Beyond Here, There Be Dragons

Such is the nature of evil―it finds its fullest flower amongst those who don’t believe it exists.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), “St. George and the Dragon”, c. 1889
Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), “St. George and the Dragon”, c. 1889 (photo: Public Domain)

One would be hard-pressed to find a saint I'm not enamored by.

Every single blessed one of them has got a great story attached to him or her.

And when I think I've read the best hagiography ever written, I find yet another one better than the last.

And that, children, brings us to St. George.

What a great saint! His story even has a dragon in it! What more do you want other than possibly a saint with a rocket ship?

(And I've no doubt we'll have one of those pretty soon as well.)

St. George was a 4th century martyr from Lydda, also known as Diospolis, in Palestine.

That's just about it for cold, hard facts in the light of reason, but where's the fun in that?

Most historians and theologians will happily admit St. George actually existed and that he was indeed a great martyr but none are excited about committing themselves to any further details. Thus, St. George is long on faith but short on facts.

But, just in case the whole dragon-slayer story turns some postmodern Catholics off, making them prefer to toss St. George out onto the mythological trash heap of history, I'm quick to remind everyone that three other saints were also dragon-slayers and they are all absolutely historical personages―fabulous Christian dragon-slayer St. Theodore of the Bithynian Heraclaea, St. Agapetus of Synnada and St. Arsacius.

In the defense of the naysayers, the whole "slayer-of-dragons-gig" was included in St. George's hagiography only in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. James de Voragine's Golden Legend (Historia Lombardic) describes it in vivid, bloody detail.

Admittedly, the dragon might have been a metaphor or allegory for Diocletian or Dadianus, who are both referred to as "dragons" by their adoring contemporaneous fans. Interestingly, the name "Dracula" of Transylvania fame, means "dragon" referring to his ferocity on the battlefield.

Some have sometimes suggested that the dragon story predated St. George and was derived from some pagan myth. This is doubtful, according to historian Reinbot von Durne.

It is also nearly universally understood among scholars that St. George is not a repackaged Perseus. (The Legend of Perseus, iii, 38)

In the East, St. George has from the ancient beginnings of Christianity been held in the highest esteem as the greatest of martyrs.

St. George (AD 275–281 to April 23, 303), was a Roman soldier of Greek origin and an officer in the Guard of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The latter ordered his death for failing to recant his Christian faith. As a Christian martyr, he later became one of the most venerated saints in Christianity. In fact, he is among the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

He's the most prominent of the military saints.

George was born to a Greek Christian noble family in Lydda, Syria Palaestina, during the late third century. He died in Nicomedia in Anatolia. His father, Gerontius, was from Cappadocia, a Roman officer and well-known to Emperor Diocletian. George's mother, Polychronia, was a native of Lydda. Both were Christians from noble families of the Anici.

George lost his father when he was 14. His mother brought him to Syria where she died a few years later. George set out to offer his fighting skills to Emperor Diocletian. En route to Nicomedia, he had a run-in with a great and terrible dragon which ravaged the country around Selena, a city of Libya making its nest in a marshy swamp. Its breath caused pestilence throughout the town.

To appease this vile monster, the townsfolk gave it two sheep every day. The dragon, unsatisfied with mutton, insisted upon a human sacrifice. Lots were drawn and, just as luck would have it, the king's youngest daughter was selected. The king offered all his wealth to procure a substitute, but the people weren't stupid enough to take him on it. Money meant nothing if you were dead. (NB: the king didn’t offer himself in place of his daughter.)

The princess, dressed as a bride, was led to the marsh whereupon brave St. George happened upon her. He asked as to why she was lost, alone in the swamp but she bade him to leave her alone so her city would safe from this fearsome monster for an additional week.

The valiant knight, not taking the princess at her word, chose to hang around in the hope he could be helpful. At the sight of the dragon, St. George made the sign of the cross, bravely attacked it and transfixed it with Ascalon, his lance. The name is derived from the Levantine city of Ashkelon, in modern-day Israel. (Winston Churchill named his personal aircraft during the war after St. George's lance.)

Once the dragon was subdued, St. George asked the princess for her girdle, which is apparently not the same thing our mothers use to wear. St. George bound the creature's mouth shut with it and, having done so, the princess was able to lead it about like a lamb.

The three of them made their way back to Selena where St. George bade the people to have no fear but only be baptized. Upon doing so, he liberated the dragon's head from its evil shoulders and the good townfolk were both free and baptized.

The king offered George half his kingdom, but the saint replied that he must ride onward to save yet other maidens. He bade the good king to take good care of God's churches, honor the clergy and have pity on the poor.

At seventeen, George proceeded to Nicomedia and presented himself to Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian warmly welcomed George as his father, Gerontius, had previously served him. By his late twenties, George was promoted to the rank of military tribune (i.e., Tribunus) and stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia.

On February 24, 303, Diocletian, urged on by Caesar Galerius, desiring to purge his military of dreadful Christians, announced that every Christian the army passed would be arrested and every pagan soldier must offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods.

George immediately refused which angered Diocletian greatly. However, as the Emperor highly prized his previous friendship with Gerontius, George's father, he chose to be tactful.

In an effort to save George, Diocletian strove to convert him to believe in the Roman gods. He offered him money, estates and slaves in exchange for a tiny bit of incense offered to the pagan gods. George, however, refused.

Without other recourse and hoping to make an example of George, Diocletian ordered the saint's death. George, rejoicing at his soon-to-be martyrdom, gave his money and property to the poor. He was tortured three times giving him several brief respites in the hope he would fall in love with worthless pagan gods that neither speak or hear. (Deuteronomy 4:28) This only made the Emperor angrier. George refused abandon God.

On April 23, 303 AD, George was decapitated before Nicomedia's outer wall. His body was sent to Lydda for burial. Local Christians honored George as a martyr.

Two pagans witnessed St. George's martyrdom―Empress Alexandra of Rome and Athanasius, a pagan priest―and both were converted and joined him in martyrdom. St. George's body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honor him as a martyr.

St. George stands out among other saints and legends because he is known and revered by both Moslems and Christians.

Although the Diocletianic Persecution of AD 303 which often targeted Christian soldiers, is historically indisputable, the rest of the details of George's martyrdom aren’t as verifiable.

Herbert Thurston, the scholar who prepared the Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. George, clearly states that there are no grounds for doubting the historical existence of St. George, however, that, as usual with saints of this early period, the legends surrounding his veneration cannot be treated as historical.

However, when Pope Gelasius I canonized St. George in AD 494, he stated that he was among those saints "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God."

But his death wasn't the end of good St. George. He appeared as needed in several battles including during the Battle of Didgori to support the Georgian victory over the Seljuq army and the Georgian uprising against Persian rule. He showed up once again along with St. Paul and St. Agata in a battle between the Maltese and the Moors, St. George was alleged to have been seen with, protecting the Maltese. Nuno Álvares Pereira attributed the victory of the Portuguese in the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 to St. George.

The Catalans have a deep reverence for this soldier-saint. On his feast day, women receive roses (and often books). Men are given books (and sometimes roses.)

Interestingly, Moslems will often visit an Eastern Orthodox shrine dedicated to St. George at Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, as they revere him, after a fashion. Jews hold the site in reverence because they believe the prophet Elijah is buried there.

The red St. George cross can readily be seen on the British Union Jack―which incorporates three superimposed saint-based crosses―Sts. Andrew, David and George. The later is the Patron Saint of England.

There are folks who insist that dragons don’t exist. This is perhaps because St. George killed the last one. Either way, we have more than sufficient number of ferocious people who would, had they had the opportunity, destroyed the Catholic Church and all of its Faithful. It's odd to think that some people refuse to believe evil exists even as they snuggle up with it and cheer it on. Such is the nature of evil―it finds its fullest flower amongst those who don’t believe it exists.