And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 10. mars 2017

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the nations of the north

Recently, I finished writing an article in which I explored aspects of medieval otherness in texts concerned in one way or another with peripheral geographies. The article grew out of a paper I gave at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2016, and allowed me to further develop the ideas I had been playing with then. The writing of this article brought me into contact with a wide range of texts which somehow engaged with geography and ideas of the monstrous, and especially texts wich contained some inclusion of the story of Gog and Magog. (I here refrain from using the term "legend", largely because to scholars in the Middle Ages, Gog and Magog were part of historical - and theological - reality.)

Gog and Magog entered the historical awareness of medieval scholars through the Bible, and have become synonymous with forces of destruction and evil. The names first appear in Ezekiel (38-39) where Gog, king of the land Magog, will be unleashed from the north as punishment for the iniquities of the Israelites. The situation of Magog to the north also tied this vision in with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah where the north is likewise presented as a house of evil forces. Although Gog and Magog are not featured in either Isaiah or Jeremiah, they nonetheless contribute to the same biblical typology of the north. In the Revelation of Saint John (19:11-21:8), however, Gog and Magog reappear, this time as two separate persons and allies of Satan in the battle at the end of days.

Jeremiah and the vision of the cauldron
Bourges - BM - ms. 0003, f.196v, Bible, last quarter of the twelfth century, Central France
Courtesy of

One of the several texts with which I became engaged in my research for this article was the Apocalypse of the so-called Pseudo-Methodius. This work of prophetic historiography was originally written in Syriac by an anonymous author situated somewhere northwest of Mosul, a location based on the Syriac preface where it says that Saint Methodius received the vision disseminated in the book on a mountain in this area (Garstad 2012: viii). The attribution of the Apocalypse to Methodius of Olympus is difficult to explain but of great significance in one respect, namely the book's function as a prophectic writ. Saint Methodius, reportedly bishop of Tyre, is said to have been martyred in 311 according to Jerome. That Methodius could have written the book is impossible, as it has been dated to around 690, and since it was written not far from Mosul in today's Iraq. Impossible though it be, the attribution of the authorship to such an important and historic figure as Methodius serves perhaps first of all to give weight to this book's value as a prophecy. After all, it purports to have been written almost four hundred years before the times of the book's first readers. For this reason, the anonymous author has been eternized as Pseudo-Methodius.

The Apocalypse was written in response to the political situation of the time. The area around Mosul had earlier in the century been conquered and was under Muslim overlordship by the time the book was written. By the beginning of the 690s, the Muslim government increased their taxation of the Christian communities, and this resulted in conversion to Islam, or apostasy from the Christian faith as was how the author would have seen it. Apostasy is one of the signs of the end times in biblical chiliastic typology, and throughout the Apocalypse this point is emphasized by references to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (Garstad 2012: ix). In short, the Apocalypse is a work of historical exegesis which presents the Muslims, referred to as Ishmaelites, as a sign of the beginning of the endtimes, and which chastises those who converted to Islam from Christianity as the apostates whose apostasy confirmed the role of the Ishmaelites as the heralds of the apocalypse.

Alexander enclosing the nations in the north
BL MS Harley 4979, f.47, prose Roman d'Alexandre, the Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was translated into Greek and Latin within fifty years of its composition, and in those languages the book spread to Byzantium and Europe. Among the works it affected was the so-called Primary Chronicle of Novgorod, a monastic chronicle written at the monastery of Caves in the first quarter of the twelfth century. In this chronicle, an extract from the Apocalypse was included, having possibly made its way to Novgorod via an Old Slavonic translation. The extract included in the Primary Chronicle concerns the unclean nations to the north which, according to Pseudo-Methodius, had been enclosed behind a great wall by Alexander the Great when he beheld how filthy their habits were (Lunde and Stone 2012: 180-81). Among these nations were, unsurprisingly, Gog and Magog. This combination of the story of Alexander's Wall with the nations of the north so familiar to the Abrahamic religions is not a novel feature in the Apocalypse, it can already be glimpsed in the Quranic story of D'hul Quarnayn, but it has no doubt popularized the conflation and helped bringing its imagery to new audiences, as evidenced by the inclusion of the story in the Primary Chronicle.

The story of the enclosed nations is found in chapter eight of the Apocalypse, and is one of the longest chapters in the book. It begins by recording Alexander's heritage, being - according to Pseudo-Methodius - born of the Ethiopian princess Chouseth and King Philip of Macedonia. After Alexander's victory over Darius, he sojourned to the "Country of the Son" where he encountered the sons of Japheth, son of Noah. The nations descending from Japheth were found abominable by Alexander and he was repulsed by their unclean, cadaverous diet, and out of fear that they would "pollute the whole earth" and, most importantly, the Holy Land, he sought aid from God and then began to round up the sons of Japheth and drive them into the north. Pseudo-Methodius says:

And he drove tehm out of the land of th dawn and pursud close behind them, until they were brought into the lands beyond the North, and there is neither a way in nor a way out for them from east to west, through which one might come in to them or might go out. (Garstad 2012: 25)

Alexander then prays to God for help again, and God makes two mountains move closer together, so that the passage between them is small enough to be covered with a gate. This gate is made of brass and covered with a material, asyncite, seemingly Pseudo-Methodius' own invention (Garstad 2012: 339, n. 20),  that resists fire and iron. When the wall was finished:

So these accursed, false, and foul nations employed all kinds of magical intrigues, and in these things he [Alexander] rendered their sordid and inhuman, or to put it more strongly, godless sorcery ineffectual, so that they were not able by fire or iron or any other device to force open gates such as these and make their escape. (Garstad 2012: 27)

Among these nations are Gog and Magog, and by a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel, Pseudo-Methodius states that they will break free from their enclosure at the end of times.

Alexander fighting dragons and firebreathing, horse-headed men
BL MS Royal 20 A V, f.73 Roman d'Alexandre, first quarter of 14th century, French
Courtesy of British Library

Among the nations of the north, there are both historical peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans, but also the mythical Dogheads. The Ishmaelites, however, are not found in this monstrous catalogue, and therefore serve a different role in the apocalyptic drama of the latter days than Gog and Magog. Pseudo-Methodius records that the Ishmaelites emerged from the desert of Yathrib, i.e. the Arabian peninsula, and this is of course in keeping with the first spread of Islam, and we are reminded that what the Apocalypse does is to weave historical events into a tapestry whose ending has been foretold in the Bible. Consequently, the role of the Ishmaelites is not to emerge onto the world at the endtimes, but to facilitate the emerging of Satan and the nations of the north and thus usher in the Apocalypse. This should be understood as a reference to the Muslim government, under whose rule many Christians converted to Islam and thus committed the apostasy of which Paul spoke in 2 Thessalonians. This also partly explains why the biblical intertextuality of the Apocalypse is as curiously selective as it is, with no reference to Revelation, and with an emphasis on the brief prophectic extract from 2 Thessalonians described above.

Nonethelss, the nations of the north will emerge in the end. Pseudo-Methodius describes how the oppression by the Ishmaelites will be overturned and things will resume their happy state once more. This happiness, however, will then be followed by this:

 Then the gates of the North will be opened up and out will come the powers of the nations which were enclosed within, and the whole earth will reel from their face and men will cry aloud and flee and hide themselves in the mountains and in the caves and among the gravestones. And they will be deadened with fear and many will perish and there will be none to bury their bodies. (Garstad 2012: 61-63)

Of course, in the end the nations of the north and Lucifer will alike be vanquished, and Pseudo-Methodius identifies the champion of Christianity as Rome. This is the Rome that descended from the kings of Ethiopia, according to a novel historical twist brought into the story by Pseudo-Methodius. As mentioned above, Alexander the Great was descended from the Ethiopian royal house by way of his mother Chouseth, the king's daughter. After Alexander's death, however, Chouseth married one of Alexander's general and bore him a daughter, Byzantia. Byzantia then became the mother of three sons, each of whom became the leader of an important city: Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome. Therefore, the future leader of Rome will be a new Alexander, the antitype in the typology of history, and just as the half-Ethiopian conquerer enclosed the nations in the past, so will Rome, descendants of the Ethiopian kingdom, enclose the the nations at the end of the world. In this way, Pseudo-Methodius tells us, we see a fulfillment of Psalm 68:31, "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God".

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius is a fascinating little work, and it is fascinating for many reasons. When I was working on my article, it provided me with a terrific, and horrific, example of how the typology of the north inherited both from the biblical and the Graeco-Roman cultures could be used in a specific context. I also came to better understand how that use could travel beyond its initial context and still carry meaning, all thanks to the spread of the typology handed down through the Bible and also the Graeco-Roman traditions that influenced the Alexander legends.


Anonymous, The Primary Chronicle, translated extract in Lunde, Paul, and Stone, Caroline, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness - Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Books, 2012: 180-81

Garstad, Benjamin, introduction to The Apocalypse fo Pseudo-Methodius, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

Pseudo-Methodius, The Apocalypse, edited and translated from its Greek version by Benjamin Garstad, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

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