Saint George is the patron saint of England, and his commemoration day is today, April 23rd. I thought I’d take the chance to take a look at the myth behind the myth as well as the myth behind the man.
There was once a town in Libya called Silene, where the people lived in wretched fear of a dragon. This dragon lived in the town’s lake and poisoned the countryside with plague. To appease the dragon and prevent their ruin, the Silenese people fed it two sheep per day. In time, there was simply no more sheep, so they moved on to other livestock. Eventually there was no choice but to move on to their children.
They tried to be fair and chose the unlucky child by lottery. So it was that the lot fell on the daughter of the king – the Princess Sadra. The distraught king ranted and railed, offered the townspeople all of his wealth, half of his kingdom, even, if they would put forward a child of theirs in place of his beloved daughter. The people refused. And so, Princess Sadra was dressed up in a pathetic approximation of a bride and sent out to wait at the lakeside for her death.
It just so happened at that moment that George, a soldier, rode past the lake and saw the pitiful princess shivering on the shoreline. He pulled up his horse and asked the girl what was wrong and what he could do to help. Angrily, the princess told him to mind his own business and leave her alone to her fate. George, however, would not be moved, and as the two were arguing, the fearsome dragon reared out of the lake to claim his prize.
George fortified himself with a sign of his faith, the sign of the cross, and charged the beast from horseback, wounding it. Whilst the dragon was reeling, he cried out to the princess to throw him her girdle, which she did. He slipped the garment tight about the dragon’s neck, cowing it into meekness. The terrifying dragon now followed the princess around like a pet on a leash.
This is how George and Princess Sadra led the creature back to Silene, where the people panicked and lamented at its approach. George called out to them, saying that there was nothing to be afraid of and if they converted to his religion – Christianity – he would slay the dragon before them and they would never need to fear again. The 15,000 men of Silene, including their families, all consented to be baptised. George slew the dragon, whose bulk was so mighty its corpse needed to be removed from the town using four carts.
On the spot where the dragon was felled, the king built a church to the Virgin Mary. From its altar, a pure spring arose, the waters of which cured all disease.
Saint George is a strange character. Born in about 275 AD as Georgios to a Greek Christian family in what is probably now Israel. When George was orphaned in his teens, he decided to travel to Nicomedia, the imperial city of that time, and present himself to Emperor Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian was happy to oblige, as he had known and respected George’s father. George went on to have a stunning military career – it was during these years in his twenties that he is said to have had his adventures, including that with the dragon.
It all ended badly for George in 302. Diocletian, influenced by wicked advisors, issued an edict that every soldier should offer a sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. Any Christian soldiers were to be arrested and tortured. George approached Diocletian and declared himself a true Christian and renounced the evil edict. Diocletian was genuinely fond of the young man and tried to offer him a way out, bribing him with gifts of land and money to abandon his faith, but George steadfastly refused. Diocletian was left with no choice but to have the stubborn George executed in accordance with his own law; he was decapitated on April 23rd 303 and his body returned to his home city, where soon he was established as a martyr.
The tale of Saint George and his draconian escapades travelled to Europe from the east via the Crusaders. The story of a man slaying a dragon is an old one, present in myths from time immemorial (immediately off the top of my head!: Greek – Apollo slaying Pytho; Babylonian – Marduk slaying Tiamat; Norse – Thor slaying Midgard; Celtic – Fergus Mac Leti slaying Muirdris). It is probably the case that these ancient myths converged in more ‘modern’ myth – such as the instantly comparable story of Perseus and Andromeda – which is what inspired the medieval tale of Saint George and his dragon (the earliest surviving narrative is an 11th century Georgian text).
Saint George has always been a favourite of the English, indeed – our flag is the Saint George’s Cross! It was adopted to mark English ships in 1190 and soon the English soldiers under Richard the Lionheart were wearing it on their tunics to avoid confusion in battle. Although it might seem peculiar – to venerate and adopt such a specific Saint, and one with no ties whatsoever to the British Isles – being ‘foreign’ was probably what was so appealing about him; he could be for ‘all’ of England, as he didn’t have any link to a specific geographical area within it.
Nowadays, Georgios the dragon-slaying Greco-Roman soldier from the Middle East has become as frightfully English as fish and chips, high tea, Morris dancing or cheese rolling. Perhaps it’s something to do with the scrappy underdog, fighting and winning against the odds. So, whether you’re English or not, do take a minute today to celebrate Englishness and all the rhetorical dragons we’ve slain throughout history.
PS: In a national vote a few years ago, the public voted Stephen Fry to be the ‘modern’ patron saint of England. No arguments here!!
KING HENRY V:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’