Today is the Feast Day of St. George as observed in England where he became the nation’s Patron Saint and is represented on the Union Jack by the upright red cross. George is also venerated by Orthodox Christians and is the Patron Saint of Greece as well, which explains why so many restaurant owners are named George. But the Eastern and Western versions of why George is such a popular saint are very different.
Unlike some early popular saints there was apparently a historical George. He was born around 256 A.D. probably in Palestine where his father, Gerontius, was a Patrician noble of Greek origin in the Roman Army occupying the province of Syria Palaestina. The family was Christian. George followed his father’s profession and rose rapidly in the Legions. By his mid-twenties he was said to be a military tribune and stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia in northeast Asia Minor, then the capital of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. He was said to be a favorite of Galerius, Caesar in the East under Diocletian, Augustus in Rome.
George would likely have campaigned with Galerius against the Copts in Egypt and in the disastrous war with the Sassanid Persians. Christians in the Army, especially senior officers were scapegoated for the loss. In 305 A.D. Diocletian, with Galerius’s support ordered all army officers to abandon Christianity and make public sacrifice to the Roman gods on pain of death.
George reportedly sold his slaves and gave away his wealth to the poor preparing to meet his fate. Called personally before Galerius, the Emperor tried to convert his soldier and offered him new honors, titles, and lands as inducement. George remained steadfast and was sentenced to death. According to legend on his last night Galerius dispatched a comely virgin to George to remind him of the pleasures of the flesh, but instead of sleeping with her, he converted her on the spot, thus sealing the lass’s doom as well.
The next day, April 23, 303 A.D. George was beheaded but faced his fate with such equanimity that Empress Alexandra of Rome became a Christian as well and soon she joined George in martyrdom.
The elaborate Martyrdom of St. George by Renaissance master Paolo Veronese. Note--no dragon.
George’s body was returned to his home town of Lydda in Palestine for burial. His crypt quickly became a shrine for pilgrims and a sect of veneration spread across the East. He was the most prominent of the 14 Soldier Saints who fell to Diocletian’s persecution. He is venerated among Orthodox Christians as one of the great martyrs of the Church, and is especially adored by Greeks.
Historians quibble over the veracity of all of the details of this narrative, but most agree that there was soldier and that he was connected with the Diocletian persecution.
But you will notice the total absence of any mention of a dragon in this account, nor does the beast figure in Greek veneration or traditional iconography at least until the dragon tale is introduced from the West.St. George, soldier saint, in a traditional style Greek icon.
George was so popular that the Muslims adopted him as a saint, transferring his martyrdom to the Kingdom of Mosul where he was said to have been executed three times and been resurrected from the dead each time.
George was officially canonized in the Western or Catholic Church in 494 by Pope Gelasius I, as among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God,” which included other legendary figures like St. Christopher and St. Valentine. Still he was little known in the West until Crusaders brought his cult home, where it especially flourished in England and Sweden. The knightly reverence for a soldier saint was key.Horus slays Set as a crocodile in Egyptian myth--a model for St. George.
The origins of the Dragon story are somewhat obscure. Elements of the tale may be traced to Egypt where the god Horus killed Set metamorphosed into a crocodile. It may also have borrowed from the Muslim accounts with the dragon as a metaphor for the monster king of Mosul. The Crusaders, however, were literalists, and the symbol may have been transformed into substance
The earliest reference to a Dragon may have been in a 12th Century Latin text but the story began to be codified in the Speculum Historiale and the Golden Legend of the 13th Century. The latter was especially the inspiration of bards, poets, and various versions of the tale started showing up across late Midlevel Europe.
In Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea—The Golden Legend—Silene in Libya was plagued by a venom-spewing dragon dwelling in a nearby pond, poisoning the countryside. The local people placated the dragon with gifts of sheep but the insatiable beast was soon demanding human sacrifices which were chosen by lot among the children. Eventually the King’s daughter fell to the lottery and she was sent, dressed a bride, to meet her doom. The king offered his fortune to save his favorite child.The Marriage of St. George and the Princes from the Golden Legend by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Enter George, a virtuous Knight traveling by chance alone in the Kingdom. Hearing of the damsel’s plight, he made the Sign of the Cross and charged the monster on horseback, seriously wounding it with his lance. The princess lassoed the dragon with her girdle and together the two led the subdued beast back to the King’s city, where George decapitates it with his broadsword. In gratitude the King and all of the citizens convert to Christianity. In later versions of the story George weds the lovely Princes, who is given different names.
The story may have originated with Georgian folk tales before the Crusader’s got it into the hands of Jacobus de Voragine.
At any rate, it was the perfect yarn for the age that was inventing Chivalry as magical as any Arthurian legend.
George began to inspire armies including the Franks at the siege of Antioch, in 1098, and at Jerusalem the following year. The knightly Order of Sant Jordi d’Alfama was established by King Peter the Catholic of Aragon in 1201 followed by the Republic of Genoa, Kingdom of Hungary, and by Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th Century.
In England George had been mentioned as early as Alfred the Great’s will but it was not until 1222 Synod of Oxford that Saint George's Day was declared a feast day. Edward III of put the Order of the Garter under the banner of St. George around 1348. The chronicler Jean Froissart observed the English invoked Saint George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War with France.
George was slowly, unofficially rising as a national saint, a position officially occupied by Edward the Confessor. England was rife with local saints and their shrines like that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury but these could invoke regional loyalties, not national ones, and be identified with Normans or Saxons. George was aided by the very fact that he had no legendary connection with England, and no specifically localized shrine. He could thus be a national symbol—or at least one for the feudal warlords and their men at arms who held sway over the country.
St. George as a Crusader knight.by Bernot Martorell.
The red-on-white cross was originally associated with the Knights Templar and subsequently with the Crusades in general and the noble houses who wished to be associated with it. It began to be identified with St. George and began to be used as a banner by the Knights of the Order of the Garter. From 1348 and throughout the 15th Century, the Saint George’s Cross was shown in the hoist of the Royal Standards of the Plantagenet kings of England. With the the dynastic union of England and Scotland in 1603, it was combined with the white on blue x-shaped Cross of St. Andrew for Scotland for what became the Union Flag, eventually the national flag of Great Britain. In 1801 following the following the union Great Britain and Ireland the red Cross of St. Patrick was imposed on a background of the white Cross of St. Andrew to complete the modern Union Jack national flag of the United Kingdom.
The England's Flag of St. George, right, incorporated into the Union Jack.
St. George and his Cross were such a popular symbol for England that both survived the Puritan Commonwealth unscathed. St. George’s Cross was the only Saint’s banner that was allowed to be flown.
Today the modern Catholic Church is somewhat embarrassed by the dragon lore. Like Valentine and others his feast has been demoted on the liturgical calendar, although he did not lose his saintly status entirely like St. Christopher. His feast, however, is still celebrated in by Catholics and the Church of England alike as well as across much of the old Empire and Commonwealth.
Needless to say, with such fertile ground, poets have had much to say about St. George and his dragon beginning with almost endless medieval ballads, which I will spare you here.
Cicely Fox Smith was an English poet and writer born in Lymm, Cheshire on February 1, 1882 and educated at Manchester High School for Girls. She briefly lived in Canada, before returning to the United Kingdom shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Before her death in 1954 she wrote and published more than 600 poems, many with patriotic or naval theams. A popular and much beloved non-academic poet here she invoked St. George, as so many had done before, to answer the call to battle, this time against the “Huns” in the Great War of 1914-1918.Cicely Fox Smith.
St. George of England
Saint George he was a fighting man, as all the tales
He fought a battle long ago, and fought it wondrous well.
With his helmet, and his hauberk, and his good cross-hilted sword,
Oh, he rode a-slaying dragons to the glory of the Lord.
And when his time on earth was done, he found he could not rest
Where the year is always summer in the Islands of the Blest;
So he came to earth again, to see what he could do,
And they cradled him in England -
In England, April England -
Oh, they cradled him in England where the golden willows blew!
Saint George he was a fighting man, and loved a fighting breed,
And whenever England wants him now, he's ready at her need,
From Crecy field to Neuve Chapelle he's there with hand and sword,
And he sailed with Drake from Devon to the glory of the Lord.
His arm is strong to smite the wrong and break the tyrant's pride,
He was there when Nelsom triumphed, he was there when Gordon died;
He sees his red-cross ensign float on all the winds that blow,
But ah! His heart’s in England -
In England, April England -
Oh, his heart it turns to England where the golden willows grow!
Saint George he was a fighting man, he’s here and fighting still
While any wrong is yet to right or Dragon yet to kill,
And faith! He’s finding work this day to suit his war-worn sword,
For he’s strafing Huns in Flanders to the glory of the Lord.
Saint George he is a fighting man, but when the fighting’s past,
And dead among the trampled fields the fiercest and the last
Of all the Dragons earth has known beneath his feet lies low,
Oh, his heart will turn to England -
To England, April England -
He’ll come home to rest in England where the golden willows blow!
—Cicely Fox SmithBrian Patten.
Brian Patten is a 76 year-old English poet from Liverpool that first rose to prominence with the late ‘60’s poetry anthology The Mersey Sound. He has written autobiographical collections for adults as well as books for children and young adults. Here he had a very different take on both the dragon and St. George. Of note, you should know that it is customary to wear a red rose on St. George’s Day in England, which, by the way was also the symbol of the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses.
The True Dragon
St George was out walking
He met a dragon on a hill,
It was wise and wonderful
Too glorious to kill
It slept amongst the wild thyme
Where the oxlips and violets grow
Its skin was a luminous fire
That made the English landscape glow
Its tears were England’s crystal rivers
Its breath the mist on England’s moors
Its larder was England’s orchards,
Its house was without doors
St George was in awe of it
It was a thing apart
He hid the sleeping dragon
Inside every English heart
So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight
Let’s celebrate St George’s Day,
The dragon in repose;
The brilliant lark ascending,
The yew, the oak, the rose.
Elvis Mcgonagall was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1960 and is a stand-up comic and is notable for poetry slam performances. He is also something of a Scottish nationalist despite currently residing in Dorset in England. He takes a Scott’s more jaundiced view of George and the hoopla surrounding him.
Once more unto the breach, dear Morris Dancers once more
Jingle your bells, thwack sticks, raise flagons
Cry “God for Harry and Saint George!”
Gallant knight and slayer of dragons
Patron saint of merry England –
And Georgia, and Catalonia, and Portugal, Beirut, Moscow
Istanbul, Germany, Greece
Archers, farmers, boy scouts, butchers and sufferers of syphilis
Multicultural icon with sword and codpiece
On, on you bullet-headed saxon sons
Fly flags from white van and cab
But remember stout yeomen, your champion was Turkish
So – get drunk and have a kebab.
Another dissenting view came from Nancy Senior, who casts a skeptical eye on the assumptions of would-be savior knights, and maybe men in general.St. George slays the Dragon by Jost Haller.
My dragon always loved walks
He used to go to the wall
where the golden chain hung
and take it in his mouth
laying his head on my lap sideways,
so the fire wouldn’t burn my skirt
He looked so funny that way
with his wings dragging the floor
and his rear end high up
because he couldn’t bend his hind legs.
With him on the leash,
I could go anywhere
No band of robbers dared attack.
This morning in the woods
we had stopped for a drink
where a spring gushes out of a cave.
when suddenly, a man in amour
riding a white horse
leapt out of the bushes crying
“Have no fear I will save you”
And before I could say a word
he had stabbed my dragon in the throat
and leaping down from the horse
cut off his head
and held it up for me to see
the poor eyes still surprised
and mine filling with tears/
He hadn’t even had time to put out his claws.
And the man said
“Don’t cry, Maiden
You are safe now
But let me give some good advice
Don’t ever walk alone in the woods
for the next time you meet a dragon
there might not be a knight around to save you.
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