More On Saint George

Samantha Riches, another expert on St. George, has a new book out on the figure, which was reviewed in The Spectator:

What did St George do? Killed a dragon, as everyone knows. And yet, as Samantha Riches points out, no mention of the dragon is made before the Norman Conquest. Nor is the pairing ‘England and St George’, invoked by Shakespeare’s Henry V, much noted outside Britain. Foreigners do not know that the English think St George is theirs alone. Many other nations are keen on him — Ethiopia, with a 13th-century church carved out of rock for him, Egypt where the Copts rejoice in him, or of course Georgia — and they all tell local versions of his legend.

One quite untrue tale is Edward Gibbon’s identification of him, which Riches soon dismisses, as a Cappadocian salesman of questionable pork to the Roman army who rose to be archbishop of Alexandria and was murdered in AD 362 by an angry mob because of his heretical Arianism. Gibbon’s version, which can hardly have been quite honestly made, was forcefully refuted, Riches notes, by Dr Samuel Pegge in a paper to the Society of Antiquaries in 1777. Yet it still gets trotted out, partly because Ralph Waldo Emerson, without the slightest effort to check, retailed it in English Traits.

George was said to have been martyred in AD 303, and, we learn, there are mid-fourth-century Syrian church inscriptions marking devotion to him. Perhaps it is because nothing was known of his life apart from his martyrdom that he has attracted such varied legends. Riches has spent more than two decades studying them, and happily considers the most unlikely connections. This is where, I think, we run into a spot of trouble.

One of St George’s analogues — as the folklorists like to call such lookalikes — is a figure in Islamic cultures called al-Khidr, a name sometimes translated as the Green One. He is associated with a fountain of youth, with regeneration and healing. Palestinian Muslims recognise the Christian representation of St George at Beit Jala, for example, as al-Khidr.