An excerpt from Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith (Unbridled Books, 228 pp.) by Colin Dickey.
Much of the actual life of George is lost to history, if he was in fact a real person. He was, from the beginning, a fantastical saint, not one you could put much faith in—a common euphemism for such saints is that their deeds are “known only to God.” Even as early as the fifth century, skeptics had begun to cast doubt on his existence, including Pope Gelasius (492–496), who complained that George’s life appeared to have been written by a heretic designed as a “pretext for casual mockery” of the early church.
Gelasius had a point. Early accounts of George’s life were fanciful, straining all limits of credulity—particularly the story found in a document known as the Vienna Palimpsest, where the earliest account of George’s martyrdom can be found. A Roman captain like Sebastian, George was well liked by the Emperor Datanius but was forced, like all other Christians, to sacrifice to pagan gods to prove his loyalty to the emperor and to renounce his faith. When George was unable to do this, the emperor had him tortured in all manner of ways. According to the Palimpsest, George was forced to wear iron boots into which nails had been hammered, his head was beaten with a hammer, a red-hot helmet was placed on his head, more nails were pounded into his head, his skin was pierced with iron hooks, he had molten lead poured into his mouth, he was placed inside a bronze bull lined with nails and spun around, and then he was set on fire.
This was just the beginning. George was killed three separate times and resurrected three times by the Archangel Michael so he could undergo more torture. During this orgy of violence, George managed to raise some 460 people from the dead and convert them, miraculously producing water from the ground for their baptism. He turned the throne of the emperor into a fruit-bearing tree, cured a child of blindness, and resurrected an ox. The molten lead poured into his mouth did not stop him from summoning and directly engaging Apollo, whom he forced to confess that he was not a real god. When George was finally beheaded, a rain of fire consumed his tormentors, an earthquake terrified all who remained, and then milk and honey flowed from his corpse.
It’s easy to see why Gelasius and others were so quick to discount George. The absurdity of these tortures makes a mockery of martyrdom, substituting for a life-and-death moment a cavalcade of goofy violence so extreme yet disembodied that it feels like a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Of all the tortures recorded in the Vienna Palimpsest, though, the most fascinating is the one involving the bronze bull. Assuming, as Pope Gelasius certainly did, that most of the tortures listed in the Palimpsest are invented, this one in particular is a curiously literary touch since anyone who heard it would immediately have thought of an earlier pagan story that was well known throughout the Roman Empire. That story involves the king of Crete, Minos, who, along with his wife, Pasiphaë, was cursed by the gods (according to different sources, either he offended Poseidon with his hubris or she offended Venus by failing to make offerings). As punishment, Pasiphaë developed an unnatural lust for one of Minos’s bulls, and had the king’s mechanical genius, Daedalus, build a wooden cow covered in hide that she could fit inside. In this manner Pasiphaë had sex with a bull and ultimately bore a son—the half-human, half-bull Minotaur.
Pasiphaë, to Minos’s great shame, is the mother of a monster born of an unnatural desire. The Vienna Palimpsest recasts George the martyr as an echo of Pasiphaë, as though he, too, is on the verge of giving birth to something monstrous, something beyond the understanding of the human mind.
The cult of George is a study in the evolution of a belief across continents and across cultures. He was originally popular throughout the Middle East and had shrines and churches dedicated to him in Cairo, Antioch, Syria, Constantinople, and Lydda in Palestine (his supposed birthplace). His name means “worker of the land”; from his earliest days, he was a saint of agriculture, and he was largely unknown in Europe.
All this changed with the Crusades. In 1098, European Christians attempted to sack the city of Antioch, which had a shrine to George at its gates. According to the crusaders’ story, as they descended on the city, a vision appeared of three knights on white horses, carrying white banners—the saints George, Demetrius, and Mercurius, who led them to victory over the city’s Muslims.
George soon became a favorite saint of the crusaders, who claimed he helped them to spread Christendom in his native land by force. Accordingly they brought him back to Europe on their return and began to build shrines and churches for him throughout their homelands. But it was Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend that truly cemented his reputation: George’s story is one of the longest in the entire book, and it is the first appearance of the story of George and the dragon. In this version, George was a wandering knight who happened upon a town somewhere in the desert of Libya that was besieged by a dragon. The townspeople had been regularly offering sheep and human sacrifices to appease it when, by lottery, the king’s own daughter was chosen. George heard her cries and attacked the dragon, driving his lance into its side and commanding the young girl to throw her girdle around its neck. As the girdle landed on the dragon, the creature became instantly docile, and George and the princess were able to lead it back to town on a leash.
George, it should be said, was far from the only saint to deal with dragons. Saint Margaret of Antioch was swallowed by a dragon, so the story goes, but when she held up her cross in the belly of the beast, he disgorged her. Saints Matthew, Donatus, and Martha all also faced and defeated dragons. The dragon is a regular feature in these stories because it was a recognizable symbol of evil for many European audiences, and these encounters with dragons would have been largely read as symbolic. But what made George’s story particularly popular was the fact that he was a knight. Jacobus was writing during the burgeoning age of chivalry, when the concept of the heroic knight was appearing in popular romances, particularly in France and England. Jacobus’s version of George appropriated those secular stories, subordinating the chivalric knight and courtly love to a grander Christian narrative.
Rereading the story recently, I was struck by a scene that seems inexplicably cruel: Having tamed the dragon so that it is no longer a threat, George offers to decapitate it if all the townspeople adopt his religion. After some twenty thousand pagans convert to Christianity, he indeed beheads the dragon. The monster, we’re to believe, is no longer dangerous, and so its death is offered as part of a distasteful bargain: Pledge your soul to my religion, and I’ll satisfy your bloodlust and your need for revenge. George was fast becoming a violent saint. Of course you could argue that any military saint, including Barbara, dealt in violence, but Barbara you called on to keep you from harm. George was the saint you took to war.
England’s Edward I took George along when he invaded Wales in 1277. He adopted George as his patron for two reasons: first because he was eager to justify his conquest as a holy crusade. Second, and even more to the point, Wales had long adopted the dragon as its own symbol, and Edward’s invocation of George helped to transform an image of strength into a symbol of evil. Edward prevailed as George had over the dragon, bringing English law to Wales, which was soon incorporated into what became Great Britain. In the process, the English sought to bring homogeneity to their island, erasing any cultural, linguistic, or national differences. The warrior-saint, George, now a national symbol, became inherently bound up in national conquest, in colonization.
Later kings Edward III and Henry V also invoked George as their protector, and the relative success of these three monarchs helped to establish the saint’s iconic status as the patron of England. When the fiercely anti-Catholic Edmund Spenser wrote his epic in honor of Queen Elizabeth, The Faerie Queene, he began with George—though he could not, of course, call him that. Instead, George is stripped of his Catholicism and rechristened “the Redcrosse Knight” (after George’s famous red cross on a white background, which became England’s flag). Spenser’s hatred of Catholicism went beyond matters of doctrine: Like many Anglicans, he despised the proliferation of “idolatrous” artwork and decoration in the Catholic Church, and so the Redcrosse Knight’s supreme antagonist is named Arch-Imago, the “Great Image.” Spenser was equally suspicious of the writings of the Catholic fathers, which is why the first beast Redcrosse slays, Error, vomits “bookes and papers” along with “loathly frogs and toades.” By Spenser’s reckoning, a disguised George now wages war against Jerome and Gregory the Great, as Elizabeth was engaged in purging England of Catholics.
It may seem odd that in critiquing the Catholic Church, Spenser used as his champion one of its most famous saints, but the warrior-knight has always had shifting allegiances. The obscurity of his origins have given him a fluidity to be whatever he is needed to be: Now he gives birth to monsters, now he fights against them, now for Catholicism and now against it. It seems as if the sword of George, a holy mercenary, is always for hire.
As a saint without fixed loyalty, George is free to represent all things to all people. The crusaders may have taken him with them back to Europe, but of course he also remained a presence in the Middle East. As a result, George’s legend evolved in two different strands. In England, he’s become the crusader knight, the slayer of dragons; in the Middle East, he is still the agricultural patron who brings good crops and healthy livestock and is particularly helpful in matters of fertility.
English Protestants like Spenser were perfectly comfortable calling on George as their patron, but then, so were members of other religions. That is, as the Middle East continued to evolve over the centuries, Islam gradually displacing Christianity, George didn’t disappear; he instead became one of those exceedingly rare figures: an interfaith saint. Muslims came to know him as Khidr, “the Green One,” affording him the same respect as did the remaining Christians, and now in the Middle East, both Muslims and Christians come to pray at his shrine.
In the town of Beit Jala, outside Bethlehem, is a chapel devoted to George, a shrine that has long been used as a makeshift insane asylum. According J. E. Hannauer’s Folklore of the Holy Land: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, published in 1907, George’s shrine is described as a “sort of madhouse. Deranged persons of all three faiths are taken thither and chained in the court of the chapel, where they are kept for forty days on bread and water, the Greek priest at the head of the establishment now and then reading the Gospel over them, or administering a whipping as the case demands.” Although this practice has been discontinued in the hundred years since, one can still speak of someone going mad as “going to St. George’s.”
When William Dalrymple visited George’s shrine in the 1990s, the Greek Orthodox priest who ran the shrine complained of hundreds of Muslim pilgrims, “all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down … bottoms in the air, prayer mats on the floor: yes—in an Orthodox church!” They brought prayer mats adorned with images of Mecca to show their devotion to George-Khidr and told Dalrymple of miraculous sightings of him on his white horse, performing miracles for the faithful and unconcerned by which faith they might represent.
It is odd that a saint who is so strongly associated with nationalism and conquest, with the obliteration of monsters and of other cultures, should also be a symbol of heterogeneity and contradiction, his shrine a place where devout Muslims leave tokens of gratitude for Greek Orthodox priests. One is left wondering if George, for all his chivalric virtue, is himself a monster of conflicting ideas and beliefs—as if the dragon he’s fighting is also himself.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. His work has also appeared in Cabinet, TriQuarterly, LA Review of Books, and he is a regular contributor to Lapham’s Quarterly. He is the co-editor (with Nicole Antebi & Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices. He lives in California.