The Pagan Heritage of St George

The Pagan Heritage of St George

By J.S. Mackley

Paper presented to the International Medieval Congress (IMC), University of Leeds, 11-14 July 2011

Abstract: This paper considers the argument that St George is a vague saint who should not have achieved such an important status and his survival must be because his name has been attached to an older tradition. Thus the paper follows the roots of traditions associated with St George though the writings of religion and mythology, before tracing them down through English folklore to some surprising literary descendants.

Introduction: The name of St George is synonymous with all the virtues of Englishness – at least, when he’s mentioned in England, because he is also Patron saint of other countries and states including Ethiopia, Portugal, Malta and Georgia, as well as cities including Barcelona, Antioch and Istanbul. The Cross of St George still has the power to unite England, no matter how it has been misappropriated. In this paper, I want to look at the legend of St George and at possible pagan and pre-Christian sources for the legend, as well as some of the other literary descendants that may be associated with him.

The legend of St George and the Dragon, as it appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s, Golden Legend is a far cry from the fourth century martyrdom legend, for which St George was originally famous. In this version of the story, George, a Christian soldier from Cappadocia in Roman-occupied Palestine (present day Turkey), is persecuted by the Emperor Dardanius. He suffers terrible tortures and even three deaths but is resurrected. Shortly before his martyrdom, George converts the emperor’s wife, Alexandra, and she is also saved. This part of the story was tacked onto the conflict with the dragon in The Golden Legend. However, the acts of the noble knight became the embodiment of chivalry, and, with the support of Edward III, George fought off two Royal saints for national patronage, Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, as well as English saints who had performed duties and sacrifices, for example St Augustine, who had brought Christianity to England; St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne who was an important monastic leader; or, like St Alban, had been martyred on English soil.

Click here to read this article from the University of Northampton

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