Friday, April 21, 2006

Was St.George a Palestinian pork butcher?

St.George in a 17thC
Ethiopian manuscript.
(picture copyright British Library)

WHAT with the Queen's 80th. birthday today and St.George's Day on Sunday, the flags and bunting are waving, the telly "news" teams have been trying to outdo each other in loyal bollocks, and patriotic publicans are praying they'll pull enough extra pints this weekend to please those mean and miserable gits at the brewery.

It might take people's mind off such boring facts as that Peugeot is closing one of the country's few remaining car factories, or the crisis in the once-proud National Health Service. The latest hospital in money trouble, about to lay off 300 staff, is in Tooting, south London. St.George's.

Back in the 1980s under the Tories several good hospitals in that area were closed to concentrate provision at St.George's. The authority still contrived not to gain from disposing of the real estate. What with the number of factories that had also closed St.George's maternity wards were the last productive industry left in SW London.

The fewer things that are left to hoist flags over, the more the mania has grown in recent years for patriotic flag-flying. Some people fly it from their back yard, some along the High Street seem to use it in place of curtains. Sometimes their patriotic pride, or income, doesn't run to cleaning their windows.

OK, so the St.George's flags like the Union Jacks are made in some far-flung outpost of empire (not necessarily British Empire, either), and the pubs with the most flags may not be selling a decent pint of traditional British ale.
But what about St.George himself?

"Who was he anyway?", asked one of my local's regulars, so traditional he still wears his moustache trimmed halfway between that made famous by Sir Anthony Eden and the one sported by Arthur English.

"He was Turkish, I think", opined I, trusting to my vague idea about where Capadoccia lay, and taking a swig of my pint. Just then, as we were all reflecting, Nessie the landlady (who I hasten to say keeps her ale in good condition and does serve a decent pint) came downstairs saying "See what the brewery has sent?" She was bearing a sort of Knight's helmet, a St.George's shield, and a short broad sword. "There you are," I pointed out, "that's for cutting off slices of doner kebab."

This was on St.George's Day a couple of years ago, and we never did find out what the sword and tat were for, but maybe the kebab connection was not so far off, if we substitute pork for lamb. According to a story I found on the web, anyway (and we all know that information on the Internet is accurate and reliable).

"St George's links with England are decidedly tenuous. Needless to say, there is no evidence at all to link him to the killing of a dragon. Is there even any evidence that George himself existed? Working backwards through the centuries of self-serving pious fable (the ‘knightly’ George was brought back to England by the crusaders in the twelfth/thirteenth centuries and was subsequently popularised by Caxton) we find that in the eighth century it was believed that George had visited Caerleon and Glastonbury while serving as a member of Emperor Constantine's staff! Yet when we reach the fifth century we find that neither the Syrian list of saints nor the so-called Hieronymian Martyrologium commemorate a St George at all. About this time, however, Pope Gelasius records that St. George was among those saints ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men but whose actions are only known to God’. "

The supposed passion of St George involved an endless variety of tortures which the saint had endured and had miraculously survived. It seems these indicate possible links with Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic tradition, and a possible Greek original. Apparently some writers in olden times made up stories of tortured saints relying on what they knew about the way the Church itself treated heretics.

The 4th or 5th century Coptic texts variously related George to the Governor of Cappadocia, the Count of Lydda in Palestine and Joseph of Arimathea. Because these churches weren't under the sway of Rome, and the tales were told by heretics, the Acta Sancti Georgii were outlawed by Pope Gelasius in AD 496.

Later the Catholic version restored our George, but placed him in the reign of Diocletian. "George was given a noble birth, Christian parents, and a tenacious commitment to the faith. He is made a Roman cavalry officer, who bravely complains to the nasty Emperor of the harshness of his decrees. George refuses to carry out orders to persecute the Church and for his defiance is thrown into prison and tortured. But George doesn’t go quietly. In fact, he is brutally tortured to death, yet is raised to life again three times. Much of his passion was modelled on that of Christ himself, and it was for that reason that the Feast of St George was celebrated near to Easter (18 and 23 April)".

"The future archbishop of Alexandria began his career as a humble cloth worker in Cilicia (now southern Turkey). By ‘assiduous flattery’ or other means he acquired the contract to supply the Roman army with bacon. Says Gibbon:
‘His employment was mean; he rendered it infamous. He accumulated wealth by the basest arts of fraud and corruption; but his malversations were so notorious, that George was compelled to escape from the pursuits of justice.’
Making his way to Palestine, George set himself up in the religion business at Diospolis (Lydda), where he became a profane grandee of the ruling Arian Christians. As a wealthy and influential opponent of the Catholic Athanasius he was well-placed to take the bishop’s chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile. In his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging the ancient temples. ‘The tyrant…oppressed with an impartial hand the various inhabitants of his extensive diocese.’ (Gibbon). So incensed were the inhabitants that on at least one occasion he was expelled by a mob and it required troops to get him back into the bishop’s palace.

"His end came with the elevation of Julian to the purple. The angry pagans of Alexandria (probably aided by Catholics) took their revenge on George by throttling the bishop and dumping his body in the sea. Emperor Julian himself sequestered the extensive library which George had acquired. Yet the notorious prelate was to achieve a nobility in death which had been denied to him in life. His family built a tomb and a church to house it at Lydda, and attracted a profitable traffic in pilgrims. The venality of his life was white-washed and, thanks to the creative scribblers for Christ two hundred years later, his name was attached to a colourful story of piety, fortitude, divine deliverance and – ultimately – a princess and a dragon. As Gibbon famously records:
‘This odious stranger disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero, and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter.’ "

This information comes from a decidedly irreverant (putting it mildly) American site called "jesus never existed", and the author concludes that George's sanctification, and commemoration in the white ensign and other flags is "Quite a success story for an unmitigated rogue – and bacon salesman."

Well, I like a bacon sarni myself (though over Passover I breakfasted on bacon and matza bry) so let's not get snobbish about what George might have sold for a living. Didn't they go on like this about Bartolomeo Vanzetti being a fish peddler?

How about the dragon? The picture of St.George slaying the dragon and rescuing a fair maiden is not unlike that of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster. In some versions this happens near Jaffa, which is not far from Lydda. The Greek hero returns Andromeda to her home in Phoenicia, and is given permission to marry her. Earlier, Perseus, like King Solomon, had. hired carpenters from Phoenicia (in the Bible they're loaned by Hiram, King of Tyre) to build his ships from cedar wood. Phoenicia was the Greeks' name for the people on the sea coast of Lebanon and northern Cana'an.

In the story Perseus thinks he sees a statue on the rocks, but finds it is a real woman being sacrificed, Could this be a story of how the sacrifice of humans to appease the sea god was replaced by the offering of statues? Maybe the Perseus story was borrowed by the Greeks from Phoenicians, then later re-issued as St.George standing up to Diocletian (who was sometimes called "the dragon"), at a time when the Church was confronting a pagan revival. Whatever the truth, the stories place St.George's background in the Middle East, particularly in the vicinity of Palestine.

According to Michael Collins:
"The legend may have been particularly well received in England because of a similar legend in Anglo-Saxon literature. St George became a stock figure in the secular miracle plays derived from pagan sources which continued to be performed at the beginning of spring. The origin of the legend remains obscure. It is first recorded in the late sixth century and may have been an allegory of the persecution of Diocletian, who was sometimes referred to as 'the dragon' in ancient texts. The story may also be a christianized version of the Greek legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster at Arsuf or Jaffa, near Lydda (Diospolis), where the cult of St George grew up around the site of his supposed tomb

"George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine troops, and were circulated further by the troubadours. When Richard 1 was campaigning in Palestine in 1191-92 he put the army under the protection of St George.

"Because of his widespread following, particularly in the Near East, and the many miracles attributed to him, George became universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. Originally, veneration as a saint was authorized by local bishops but, after a number of scandals, the Popes began in the twelfth century to take control of the procedure and to systematize it. A lesser holiday in honour of St George, to be kept on 23 April, was declared by the Synod of Oxford in 1222; and St George had become acknowledged as Patron Saint of England by the end of the fourteenth century. In 1415, the year of Agincourt, Archbishop Chichele raised St George's Day to a great feast and ordered it to be observed like Christmas Day. In 1778 the holiday reverted to a simple day of devotion for English Catholics.

"The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard 1, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. In a seal of Lyme Regis dating from 1284 a ship is depicted bearing a flag with a cross on a plain background. During Edward 111's campaigns in France in 1345-49, pennants bearing the red cross on a white background were ordered for the king's ship and uniforms in the same style for the men at arms. When Richard 11 invaded Scotland in 1385, every man was ordered to wear 'a signe (sic) of the arms of St George', both before and behind, whilst death was threatened against any of the enemy's soldiers 'who do bear the same crosse or token of Saint George, even if they be prisoners'.

Very nice, what these people with crosses get up to, not least against fellow Christians. But whatever the true George from Lydda did, the Saint, like Perseus, seems to have got around, and besides England he is the patron saint of, among other people and places, agricultural workers, soldiers, butchers, Georgia, Malta, Greece, Russia, Germany (don't tell England soccer fans!), Genoa, Moscow, Istanbul, Portugal, Lithuania, Beirut and yes, Palestine.

Legend has it George even visited England a couple of times, going to Caerlaeon and Glastonbury (perhaps he liked mud and rock music). Wonder if these days he would make it through immigration, and how long before he and that carpenter from Nazareth would find themselves in Harmondsworth, if not Belmarsh?



Post a Comment

<< Home