Saint George and the Dragon
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Saint George and the Dragon by Gustave Moreau
The episode of Saint George and the Dragon appended to the hagiography of Saint George was Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance. The earliest known depictions of the motif are from tenth or eleventh century Cappadocia and eleventh century Georgia and Armenia; previously, in the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the seventh century. The earliest known surviving narrative of the dragon episode is an eleventh century Georgian text. The dragon motif was first combined with the already standardized Passio Georgii in Vincent of Beauvais' encyclopedic Speculum Historiale, and then Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (ca 1260) guaranteed its popularity in the later Middle Ages as a literary and pictorial subject. The legend gradually became part of the Christian traditions relating to Saint George and was used in many festivals thereafter.
According to the Golden Legend the narrative episode of Saint George and the Dragon took place in a place he called ''Silene,'' in Libya; the Golden Legend is the first to place this legend in Libya as a sufficiently exotic locale, where a dragon might be imagined. In the tenth century Georgian narrative, the place is the fictional city of Lasia, and it is the godless Emperor who is Selinus. The town had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it two sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery. It happened that the lot fell on the king's daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain. The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon's neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptised, he would slay the dragon before them. The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox carts. ''Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children.'' On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.
Traditionally, the sword with which St. George slew the dragon was called Ascalon, a name recalling the city of Ashkelon, Israel. From this tradition, the name Ascalon was used by Winston Churchill for his personal aircraft during World War II (records at Bletchley Park), since St. George is the Patron Saint of England.
Some historians consider the roots of this story to be older than Christianity itself. They note that the origin of the saint is said to be partly from Cappadocia in Asia Minor, and that Asia Minor was among the earliest regions to adopt the popular veneration of the saint. The region had long venerated other religious figures. These historians deem it likely that certain elements of their ancient worship could have passed to their Christian successors. Notable among these ancient deities was Sabazios, the Sky Father of the Phrygians and known as Sabazius to the Romans. This god was traditionally depicted riding on horseback.
The iconic image of St. George on horseback trampling the serpent dragon beneath him is considered to be similar to these pre-Christian representations of Sabazios. According to Christopher Booker it is more likely, however, that the ''George and the Dragon'' story is a medieval adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, evidence for which can be seen in the similarity of events and locale in both stories. In this connection, the Perseus and Andromeda myth was known throughout the Middle Ages from the influence of Ovid. In imagery, other Greek myths also played a role. ''Medieval artists used the Greco Roman image of Bellerophon and the Chimaera as the template for representations of Saint George and the Dragon.''
These myths in turn may derive from an earlier Hittite myth concerning the battle between the Storm God Tarhun and the dragon Illuyankas. Such stories also have counterparts in other Indo European mythologies: the slaying of the serpent Vritra by Indra in Vedic religion, the battle between Thor and Jšrmungandr in the Norse story of Ragnarok, the Greek account of the defeat of the Titan Typhon by Zeus. Parallels also exist outside of Indo European mythology, for example the Babylonian myths of Marduk slaying the dragon Tiamat. The book of Job 41:21 speaks of a creature whose ''breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.'' In Italy, Saint Mercurialis, first bishop of the city of Forl“, is also depicted slaying a dragon. Saint Julian of Le Mans, Saint Veran, Saint BienheurŽ, Saint Crescentinus, Saint Margaret of Antioch, Saint Clement of Metz, Saint Martha, Saint Quirinus of Malmedy, Saint Donatus of Arezzo, and Saint Leonard of Noblac were also venerated as dragon slayers.