ST GEORGE’S DAY

 

– when England celebrates a Middle Eastern chap who never came to England, has no connection with it, and who might have been a Pagan god…

In Christian lore, St George is the patron of soldiers and farmers, said to have been born either in Turkey, Syria or Palestine, and to have served in the Roman army before being martyred for refusing to spurn Christianity. Despite being the patron saint of England, there is no connection at all to Britain. He is first mentioned in the fifth century CE and the dragon slaying legend was added in the eleventh century and popularised in the late thirteenth century in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend.  The story goes that St George rode into Silene (modern day Libya) to free the city from a dragon, saving the daughter of a king of Asia Minor who was being sacrificed to it. After defeating the dragon he refused to kill it but asked the princess to wrap her girdle round the monster’s head and lead it through the town. He told the inhabitants he would dispatch it if they all converted to Christianity. The story is very similar to the Greek myth of Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea monster, and it is tempting to think the chronicler stole this to spice up George’s story. The Roman Catholic Church, finding no evidence of his actual existence, removed him from the official list of saints in 1969.

It is an interesting myth, however. George is also honoured throughout the Middle East, where his story is somewhat different.  Here, Jiriyas or Girgus as he is was known, was martyred under the rule of Diocletian, being killed three times but springing back to life each time. In the Iranian version he also resurrected the dead, made trees bud and pillars sprout flowers. After one of his deaths, the world was covered by darkness and was lifted only when he was resurrected. [1] Sometimes he is identified with al-Khidr, the ‘green one’ or ‘verdant one’, a prophet or angel who guards the sea and teaches secret knowledge.

George may well have originated in an ancient vegetation god. He is considered a patron saint of farmers with a feast day in the planting season of spring. George means ‘cultivator of the land’ or ‘ploughman’.  Jiryis Baqiya translates as ‘George, the resurrected one’. [2] The motifs of deaths and resurrections are repeated in the mythologies of gods and heroes such as Tammuz, Dionysus and Adonis, seasonal myths that represent the conflict of summer and winter (the dragon), and restore fertility to the land. [3]  In England the old mummer’s play featuring George’s battle with the Turkish knight is still performed at Christmas and in spring. There are many versions of the play, but in all of them, George is killed and returns to life.  It is possible to see him as a pre-Christian form of a fertility icon in the foliate head (Green Man) in Churches. [4]

The importance of George in Eastern European countries cannot be understated. The Russians say “George will bring spring” and “There is no spring without George”. Finnish proverbs of “St. George comes with his fish basket” alternate with others that indicate that he brings grasses. George is fertility. This is no more evident than in France where statues of St. George were carried through the cherry orchards of Anjou to ensure a good crop.

Eastern European lore also states that the earth of winter is poisonous and cannot be sat or walked upon before St. George’s Day. It is on St. George’s Day that the earth is reborn and is once again alive. [5] Folklorist James Frazer, in the Golden Bough,  recorded that “amongst the Slavs of Carinthia, on St. George’s Day…the young people deck with flowers and garlands a tree which has been felled on the eve of the festival. The tree is then carried in procession, accompanied with music and joyful acclamations, the chief figure in the procession being the Green George…”[6] Other rituals of St. George’s Day included the blessing of crops in the Ukraine where, after the blessing given by a priest, couples lay down in the fields and rolled several times over the newly sprouted shoots. [7]

©Anna Franklin, from the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Ritual Year, Llewellyn 2020

[1] The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Ed. C.E. Bosworth, E. Van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs & Ch. Pellat, Leiden, New York, 1993

[2] The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Ed. C.E. Bosworth, E. Van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs & Ch. Pellat, Leiden, New York, 1993

[3] Mackley, J. (2011) The Pagan Heritage of St George. Paper presented to: International Medieval Congress (IMC), University of Leeds, 11-14 July 2011.

[4] Mackley, J. (2011) The pagan heritage of St George. Paper presented to: International Medieval Congress (IMC), University of Leeds, 11-14 July 2011.

[5] Mall Hiiemäe, “Some Possible Origins of St. George’s Day Customs and Beliefs” in Folklore, Vol. 1, June 1996, published by the Institute of Estonian Languages, Tartu

[6] Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1993

[7] Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1993

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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