St. George slays the dragon. Georgian fresco
Very little is known about St George’s life, but it is thought he was a Roman officer of Greek descent from Cappadocia or Syria Palaestina who was martyred in one of the pre-Constantinian persecutions. Beyond this, early sources give conflicting information.
There are two main versions of the legend, a Greek and a Latin version, which can both be traced to the 5th or 6th century. The saint's veneration dates to the 5th century with some certainty, and possibly still to the 4th. The addition of the dragon legend dates to the 11th century.
The earliest text preserving fragments of George's narrative is in a Greek hagiography identified by Hippolyte Delehaye of the scholarly Bollandists to be a palimpsest of the 5th century.
An earlier work by Eusebius, Church history, written in the 4th century, contributed to the legend but did not name George or provide significant detail.
The work of the Bollandists Daniel Papebroch, Jean Bolland, and Godfrey Henschen in the 17th century was one of the first pieces of scholarly research to establish the saint's historicity via their publications in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca. Pope Gelasius I stated that George was among those saints "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God."
A critical edition of a Syriac Acta of Saint George, accompanied by an annotated English translation, was published by E.W. Brooks (1863–1955) in 1925.
The compiler of this Acta Sancti Georgii, according to Hippolyte Delehaye, "confused the martyr with his namesake, the celebrated George of Cappadocia, the Arian intruder into the see of Alexandria and enemy of St. Athanasius".
In the Greek tradition, George was born to Greek Christian parents, in Cappadocia.
His father died for the faith when George was fourteen, and his mother returned with George to her homeland of Syria Palaestina.
A few years later, George's mother died. George travels to the capital Nicomedia and joins the Roman army.
George is persecuted by one Dadianus.
In later versions of the Greek legend, this name is rationalized to Diocletian, and George's martyrdom is placed in the Diocletian persecution of AD 303. The setting in Nicomedia is also secondary, and inconsistent with the earliest cultus of the saint being located in Diospolis.
George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia's city wall, on 23 April 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra of Rome to become a Christian as well, so she joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.
Saint George in the Acta Sanctorum
, as collected in late 1600s and early 1700s. The Latin title De S Georgio Megalo-Martyre; Lyddae seu Diospoli in Palaestina
" translates as "St. George Great-Martyr; [from] Lydda or Diospolis, in Palestine
The Latin Acta Sancti Georgii (6th century) follows the general course of the Greek legend, but Diocletian here becomes Dacian, Emperor of the Persians. George lives and dies in Melitene in Cappadocia.
His martyrdom is greatly extended, to more than twenty separate tortures over the course of seven years.
Over the course of his martyrdom, 40,900 pagans are converted to Christianity, including the empress Alexandra. When George finally dies, the wicked Dacian is carried away in a whirlwind of fire.
In later Latin versions, the persecutor is the Roman emperor Decius, or a Roman judge named Dacian serving under Diocletian.
There is little information on the early life of Saint George. Herbert Thurston in The Catholic Encyclopedia states that based upon an ancient cultus, narratives of the early pilgrims, and the early dedications of churches to Saint George, going back to the fourth century, "there seems, therefore, no ground for doubting the historical existence of St. George", although no faith can be placed in either the details of his history or his alleged exploits.
According to Donald Attwater, "No historical particulars of his life have survived, ... The widespread veneration for St George as a soldier saint from early times had its centre in Palestine at Diospolis, now Lydda. St George was apparently martyred there, at the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century; that is all that can be reasonably surmised about him."
Herbert Thurston, in the saint's entry in the early 20th-century Catholic Encyclopedia, takes the position that there are no grounds for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, "but no faith can be placed in the attempts that have been made to fill up any of the details of his history."
It has been established that Saint George the Martyr and the Arian Bishop George of Alexandria were not identical; furthermore that Bishop George was slain by Gentile Greeks for exacting onerous taxes, especially inheritance taxes. And that Saint George in all likelihood was martyred before the year 290. Although the Diocletianic Persecution of 303, associated with military saints because the persecution was aimed at Christians among the professional soldiers of the Roman army, is of undisputed historicity, the identity of Saint George as a historical individual had not been ascertained as of Edmund Spenser's day,
Russian icon (mid 14th century), Novgorod
Edward Gibbon argued that George, or at least the legend from which the above is distilled, is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious Arian bishop who was Athanasius of Alexandria's most bitter rival, and that it was he who in time became Saint George of England. J. B. Bury, who edited the 1906 edition of The Decline and Fall, wrote "this theory of Gibbon's has nothing to be said for it." He adds that: "the connection of St. George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth".
Saint George and the dragon
Miniature from a 13th-century Passio Sancti Georgii
The legend of Saint George and the Dragon is first recorded in the 11th century, in a Georgian source.
It reaches Europe in the 12th century. In the Golden Legend, by 13th-century Archbishop of Genoa Jacobus da Varagine, George's death is at the hands of Dacian, and about the year 287.
The Golden Legend offered a historicised narration of George's encounter with a dragon.
This account was very influential, and it remains the most familiar version in English owing to William Caxton's 15th-century translation.
In the medieval romances, the lance with which Saint George slew the dragon was called Ascalon after the Levantine city of Ashkelon, today in Israel. The name Ascalon was used by Winston Churchill for his personal aircraft during World War II, according to records at Bletchley Park. In Sweden, the princess rescued by Saint George is held to represent the kingdom of Sweden, while the dragon represents an invading army. Several sculptures of Saint George battling the dragon can be found in Stockholm, the earliest inside Storkyrkan ("The Great Church") in the Old Town. Iconography of the horseman with spear overcoming evil was widespread throughout the Christian period.
George (Arabic: جرجس, Jiriyas or Girgus) is included in some Muslim texts as a prophetic figure. The Islamic sources state that he lived among a group of believers who were in direct contact with the last apostles of Jesus. He is described as a rich merchant who opposed erection of Apollo's statue by Mosul's king Dadan. After confronting the king, George was tortured many times to no effect, was imprisoned and was aided by the angels. Eventually, he exposed that the idols were possessed by Satan, but was martyred when the city was destroyed by God in a rain of fire.
Muslim scholars had tried to find a historical connection of the saint due to his popularity. According to Muslim legend, he was martyred under the rule of Diocletian and was killed three times but resurrected every time. The legend is more developed in the Persian version of al-Tabari wherein he resurrects the dead, makes trees sprout and pillars bear flowers. After one of his deaths, the world is covered by darkness which is lifted only when he is resurrected. He is able to convert the queen but she is put to death. He then prays to God to allow him to die, which prayer is granted.
Al-Tha`labi states that he was from Palestine and lived in the times of some disciples of Jesus. He was killed many times by the king of Mosul, and resurrected each time. When the king tried to starve him, he touched a piece of dry wood brought by a woman and turned it green, with varieties of fruits and vegetables growing from it. After his fourth death, the city was burnt along with him. Ibn al-Athir's account of one of his deaths is parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus, stating, "When he died, God sent stormy winds and thunder and lightning and dark clouds, so that darkness fell between heaven and earth, and people were in great wonderment..." The account adds that the darkness was lifted after his resurrection.