According to British legend, Gogmagog was the last survivor of a mythical race of giants that ruled the island of Albion before the arrival of Brutus of Troy and his Trojan followers. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in The Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) written about 1136, tells the story of how the Trojans came into conflict with Gogmagog and the giants of Albion.
Although Geoffrey made it clear where Brutus and the Trojans originated, he revealed nothing of the history of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. Later writers promoted several versions of a story of the origin of the giants. One tells more about Gogmagog and how he returned to haunt the descendants of the Trojans, taking over a ruined hilltop fortress in Wales now known as Dinas Brân.
This article attempts to tie the threads together to reveal more of the story of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. It begins by briefly recalling the voyage of Brutus of Troy and the prophecy of the goddess Diana, and then the conflict between the Trojans and the giants of Albion. We then move forward in time to later centuries to the time of William the Conqueror, when a Norman knight by the name of Payn Peverel confronts the demonically possessed Gogmagog on Dinas Brân, forcing him to reveal his history and purpose and foretelling the future of Peverel and his descendants.
Brutus of Troy
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the fall of Troy some of the survivors of the sack of the city, led by the Trojan hero Aeneas, fled to Italy and settled there. Their descendants began building a new civilization. One of the descendants of Aeneas in Italy was a young man who became known as Brutus of Troy. After killing his father in a hunting accident, Brutus was punished by being exiled. He left Italy and making his way to Greece, where he found many descendants of the survivors of Troy still held in slavery by a Greek king. Leading the Trojans in revolt, he won their release and led them on an epic sea voyage searching for new land to settle and rebuild their lives.
While at sea, Brutus came to an abandoned island named Leogecia and found a temple dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, and Mercury, and after performing the appropriate rites he asked the goddess for guidance. Diana appeared to him in a dream and told him of a rich and fertile island populated only by a few giants. She prophesied that he would be the first of a long line of kings that would rule the island and spread across the world. When Brutus finally arrived on the island it was called Albion, and he found it was as Diana had told him. The giants were few in number, and the tallest and most powerful was named Gogmagog.
Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion
After Brutus and the Trojans, arrived they explored the island and found it very much to their liking. Individually, the giants were much bigger and for the most part stronger than the Trojans. Only Corineus, one of the Trojan captains, could match them. However, there were only twenty-four of them and they could not match the Trojan weaponry, armour, and numbers, and the Trojans battled the giants seeking to claim Albion as their own.
One day, Brutus decided to hold a festival of thanksgiving to the gods. During the festival, with many games and events underway, Gogmagog and the giants launched an attack hoping to take the Trojans by surprise. Although the giants at first had the upper hand killing many, Brutus rallied his men and in the battle all of the giants, except their leader Gogmagog, were killed. He was spared by Brutus specifically to fight Corineus, who defeated him. With Albion now free of giants, Brutus shared out the land among his captains and followers as he saw fit. In legend, Brutus became the founder and first king of Britain and Corineus became the founder and first ruler of Cornwall.
Although Gogmagog was killed, he was to return centuries later during the Norman Conquest of Britain by King William the Conqueror. This story is told in the medieval legends or “ancestral romance” of The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, a mixture of legend, romance, and imagination by an unknown author or compiler in about 1325-40.
According to this text, Gogmagog reappeared when William the Conqueror was travelling around Britain surveying his new domain. As he travelled in the wild hills and valleys, he came across a prominent hill that was crowned by a ruined town enclosed in wide stone walls that for a long time had lain desolate and empty. Today, the hill is called Dinas Brân and overlooks Llangollen in Wales, but the ruins that crown its top are those of a later castle and not those that intrigued William which had been built many centuries before his arrival.
As the day was drawing to a close, he decided to pitch his tents on a level plain that lay below the imposing ruins. Curious and not a little awed, he asked about the place from a local Briton and was told the following story:
“Sire, this will I tell you. The castle was aforetime called Castle Bran, but now it is called the Old March. In time past there came into this country one Brutus, a very valiant knight, and Corineus, from whom Cornwall has still its name, and many others derived from the lineage of Troy. And none inhabited these parts save some very ill-favored folk, great giants, whose king was called Geomagog.
And these heard of the coming of Brutus, and they set them forth to encounter him. And at last all the giants were slain, save only Geomagog, who was of marvelous size. And Corineus, the valiant, said that willingly would he do combat with Geomagog, to essay the strength of Geomagog.
And at the first onset, so tightly did the giant embrace Corineus, that he brake three of his ribs. And Corineus was filled with anger, and struck Geomagog with his foot so that he fell from a great rock into the sea, and there was Geomagog drowned. And then an evil spirit entered into the body of Geomagog, and came into these parts, and long did he defend the country, so that never Briton dared dwell there. And long while after, King Bran, the son of Donwal, caused the city to be rebuilt, and he made good the walls, and strengthened the large fosses, and he built Burgh and Great March. And the Evil Spirit came by night, and despoiled all that was therein, and since then has no one ever dwelt there.” (1)
This greatly astounded William and all who heard the Briton speak. Amongst them was Payn Peverel, who was a courageous and proud knight and one of William’s cousins. He heard the Briton and swore that he would spend the night in the haunted town. Putting on his armour and taking up his sword and his burnished shield that shone like gold and proudly bore the design of the azure cross, he and fifteen of his men strode up the hill to see what terrors the night would bring.
On top of that bleak hilltop, night fell black and foul and soon the sky flashed with forked lightning and thunder roared. Payn and his companions fell into a dread fear, not wanting to stay yet terrified of leaving what miserable shelter the ruins offered. Payn’s companions lay face down on the floor with their eyes closed and their hands covering their ears. Although he was also terrified, Payn stood upright and put his faith in the sign of the cross. He prayed for strength and deliverance from whatever the night would bring.
Barely had he finished his prayer when the darkness coalesced into solid form. Before his eyes, a monstrous demon in the form of the giant Gogmagog appeared wielding a massive club. From his mouth and nostrils spurted flame and fumes, and he moved purposely forward to assail him. With his club, he struck a mighty blow that its intended victim evaded. With his prayer done, Payn burst into action and held his shield high to face the demon giant, and advanced slowly with his sword drawn ready to strike.
Gogmagog was overcome by the sight of the cross on the shield and Payn struck him hard and deep. Though the demon giant retreated, Payn advanced holding his shield before him and struck him to the ground. Gogmagog yielded, crying, “Not by sword or might have you defeated me but by the powers of the cross you carry before you on your shield!”
“Tell me who you are and where you come from, demon!” replied Payn, “Tell me in the name of God and the Holy Cross I bear why you haunt this place?”
At his command, Gogmagog then began to tell exactly the same tale that the Briton had earlier told King William. He told him that in death he had given over his soul to Beelzebub the prince of demons, whom the giants had worshipped. He had entered into him and possessed him and brought him back to life. Then, he had sought out the descendants of the hated Trojans to kill and harass them. He had come to this hilltop where he guarded a great treasure the giants had hoarded and hidden among the ruins. In disgust and loathing, Payne then asked what kind of a being his master Beelzebub was. Gogmagog told him that Beelzebub had once been an angel but was cast from heaven for offences against God and became a demon of evil.
“Tell, me, Gogmagog, of the treasure you have hoarded?” Payn demanded.
Again, at his command, Gogmagog told how the giants of Albion had hidden effigies of oxen, cattle, swans, peacocks, and horses all finely wrought from solid gold and how they had life-size statue of a golden bull they worshipped. Twice a year they paid homage to the golden bull and were told all that would come to pass. Then he told him that he and his kind had built the town and filled it with evil spirits, and they held jousts and tournaments and many people came to watch and became believers, but none ever left that place. He told how a follower of Jesus arrived called Augustine and by his preaching brought much trouble saying:
“And afterward it came to pass that all this land was called the White Plain, and I and my comrades set the plain about with a high wall and a deep fosse so that there was no way in save only by this town, which was full of evil spirits. And in the plain we held jousts and tournaments, and many came for to see the marvels, but never an one escaped. And at last there came a disciple of Jesus, who was called Augustine, and by reason of his preaching he took many from us, and he baptized folk, and built a chapel in his name; from the which sore trouble came to us.” (2)
“Where is the treasure to be found?” asked Payn and the demon giant replied,
“I will tell you the treasure of Gogmagog is not meant for you but is set apart for another. I tell you that you will become Lord of this fiefdom and those who come after you shall keep it with great struggle and war. And from thy default will issue the wolf who will do wonders, who will have sharp teeth, and will be known of all, and will be so strong and fierce that he will drive the wild boar from out the White Plain, such great power will he have. The leopard will follow the wolf and will menace him at arm’s length. The wolf will leave woods and hills, in the water will he dwell with the fishes, and he will pass over the sea, and will environ this whole island. At length will he subdue the leopard by his cunning and his artifice. Then will he come into this plain, and will make his stronghold in the water.” (3)
Gogmagog said no other word and expired. From his body there came a stench so foul that Payn struggled to breathe. A great blackness appeared from the corpse of Gogmagog and slowly rose into the air before dissipating. The next morning, Payn and his men returned to King William and told him of their strange adventure and showed him the body of Gogmagog. William ordered that it should be cast into a deep pit, but the massive club be kept as evidence of the story for those who would live in times to come as he believed the story of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion should not be forgotten.
Who was Gogmagog?
The names ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ appear in many ancient historical texts and those of different religions. They are often linked to the ‘end of days’ and the Apocalypse, which is not the same. Sometimes, Gog is a person and Magog is the name of a land. Many scholars think that Geoffrey may have joined together the biblical characters of Gog and Magog into one to create a more powerful persona for the giant. Manley Pope, the author of Brut y Brenhinedd, an 1862 English translation of the Welsh chronicle, argues that the name Gogmagog is the distortion of Gawr Madoc, or Madoc the Great. There does not appear to be a universally accepted answer, and more myths and legends evolved to explain this and some gave alternative fates for him.
Des Grantz Geanz
Gogmagog and the giants of Albion were not forgotten, and one version of their origin appeared in an anonymous 14th-century Anglo-Norman poem called ‘Des Grantz Geanz’ (‘Of the Great Giants’). This was expanded upon by a number of later writers, including Wace, Layamon, Raphael Holinshed, William Camden. and John Milton.
The next post will be The Origin of Albion: The Bloodlust of Albina and her Sisters. This will reveal a version of the origin of the giants and how the island of Albion was named by the leader of a group of royal sisters who were exiled from their homeland for plotting to carry out a murderous crime.
References & Further Reading
(1), (2), (3), [PDF] The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine
Sacred Texts – Corineus and Gogmagog – Popular Romances of the West of England collected and edited by Robert Hunt [1903, 3rd edition]
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