Dragons and Dungeons

04 23 gustave moreau st george and the dragonToday I should probably tell you about our national patron saint, as it’s Saint George’s Day. Probably everyone who knows anything about Saint George knows about how he killed a dragon and rescued a princess. Even if you don’t know it about Saint George, you’ve probably heard some version of the story involving someone else, because there are loads of them. As well as dragon slaying saints, you will find them in Greek myths, in Norse legend, pretty much everywhere.

The story of Saint George and the Dragon was brought back from the Middle East by twelfth century crusaders. According to the Golden Legend, which is a sort of encyclopaedia of saints that was a medieval bestseller, George killed his dragon in Libya. The dragon, or possibly crocodile, was a plague-bearing creature that had made its nest at a spring that provided water for the city of Silene (possibly Cyrene). The people of the city were trying to placate the dragon by feeding it sheep, but when they ran out of livestock, they began to send it their children. The victims were chosen by lottery, and this seems to have become a problem only when the King’s daughter’s name was picked out. In this version, George only wounded the dragon and then asked the princess for her girdle. He put it around the neck of the dragon, it was immediately tamed and they led it back to the city. Everyone was terrified, but George said he would only kill the beast if they all became Christians. Which, of course, they did. To me, this sounds a bit like George forcing people to change their religion by threatening them with a plague-ridden dragon.

In a later version of the story, George is able to shelter, at intervals, during his battle with the dragon, beneath the branches of an enchanted orange tree. It seems enchanted orange trees are very effective against dragon poison. I’d love to have found a picture to show you of Saint George hiding under an orange tree, but it seems there isn’t one.

What I did find though, was the story of his martyrdom. Christians were horribly persecuted in the early days and many died for their beliefs. This was all supposed to be fine though, as it meant they would go straight to heaven. So they loved a good martyrdom story. What happened to George is a particularly spectacular example.

04 23 matyrdom of saint georgeHe was challenged in his Christian beliefs by a king of Persia named Dacian who thought that Apollo was a better god. I haven’t been able to find any king of Persia named Dacian, probably they mean the Emperor Diocletian, who looms large in a lot of tales of early Christian martyrdoms. First, George was stretched on a rack and torn with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that pulled him apart, beaten and had salt rubbed into his wounds with a hair cloth. Then they pressed him into a box that they had hammered nails into, stuck stakes into him, plunged him into boiling water and crushed his head with a hammer. None of that was enough to kill him though. After that he was thrown in a dungeon where God comforted him and told him that he would die three deaths before entering Paradise. Though quite how this was supposed to be comforting, I’m not sure. Next, Dacian had his magician prepare a poison. George drank two cups of it and was fine. The magician was so impressed that he instantly converted to Christianity and was executed for it.

The next day George was lacerated on a wheel of swords, cut into ten pieces and thrown into a well, that then had a stone rolled over the top. But that was still not the end for poor Saint George. God turned up with the Archangel Michael and resurrected him. This caused the officer in charge of the situation to convert to Christianity along with around 1,100 soldiers and one woman. They were all immediately executed.

Now Dacian was really mad. George was tied up and had molten lead poured in his eyes and mouth, sixty nails driven into his skull, hung upside down over a fire with a stone tied around his neck, and then shut into the revolving belly of a metal ox which was filled with swords and nails. Then he was sawn in two and boiled to bits. But God resurrected him a second time.

After having red hot helmet put on his head, and a bit more tearing and burning, George pretended to give up. The king was so pleased that he invited George to stay in the palace. But sneaky old George used the opportunity to convert Dacian’s wife. So, of course, he had to kill her too. During this diversion, he visited the temple of Apollo, whose statue then walked out admitting its fraudulence. George stamped his foot and the ground opened to swallow the false god. At last, after a martyrdom that, we are told, lasted for seven years, the saint was beheaded for the last time and ascended to Heaven.

Poor George. Luckily, he’s been rewarded with more than just the title of Patron Saint of England. He’s the saint of loads of things. Everything form saddle makers to syphilis. He is also Patron Saint of Syria. There are too many others for me to list here, but you can find out about them from this man.

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