BY GEORGE! THE MAN OF MYTHTERY…
Today is St George’s day. The legend off St George is a ripping yarn. Are you sitting comfortably? Well I’ll begin ….
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a dragon (or – according to some reports, somewhat less impressively – a crocodile) nested at a spring providing water to a city (possibly Cyrene). Every day the locals would collect water by tempting the dragon to move from the spring by luring it with a juicy sheep. If no sheep could be found a maiden was offered instead. The unfortunate maiden was chosen by lots. One day, the princess herself was chosen as the dragon’s titbit and the king was desperate. When she was offered to the dragon, George happened to be travelling by (I’m almost certain he was wearing armour and that it was shining) and saw the damsel in distress. He fought the beast, defending himself with the sign of the cross. The dragon was slain. The girl was saved. Evil was overcome. The city converted to Christianity. George was a hero.
Dear Reader, no doubt you spotted immediately the parallels with the greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. I admit it’s all a little suspicious. I expect you have already concluded that a sheep and a woman are inappropriate food substitutes – I shudder to think how Ocado would grapple with that suggestion. Clearly what the citizens really needed was a satisfactory plumbing system, or at the very least a sheep breeding programme, rather than a lottery.
The evidence suggests that George was in fact a roman soldier, born in about 275AD in Lydda, Syria Palaestina. When the Emperor required roman soldiers to offer a sacrifice to the roman gods, George – as a Christian – refused and was decapitated, so becoming a martyr. His name ‘Georgios’ means ‘worker of the land’ in Greek, which suggests he was more a farmer than a fighter, but since his death his ghost reportedly pops up at battlefields, (eg Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099) to boost morale, so perhaps he was more bellicose than his name suggests.
St George’s popularity is a little surprising though because no-one knows what he did to deserve sainthood – not even the Pope. Pope Gelasius said that George was among the saints ‘whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God’.
The legend of St George slaying the dragon was brought back by the Crusaders and caught the imagination in the Romantic era. St George had featured in the iconography since the seventh century, but – suspiciously -the dragon did not appear until 300 years later. Hmmm. Its not the sort of detail that’s easily overlooked. Imagine talking about Game of Thrones’s Daenerys Targaryen without mentioning her dragons.
Despite all this cynicism, St George’s popularity soared. The image of him defeating the dragon is a striking one that pops up all over the world. We think of him as quintessentially English, but in fact many people have claims on him. He is venerated in many religions: the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, East Syrian and Miaphysite Churches revere him and he is even recognised in Islam. He is also patron saint or has specific significance for a number of countries: Georgia, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, Palestine, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Spain (well … former Aragon at least), Syria and the US. Even the Scouts ‘dib-dib-dub-dub’ to him, and their highest award is the St George’s Scout. On the medical front, Arabs believe that St George can restore sanity, and to say that someone has been sent to St George’s is equivalent to saying they have been sent to an asylum. St George is also the patron saint of those with skin diseases or syphilis. I refuse to speculate why.
In England St George became a candidate to be patron saint because he was honourably mentioned by Bede as a martyr. His lack of connection with anything English was a positive benefit – unlike his potential rival Thomas a Becket whose adoption would have promoted Canterbury. After a tussle for popularity with Edward the Confessor, St George finally became patron saint of England in 1552 during the Reformation. All other saints’ banners were banned, but St George’s cross has formed part of the Union flag from 1606.
Whatever the truth (or otherwise) of the legend of St George, on 23rd April – which is also supposed to be Shakespeare’s birthday and death day- to honour them both, I’ll fill a glass and in the words of Henry V, toast
‘The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’
Do join me.