This week saw the annual parade for the Lord Mayor of London which celebrated the 693rd incumbent . Every year as part of one of the oldest civic parades in the world you might catch a glimpse of two fearsome looking but generally kindly looking wicket giants. They are the traditional guardians of the City of London and their names are Gog and Magog.
They’ve been involved in the parade since the reign of King Henry V but of course they have a much longer history even than that. They are mentioned in the Holy Bible and generally in a a bad way relating to Satan (the Devil) and the end of days.
Gog and Magog, or sometimes in older writings Gogmagog and Corineus, are descended from mythical pagan giants and their origins lie in mediaeval legends of the early British Kings. The story goes that the Roman Emperor Diocletian had thirty-three wicked daughters. He managed to find thirty-three husbands to curb their unruly ways, but the daughters were not pleased and under the leadership of their eldest sister Alba they plotted to cut the throats of their husbands as they slept.
For this crime they were set adrift in a boat with half a year’s rations, and after a long and dreadful journey they arrived at a great island that came to be named Albion, after the elder sibling. They decided to set up home in Albion and with the assistance of demons they populated the the wild, windswept islands with a race of giants.
Some time later Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, fled after the fall of Troy and by way of various scrapes arrived at the same islands. He too named them for himself, so we also know them as Britain. With him he brought his most able warrior and champion Corineus, who faced the leader of the giants in single combat and eventually hurled him from a high rock to his death. The name of the giant was Gogmagog and the rock from which he was thrown became known as Langnagog or ‘The Giants Leap’. As a reward Corineus was given the western part of the island, which came to be called Cornwall after him. Brutus travelled to the east and founded the city of New Troy, which we know as London. How this ties in with King Lud who also founded London and indeed the historically slightly more certain King Cassivellanus ( Coronavirus Diary – Social distancing on the battlefield with King Cassivellaunus – kicker of Roman ass!)is all a little bit conflicting!
The full story can be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia Regum Brittaniae, a largely fanciful (but hugely influential) history that connects Celtic royalty to the heroic world of the Greek myth by way of the old Welsh legend of King Arthur. Those who enjoy history might know that the fall of Troy was about 2300 years before the reign of Diocletian and that the name Gogmagog is a mangled borrowing from the Old Testament, but these histories were accepted as fact for centuries and would have real importance to the mediaeval participants in the Mayor’s procession.
The custom of carrying effigies and images such as Gog and Magog at festivals can be said to be a relic of the days when the same festival would have revolved around a human sacrifice. The victim was replaced with a symbolic representation, and as the old rites were incorporated into the Church the sacrificial effigy became the saint who had made the sacrifice. Whatever one thinks of this theory, the custom of carrying effigies at festivals was widespread in the middle ages both in England and on the continent, and the giants of myth were among them. The tall figures that you will see on the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show are just the latest in a long line of pagan effigies that go back at least a thousand years and a few miles away there is the annual festival at St Albans where effigies are brought through the street to commemorate historical events there.
If two wicker giants aren’t enough for once city then if one ventures to the Guildhall, the ancient seat of power of the City of London Corporation then you’ll see them again.
If you look at Magog’s shield then you will see the emblem of a phoenix which symbolises how the City of London rose again from the ashes after the Great Fire.
Gog and Magog symbolize one of many links between the modern business institutions of the City and its ancient history. The words of Thomas Boreman in his 1741 work The Gigantick History of the two famous Giants, and other curiosities in Guildhall, London (volume 1) summarise the role of Gog and Magog today.
“Corineus and Gogmagog were two brave giants who richly valued their honour and exerted their whole strength and force in the defence of their liberty and country; so the City of London, by placing these, their representatives in their Guildhall, emblematically declare, that they will, like mighty giants defend the honour of their country and liberties of this their City; which excels all others, as much as those huge giants exceed in stature the common bulk of mankind.”
They are just one of many connections between modern London and ancient history and legends. For others you might like to read The Knollys Rose Ceremony – Paying off a 619 year old rent or