St George’ Day

 

 

 

Every English person has heard of St George, or should have! He is the patron Saint of our country and yet most Churches only pay scant attention to him these days. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, now honours him only as a minor Saint, whilst some authorities claim he never existed at all. The English have always been a bit ambivalent about celebrating St George’s Day. Although it is gaining in popularity, it is still celebrated less in England than St Patrick’s Day! This maybe partly because George is not an indigenous Anglo Saxon hero – then again St Patrick was not Irish. It may also be down to England’s Protestant culture which places less emphasis on Saints, especially when they are steeped in myth and legend.

 

Part of the problem is that, whilst it is generally accepted that George did exist, very little is known about him. Furthermore, the story of him slaying a dragon is myth grafted on to the real person. Yet in the middle ages, his feast day was celebrated with almost as much enthusiasm as Christmas. He is still greatly honoured in the Orthodox Church, where his feast day is November 23 rather than April 23 as in the western Churches.

 

One of the reasons that lead to confusion about St George is that there are several stories attached to him. Perhaps the best known is called the ‘Golden Legend’. In this, a dragon lived in a lake near Silena in Libya. Whole armies had been destroyed trying to kill the monster. It ate two sheep a day, but when these could not be provided, local maidens were sacrificed instead. One day, so the story goes, the King’s daughter drew the unlucky lot and was to be given to the dragon to devour. St George, who was conveniently passing by, came to her rescue, killing the dragon with a single blow from his lance. He then delivered a powerful sermon and converted the locals to Christianity. He also distributed his reward money among the poor and rode off into the sunset!

 

However, this story is clearly myth and allegorical in nature. It is also likely to be relatively late in origin as the earliest accounts of him do not feature the dragon. There are several of these early accounts.  Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in about 322, provides the earliest hint of an historical account, although he does not mention George by name. He tells of a soldier of noble birth who was put to death under the Roman Emperor Diocletian at Nicomedia on 23 April, 303, but gives no further details.

 

 

Probably the earliest account that clearly refers to St George was found as recently as 1964 in Egypt.  Written in Greek, it is thought that this manuscript, which is incomplete, dates to between 350 and 500 AD.  It describes George as being the son of a Cappadocian (a region of what is now eastern Turkey). However, he lived in northern Nubia in modern day Sudan. This is a region where several warrior saints were martyred on the orders of the Emperors Diocletian and Decian.

 

The manuscript states that he was born in the reign of the Roman Emperor Aurelian (270 – 275) and that he was baptised as a Christian by his mother, Polychronia. This was done secretly without the knowledge of his father, Gerontius, who was opposed to it. As a young man, George entered into Imperial service and rose rapidly through the ranks. Later on, he visited the City of Diospolis (or Lydda in modern day Lebanon) in order to pursue his career. Here, he found the city to be ruled by a pagan King who was persecuting Christians. George denounced the worship of Apollo and was arrested and brutally tortured for this. He was forced to wear iron spiked shoes and had his skull crushed. However, the Archangel Michael healed his wounds and released him from prison. As a result of this, a great many people, including the King’s wife, converted to Christianity. George proceeded to attack the pagan temples and was eventually beheaded by the angry King.

 

 

Another important early text relating to the life of St George is called the Vienna Palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript that has had its original text deleted and new material overwritten onto it. Also written in Greek, this script dates from the fifth century. As with many texts of this period, it includes material which is clearly of a mythical rather than factual nature. Nevertheless, it is thought to have been very influential in the development of the St George story. It claims to be based on an earlier account written by a servant of George called Pasicrates. This is a common claim in the writings of early Saints, intended to give weight to their authenticity or perhaps to give them the illusion of authenticity. In this account, George is again of Cappadocian origin, but this time living in Palestine. The story runs along similar lines to the one described above. George visits the pagan ruler, Dadianos, seeking promotion within the Imperial army. Dadianos has banned Christianity and ordered his people to sacrifice to the Roman Gods. George refuses to do this and gives away his money and possessions to the poor.

 

 

Following a heated argument with Dadianos, George is thrown into prison and cruelly tortured. A magician called Athanasius then tries to poison him, but George is unaffected by this. As a result, Athanasius converted to Christianity and was put to death by Dadianos. George himself is then put to death on a wheel fitted with knives, but brought back to life by the Archangel Michael and the Lord. When George appeared before Dadianos, the entire army, including its general Anatolius, convert to Christianity and are executed. Dadianos then orders molten lead to be poured down George’s throat, who once again is brought back to life through the help of God. This account is important, because it establishes the tradition that St George suffered several deaths, being brought back to life each time before finally achieving martyrdom. St George himself is believed to be able to bring the dead back to life and his miracles include causing wooden thrones to come back to life and flower. His miracles persuaded the Empress Alexandra and many other people to convert to Christianity.

 

 

The evil ruler Dadianos, has been described as a tyrant or dragon. This may be an allegory that grew into the story of St George slaying a dragon. There is, in fact, a tradition in Greek Orthodox icons to depict St George slaying a man with sword and shield rather than a dragon.

 

The increasingly unrealistic nature of the stories associated with George, led in 494, to Pope Gelasius to conclude the life of St George as being absurd. However, it was decided that he should remain a Saint and he was grouped with others who are revered by men, but ‘whose actions are known only to God’. In other words, the Church accepted the authenticity of George as a genuine martyr, but was not convinced of the legend attached to him. But the mythical stories attached to George continued to grow and develop in ever more flamboyant ways, culminating in the George and the dragon story we know today.

 

 

Although the stories of St George are substantially myth and allegory, there clearly seems to be a real human being and real events at their heart. Some historical context may help understand the way the story developed and came to embody real struggles. The Emperor Diocletian was pagan, but his wife and daughter were both Christians. There was initially a tolerant attitude to Christians, but this changed when a number of Christian soldiers were accused of disobeying orders. Things got worse when Christians were associated with a plot against the Emperor, leading to widespread persecution of Christians and destruction of Churches. Every solider was instructed to sacrifice to the Gods of Rome to prove their loyalty to the Emperor. This seems likely to form an historical background to the stories associated with the life of St George – the warrior Saint who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods.

 

 

Another influence on the story is thought to be the Emperor Constantine (272 – 337).  Constantine was the first Christian Emperor and his conversion did much to ensure the supremacy of the Christian faith over others within the Empire. Constantine built a Church in the City of Lydda in honour of St George. Some authors have suggested that this Church included a statue of Constantine standing on top of a dragon or serpent and holding the banner of the cross in his right hand. It is suggested, therefore, that the early followers of St George mixed these two images.

 

The period of Constantine may also provide a context for the development of the cult of St George.  Constantine, whilst being the first Christian Emperor, carried on practicing his old pagan religion throughout his life and was not actually baptised until he lay on his death bed. He did, however, issue the edict of Milan in 313 which granted religious freedom within the western Empire over which he ruled.  Licinius, the Emperor of the eastern Empire continued to persecute Christians, though, and this led to a civil war between east and west in 324. Constantine won this war, marking the beginning of the Christian ascendancy in Europe.

 

The Orthodox Church is clear that George was a real human being. A typical story current in the Church is similar to that found in the 1964 manuscript, though with some differences. The Orthodox account has George born into a noble Christian family in Cappadocia rather than Nubia. Following the death of his father, he was brought up as a soldier and became a great military leader. In his early life, Dadianos, the King of Persia, decreed that anyone not worshipping his 'idols' would be persecuted and tortured. When visiting the port city of Tyre (in modern Lebanon), George saw the people bowing down to these idols. He reputably went up to the King and boldly proclaimed the Christian faith. Apparently, this didn't go down too well with the Persian king, who shoved him into prison and tortured him mercilessly. In prison, the Lord came to George and told him he was going to suffer the 'greatest' of martyr’s deaths - not once, not twice, but three times! He would then be raised up in glory to heaven.

 

During this period of torture and persecution, which lasted seven years, many people reputably witnessed George's bravery and became Christians themselves, including the King's wife. After seven years, King Dadianos decided to change strategy. He offered his daughter to George in marriage if only he would worship his gods. George pretended to accept this offer, but he called out to the Lord instead and the idols were destroyed. For this, George was beheaded and declared a Christian Saint.

 

The Venerable Bede (673 – 735) records St George in his martyrology. He recounts that the Saint was martyred on April 23 on the orders of Dacian who he describes as a ‘Persian King’. Bede also recounts a story told to Abbot Adamnan of Iona by Bishop Arculf who had visited Lydda and been to the shrine of St George there. Here, he was told a story of how a man had promised to hand over his horse to George in return for his protection. The man reneged on this promise and so the Saint made the horse wild and unmanageable thus forcing the man to keep his promise. Perhaps more importantly, Bishop Arculf would have seen the statue of Constantine standing over the dragon.

 

 

Although probably another myth, there is also a tradition that associates St George with Britain.  Constantine spent many years of his life in Britain and had been crowned Emperor in York. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his 12th century ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ retells an earlier story by Henry of Huntingdon that Constantine’s mother, Helena, was the daughter of ‘Old King Cole’, a British ruler who founded the city of Colchester. He goes on to claim that Constantine was actually crowned ‘King of the Britons’ rather than Emperor of Rome. There is even a tradition that Constantine founded an order called the ‘Constantine Angelic Knights of St George’ in 312. 

 

 

During the middle ages, stories developed that St George had travelled to Britain as a tribune of the Roman army on the orders of Diocletian. For instance, he is said to have been a friend of Helena, the Empress, and it is claimed that he found the ‘True Cross’ on which Christ was crucified. It is also said that Helena dedicated a Church to George in Jerusalem close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other traditions tell of St George visiting the tomb of St Joseph of Arimathea, to whom he was related, in Glastonbury. These, and other, stories reflect the development of the cult of St George in England which culminated in his becoming our Patron Saint.

 

The Anglo-Saxon writer Aelfric wrote a commentary on St George around the year 1000. He describes the Saint as being a ‘rich eoldorman, under the fierce Datianus, in the shire of Cappadocia’. A monastery was dedicated to St George in Thetford during the reign of King Canute (1017 – 1035). There was also a Church of St George in Southwark during the Anglo-Saxon period and one dedicated to him in Doncaster in 1061. The collegiate Church of St George in Oxford was dedicated in 1074, just after the Norman invasion. He became the Patron Saint of England by the end of the fourteenth century and in 1415, the year of the battle of Agincourt, his feast day was declared to be a major feast to be observed like Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The cross of St George was incorporated into the uniform of English soldiers, possibly during the reign of Richard I. When Richard II invaded Scotland in 1385, every man was ordered to wear ‘the arms of St George', both on their front and backs. Any enemy soldiers who also wore such a cross were put to death.

 

The supposed tomb of St George can still be seen at Lod, south-east of Tel-Aviv; and a convent in Cairo preserves personal objects which are believed to have belonged to him.

 

 

 

 

So how has this Middle Eastern character, who had probably never heard of England let alone been here, become our patron saint? The answer seems to lie in the crusades and the medieval taste for giving the Christian religion a Germanic ‘heroic’ gloss. The imagery of the dragon is not part of the original story and seems to have been added later and Christianised to embellish the myth that had already grown up around George in medieval times. The Orthodox explain this imagery by saying that the dragon represents the devil and that by 'slaying' him, George is overcoming evil and representing the victory of the Church.

 

His name, George, could be derived from the words ‘geo’, suggesting ‘earth’ and ‘orge’, suggesting to ‘till’. In other words, he who tills the earth.  He is also known as ‘Green George and in Islam is called ‘al Khidir’ – the green one. His festival in the western world is on April 23 and so associated with the coming of spring and new vegetation. He is killed several times (depending on which legend you are reading) and rises back to life on all but the last occasion. Whilst this may not be part of the original story, there does seem to be a strong association with the dying vegetation God best known to the English as Ingeld or Ing Freyr. His association with vegetation and name as the ‘Green One’ could also be the origin of the mediaeval custom of the ‘Green Man’, brought to England from the middle east during the crusades.

 

From the very start then, it is possible to see an association between George and older folk myths. Given the mythical nature of much of the legend of St George, it is not difficult to see how various stories were adapted into English lore from the original Middle Eastern legends. St George became strongly associated with the surviving folk memories of Ing Freyr and so a Christianised version of that much loved God came into existence.

 

Heroic warriors fighting dragons is a deep and well established part of Germanic mythology. The Icelandic epic Volsungasaga tells the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer. The old High German epic Nibelungenlied mirrors this tradition with the story of Siegfried. For the English, the legend is best known through the epic tale of Beowulf.  Here, the hero defeats the monster Grendel, and his mother, and wisely rules over his people for many years.  In old age, he is called on to defeat a dragon who has been disturbed by someone trying to steal the treasure hoard he was guarding.  Beowulf is the only one brave enough to fight the dragon and a heroic battle takes place.  Although our hero defeats the dragon, he is himself mortally wounded and soon after dies.

 

 

These stories are not mere fanciful inventions. In ancient times, Kings were buried with their treasure for use in the after life. Indeed, the Sutton Hoo burial contained just such a treasure hoard, most likely of King Raedwald. And guarding this treasure was a dragon, made of gilt-bronze and mounted on the front of the King's shield.

 

 

This treasure held great symbolic meaning to our ancestors.  The King was chosen as the link between the tribe and the Gods.  It was said that he held the tribes' luck' or ‘Maegan’. This was represented by his treasure, which he held in trust for the tribe as a whole. However, 'luck' had a deeper meaning than it does now. It referred to the tribe's well-being, their standing with the cosmos, the Gods and with nature. It was linked to their collective Wyrd or fate. If the King was in favour with the Gods, all went well with the tribe. They prospered, had good harvests, did well in battle and so on. But if the King's luck' diminished, things would go wrong. Harvests would fail, wars would be lost and the tribe would suffer starvation, disease and defeat.

 

Gold therefore represents the natural order of things, the tribe's collective Wyrd. As long as the gold is not disturbed, then the natural balance of the cosmos is not harmed and the world continues. However, if the gold is disturbed, the balance of the cosmos itself is disturbed and a major change follows.

 

So what is the significance of the dragon guarding the treasure hoard and of the heroic fight against it?  At the heart of the dragon stories lies our ancestors' understanding of the cosmos, passed down to us in myths and legends. These myths contain profound wisdom that we are only just beginning to once again understand. For the dragon does not simply represent evil, slain by the righteous hero. It represents something far more profound. Firstly though, we need to understand what our ancestors understood dragons to be.

 

 

 

They are in fact a type of snake, the Old English word Wyrm being used for both. Snakes are seen in northern mythology as a representation of the forces of chaos, negative change and destruction. The Norse myth of the world serpent Jormungandr demonstrates this view well. At the end of the current time cycle, or the Ragnarok, he battles with the Gods. He is defeated and slain by Thor, but Thor himself dies of terrible wounds inflicted in the fight. The Ragnarok is itself a mythological representation of part of the time cycle when great changes come about. The forces of chaos represented by the Giants, the Fenris Wolf and the World Serpent represent negative change and destruction of the established order. It is interesting that the early legends of St George refer to the people that he battles against as ‘Paynims’, a term that came to be seen in the middle ages as synonymous with Giants. This does seem to be another indication of how a Middle Eastern legend was absorbed and adapted into earlier folk lore which must have lain in the collective memories of the people rather than having died out as is so often assumed.

 

The concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil, light and darkness lies at the heart of Indo Euroean religion and is central to religions such as Zoroastrianism. In this fight and the myth of St George, then, we have a window into a particular Indo European and Germanic theology which is an important element of restoring Germanic or Saxon Christianity.

 

 

St George is part of these dragon legends. He could be Beowulf, Sigurd, Siegfried or the Thunderer himself. He is associated with Ingeld, representing the eternal renewal of life after death. The story tells us to fight the forces of negative change that confront us and ensure that we emerge stronger as a result. Unless we fight those issues that confront us, we will be defeated by them. By fighting them with courage, we can bring about positive change. This we can do both in our individual lives and in our collective tribal, or national, life. When our folk and country face danger from the forces of chaos and negative change, we look to the powers represented by St George to confront and defeat them. 

 

 

 

So the cult of St George is many things. There is a real man behind the stories and whilst he never set foot in England he has come to embody English chivalry.  Unlike rivals such as St Cuthbert and St Edmund (to whom we give great honour), George has come to represent the whole of England and is not a ‘regional’ saint. In many ways his only rival as Patron of England is King Alfred the Great who we also greatly honour. But George has something else and this is the mythology that surrounds him and which has made Church bodies down the ages suspicious of him. This myth, is something that goes deep into our Anglo Saxon identity. Fighting the dragon above all else embodies the Indo European idea of good fighting evil to overcome the forces of chaos and maintain order in the cosmos.

 

 

But there is another aspect to George’s slaying of the dragon which speaks volumes to us in our modern world. In this we see the dragon representing the greed, degeneracy and anti-English prejudice that has gripped our nation’s ruling class. The dragon can be seen as a symbol of multi-culturalism and cultural Marxism which is slowly strangling a once proud and productive people. St George is the embodiment of our fight back against all of this and the final victory that we know will be ours.

 

 

To this end, we pray to George for the preservation and protection of England.

 

 

 

 

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