Dragons and Dragon Lore
TO THE GLORY OF SAINT GEORGE
THE WESTERN half of our history is closing true to form--a history that originated in myth and resulted in the loftiest reality. It began in the romantic fable of Perseus and Andromeda, and it ends on the shore of the Western Ocean to the glory of Saint George and Merrie England!
The connecting lineage and record are clear. The Hero family has been a prolific one, and widely spread, with a history full of noble diversity, but its temper has held true, and its mission of the rescue of maidens in peril, or, more largely, of distressed and wrong-headed peoples, has never been neglected: its career is a continuous picture of the ideal of the West-knightly valour in service, the duty of the strong to aid the weak. From Persia to Italy, from cultured Greece to the barbarous shore of the Atlantic, the tale of noble deeds was told, the fame of one and another brave soul was celebrated, and so Chivalry was born of Romance, and the Renaissance arose to rejuvenate a benighted old world.
Whether or not the names we read were ever or never those of actual men; whether or not anything like a dragon ever threatened forlorn princesses or devastated a smiling countryside, is of no consequence. As history, and its record may be as unsubstantial as the quickly dissolving clouds that reflected a rosy light upon the towers of a mythical Ilium--doubtless it is, for the most part, only an immortal legend repeating itself as do human generations, but it portrays, century after century, the highest virtue in the manly soul.
It is needless to spend time over the variants in what we may style the Perseus legend as written in classic and mediaeval books and poems. Stories identical in substance with that of the rescue of Andromeda from the jaws of a monster were widely related in antiquity and have not yet been forgotten. They form a class by themselves, differentiated from the traditions and fables that have heretofore been related, by the fact that always a young virgin, usually of royal birth, is delivered from impending death by a bold and ardent youth; and that in most cases there is the attendant, but less important, fact that the hero is nearly robbed of his just reward (the maiden's hand and heart) by the evil machinations of a rival who never quite succeeds. A typical example is found in far Arabia. One day, as we are told, a dragon comes to a city in Yemen and demands a beautiful virgin. The lot falls on the king's daughter, but a young knight kills the monster, and the brave adventurer gets the girl. Another very old example is that attached to the most precious relic in the storied island of Rhodes. Luke the Evangelist, the islanders say, desired to move the body of John the Baptist from its burial-place in Caesarea to Antioch, but was able to transfer only the saint's right hand, with which Jesus had been baptized. "Subsequently it was deposited in the new Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, and after further adventures reached security in Rhodes. While it yet remained in Antioch a dragon haunted the country about that city, and the people appeased the monster yearly with the sacrifice of one of their number, chosen by lot. At last the lot fell on a maid whose father greatly venerated the holy relic. Making as though he would kiss the hand, he bit off a fragment from the thumb: and when his daughter was led out to sacrifice he cast this fragment into the dragon's jaws and the monster quickly choked and perished."
A widely familiar 'St. George' legend is that belonging to Mansfield, in Germany, over whose church-door is a statue commemorating the incident. The great man of the place at the time was Count Mansfield, and near the town is a hill still called Lindberg because in former days it was the abode of a lindwurm, or dragon, to which the townspeople were obliged to give a young woman every day. Soon no more maidens were to be found except the knight's own daughter. Whereupon Count Mansfield rode forth and slew the beast, and the citizens made him a 'saint' and gave him (or somebody else!) a statue, in spite of his previous indifference as to the fate of their daughters. Mansfield is one of the many places believed locally to be the site of the famous combat of that 'St. George' whose exploits were as numerous and widespread as were those of Hercules--in each case probably a misplaced tradition of some dimly remembered fight between local barons or bullies.
A still closer approximation to the Perseus type was taken down a few years ago from the lips of an illiterate peasant woman of the Val d'Arno, Italy, and is quoted by Hartland. A part of it describes the hero finding in a seaside chapel a lovely maiden, who urges him to hasten on his way lest he suffer the fate to which she is doomed, namely, to be eaten by a seven-headed dragon. Instead of obeying her he dismounts, attacks the dragon on its rising from the sea, and cuts out its seven tongues which he carries away--these trophies proving his claim, a few months later, to the credit of the feat and the hand of the willing girl.
This seven-headed, seven-tongued hydra-dragon of fiction appears all down the ages, at least since the days of Hercules. Such a brute, to which a king's daughter is to be offered, figures in Grimm's tale of The Two Brothers, and variants may be found in folk-legends everywhere in Europe. That within comparatively recent times it was popularly believed to be a reality is shown by serious accounts of its doings in books regarded as sensible and authoritative. Conrad Gesner gives a picture in his Historia Animalium of a hydra in the form of a serpent, "the heads like those of lions and as it were ornamented with crowns, two feet in the front of the body, the tail twisted inwards." He relates that this hideous, aquatic creature was brought from Turkey to Venice in the year 1530, exposed to public view, and afterward sent to the king of France. The Italian compiler Aldrovandus, a contemporary, illustrates in his book about serpents a seven-headed dragon; and in the Encyclopaedia Londonensis, issued in 1755, may be seen a large coloured plate of a dreadful, seven-headed creature credited to Seba, an author who published a Thesaurus of natural history about 1750, with an extensive account of it.
And so at last we come to our own Saint George! Who was this patron of the valorous, this model of devotion to an ideal of duty, this indomitable George? Nobody knows. He has been relegated to the sun-myths, and declared a mere relic of Mithraism. Gibbon and others identified him with the author of Arianism, but Eastern churches were named for the martyr before that prelate existed. It has also been said that he was that nameless Christian who tore down the edict of persecution in Nicomedia. These and other identifications have been discarded. The nearest approach to probability that any distinct personality is at the root of this heroic development of a noble idealism lies in a tradition that a Christian man named George (or its equivalent) was martyred in Palestine before the era of Constantine the Great; that he became the object of a religious cult (said to be referred to in an inscription dated A.D. 367); and that in 1868 his sepulchre was discovered at Lydda (or Diospolis) near Jerusalem, where his martyrdom is alleged to have occurred. Tradition has expanded these facts (if they be facts) into a story in many varying versions, the most acceptable summary of which appears to be the following:
"According to legend [this Christian George] was born, about A.D. 285, of noble parents in Cappadocia, eastern Anatolia. As he grew to manhood he became a soldier; his courage in battle soon won him promotion, and he was attached to the personal staff of the emperor Diocletian. When this ruler decided to enter on his campaign of persecution, George resigned his commission and bitterly complained to the emperor. He was immediately arrested, and when promises failed to make him change his mind he was tortured with great cruelty. . . . At last he was taken to the outskirts of the city and beheaded [April 23, A.D. 303]. . . . The earliest narrative of his martyrdom known to us is full of the most extravagant marvels: three times George is put to death, chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth, and consumed by fire, but each time he is resuscitated by God. Besides this we have dead men brought to life to be baptized, wholesale conversions, including that of the 'Empress Alexandra,' armies and idols destroyed simultaneously, beams of timber suddenly bursting into leaf, and finally milk flowing instead of blood from the martyr's severed head."
This and several other more or less extravagant, and equally, legendary accounts derived from old manuscripts and books, are related and discussed extensively in Mrs. Cornelia S. Hulst's admirable history of this essentially mythical saint or hero, and his veneration in Europe.
This was a remarkable man, whoever and whatever he was, and it is not surprising that, probably stimulated by some shining circumstance unknown to us, he became so distinguished in the religious world of his time. Besides St. Stephen, he is the only martyr venerated by the entire Church; is one of the fourteen 'great martyrs' and 'trophy-bearers' of the Greek Church, and is honoured by special masses and ceremonies in the Latin, Syrian, and Coptic communions. All over the Orient, in Greece, Italy and Sicily, many churches were dedicated to him in the sixth century, and since. His relics are scattered over the entire Church, Santo Georgio in Velabro, at Rome, possessing the head. Holweck catalogues this saint's ecclesiastical distinctions thus: "S. George is principal patron of England, Catalaunia (Spain), Liguria (Italy), Aragon, Georgia, Modena, Farrara (24 April), of the isle of Syros, dioceses of Wilna, Limburg, Regio de Calabria, and other dioceses, also of the Teutonic Knights, minor patron of Portugal, Lithuania, Constantinople. He is protector of soldiers, archers, knights, saddlers, sword-cutlers, and of horses, against fever, etc. He is mentioned daily in the Greek mass." Moslems, in fact, reverence Saint George, identifying him with the Prophet Elijah, and have long allowed Christians to celebrate a mass once a year at the tomb of the martyr at Lydda, in Palestine, now a mosque; and the first church dedicated to St. George (at Zarava, in Hauran, A.D. 514) was a re-consecrated mosque.
That the fame of this martyr had spread in very early times to Britain is shown by references to him in the writings of the Venerable Bede and in other chronicles. Ashmole says, in his history of the Order of the Garter, that King Arthur placed a picture of St. George on his banners, and Selden states that he was regarded as the patron-saint of England in Saxon times. It was not, however, until after the great Third Crusade, in which the English played the leading part, led by their magnificent prince, Richard the Lion-hearted, that George, as warrior rather than as martyr, became noticeable in that national dignity. It was believed among the disheartened crusaders before Acre that St. George had appeared to Richard in a vision and had encouraged him to continue the long and dreadful siege; and afterward the story spread that the troops themselves had beheld him, on a white horse, fighting for them above their heads in the drifting smoke of battle, as did the angel who was "captain of the hosts of the Lord" when Joshua was battling against the walls of Jericho. Even the French soldiers under Robert, son of William the Conqueror, accepted him as their patron and defender.
It is perhaps to this figure that Dr. Hanauer refers in relating this bit of folklore current in Palestine. A fountain (Gihon?) in the outskirts of Jerusalem was formerly a part of the water-supply of the city, but a big dragon took possession of it and demanded a youth or maid every time anyone came for water; until at last, as usual, only the king's daughter was left. When she was about to be sent, Mar Jirys appeared in golden panoply mounted on a white steed, and riding full tilt at the dragon, he pierced it dead between the eyes. This is probably the same spring which is noted for its intermittent flow, which the people explain by saying that the dragon drinks the water low whenever it wakes, and when the beast sleeps the water rises. The Tyrolese speak of a dragon that "eats its way out of the rock" when the intermittent spring at Bella, in Krains, begins to flow. The Maltese also have a dragon's spring which issues from a cavern with noises said to be the snorts of the monster within its source.
The returning crusaders, reporting this supernatural assistance in full faith, made a very deep impression on the credulous populace of England, who at once proclaimed this White Knight military protector of the kingdom; and in 1222 the Council of Oxford ordained that the feast day of St. George (April 23) should be observed as a minor holy day in the English Church. In 1330 he was formally adopted as the patron-saint of the Order of the Garter just then instituted by Edward III, which was equivalent to an ascription for the whole country, and he became that indeed when the Royal Chapel at Windsor was dedicated to him in 1348. He was invoked by Henry V at Agincourt (1415), where the English swept forward to victory with the inspiring battle-cry of his name.
Saint George he was for England, Saint Denis was for France, rings out the old song! Thus this hero of the Middle Ages became in England more than elsewhere the favourite of the people and the principal figure of the time in mystic plays, mummeries, and religious dramas and processions, especially on Corpus Christi Day. Until recent times one of the diversions in Wiltshire and other English counties was the play "St. George and Turkey-Snipe" (a corruption of Turkish Knight), wherein a Christian knight overcomes a Saracen. The opening words of this pious drama are quoted by Miss Urlin as follows: I am King George, the noble champion bold, And with my trusty sword I won ten thousand pounds in gold. It was I that fought the fiery Dragon, and brought him to the slaughter,-- And by these means I won the king of Egypt's daughter.
It is not surprising that mistakes and legends early began to cluster around this notable character all over the continent.
Legends are the weeds of history. They are sown by winds of gossip, and bear fruits of the imagination which sometimes are sweet and wholesome but are more often ugly and baneful. They take deep root and flourish prodigiously, overshadowing the less interesting growths of fact and voucher, and obscuring, by a sort of protective mimicry, the truths in tradition. For example: where, if anywhere, among the many places, do the red flowers growing year by year on this and that meadow or hilltop, indicate the true spot "where the Dragon was killed"? Here and there we may say--as at Coventry--that is the field of the battle of so-and-so, a thousand years ago; but to get proof of it we must search among the roots of hardy fictions as botanists do for stifled native plants among the weeds of an abandoned field.
The eminent French antiquarian, Louis F. A. Maury, points out that many local dragon stories probably originated in or have been kept alive by mistaken interpretations by the unlearned of relics, pictures, and votive offerings in churches--the last-named including specimens of skeletons or bones of serpents, whales and so forth, stuffed crocodiles, big fishes and other strange animals, deposited by persons who had escaped perils by one or another exotic beast. Formerly, at least, there hung in the church of Mont St. Michel pieces of armour which the peasantry held in awe as that worn by the angel Michael when he drove that old serpent, the Devil, out of heaven. At Milan, where now stands the ancient church of St. Denis, was previously a profound cavern, in which, we are told, once dwelt a dragon, always hungry, whose breath caused speedy death to any person receiving it. The Milanese hero, Viscount Uberto, killed it, according to a local legend--the basis of which is a figure, named Givre, of a heraldic dragon on the armour of an early viscount of that city. Count Aymer, of Asti, in Savoy, owes his high place in the list of dragon-slayers, says Maury, to a heraldic dragon carved at the foot of his effigy on his monumental tomb at St. Spire de Corbil. The identification of Gozon with the myth of the destruction of the dragon of Rhodes, was owing to the accidental presence near Gozon's tomb of a commonplace picture of St. George in his famous act.
How a name may serve as a punning-peg on which to hang a courtier's story or a minstrel's ballad, which later may become an element in dubious history, is shown in a saga of King Regnor Lodbrog, a famous pirate chief of the Viking era, who, when a young man, about the year 800, showed his mettle in an exploit of gallantry of which his companions loved to sing when the drinks went round. A Swedish prince had a beautiful daughter whom he entrusted (probably when he was sailing away on some freebooting expedition) to the care of one of his officers in a strong castle. This officer fell in love with his ward, and seizing the castle, defied the world to take her away from him. Upon this the father proclaimed abroad that whoever would conquer the ravisher and rescue the lady might have her in marriage. Of all the bold fellows who undertook the adventure Regnor alone achieved success and obtained the prize. Now, it happened that the name of the faithless guardian was Orme, which in Icelandic means 'serpent'; wherefore the first minstrel who seized upon the incident to glorify the valour and renown of his prince (and retrieve the lady's reputation?) represented the girl as detained in the castle by a dreadful dragon!
It is a striking fact that, although dragons and dragon-killers were commonplaces of both ancient and mediaeval storymaking (someone has wittily said that the dragon itself was brought into being merely as a much-needed device to exhibit the valour of more or less fictitious knights) the association of this fearsome beast with George the venerated martyr-saint, is a comparatively modern addition to his history. The oldest written account of him, that by Pasicrates, does not mention a dragon. "The Greek Church, which was naturally the first to render St. George honour," as Mrs. Hulst points out, "from very early times represented him with a dragon under his feet and a crowned virgin at his side, a symbolical way of saying that he overcame Sin, for the dragon represents the Devil . . . and the crowned maiden represents the Church."
This religious feeling characterized legends of such a combat found in Greek and Russian verses, and tales of a somewhat later period, but nowhere is this worshipful hero of the Church represented as fighting on horseback. The first account of a combat between St. George and a dragon that reached western Europe was in the thirteenth century in the Latin of The Golden Legend, where a distinctly romantic flavour tinctured the holy narrative. This epic poem became popular and spread the heroic legend, which was recited in many versions, used in dramatic representations, and led to the localizing of the adventure in many different places. Where and when this poem originated remains a mystery.
In the early part of the fifteenth century The Golden Legend was paraphrased by Lydgate and introduced to a few scholarly English readers in a manuscript preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was more widely spread by Caxton, the publisher, in the translation made by him and printed in 1483. His second edition was illustrated by woodcuts borrowed from a Dutch edition of the tale, and these publications not only informed England as to the tale brought from the East, but settled the version which has been the adopted faith of our British forefathers ever since. The crabbed old English and print of Caxton's book (William Morris issued a delightful facsimile from the Kelmscott Press) are so difficult to read now that many modern renderings in both verse and prose have been produced, of which I have chosen the authentic one by Baring-Gould given below.
And so, finally, we have come to the legend of the proper, most eminent Saint George, and his most celebrated and distinguished of all Dragons-possessions peculiarly our own as Englishmen and by inheritance; and here is the creed of it for your worshipful instruction:
George, then a tribune in the Roman army, while travelling, came to Silene, a town in Libya, near which was a pond inhabited by a loathsome monster that had many times driven back an armed host sent to destroy it. It even approached the walls of the city, and with the exhalations of its breath poisoned all who came near. To prevent such visits it was given every day two sheep to satisfy its voracity. This continued until the flocks of the region were exhausted. Then the citizens held counsel and decreed that each day a man and a beast should be supplied, and at the last they had to give up their sons and daughters--none were exempted. The lot fell finally on the king's only daughter; and those who tell the story describe with vivid rhetoric the heartrending struggle of the royal father to submit to the decree, and his final victory in favour of duty to his people over his affection. So, dressed in her best, and nerved by high resolve, the princess leaves the city alone and walks toward the lake.
George, who opportunely met her on the way and saw her weeping, asked the cause of her tears. "Good youth," she exclaimed, "quickly mount your horse and fly less you perish with me." He asked her to explain the reason for so dire a prediction; and she had hardly ceased telling him when the monster lifted its head above the surface of the dark water, and the maiden, all trembling, cried again--"Fly! fly! Sir knight." His only answer was the sign of the Cross. Then he advanced to meet the horrible fiend, recommending himself to God; and brandishing his lance he transfixed the beast and cast it to the ground. Turning to the princess he bade her pass her girdle about the creature's prostrate body and to fear nothing. When this had been done the monster followed her like a docile hound. When they together had led it into the town the people fled before them, but George recalled them, bidding them put aside their fear, for the Lord had sent him to deliver them from their danger. Then the king and all his people, twenty thousand men with all their women and children, were baptized, and George smote off the head of the dragon.
Somehow, centuries ago, the people of Britain came to believe that this happened in England at Coventry; and it is no wonder that they learned and sang a Paean of victory over it, comparing George's superlative bravery with the great deeds of bygone heroes. You may find it in Bishop Percy's Reliques, and one stanza will give you the spirit of it
Baris conquered Ascapart, and after slew the boare, And then he crossed the seas beyond to combat with the Moore. Sir Isenbras and Eglamore, they were knights most bold, And good Sir John Mandeville of travel much hath told. There were many English knights that Pagans did convert, But St. George, St. George, pluckt out the Dragon's heart! St. George he was for England; St. Dennis was for France, Sing: Honi soit qui mal y pense! I have traced the dragon in time from the birth of light out of darkness to the present, and in space from the Garden of Eden eastward to farthest Cathay, and westward to the crags that withstand the Atlantic's fury. I go out where I came in: There is no dragon--there never was a dragon; but wherever in the West there appeared to be one there was always a St. George.