“The wise man avoids evil by anticipating it” – Publilius Syrus
Many people think Macedonian bad-boy Alexander (356-323 B.C.) was called “the Great” just because he carved out an empire from Greece to Pakistan, and is widely regarded as the pre-eminent strategic genius of the past two thousand years. In point of fact, he set the bar for effective modern monster hunting. We’ve gotten used to the dangerous, dashing lone-wolf monster hunters a la Beowulf, Van Helsing, or Nick Redfern, and even though Buffy has her Scooby Gang to claim the vampire-slaying assist, everyone is painfully aware that the life of the “Chosen One” is a dark and lonely path. Since Alexander had a massive army, combat engineers, a full blown research and development team, and ruled a sizable portion of the known world, he had no patience for troublesome monsters, dramatic individual duels with pesky paranormal phenomena, or battles between mythological titans. You don’t rule a continent-spanning Hellenistic empire without learning to delegate, but by the same token this made monsters more of a tactical problem, rather than a supernatural horror. Well, actually, they were still supernatural horrors, but a well-organized phalanx of crack hoplite commandos can quickly make mincemeat of your garden variety dragon or ogre, and when the boss may just be the son of Zeus, it suggests you might have a little divine juice to back you up. Alexander the Great institutionalized organized and calculated monster hunting, eschewing the stylized individual slayer model in favor of leveraging his vast resources and capacity for project management, and given the number of monsters he is credited with effectively handling, he was pretty darn good at it, or at least recognized the fact that if you’re going to deal with the devil, it’s nice to have a sizable contingent of cavalry on hand and a bunch of pencil-necked scientist types to make super-weapons and solve structural engineering problems.
Persian poet Hakīm Abul-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī (940-1020 A.D.), more commonly known as Ferdowsi, wrote an epic 50,000 verse poem called the Sháhnáma (one of the oldest books written in Persian), detailing the history of the Persian Empire from creation until the 7th Century A.D. Islamic conquest of Persia (and pretty much the rest of the Middle East). Now the Persians were generally not big fans of Alexander, holding him largely responsible for the dissolution of the Persian-centered Achaemenid Empire that lasted from roughly 550-330 B.C., and particularly the Zoroastrians, who referred to him as gujastak (“accursed”), as he leveled the capital city of Persepolis, and demonstrated a propensity for burning Zoroastrian temples and holy books. Sometimes referring to him as Iskander, or Sikandar, even the Persians had to admit that Alexander had some mad skills at dealing with monsters. Most folks in antiquity that dealt with monsters got their macho on, slung a sword, and waded in swinging. Alexander figured he had cash, he had troops, and had a busy schedule filled with places to go and peoples to conquer, so when it came time to deal with a nasty dragon around Habash (believed to be Ethiopia) instead he opted to buy and skin a few cows, filled them with poison and naphtha (think ancient napalm), had his soldiers feed them to the dragon, and watched the fireworks. And the only reason he bothered was that the dragon happened to be blocking the mountain pass he wanted to march his army through. Medieval knights and saints wanted a lot of credit for the slaying the odd dragon here and there after epic single combat, saving the maiden, and defending the kingdom. Alexander thought of dragons as mere roadblocks, and like most roadblocks considered them susceptible to the creative application of explosives. Now that’s swagger.
Sikandar, at the dragon’s feeding-time,
Chose troops and bade to give it naught that day.
The dragon, when its hour for battening
Was o’er, came down the pass like fire. Sikandar
Bade his troops shower thereon their arrows swiftly.
That laidly dragon drew one breath and sucked
Some warriors in. The son of Failakus
Bade beat the tymbals and the kettledrums,
Enkindle mighty fires and make a blaze
In every quarter. When the mountain rang
With tymbal-din the monster feared and fled.
When Sol ascended from the Sign of Taurus,
And soared the lark’s note from the garths of roses,
The warrior-chieftain brought with him five oxen,
Procured with money from his treasury.
He slew and skinned them, heads and all; his scheme
Gave courage to his friends. He charged the hides
With bane and naphtha, and made speed toward
The dragon. Blowing up the skins he called
Upon the Giver of all good and bade
Men pass the hides along from hand to hand.
As he drew near the dragon it appeared
Black like a cloud, its tongue was livid, its eyes
Seemed blood, its maw belched flame. They cast the oxen
Down from the mountain-top and closely marked
The dragon, which engorged them, swift as wind,
Or ever they had left those warriors’ hands.
Now when its frame was hide-stuffed, and the bane
Had spread throughout its body, it pierced through
The entrails and invaded brains and feet.
The dragon dashed its head on mount and rocks,
And thus a long time lapsed while all the troops
Showered arrows on it till that mountain-form,
That hunter, fell. Thence fared the host with speed,
And left in scorn the dragon’s body there.
(Ferdowsi, Sháhnáma, 977 A.D., Ch. 27, c1334-1335)
Most everybody in the ancient Middle East was concerned about a bunch of apocalyptic nasties named Gog and Magog. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians don’t traditionally agree on much except that pork is definitively not “the other white meat”, but nonetheless they all concurred that we should all be worried about Gog and Magog. The Hebrew Old Testament, the Christian Book of Revelations, the Muslim Quran, and the Zoroastrian Avesta each make reference to the monstrous people of Gog and Magog who will side with evil in a variety of final apocalyptic battles. Around the 6th Century B.C., Ezekiel was busy warning the Hebrew people that Gog from the land of Magog was an enemy of God, saying “Son of man, direct your face towards Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince, leader of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy concerning him. Say: Thus said the Lord: Behold, I am against you, Gog, the prince, leader of Meshech and Tubal” (Ezekiel 38-39). Christian eschatology was even less charitable, commenting “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the Earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore” (Revelations 20: 7-10). The Quran relates some details of the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn (believed by many scholars to refer to Alexander the Great).
Then he followed a way until when he reached the point between the two mountains, he found below them both a people who could scarcely under-stand speech. They said, ‘O Dhu’l-Qarnayn! Verily, Yagug and Magug are doing evil in the land. Shall we then pay thee tribute, on condition that thou set between us and them a rampart? He said, ‘What my Lord hath established me in is better; so help me with strength, and I will set between you and them a barrier. ‘Bring me pigs of iron until they ﬁll up the space between the two mountain sides.’ Said he, ‘Blow until it makes it a ﬁre.’ Said he, ‘Bring me, that I may pour over it, molten brass.’ So they could not scale it, and they could not tunnel it. Said he, ‘This is a mercy from my Lord; butwhen the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it as dust, for the promise of my Lord is true.’And we left some of them to surge on that day over others, and the trumpet will be blown, and we will gather them together. (Quran, “Surat Al-Kahf”, 18: 85-95).
The Zorastrian Frashkoreti (think Armageddon) similarly seems to involve Gog and Magog, as extant Avestan scriptures comment, “After 4291 years of the world’s creation, will the world come to an end, the monsters will rise in mutual destruction, the wars of Gog and Magog will take place; thereupon the Messianic age will open. For God renovates the universe, but after seven thousand years” (Fluegel, 1898, p228). These Gog and Magog dudes seem to figure pretty prominently in the end of the world, and by all accounts are not a very pleasant bunch. Luckily, these scourges of humanity did not bother Alexander one whit, and rather than engage them, he dealt with them as a practical engineering problem. He simply walled them up and let them rot behind what came to be referred to as “The Gates of Alexander”. Marco Polo, in his travels to the east believed the Gates of Alexander were in the Caucus Mountains, associating Gog and Magog with what were called the Tartars in his day, but included the story of Alexander’s building a wall to pen them in.
This is the province into which, when Alexander the Great attempted to advance northwards, he was unable to penetrate, by reason of the narrowness and difficulty of a certain pass, which on one side is washed by the sea, and is confined on the other by high mountains and woods, for the length of four miles; so that a very few men were capable of defending it against the whole world. Disappointed in this attempt, Alexander caused a great wall to be constructed at the entrance of the pass, and fortified it with towers, in order to restrain those who dwelt beyond it from giving him molestation. From its uncommon strength the pass obtained the name of the Gate of Iron, and Alexander is commonly said to have enclosed the Tartars between two mountains. It is not correct, however, to call the people Tartars, which in those days they were not, but of a race named Cumani, with a mixture of other nations. In this province there are many towns and castles; the necessaries of life are in abundance; the country produces a great quantity of silk, and a manufacture is carried on of silk interwoven with gold. Here are found vultures of a large size, of a species named avigi? The inhabitants in general gain their livelihood by trade and manual labour. The mountainous nature of the country, with its narrow and strong defiles, have prevented the Tartars from effecting the entire conquest of it (“Travels of Marco Polo”, trans. Masefield & Marsden, 1908, p38-39).
Again, we see Alexander, instead of getting his warlord on and clubbing some heads, calling in some contractors to quietly and permanently solve his problems with monsters. He seemed to take his monsters in stride, and largely ignored them unless they were obstructing the path he wanted to march his army on or interfering with combat operations. As he spent a lot of time marching his armies around and engaging in massive wars, he inevitably had to dispatch a few fearsome critters, which he tried to do with a minimum of fuss. Alexander made it to India around 326 B.C., part of his larger plan to conquer the entire world, and wrote home to his long time teacher, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) giving a firsthand account of the wonders of India, and the occasional monster he had to dispatch from this mortal coil.
And on the second night, behold, [there came] a monster a beast which was larger than an elephant, and when it drew nigh to the ditch within which we had entrenched ourselves it wished to escape, but it was not able to do so. Now when I saw this, I commanded that herald to go round about through the camp [and to order the soldiers] to put on their armour and to protect themselves that night, and I informed them concerning the beast the like of which I had never seen before; and I commanded them, moreover, to light fires round about them, and that each man should abide in his own place the whole of that night. And when the beast saw the fighting men it lifted itself up and betook itself to flight, but as it was fleeing, by reason of its mighty rage it fell into the ditch within which we had entrenched ourselves; and I commanded thirty of our mighty warriors to rise up against it and to slay it, and they slew that beast. And it came to pass on the morrow when daylight had appeared that I commanded the men to bind the beast with ropes, and three hundred men dragged it out of the ditch, and cut open its belly, and they found therein great numbers of snakes and scorpions, and fish larger than oxen; and each of its tusks was a cubit in length, and its claws were like unto those of hawks. Now this beast is the most voracious of all the wild beasts of that country (“Alexander’s Epistle to Aristotle”, trans. Budge, 1896, p149-150).
The lesson for monsters is of course that Alexander rarely travels alone, and while that may look like a scrumptious snack camping out on a hill over the Ganges, its actually an army with a great deal of experience fighting creatures just like you. Again, Alexander isn’t about to go toe to toe with something on the order of an organic freight train. He’d rather have his army drive it into a ditch, chop at it for a while, bind it up, and dissect it for future reference. As the ruler of one of the largest empires in history and a military genius, Alexander the Great really didn’t have to prove just how tough he was. Consequently, monsters that were unfortunate enough to encounter him faced a new kind of enemy, that is, one who would calmly and cunningly figure out the most efficient way to use his vast resources to turn you into a historical footnote. In Alexander, we see the advent of scientific monster hunting, as well as the pithy, yet incredibly egotistical catch phrase “Heaven cannot brook two Suns, nor earth two masters”, no doubt uttered after he sent yet another monster to meet its malevolent maker. Unfortunately, monsters seemed to have learned their place in the universe after Alexander, sticking more to the shadows and stalking individual victims, where they were less likely to encounter the overwhelming force of a globe-trotting, siege equipped army and its fearless, monster-mangling general. No doubt, sober historians are sneering at this interpretation of Alexander as the intellectual father of modern monster hunting, but that’s because historians are keen on controlling how and why we name things, much as 19th century English clergyman Charles Kingsley observed, “Did not learned men, too, hold, till within the last twenty-five years, that a flying dragon was an impossible monster? And do we not now know that there are hundreds of them found as fossils up and down the world? People call them Pterodactyls: but that is only because they are ashamed to call them flying dragons, after denying so long that flying dragons could exist.” It’s hard for most to admit that Alexander the Great was a monster hunter, when we spend so much time disbelieving in monsters.
Firdawsī. The Sháhnáma of Firdausí. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & co. ltd, 1905.
Fluegel, Maurice, 1831?-1911. The Zend-Avesta And Eastern Religions: Comparative Legislations, Doctrines, And Rites of Parseeism, Brahmanism, And Buddhism; Bearing Upon Bible, Talmud, Gospel, Koran, Their Messiah-ideals And Social Problems. Baltimore: H. Fluegel & co., 1898.
Palmer, Edward Henry, 1840-1882. The Qur’ân. Oxford: The Clarendon press, 1880.
Polo, Marco, 1254-1323?. The Travels of Marco Polo. London: J.M. Dent , 1908.
Budge, E. A. Wallis Sir, 1857-1934. The Life And Exploits of Alexander the Great: Being a Series of Translations of the Ethiopic Histories of Alexander by the Pseudo-Callisthenes And Other Writers … London: C. J. Clay and sons, 1896.