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St George

The strange and unlikely history of St George

Icon of Saint George, from a 14th century Constantinople | Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys), CC BY-SA 3.0

Treasure hunters Carl Cookson and Hamilton White, stars of Lost Relics of the Templar Knights, have many marvels in their hoard of medieval artefacts. One of the most remarkable is an ornate, wrought-iron box, thought to have been designed for Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator. The box is emblazoned with dragons, as well as a depiction of St George – a fascinating reminder of the importance of this legendary figure to medieval culture.

Even more fascinating is the fact that the patron saint of England is thought to have been born in Turkey, to a Palestinian mother. Not only that, but his myth is also intimately connected with enigmatic spiritual traditions within Islam and the cults of ancient Mesopotamia. A fact that’s worth thinking about whenever St George’s Day rolls around.

St George: the man

The details of St George’s life are almost completely lost in time. According to what remains of early texts, he was born in Cappadocia, an area that’s part of modern-day Turkey, in the late 3rd Century. After the death of his father, the teenage George was taken by his mother back to her native Palestine. Some time after this, George enlisted in the Roman army, but his Christian faith made him a target during a massive persecution of Christians carried out in 303 AD.

Refusing to give up his religion, he was executed by decapitation on 23 April of that year. According to one rather far-fetched variation on the story, he didn’t enjoy a quick death, but was in fact subjected to gruelling tortures over seven long years – including being stretched on a rack, thrown into boiling water, hung over a fire and beaten by a hammer, among other elaborate horrors.

The veneration of St George spread far and wide after his death, and by 494 AD he was being hailed by Pope Gelasius I as one of the saints 'whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.' Given how little we know for certain about George, His Holiness was right on the money. But the true importance of St George, both to English and other cultures, lies in the fantastical legend rather than the details of the historical human being himself…

St George: The myth

As well as being venerated by Christian worshippers and pilgrims, St George’s status as a warrior saint made him an inspirational figure for the Crusaders. Christian soldiers allegedly saw a vision of St George when taking on the Turks at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. The famous tale of St George and the Dragon emerged in the same century, and eventually became enshrined in the world’s wider consciousness thanks to a collection of 13th Century writings called the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Varagine, Archbishop of Genoa.

The tale depicts St George as a wandering knight who, travelling in Libya, comes across a town being terrorised by a dragon. To satisfy the dragon’s cravings, the townsfolk offer their own citizens as sacrifices. Luckily, St George saves the day by first taming and then slaughtering the dragon, asking that the citizens convert to Christianity by way of thanks.

This story, although now synonymous with St George, was based upon long-standing good vs evil archetypes. As the eminent historian EA Wallis Budge explained as far back as 1888, 'I doubt much of the whole story of Saint George is anything more than one of the many versions of the old-world story of the conflict between Light and Darkness, or Ra and Apepi, and Marduk and Tiamat.'

In actual fact, it was another saint, Theodore Tiro, who was first associated with a dragon-slaying legend before the theme was transferred to the St George legend. Scholars have pointed out other ways in which the out-sized figure of St George encapsulates a sprawling set of influences. One of the most interesting is the story of Al-Khidr, a wise and immortal Islamic figure.

As recounted in the Quran, an unnamed figure – later identified by Islamic scholars as Al-Khidr – was accompanied by Moses on a journey during which Al-Khidr committed a series of seemingly inexplicable deeds. Moses questioned these deeds, and was given a lesson in the importance of patience and faith in the wisdom of God. The figure of Al-Khidr is venerated as a prophet, messenger, archetypal wise man and dragon slayer in various cultural traditions, and in Turkey and Syria he has been merged with the figure of St George.

The ancient Mesopotamian god known as Tammuz, or Dumuzid, is another figure which has been connected with St George. The death and resurrection theme in the legend of Tammuz has been likened with the torture, death and repeated resurrections of George recounted in more outlandish versions of the saint’s story. Is it possible that Al-Khid, the mystical Sufi teacher, Tammuz, the Mesopotamian god and St George, the Christian patron saint represent three different versions of the same myth in different mythological guises?

It's something to ponder when you raise a glass to England’s patron saint on St George’s Day…