However, St George seems a strange patron saint for England as he was not born and never even set foot in England. Most sources suggest that he was born in Cappadocia, Turkey sometime in the 3rd Century, was brought up as a Christian and joined the Roman army in Palestine, eventually attaining the rank of Tribune.
When the Christian faith came under one of its many Roman purges under the Emperor Diocletian, George is reputed to have torn up the persecution order from the Emperor. For this act of treason George was imprisoned, tortured and eventually beheaded after refusing to deny his faith. He was created as a Saint around 4 CE by the Catholic Church, who created many saints around this time. The legend involving the Dragon and his heroic exploits was a later addition developed by the English Kings which they popularised during the crusades in the East.
The Christian Church has appropriated quite a few Pagan festivals and activities over its history in Europe, as in this case where it took over the traditional symbols of the Season but realligned them to new ends. The Dragon was subsequently borne in the Rogationtide processions which took place in the middle of spring to intercede for fine weather for ploughing. At the spring equinox, March 21st, the sun completed its victory over winter. The reason that St George became so strongly associated with the Dragon may be because his feast fell in the middle of Rogationtide, the season of prayer for the crops. His victory over religious evil was taken as a sign that his intercession would also be effective against natural misfortune. ( more here )
Fraser in his 'The Golden Bough' suggests that St George’s Day replaced the pagan festival of Parilia, and many of the customs still practiced abroad are related to welcoming the spring and ceremonies to fertilise the fields for the coming harvest. In ancient Roman religion, the Parilia is a festival of rural character performed annually on April 21, aimed at cleansing both sheep and shepherd. It is carried out in acknowledgment to the Roman deity Pales, who was a patron of shepherds and sheep. (source)
As a Saint, St. George was created in the 4th century CE, as were most other Catholic saints, from a Pagan origin. Estonian folklorist Mall Hiiemäe has written of St. George;
“Perhaps the richness of the tradition accumulated on St. George’s Day should rather be viewed in the light of the fact that the Greek form Georgius means a ploughman, a cultivator of land. And when trying to divine the ancient predecessor of the holiday, one should better consider such tradition that is connected with spring-time vegetation as well as the concentration of special customs on certain pre-Christian dates to mark the awakening of nature and the arrival of spring.”
St. George’s Day has been celebrated all over Europe and Britain and has figured prominently in the various rituals of spring.
Strangely, St. George has also been called Green George, the Spirit of Spring. Barbara Walker directly links St. George as Green George, to the Green Man. She says, “his image was common in old church carvings, a human head surrounded by leaves or looking out of a tree trunk.” ( see here).
The ancient and pre christian origin of the Day is indicated by the many Estonian customs associated with it. According to Hiiemäe, “more than one tenth of the reports concerning St. George’s Day customs in Estonia, have something to do with snakes. One would think that the image of George slaying the dragon would render snakes as the counterpart of evil. However, it is to the contrary in Estonian lore. The snakes, according to Hiiemäe, are “used in repelling and preventive magic to help the cattle thrive and people fare well and also to cure people’s diseases…” It would appear that snakes are not indicative of evil but of good—as long as the snake used in ritual was killed before St. George’s Day.
|The St. George's flag, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England in 1190.|
|Copper dragon for Rogation days (religious processions during sowing), Italy, 18th century|
Even though St. George continues to be an important folk-hero, appearing throughout the Old World in various festivals to mark important dates, the Church began to refer to him as “the imaginary saint” because he “was so shamelessly involved in fertility rites.” (source Gary R Varner )
Perhaps not quite who we had thought then, but for all that - George's Day seems all the more of and for the people, and the symbolic slaying of the Dragon can now be seen as less of a Christian subjegation of nature and her forces but rather a Pagan celebration marking the changing times of the year.
May the Dragon of dark Wintertide pass away with grace then, and the joyful abundance of a fertile Summertide now flow ~