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The Real Saint George

St George and the dragon (illustration by Vladislav Ardreyev)

by Jim Forest

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths.

The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. The word “martyr” is Greek for witness. A martyr is someone who dies for Christ and whose death bears witness to his faith.

What made George a saint especially loved and remembered by the Church was the completely fearless manner in which he openly proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.”

For this Saint George was arrested, cruelly tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303. His body was later brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda, and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

Persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but even of cities and whole countries.

In early icons, made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to his name, we see Saint George dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Perhaps George was in the army, but it may be that he is shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form, it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the defeated creature into the city.

According to the Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260 AD, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.

From the point of view of history, the story is apocryphal. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which terrified most of the people of his time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid.

The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he challenged evil. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.

In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.

Notice how thin the lance is and that in many Saint George icons there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.

Similarly, even in battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies.

In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens.

Following George’s victory, we are sometimes shown Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt or scarf — a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town in its new role of guardian provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.

Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought — courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us.

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This is an afterword written for Saint George and the Dragon, published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. See this page for details: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/04/04/saint-george-and-the-dragon/
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One Comment

  1. Garry Jost wrote:

    Hi Jim,
    Greetings and God’s blessing to you. We met in Portland, Oregon at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, after you gave a presentation there, sometime in the late 1990′s, I think. I was a Mennonite pastor at that time (no longer pastor, now in the Episcopalian Church). Somehow we got on the topic of St. George (my middle name is George) and you said the following, which stuck with me: “All peacemakers should have an icon of St. George. It represents overcoming fear.” I since purchased an icon of St. George slaying the dragon, while I was in Greece in 2000. Recently I’ve become involved in a project with Ethiopian biblical manuscripts, and since my wife and I are remodeling an attic area into an “Old Library” and I was looking for Ethiopian art, I came across St. George, which reminded me of our conversation many years ago. Thanks for the blessing of your comment regarding St. George and peacemaking many years ago.
    Garry Jost

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

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