The famous legend of St George and the Dragon is part of England’s heritage, with St George’s Day being celebrated on 23rd April every year. Yet across various cultures, there are many different versions of the classic myth, dating back to the third century AD.
Although there are a number of interpretations of the story in various parts of the world, they all have the same basis: A town or village being terrorised by a dragon and a young princess offered to the dragon to placate the beast.
However, a brave young man called George heard about the planned human sacrifice and rode into the village, where he slayed the dragon and rescued the princess from her grizzly fate. Subsequently, he was made a saint for his brave deed.
The earliest references to the legendary St George date back to the time of the Roman Empire, when George (or Georgius) was born in Greece, but went on to join the Roman army. Commonly known as George of Cappadocia, he was born in 270 AD to Christian parents, in an era when Christianity was punishable by death.
His father had been put to death because of his faith when George was only 14. Following his mother’s death, George joined the Roman army at the age of 17. However, he was persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith. Refusing to renounce Christianity, George was put to death on 23rd April 303.
He has become one of the most revered saints and martyrs in Christian history. England has claimed St George as its own patron saint – but so have several other nations.
The tale of Saint George and the Dragon is transposed to Libya in one version of the ancient myth and is said to have taken place between 1282 and 1304.
St George, a knight, had been travelling for many months when he reached a village in Libya. He met a hermit, who told him how a maiden was about to be sacrificed to the dragon that was attacking the village.
The old man said that unless a knight who could slay the dragon came forward, she would be sacrificed the following day. The king of Egypt would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the knight who could overcome the monster.
After resting overnight in the hermit’s hut, St George set off at daybreak to the valley where the dragon lived. The princess, Sabra, was being led there to be sacrificed, but George overtook her and told her to return to the palace.
The dragon, described as having an “immense” head and a tail 50ft long, rushed from its cave, roaring, but George, who was on horseback, stabbed at its scaly body with his spear. It was said he was knocked from his horse, but fell under an enchanted orange tree, which saved him from being killed by the dragon.
George managed to fatally pierce its skin under the armpit, where there were no scales. His bravery led to him becoming a saint and he was held in the highest esteem for the rest of his life, with the legend of his act being passed down the generations.
Saint George’s Day is celebrated in Bulgaria on 6th May, when it is a public holiday and the traditional meal is roast lamb. In Egypt, St George is known as the Prince of Martyrs in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria – an Oriental Orthodox Christian church. His martyrdom is celebrated on 1st May.
In India, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Church celebrate the martyrdom of Saint George. Commemorative celebrations take place every year from 27th April, beginning with a flag-hoisting ceremony carried out by the parish priest.
The statue of St George is then carried from the altar, or the interior of the church, to an area where it can be venerated by parishioners until 14th May.
St George is also the patron saint of the Mediterranean islands of Gozo and Malta. He became the patron saint of Portugal during the reign of King John I of Portugal, between 1385 and 1433.
In England, King Edward III made St George the patron saint of the Order of the Garter in 1348. He also began using a red cross on a white background (the traditional flag of St George) in his Royal Standard.
In 1647, English historian and churchman Thomas Fuller described the St George’s cross as being the “mother of all others” – meaning of all other heraldic crosses.