The Cult of St. George
No one knows who introduced the cult of St. George in Lydda-Diospolis or how.
The earliest literary reference to Saint George comes from Eusebius of Caesarea who, in 322 CE. writes of a noble-born soldier of high rank the Roman army, being thrown into prison for vehemently disagreeing with Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians and, despite being tortured, refused to recant his beliefs. The following day, April 23, 303, he was dragged through the streets of Nicomedia and beheaded. The Emperor’s wife, Alexandria, was so impressed at the soldier’s courage, that she converted immediately to the Christian faith and was also put to death. Although it seems likely that this “noble-born soldier” and the personage who was later to be known as “Saint George” are indeed one and the same, this telling makes no mention of the nobleman’s name, country of birth or place of interment.
The oldest testimonies appear in the sixth century and attest to the city being the place where the saint was martyred and where his relics were preserved. In the itinerary of the pilgrim Theodosius, which according to scholars was written in about the year 530, we read: ‘In Diospolis where St. George was martyred there is his body and many wonders are wrought’ (De situ Terrae Sanctae, ch.4, CCSL 175, 116). The same information is provided in the itinerary of the anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza who visited Palestine in about 570 (Ps. Antoninus, Itinerarium, ch. 25, CCSL 175, 142). Thus the sixth-century tradition consistently attests to the existence of a church and a tomb. According to the Calendar of Jerusalem Church the annual feast was held on November 3: it commemorated the dedication of the church and the deposition of the relics (Garitte, Calendrier, 374-375).
According to the unauthenticated Acta Sancti Georgii (“Acts of St. George”), written at a very early date and various versions of which have been embraced in the Eastern Church since the Fifth Century, George held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian for speaking out against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. Thus, he became rapidly exalted as an example of courage in defense of the poor, the helpless and the Christian faith.
Saint George was probably first made known in England by Arculpus and Adamnan some time during the early Eighth Century when the “Acts of St. George”, which recounted George’s visits to Caerleon and Glastonbury while on Roman service in England, were translated into Anglo-Saxon. When Richard I (also known as “The Lionheart”) was campaigning in Palestine during 1191 and 1192, he put his army under the direct protection of Saint George.
Due to his widespread following, particularly in the Near East, and the many miracles which were coming to be attributed to him, George became universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. In 1222, the Synod of Oxford declared that a special celebration in his honor would take place every April 23 and, by the end of the Fourteenth Century, Saint George had been officially acknowledged as the Patron Saint of England.
The banner of Saint George…the red cross of a martyr on a white background…was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers quite possibly during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Later, it also become the official flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. During the campaigns of Edward III in France from 1345 to 1349, pennants sporting the red cross on a white background were ordered for the monarch’s ship and uniforms in the same style for the men-at-arms. When Richard II invaded Scotland in 1385, every man under his command wore the insignia of Saint George.
The fame of Saint George throughout Europe was increased greatly by the publication in 1265 of the Legenda Sanctorum (“Readings on the Saints”), known later as the Legenda Aurea (“The Golden Legend”), by James of Voragine. It was this book which popularized the legend of George and the Dragon, which was particularly well-received in England because of a similar folktale found in Anglo-Saxon lore. The actual origin of the George/Dragon fable remains somewhat obscure. It was first recorded in the late Sixth Century and may have possibly been an allegory of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians. In ancient texts, Diocletian is sometimes referred to as “the dragon”. The tale 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, where the cult of Saint George first took root around the site of his supposed tomb.
However, according to “The Golden Legend”, the tale unfolds as follows:
A dragon once lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. Whole armies had fought against this fierce creature and had fallen in painful defeat. The monster devoured two sheep every day in a time when mutton was scarce. In the local villages, lots were drawn and maidens substituted for the sheep. Into this country came Saint George. Hearing the story on a day when a princess was to be the sacrifice, he crossed himself, rode into battle against the serpent, and killed it with a single blow of his lance. George then held forth with a magnificent sermon and converted the local people to Christianity. Given a large reward by the king, George distributed it to the poor and then rode away.
The reason for the Church now simply “commemorating” Saint George is because, although he most certainly existed, so little is definitely known about him. Most of the legends of George are unverified and somewhat incredible in nature. The Church has never officially held that these legends are true in the literal sense, but made use of them to illustrate some of its teachings during times when the general populace may have been more comfortable with such personifications. As early as 496, Pope Gelasius includes George among the saints whose names are rightly revered but whose actions may be known only to God. The virtues associated with Saint George…courage, honor and fortitude in defense of the Christian faith, for example…remain as important as ever. Of course, Saint George is also venerated by the Church of England, the Orthodox Churches and by the Churches of the Near East and Ethiopia. The alleged tomb of Saint George can still be seen at Lod, south-east of Tel-Aviv.