Sunday, April 23, 2017

Justifying Georgemas

British Great War Recruiting Poster 

According to the Gregorian calendar, April 23rd is the Feast of St. George (or Georgemas).  The Orthodox also admire the attributes of St. George but follow the Julian calendar which marks the feast on May 6th.  St. George born in Syria Palestrinia in the late Third Century who served as an officer in the Roman army that guarded the Emporer Diocletian, but who was martyred for not renouncing his Christian faith.  The emperor tried to bribe George to renounce his faith and tortured him, but to no avail. Before he was decapitated, St. George gave all of his wealth to the poor.

St. George is one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic Church, among Anglicans, Orthodox, East Syrian churches. Even Muslims revere this honorable military man. In the Twelfth Century a legend was attached to St. George about slaying a dragon.  The standard Orthodox icon of St. George depicts him slaying a dragon with a woman in the background.

The dragon is generally understood as being both Satan and the monster from his own life (Diocletian). The woman in the background is Alexandra, the wife of Emperor Diocletian. Crusaders credit an appearance of St. George. This was probably legend which traveled back with the Crusaders from the Holy Land and was embellished in courtly Romance retellings.

Legend has it that a plague bearing dragon came down from the mountains and terrorized the countryside.  The dragon could not be appeased with ransom of livestock.  This  dragon would not stop his rampage unless the King tied a young maiden to an oak tree in the center of the village.

The King's nobles used a pigeon to decide what to do.  If the bird flew to the east then, they must take the King's own daughter Sabra and tie her to a tree, as the dragon demanded.  The pigeon flew off to the east. 

But as fate would have it, the pigeon managed  to attract the attention of a knight called  George and guided him back to the princess. Just as the dragon was about to devour the princess, the good knight clad in armor fortified himself with a sign of the cross and then brought the fight to the dragon.  George cunningly slowed down the dragon by driving a ball of pitch down his throat, and then speared the dragon with a grievous wound with his lance.

The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1857)

According to Eastern versions, the knight rode back to the city along with the princess and the dragon in tow.  As George approached the city, he promised to slay the dragon if the town would become baptized Christians.  Fifteen thousand men took to the baptismal waters and George slayed the dragon with his trusty sword Ascalon (recalling the city Ashkelon in Israel).  The king was so grateful that he bestowed nobility (some say Sainthood) to George and gave his daughter Sabra's hand in marriage and promised to build a church were the dragon was slain.

St. George is the patron saint of England yet it is not a public holiday in England. The reasons why celebration of Georgemas is muted are cultural, historical and now tinged with political correctness.

St. George was neither English nor roundly associated with England, even though King Edward III formed the Order of the Garder under the patronage of St. George in 1348.  The Reformation played a part as Protestants did not care much for saints' days. In addition, celebration of St. George's day has been in decline since the Act of Union between England in Scotland completed in 1707.  In today's world,  the Daily Telegraph reports that many English people are concerned that national symbols like St. George can be considered racists,

Aside from the fact that many pubs in England are named after George and the dragon, it makes one wonder why this legend matters. Modern man is quick to dismiss myths (unless it is anthropogenic global warming), but this is short sighted. Myths convey essential truths although the romantic story elements may not be exact.  For instance, the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree may have been apocryphal but it does "I can not tell a lie" does illustrate some of the virtues of Washington's transcription of "The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior", which molded the first President's life and were put into practice at the founding of the American Republic.

The reason that St. George matters so much to the English is that the legend reinforces characteristics which the English admire and seek to emulate.  St. George is a knight who exemplified chivalry. St. George and the dragon also champions the little guy as well as the triumph of good over evil.  The versions which depict him making the sign of the cross depict deep dedication to principles (if we dare not declare faith).  These romanticized virtues along with the more verifiable versions of his hagiography make St. George a man worthy (bank holiday or not) for Englishmen to emulate.

[This piece originally ran on DC-LausDeo.US]

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