By George!

 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Saint George’s Day. Most of you might know him as the patron saint of England, or as the proverbial dragon slayer par excellence, but there are some aspects of this saint that might still surprise you. To celebrate, then, I thought I’d bring you five fun facts about this most iconic of saints:

St George Fresco

A medieval fresco of St George from Cyprus, looking quite dashing.

1. He died three times. Yes, that’s right! According to his earliest passion narrative (which has largely come to us in Ethiopian manuscripts) St George was martyred two times and ressurrected before he died for the final time. It is perhaps because of these and other fanciful details that his story was dismissed as largely fictitious even before the Middle Ages began, although his status as a saint was never in doubt.

2. His sanctuary appears on one of the earliest Christian maps. This is the ‘Madaba Map,’ a mosaic depicting many Christian sites in the Holy Land, including Jerusalem. St George’s sanctuary, at Lydda, was one of the religious landmarks of medieval Palestine often visited by Christian pilgrims.

3. He fought in the First Crusade. According to the anonymous account of one of the Crusaders, St George appeared alongside St Demetrius and St Mercurius to defend Antioch. These saints brought with them a host of martyrs on white horses, who helped decide the battle in the Crusaders’ favour. The account is problematic for historians today, who are usually uncomfortable with mass miracles, but its a stirling example of the Christian warrior-saint archetype in action.

4. He is recognised as a saint in Islam. In Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, where the cult of St George began, incoming Turks often adopted local Christian custom, including the veneration of certain saints. George, a holy warrior, made an easy cross-over to Islam, and illustrates the intense cultural exchange between Christianity and Islam in this period in Anatolia.

5. He didn’t kill a dragon. I know, I know, this takes all the fun out of St George, but there is no indication in the first centuries of St George’s cult that he was known as a dragon-slayer. Instead, he was simply a Roman soldier who refused pagan forms of worship and suffered martyrdom. Because of this, he often appears on horseback with a lance, but with no dragon.



6 thoughts on “By George!

  1. Great post! St George must be one of the most versatile saints around. I knew he was patron saint of England, Catalonia and a bunch of other places, but until I moved to Brazil, I had no idea about the way he’s equated with an African warrior (Ogun) in the syncretic candomblé tradition there. Plus I heard a really interesting comparison between him and Bellerophon on a BBC programme. A pretty busy guy!

    • He’s very definitely my favourite saint! I had no idea about his history in Brazil, but I’m not surprised. He seems to be very flexibly identified with all kinds of figures, presumably because he captures something very archetypical. I haven’t heard about a George-Bellerophon comparison, but I know he is compared to Soloman, who appears on late Roman amulets, as well as Mithra. Sadly, it’s been quite a while since anyone tried to write a comprehensive history of George (the last one I know of is 1912, I think…)

  2. Nice piece, very entertaining🙂 I often feel if this is the way (through entertaining stories) that we had been taught history at school, I wouldn’t have found it boring in my childhood, and would perhaps know much more of our history today.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I agree that the worst thing to do to history is to make it boring! Often, I think that the history that we learn in school is all about what we ‘should’ know, as citizens, exam-takers, etc. I think it’s easier to learn, though, when history is more about creating contact and understanding with the past, rather than simply learning facts (which can only teach you so much, in the end.)

      • Exactly! Whatever I read about Indian history back in school I had nearly forgotten, because the emphasis was on learning the facts and dates, so tedious! Now when I am seeing the historical places first hand and reading up stories about them, I know them through and through!

      • I think it helps that India has some very spectacular historical sites! Where I am from, in the western USA, there are very few old things, and it’s harder to get excited about such recent history for me😦 Oh well, that just means I have a motivation for travel!

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