BY GEORGE! THE MAN OF MYTHTERY.
Happy St George’s day! George was a legend. Here’s why…
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a dragon (or – perhaps a crocodile) nested at the site of the city’s water spring. Every day locals would tempt the dragon from the spring by luring it with a juicy sheep so that the could collect water. If no sheep could be found, they substituted a maiden, who was chosen by lottery. Suddenly ‘it could be you’ seems a little chilling.
One day the princess herself was chosen as the dragon’s titbit and the king was desperate. Nevertheless, she was offered to the dragon but luckily George just happened to be passing by (doubtless wearing armour that was shining) and spotted the damsel in her distress. He fought the beast, defending himself with the sign of the cross. The dragon was slain. The girl was saved. Evil was defeated. The city converted to Christianity. George was a hero.
No doubt, dear reader, you immediately spotted the parallels with the greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. Its all a bit fishy. Also, swapping a woman for a sheep as a food substitute is worse than the most bizarre Ocado substitutes. Surely all the city needed was a decent plumbing system and a sheep breeding programme – not a lottery.
In all probability George was actually a roman soldier born in about 275AD in Lydda, Syria Palaestina. It was said that when the Emperor required all roman soldiers to offer a sacrifice to the gods, Geroge – as a Christian – refused. He lost his head – literally: the punishment was decapitation. His name ‘Georgios’ means ‘worker of the land’ in greek, so perhaps he was more a farmer than a fighter, but his ghost is reported to pop up at battlefields (eg Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099) to boosr morale.
Its a bit surprising that George is so popular because no-one really 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.’ Hmm.
The legend of St George slaying the dragon was brought back by the crusaders and caught the imagination in the Romantic era. Images of St George are common from the seventh century – but the dragon did not appear until 300 years later. Its not the sort of detail that is easily overlooked. Imagine mentioning Daenarys Targaryen without mentioning her dragons.
OK, I’m a little cynical, but George is a hit. The image of him slaying a dragon pops up all over the world. We think of him as quintessentially English but he is venerated in many religions (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Islam) and patron saint of many countries (Georgia, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, Ethopia, Germany, India, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, Palestine, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Syria and the USA. Even Scouts dib-dib-dub-dub to him. Their highest award is the St George’s Scout. He is medically gifted: Arabs believed he could restore sanity so that ‘sending someone to St George’ meant they had been carted off to an asylum. He also supposed to be rather good at curing skin diseases and syphilis. I refuse to speculate why.
In England he was mentioned by Bede as a martyr and so became candidate for patron saint. His total lack of association with anything English was a positive benefit: his potential rival Thomas a Becket would have over-promoted Canterbury, and people had views about Edward the Confessor. George was a clean sheet so he finally became patron saint in 1552 during the Reformation. All other saints were banned. St George’s cross has been part of the Union flag since 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!’
Stay safe and Sparkling.