On the same day in April, white banners with red crosses fly from English churches, a splendidly attired Greek Orthodox bishop in Beirut celebrates a special four-hour mass, a Syrian monastery embraces thousands of pilgrims, and ailing Egyptians wait for miraculous cures in a small Nile Delta village.
The day? St. George's Day, of course, April 23.
Yet to imagine that the average Englishman will know the date of his own patron saint is actually far from a matter of course. St. George probably evokes little more to him than some knight on horseback spearing a scaly, cavern-jawed dragon.
On the other hand, to the Copts, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Maronites and some Muslims of the Middle East, George is a very real and active saint. His miracles of olden times are matched only by those he performs today. His ancient gilded icons dotting St. George's Orthodox Cathedral in old Beirut are kissed and prayed to all hours of the day. The measure of his help glows in hundreds of candles and gold ornaments donated by grateful worshippers.
Tributes to George, in fact, rise not only from all corners of the earth, but also from the moon. Last August, American astronauts named a deep crater after Saint George. (Although some hint that it was less in honor of George than the Jules Verne explorers who, in "From the Earth to the Moon," toasted their arrival with a wine called Nuits-St-George.)
Yet even for his most devout followers, St. George remains something of a mystery, just as he has done to theologians down the centuries.
Exactly who he was, when and where he lived, why the dragon came into his life and how George arrived in England to become patron saint has had the experts theorizing for centuries.
In fact, such is the doubt over St. George's life, death and subsequent cult that the present Pope Paul VI decided that St. George may have been presuming a little above his station. His Holiness subsequently demoted George a notch to the ranks of the second-class saints. This created something of an outcry in Orthodox Greece, and one old Greek Orthodox gentleman in Beirut said disgustedly, "The Pope just does not know about our eastern saints. He is only bothered with those of Europe."
Orthodox Bishop George in Beirut agrees with one British theologian who suggests that the nearness of St. George's Day to Easter could be one reason "why so obscure a saint should become an object of a cultus in the Church lasting for long ages, and in a magnitude second only to that paid to the most eminent of the Apostles."
Whatever the precise reason may be, paintings, frescoes, stone bas-reliefs and icons of St. George abound throughout Europe and the Middle East. (See inside back cover.)
A bronze statue of St. George stands in a chateau in Prague, a large carved medallion of the saint decorates Barcelona's Palace of Mancomunidad, frescoes of his life and martyrdom adorn chapels in France and Italy—Verona, Padua, Venice. Raphael, Durer and Van Eyck have painted St. George.
On one silver Russian icon, the face of the saint was cut in either precious stone or gilded hardwood, and a golden St. George emblazoned the "George" noble, a coin issued in England during the reign of Henry VIII.
Lebanon itself has its own claim to St. George. In Beirut one can actually see where the dragon lived, exactly where it was slain, and the waters George used to clean the blood off his spear.
Mothers croon their babies to sleep in this country with such songs as:
"St. George's story goes from ear to ear ... people go praising him,
"They tell us hills and hills of praises about his generosity.
"His mother died and he lived an orphan in Beirut. A dragon appeared,
"His breath killed any human being ..."
The song tells how St. George killed the dragon and rescued the princess who was about to be its sacrifice. The monster, a speaking variety, had demanded the royal meal in return for stopping his ravages on the people and their herds.
But although the folk songs eulogize the dragon-slayer, and one of Beirut's best hotels, a club and a bay are named after him, St. George has fallen on hard times in this city.
The 20-foot square well from which the dragon periodically arose stands on the northern edge of the city. Now it forms the center of a Muslim primary school playground, but it is paved over because the teachers were afraid the children would fall in. And the pupils are not told about the dragon lest they have nightmares.
Next to the school lies the site of the slaying. The Crusaders built a chapel over the spot, but since 1661 it has alternated between chapel and mosque. Today, the yard-and-a-half thick walls that formed the tower support a modern minaret.
In itself this would hardly hurt St. George's image. Some Muslims believe in him just as Christians do, linking the saint with an ancient, mystical warrior named al-Khidr.
But progress ordained a noisy garage be built. It gives Green Stamps and completely masks the mosque. The locals say that the pilgrims of 10 or 15 years ago no longer come.
The spot where George is supposed to have cleaned off his spear—about 30 minutes drive north from the slaying site—has fared better. It is a massive rocky cave running into the hillside and overlooking the beautiful Jounieh Bay. The knee-deep waters within the cave are believed to have miraculous powers for fattening ailing children.
On St. George's Day, candles burn in smoke-blackened niches in the rock face beneath an inset marble plaque of the saint. The massed yellow daisies that herald a Lebanese spring cover the open ground around. Mothers with crying babies hurry down the hillside steps from waiting taxis. They dip the infants into the icy water, light a votive candle and place the babies' old clothes on a ledge. These must be left behind for the cure to work.
On the road above the cave, an old couple that run a cafe sit under a sprouting vine and watch the various families place flowers before a second small shrine to St. George.
But St. George, Mar Juryus in Arabic, as a miracle-worker is no new concept—it is at least 16 centuries old.
For now no modern authority doubts George's existence. Four principal versions of his life and martyrdom have been studied—in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. They probably were translated from a Greek account which would have been understood in the great monasteries of the Middle East.
It has proved practically impossible as yet to fix the exact date of St. George's life and death. One Byzantine work, dated in the early 7th century, says he was martyred in A.D. 255. But it could have been much earlier, and many fix his death around A.D. 300 in the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
However, it is sure he lived long before the end of the 4th century, for a church was built and dedicated to him by then. A Greek inscription has been found on a church in Shakka, Syria, naming the building for the "holy and triumphant" martyr George. It is dated, according to the Christian calendar, either A.D. 368 or 197.
It seems certain now George was the only son of a Palestian shaikh, a Christian who enjoyed an important position in the country under the Roman governor of the province. He trained hard in athletics as a youth and later joined the local army with a commission, where he proved a bold and skillful soldier. On his father's death, George set out to see the province governor with a view to taking on his father's position.
What exactly happened there is not known. That he was tortured and eventually killed for refusing to take part in pagan sacrifices, however, seems true. And some unusual circumstances must have occurred during these proceedings. Otherwise St. George would never have lived in legend for so many centuries.
Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra (now Ankara, Turkey), in the 5th century wrote a lengthy account of the saint's martyrdom, full of intricately gruesome details of his suffering. He read his work to his congregation on April 23, in a church dedicated to St. George.
He tells how the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his 70 nobles had persecuted Christians for three years. Public exhibitions of every known form of torture had stopped anyone from professing the faith until George came along.
St. George's tortures take up several hours of reading :
"And they pounded him on it (stone slab) until the whole of his body and his bones were crushed to pulp ... they beat his head with a hammer and with a rod of iron until his brains protruded through his nose ... then the wicked king commanded them to bring a great iron saw and to saw him down the middle of his head and his belly and his feet ... "
During this seven-year period of torture, George performed a number of miracles and converted both a magician sent to kill him and the wife of the governor, or "wicked king." They in their turn suffered torture and death, together with 30,000 others inspired by St. George's example.
The magician often features in paintings and frescoes of St. George.
After being put to death three times in the most horrible ways, Theodotus says, George finally succumbed to a beheading and was buried. Eastern and western tradition alike make his burial ground the little town of Lydda where Peter the Apostle healed Aeneas. Its modern equivalent lies about 15 miles southeast of Jaffa.
Throughout his account, Theodotus makes no mention of a dragon except in describing the governor, whom he also calls a "serpent." In the same way, artists and writers of bygone times may have decided that the infamous governor could only be depicted as a monster. Perhaps this is how the dragon crept into the history of St. George.
Another suggestion is that the legend arose from a mistaken conception of a bas-relief in Constantine's church for St. George at Lydda. The sculpture depicted the Emperor's own figure carrying the banner of the cross and standing on a dragon. The cult's followers could have confused Constantine with St. George.
The most probable explanation is that the scribes who copied out the saint's history incorporated legends, local pious gossip, and even their own particular flights of fancy. They were practically obliged to invent a dragon for George, as a hero of Christendom.
But the main thrust of the dragon-slaying promotion came in the 15th century with the translation of the Golden Legend into Latin, Bohemian, German and English. The Archbishop of Genoa wrote this collection of the lives of the Middle Ages' favorite saints in 1280.
It was the Golden Legend that had George not only killing a dragon, but also rescuing a princess—a story reminiscent of Perseus who saved Andromeda from her fate as sacrifice to the sea-dragon. Incidentally, this is the legend popular in Lebanon.
The Golden Legend was one of the first books to be printed and William Caxton published the English version in 1483.
But 12 centuries before that, St. George had made his reputation. Pilgrims came from near and far when they found a visit to his tomb could cure obscure diseases. They even carried dust off the shrine home with them.
Every strange thing that happened in the church was magnified,and in a very short time the local saint of Lydda became a national saint. He was identified with Perseus, Moses, Elijah, Ra of Egypt, Aburamazda of Persia, Tammuz of Babylon and al-Khidr of the Arabs.
But by 494, Pope Gelasius decided that matters had gone too far. He decreed that the public reading of the acts of certain martyrs, including St. George, must stop,as they were often written by ignorant persons, provoked ridicule and gave occasion for derisive laughter.
In spite of the ban, churches dedicated to St. George sprang up all over Europe and the Middle East.
A high point in the cult came when 91st Pope Zacharias in the mid-8th century, triumphantly produced St. George's head dug out of a reliquary in the Lateran. He immediately called all Rome into the streets and the head was carried through the city with great pomp and circumstance.
By the time Zacharias was showing off his latest relic, England was well aware of St. George—at least three centures before the first Crusade set off for the Holy Land. A monastery had been founded in his name and several churches dedicated to him.
By the 10th century, Aelfric, Archbishop of York was writing his Passion to St. George. It begins:
Misbelievers have written
Misbelief in their books
Touching the saint
That Georius hight
Now will we teach you
What is true thereabout
That heresy harm not
The holy Georius
Was in heathenish days
A rich earldorman
Under the fierce Caesar Datianus
In the shire of Cappodocia
But St. George really established his name in England when the Crusaders came home from the Holy Wars.
The Crusaders took on St. George by a sort of osmosis. He was simply always there, wherever they went. When the first Crusade arrived in Constantinople, the soldiers saw Constantine the Great's church dedicated to the saint. They crossed the Bosphorus, in the Middle Ages called the Arm of St. George, marched into Nicomedia and were told it was the site of St. George's martyrdom. They passed through Tarsus, Antioch, Edessa, Tyre and Lydda and every place had its own claimed link with St. George's life. Very soon the Crusaders felt that George was marching with them.
The climax came when the Turks had the Crusaders surrounded and in a sorry plight during the famous Battle of Antioch in 1098. Suddenly, out of the mountains, rode a vast army of troops on white chargers, headed by generals Sts. George, Theodore and Demetrius. Of course, with this help the Christians won the battle.
Peter of Tudebod, historian, said that Stephen the Priest told the men who their helpers were and added that this must be believed for "many of our men saw this take place."
So when the Crusaders arrived in Lydda and found the Muslims had evacuated the town, leaving food and possessions, they duly thanked St. George and raised the town to the dignity of a See.
The year after the battle of Antioch, the Crusaders stormed and took Jerusalem, again with the help of an army under St George—identifiable by the red cross on his white armor. One French historian gives some of the credit to St. Maurice, a co-commander, and adds the army rode 30,000 strong.
St. George also emboldened Richard the Lion Heart in the third Crusade with some timely apparitions at the height of the battle. Richard returned the favor by rebuilding the saint's church at Lydda.
By now the English had adopted St. George as their battle cry and even the French army decided he was on a par with their Saint Denis.
And in England roving troubadours were singing ballads about the white horseman. George was the knight par excellence. Since the perfect Christian gentleman was also the perfect soldier, the King and armies were proud to ride under the flag of St. George.
His fame increased and the Oxford Synod of 1222 declared St. George's Day a lesser holiday. In 1348 King Edward III decided George was a fitting patron saint for his exclusive, chivalry-bent 26-member brotherhood of knights—the Order of the Garter. Paintings of St. George sometimes feature his blue garter across one knee.
The saint was finally promoted in England when he took over as national patron saint in place of Edward the Confessor. Edward III had become convinced of the sovereign power of the battle cry, "St. George for England."
From then, the red cross on a white background became a kind of uniform for English sailors and soldiers and today the emblem is incorporated into the English flag, the Union Jack.
It is often maintained that George, who personified idealistic chivalry of the Middle Ages, lost his raison d'etre in Europe when artillery replaced the lance.
The 16th century's Reformation gave him the final death blow. Then it became fashionable to laugh at the saints and brand their cult as idolatrous. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin found the cult of St. George obnoxious. Calvin called George a "larva," i.e. a scarecrow. Others said he was a "nobody," "a deity created by some madde and idle brains for the poor people to fall down and worship." The Bishop of Norwich described St. George as an Arian heretic and believed the "bloody butcher of Christians" was in hell.
But it was Edward Gibbon, mid-18th-century author of the famous history," Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," who hurt St. George's reputation most of all. Whether it was because of the influence of Calvin's opinions or whether his fanatical dislike of Christianity warped his judgement, cannot be said. But he certainly did his best to belittle the saint's character.
In actual fact, Gibbon totally confused St. George with the graceless, but capable pork-contractor, George of Cappadocia, who from 356 to 361 usurped the Archbishopric of Alexandria.
Gibbon did not go unchallenged, however. A certain Rev. Milner, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London, quickly took up the cudgel for St. George.
His paper was entitled "A Historical and Critical Inquiry into the existence and character of Saint George, Patron of England, in which the assertions of Edward Gibbon, Esq. and certain other modern writers concerning this Saint are discussed. London, 1792."
Rev. Milner painstakingly brought together all the principal facts about St. George's life, showing up the flaws in Gibbon's statements, but he had neither Gibbon's fame nor his huge circulation.
Gibbon's exposure of St. George is one of the main reasons why, for most Englishmen, St. George is no more than a name associated with dragons.
But in the Middle East, St. George is very much alive, dragon or no dragon.
In a hot office in downtown Beirut, a white-haired Greek Orthodox gentleman will tell you confidently that St. George is working scores of miracles today, for Muslims and Christians alike. He will recall his own experience, when St. George came one night with the lance and pierced his abscessed leg. Next morning the abscess was gone.
Another 70-year old Maronite lights a mammoth white candle every April 23 in the Maronite Cathedral of Beirut. He maintains the saint appeared in a cloud of dust, mounted on a white charger, when a group of Bedouin tried to kill him in the Syrian desert. St. George told the attackers he was al-Khidr, and the Bedouin released the Christian.
And on April 23, in the Nile Delta village of Mit Damsis, St. George really goes to work. Pilgrims bring their sick to his church wrapped in white sheets. When the red cross in blood appears on the wrappings, the patients know they have been cured.
St. George—patron saint of England, Portugal, the city of Beirut, of harness-makers, of cavalry and those who make plumes for helmets, protector of horses and shield against venomous snakes, plague and leprosy—what is fact and what fiction? But does it really matter? Your spirit has lasted down the centuries. May it never die.
Helen Gibson, now working in the Middle East, attended the University of Nottingham and spent two years in Vietnam as a correspondent for UPI and as a free-lance writer.