suggest a huge stretch of time.
Later interpreters of Revelation, commonly called millenarians, will read the thousand-year reprieve literally and predict a future millennium of peace. However, the thousand-year reign of the people of God is meant to be read symbolically as representing the full and complete victory over evil and suffering.
In the scenario outlined by the author of Revelation, this thousand year period is but one stage in the drama of the last days of the cosmos. He tells us:
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)
What is being imagined here is that following an epoch of relative tranquillity, Satan will be loosed again for a "little season" (20:3) — a signal that persecution is about to be unleashed again with a brief though intense fury. In this drama, Gog and Magog rally to Satan's banner, gathering armies from the "four corners of the earth" to destroy the last remnant of God's saints encamped at Jerusalem "the beloved city".
The reference to Gog and Magog would be obscure if it were not from the fact that they are known from elsewhere in the Bible, especially in Ezekiel (38:1-4; 38:14-39:15), where "Gog of the land of Magog" is numbered among the enemies of Israel and Ezekiel pronounces three prophesies about their demise. By contrast, Magog appears in the so-called "table of nations" in Genesis (10:2); and in 1 Chronicles (5:4), Gog gets a mention as a descendant of Rueben (one of the twelve Patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes).
In Ezekiel, just as later in Revelation, Gog (and Magog) represent hostile forces that come against Israel "clothed in full armour, a great company, all of them with shield and buckler, wielding swords" (Ezek 38:4). In Revelation (20:8) their number "is as numerous as the sands of the sea". Ezekiel (38:15) tells us that this great horde will come from "the remotest parts of the North"; while Revelation (20:8) suggests that they will come form the "four corners of the world".
Whatever their origins, both biblical texts tell of the defeat of Gog and Magog at the hands of God, consumed by fire (Rev 20:9; cf. Ezek 39:6) and/or buried in the land of Israel, where their burial mound will block the path of travellers through what will be known as the "Valley of Harmon-gog" (Ezek 39:11). The Valley is identified with the Valley of Abarim (Ezek 39:11) amidst the mountain range of the same name, east of the Jordan river. The name "Harmon-gog" means literally the "horde of Gog".
The Origins of the Legend...
The identification of this evil entity has long been a point of controversy among commentators. Ezekiel's "Gog" represented a sinister power that came against ancient Israel, but was defeated. But the origins of that legend may lie in a much earlier, more primitive legend.
What appears to be emerging from this brief survey of the texts is that the legend of Gog and Magog may have its origin in an ancient aetiological tale connected to the Abarim Mountains to the east and south-east of the Dead Sea. The highest peak in the range is Mt Nebo, noteworthy in biblical terms as the mountain from which Moses viewed the Promised Land before his death (Deut 3:27; 32:49; 34:1, 5). Jeremiah (20:20) includes Abarim in his list of places from which the people cry in vain to God for rescue from their impending destruction prior to the Babylonian Exile.
As a formidable range of mountains in the Judean wilderness, Abarim was a place of desolation. Looming large across the desert, the range probably looked like the ranks of an invading army — and, therefore, a fitting monument to mythic foreign invaders of the ancient past who laid buried beneath its rocks and peaks. Later Jewish legends would describe Gog and Magog as giants, not unlike the mountains of Abarim.
The names Gog and Magog themselves may also offer a few clues. Some Biblical scholars believe that Gog may be a reference to Gyges (Gk Guges), king of Lydia (687 BCE–652 BCE). In Assyrian letters, Gyges appears as Gu-gu, in which case Magog might be his territory in Anatolia; in Assyrian, māt Gu-gu would be the normal way of designating "the land of Gugu".
Anther competing theory holds that Gog came to be a code name for the Selucid rulers who eventually became the overlords of Judah after the death of Alexander the Great. One such king, Antiochus Epiphanes, attempted to impose Greek religious practice on Judeans and thereby sparked the Maccabean revolt. The territory of the Seleucids was centred in Northern Syria, and included also "Meshech and Tubal in Asia Minor" (cf. Ezek 38:2). The reference in Revelation would then represent the vestigial remains of a later legend that has been conflated with earlier stories about the mythic Gog and the land of Magog.
Amongst the Church Fathers, Ambrose (De Fide, 2:16) thought that Gog might be a reference to, and a prophesy about, the Goths who were threatening the Empire in his day. Written during the Gothic Wars (376-382 CE), Ambrose's identification of the infamous Gog with the invading Goths would have seemed particularly apt.
Ambrose's contemporaries, Jerome and Augustine were not convinced, however. Augustine's tome The City of God, which was written in response the sack of Rome (410 CE), was heavily influenced by the Book of Revelation. In his treatment of Gog and Magog in the City of God he rightly argued that that Gog and Magog were not to be indentified with any particular nation, but stood as a collective symbol of those who allied themselves with evil.
The message of both Ezekiel and the author of Revelation is the same: God will triumph, no matter how bad things look. It is almost a necessary motif of all apocalyptic eschatology that divine retribution await all who persecute the Elect or Chosen of God. The odds are always stacked against the Elect, the numbers of the enemies are always huge, the peril is imminent, and only divine intervention will save the day. In Revelation, Gog and Magog represent all the pagan nations of the earth who threaten the Elect.
Gog and Magog in Melbourne...
From their Biblical beginnings, Gog and Magog would go on to find a home in the mythologies of many European peoples, where they morphed into menacing giants and were assigned as the progenitors of various marauding peoples: Goths, Mongols, Russians, Vikings, the French, and the Germans. On many medieval maps we find mountains peaks and valleys in the Caucasian mountains named "Gog" and "Magog".
In England we can also find the "Gog Magog Downs" (also known as the "Gog Magog Hills" or simply "the Gogs") are a range of low chalk hills, extending for several miles to the southeast of Cambridge. The name most likely derives from an old Celtic version of the Gog legend or, alternatively to the Celtic deity Ogma.
The characters of Gog and Magog have long been celebrated as guardians of the city of London, which is how they found their way to Melbourne's Royal Arcade. According to the legend, Britain was founded by refugees from the Trojan War, including Brutus, from whose name the legend clams derives the name "Britain", and Corin (or Corineus), the great hero of Cornwall; the latter of whom is said to be responsible for capturing and enslaving the giants Gog and Magog or, in another version of the story, for killing a single giant called Gogmagog.
The figures that stand over the entrance to the Melbourne's Royale Arcade are replicas of two similar figures erected in Guildhall, London, in 1708 to symbolise the conflict between the ancient Britons and the Trojan invaders. Tradition holds that the palace that Gog and Magog were assigned to guard following their capture by Corin was built on the site later occupied by the Guildhall.
The Royal Arcade is the oldest retail arcade in Australia. Originally designed by Charles Webb, Royal Arcade was officially opened by Charles Amess, Lord Mayor of Melbourne on the 2nd May 1870. The clock and the two figures of Gog and Magog were the inspiration of one of the arcade's shop holders, the firm of watchmaker and jeweller Thomas Gaunt (T. Gaunt & Co.). The clock was installed at the southern end of the Arcade in 1892, two years after the death of the company founder.
The longevity of the legend around these two strange characters Gog and Magog says a great deal about how mythological ideas and characters can transverse cultures and time. A good story can long outlast its first tradents. Such was the popularity of the Biblical characters Gog and Magog that they have left such a significant memory trace that they have become the stuff of legend and, even, art and architecture.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer