Dragons, Devils & Dinosaurs: A Symbiologist’s Guide to St George’s Day

It’s St George’s Day today; here in England, this is the feast day of our Patron Saint.  We share him with a number of other countries including Moldova, Palestine and (perhaps unsurprisingly) Georgia, but we are particularly ‘into’ patron saints in the UK; our Union Flag is a mishmash of the flags of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick (St David – the Welsh patron Saint – was left out…nothing personal against David, mind, it was just that at the time the flag was created Wales was still considered part of the ‘Kingdom of England’.)

The other patron saints in the UK and Ireland seem somewhat logical choices: Patrick (Northern Ireland and Ireland, obviously) and David (Wales) were fairly local and significant in the bringing of Christianity to the ‘pagans’ of their respective countries.  St Andrew (St Peter’s brother) was in fact Palestinian, but gained particular meaning for the Scots for a number of reasons; they had his bones for a while and have invoked him as a protector in battle and of Scottish independence since the 1300s.

St George – well, we all know that George slew a dragon.  Wait… what?

St George & Dragon: Armand Point

Yup.  Killed it dead (after first defeating it and dragging it into town to use it to encourage people to convert to Christianity, obviously, or he’d be a pretty poor Saint).

When I was younger I just, sort of, accepted this story, although no-one mentioned at school that George was probably born in Turkey and the dragon business apparently took place in Libya – though let’s not forget that the whole story appears to be based on a compendium of older, mostly Greek, myths about dragon slayers.  Nevertheless, the tale made its way to England and was popularised on the return of the crusaders, who had probably been inspired by George’s unsubtle conversion methods… The story was further embellished, romanticised and Anglicised by medieval retellers.  Similarly to Andrew, George  – symbolic of bravery and overcoming adversity – became the protector of the English military and hence our patron saint.

Why the history lesson?  Well, there are currently stuttering attempts by the English to make St George’s day more of an event (unlike the Irish and Welsh, we don’t really do much for our patron saint’s feast day, apart from note that it has taken place again).  This minor media attention meant that I started thinking about the story again for the first time in years.  Why do we have an aspect of our national identity based around a myth / legend of a Turkish soldier?  Why do we use this as a metaphor for courage and overcoming adversity?  Are true stories of real, actual people overcoming adversity not good enough for us?  And… most importantly… what is it with dragons?

There’s no such thing as a dragon (sorry, Billy Bixbee), or at least, not the kind you see flying about in Skyrim and being slain by Saint George on his white horse.  It’s likely that there has never been such a creature; the ‘dragons’ described by the ancient Greek historians mostly appear to resemble oversized pythons and monstrous skeletons of sea dragons, it has been suggested, could have been those of whales which, minus the blubber, can look surprisingly dragon-esque.

Skeleton of a Killer Whale. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

More than the debate of ‘real’ dragon origins, what has struck me during my mini swatting-up session (which has not included oriental dragons, by the way, as the literature on those is much more substantial) is the interesting symbolism surrounding them.  The Welsh Dragon is said to represent the Red Dragon (the Britons) defending Wales in an epic battle with the White Dragon (the Saxons).  Yet the connections with Christianity in Europe are the most notable. The Biblical serpents and dragons are often in cahoots with, or a representation of, the Devil:

“And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years” – Revelation 20:2

St George’s defeat of the dragon takes on new meaning in this light; perhaps it was the devil, and not simply adversity, that he was overcoming.

To this day there is a connection between Christian missionaries and dragons, though now there is a new twist in the tale.  Creationist literature cites the widespread occurrence of dragon legends as support for their belief that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed (and that the world could consequently have been created comparatively recently).

With the exception of some more recent interpretations that consider dragons to be intelligent, noble, sometimes even friendly beings, most depictions of dragons are very devilish; they are firey, bitey, malicious beasts who mostly enjoy roasting crops and livestock and keeping maidens in the larder, or dragging unwitting fisherman into lakes and seas.   David Jones, an Anthropologist from the University of Florida, has also spotted this and has taken it a step further, suggesting that dragons are ubiquitous in legends across the world not so much because they once roamed (or flew over) the earth, but because we humans share the joint worry that… they might.

The gist of Jones’ theory is that dragons combine the scariest ‘bits’ of a number of dangerous species and they are therefore representative of the ultimate human predator, a combination of big cat, eagle and python; they are large, scaled, flying, swimming and lethal.  Plus, they breathe either poison or fire, two additionally dangerous characteristics.  From an evolutionary perspective, this would explain the enduring human fascination with this mythical taxa.

This is an intriguing hypothesis that perhaps explains why, despite its distant and seemingly irrelevant origins, the legend of St George appeals to so many; maybe he didn’t just slay the dragon, but everything there is to fear about the natural world.