Here be dragons
Saint George’s Day is celebrated on April 23. I know this because as a child I was obsessed with the world of make-believe. While my sister was collecting books on the natural sciences, I had a whole shelf devoted to children’s versions of Greek mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. The stories I loved best involved magic and monsters. To this day my mother will buy me used books if they have a dragon on the cover. And this is where Saint George comes in.
In the 13th century, Jacobus de Voragine wrote in The Golden Legend that Saint George was a Christian knight who in his travels came across a city called Silene that was being plagued by a dragon that lived in its pond. Silene’s inhabitants were forced to appease the monster by sacrificing their children. The victims were selected through a lottery system, and one day it was the king’s own daughter who drew the last lot.
The girl was taken to the dragon’s lair and chained to a rock, where Saint George happened upon her. Saint George battled the dragon using the sign of the cross, his horse, and a sword. Upon his victory, he instructed the lady to use her girdle to guide the monster, and together they made their way back to town. There, he offered to slay the dragon if the people would convert. The men were baptized and the dragon was beheaded.
You would think that the dragon story must have stemmed from a crocodile that was wreaking havoc on the townspeople. Perhaps, but there are obvious parallels to the Greek story of Andromeda that very likely provided the template for the legend of Saint George.
The Greek myth holds that Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia enraged Poseidon, god of the sea, when she boasted that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than his sea-nymph companions the Nereids. Poseidon punished her arrogance by sending Cetus, a sea monster, to terrorize the coast. To save his people and appease the gods, Cassipeia’s husband King Cepheus offered to sacrifice Andromeda to the monster. Andromeda was chained to a rock by the water to await her terrible fate. Thankfully, Perseus, son of Zeus and the mortal princess Danaë, was returning from slaying Medusa when he discovered her and slew Cetus. Sound familiar?
The images featured in this blog post come from the following collections: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Art, Archaeology and Architecture (Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives); The National Gallery, London; Italian and other European Art (Scala Archives); Manuscripts and Early Printed Books (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford); and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.