Wednesday, 23 April 2008

St George - the man and the myths

Today English people everywhere will be celebrating St George's Day and feeling a little national pride as they honour the patron saint of England.

But why am I, a pagan and a witch, talking about a saint? St George is not only a Christian icon but in real life was famous for championing Christianity against pagan Rome and in folklore was famous for slaying a dragon - not only a symbol of paganism but also an endangered species.

I guess I am a romantic at heart, with a soft spot for a tale of chivalry. I can't resist the image of a knight in shining armour rescuing a damsel in distress from some loathsome beast, whether that story has any basis in truth or not.

The real St George was from Cappadocia in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. His family were Greek Christians, which is why he has a Christan name. For most of his life he lived in Palestine and he never set foot in England.

He was chosen as patron saint of England around 1348, during the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377), because of his bravery in protesting against Rome 's persecution of Christians, prior to that our country's patron saint was St Edmund.

The red and white cross was adopted as England's symbol by Richard Lionheart, who is said to have dreamt of St George with a red cross banner during the Crusades.

We share St George with quite a few other countries. He is also the patron saint of Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Palestine, Portugal, Russia and Serbia.

The legend of St George slaying a dragon has no specific date. The earliest known depiction of it dates from early 11th century. According to legend, St George, a roman soldier, slew a dragon,using a sword named Ascalon, near Silena, in Libya.

Now that I know all these facts, should I stop celebrating England's national day? Should I scoff at us honouring a man who probably never even thought about England in his entire life?

No. Mythology and truth are often very different things. Myths have strength and value in what they symbolise to us. If a tale of a knight bravely facing a hideous beast and rescuing something precious from the maws of destruction makes us feel better about facing our own fears, that is what is important.

And that is why I will be celebrating St George's Day.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The legend of St George is loosely based on the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer from Norse and Saxon legends.

badwitch said...

Thanks for pointing that out - I can see the similarity.

David Harbud said...

A Russian told me a different take. In the Orthodox tradition, the Dragon doesn't die but just keeps growing new heads. The Saint's struggle against evil lasts as long as the World

Yewtree said...

In the Golden Legend version of the story, told by Jacques de Voragine, the princess tames the dragon after St George has threatened it with his spear by putting her golden girdle round its neck.

I think the Western dragon stories ultimately derive from the slaying of Tiamat, the primordial ocean-serpent-mother, by Marduk.