Friday, 23 April 2010

Who is Saint George?

On Saint George's Day it is appropriate to give some attention to England's patron saint and his significance. Who is he?

This question is posed and answered in a chapter with that title in a little book called Where is Saint George? Pagan imagery in English Folksong, by R.J. 'Bob' Stewart, published by Moonraker Press in 1977. (Available here.)

George was a popular medieval military saint, his insignia being associated with the attire of the Crusaders. He remains popular in Eastern Europe. In 1222 his day was made a national holiday in England. I don't know when this custom lapsed, but here is a website dedicated to reviving it. He appears to have replaced Edward the Confessor in this position in 1220, and this was reiterated in 1395.

Stewart delves beneath the Christian appearance to reveal the saint's pagan origins. He was popular partly because of this re-minting of a pagan deity. Stewart points out that 'the earthly Saint George is remarkably similar to the heavenly Archangel Michael, who is also shown as controlling or slaying a serpent or dragon, but is acknowledged as a metaphysical power, and never forced into physical reality. The British Saint George is a divine hero; he combines several aspects of Heroism, and represents the roots of various cultures, myths and gods. His invincibility in arms, his heroic rescue of a princess, and his dragon-killing are the formal functions he carries out.' ... 'The miraculous powers ascribed to Saint George are simply those of the Divine King or Hero who crosses the Abyss after ritual death, and is expected to guide his people from the Other-world. The particular emphasis given to George during the Crusades shows him to be a lively regeneration of a national power figure, a solar and victorious being.' He points out that the Eastern St. George was an offshoot of St. Mena, who had taken over the function of Horus, the divine child who triumphed over Set. It also echoed Perseus' saving of a princess from a monster.

Stewart also links St. George to folk customs and fertility rites of early May, shown in mummers plays and the Padstow May Song. Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 St. George's Day was 4th May - the final day of the May ceremonies. May 8th is St. Michael's Day, and Michael is the Christian version of the Celtic solar deity Belinus - whose festival was Beltaine, May 1st which marked the transition from the winter to the summer half of the year. 'As Bel fought and conquered Tiamat, so did Saint George fight and conquer the dragon. As Beli slew his brother Bran, in the cultural myth, so does Saint George in mummer's plays slay the Turkisk Knight. This transfers the cultural battle from one era to another, but does not alter the metaphysical symbolism, the root appeal which keeps the myth alive.'

He also suggests a link to Ogmios, the Celtic Hercules, of sun-like countenance and spell-binding oratory. Furthermore, 'As a fertility power, George is known as Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green-man, or Green George. He returns to leaf and life anfter the triumph of winter, and the attempt to merge him with the Eastern Christian Saint George has merely helped to perpetuate his rites.'

It goes deeper, to the Order of the Garter and the Holy Grail and the cyclical alterations of life. '...The 'Arthur' statement of it is derived from the native hero-cult of Bran while the 'Garter' version is derived from the cult of Beli. Possibly Beli's solar history merged more easily with Christianity than the older Underworld pattern of Bran. ... The polar alteration of dominance is shown in folksong by the ancient themes usually symbolised as characters. These are not merely the remains of outdated cults, but expressions of shifts of polarity that rule human life.'

1 comment:

  1. Saw your post on JMG's blog... right on the money. But he does not suffer challenges gladly. Sorry posting here, I could not find your email address anywhere.

    The problem of power... there it is, in your comment. Few wish to think about it...