20 May 2013

The Georgios Mystery

My own fascination with the Saint George began at the age of six or seven, with the ubiquitous picture (common in this part of the world) of the saint, when I held up the decorated umbrella as part of St. George Day procession at Thonackadu church. The elders had told me the fairy tale (the one we are all so familiar with) when asked who was in that picture: Geevarghese they named the hero. 
Until recently I didn't know that the names Varkey and George had the same root: “Gewargis” (In Syriac) and so both refer the same. The variants of this name are probably the most common names among the SyrChr.
In spite of being one of Christendom's best-recognized saints, with patronages of many European countries, the real character behind the icon is actually a mystery. It would be surprising to know that the Catholic Church had tried to relegate the status of this saint a couple of times in history, unsuccessfully. The fact is the icon could not be traced back to an actual event or a real character.

Even keeping aside the local variations of the dragon-killing lore (there is Georgian, English and others) there are conflicting traditions. Examine a few:
The Western and most-common version (the Golden Legend) a dragon resides in a nest at the spring that provides water for the city of "Silene" in Libya. To dislodge the dragon from its nest, to collect water, the villagers offer at first a sheep and if no sheep can be found then a maiden must go instead. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this happens to be the princess. She is offered to the dragon, but there appears Saint George on his travels. He faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the Cross, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. The citizens abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity.
His father was a Greek officer in the Roman army and his mother was a Greek from the city Lydda. They were both Christians and from noble families. Year AD 302, Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time. George objected and loudly renounced the Emperor's edict, in front of his fellow soldiers and Tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian and declared his worship of Jesus Christ. After various torture sessions (bit fantastic) George was executed by decapitation on April 23, 303. As witness of his suffering Empress Alexandra and a magician Athanasius became Christians and so they joined George in martyrdom.
Known as El-Mezahem  in some Coptic circles. Martyrdom in 959AD. From Muslim Bedouin father and Christian mother. The Muslims tortured, beheaded and thrown into the sea

Historians have scoured past references and ancient texts to try identify the real person behind the icon and found something complicated. It turned out that the icon evolved over time; Understanding the mysterious origins was much like de-layering the onion but they may have come close.

The gist of the research is that the icon (the knight & saint George on a horse slaying a dragon) maybe a composite! A composite composed of multiple layers of fact-malignment done over centuries of his-story revisions and imagination.

I will go for a very quick rundown of the (his) story build (the details may bore/confuse who are not familiar with early christian history):
  • At the council of Nicea (325 AD), presided by Emperor Constantine, Arius was banished as a heretic by the Trinitarian bishops. But he was later pardoned by Constantine and there was a brief period of promise for the Arians. The next emperor Constantius banished Arius’ main contender, Athanasius, and replaced him with a George of Laodicea (friend of Arius).
  • The brief period of Arian glory crashed down with the next emperor Julian, an anti-Christian. In his sweep to restore polytheism, one of the victims was the George of Laodicea who was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently executed in AD 361. This George was the root of the St. George icon.
  • In AD 381 with the next Emperor, Theodocius, Christianity was back with a bang only that by this time the catholic (Trinitarian-party) rebounded faster and stronger. Arianism was again heretical and all known arian texts were to be destroyed. However the public sentiment for the martyr-George was too strong and so therefore the catholic fathers seem to have invented a new character that conformed to the Trinitarian view. This is the George who was persecuted by (much earlier) emperor Diocletian at Nicomedia in AD 303 and whose headless body was enshrined in Lod. Laodicea became Lydda (Lod) in Palestine.
  • The headless-martyr story maybe of a deacon Romulus who was buried in Lod. This is the current tomb of St George.
  • Dragon was an epithet for a King who was introduced as the persecutor in later editions of the story. And the dragon stuck ever since.
  • During the crusading era the story of Saint George put on more chivalrous colouring. Lydda became Libya; Saint George was a Roman tribune (military-man); He saves a princess Alexandra. This icon suited well for the militant crusaders.
  • After which, the above story evolved in the different regions with their own version of the iconic Saint George.
Whatever the reality behind the character of the icon, the popularity of the same in Kerala is as interesting. Only a handful of churches fit the list of pre-Portuguese Gregorian churches (i.e. Aruvithura, Karingachira, Kadamattom and Edapally); the foreign influence (being patron saints of both Portugal as well as England) may definitely have bolstered the already existing patronage but they may not be the original introducers.

 With the legend supposedly strong in the Levant (oldest texts being in Syriac & Greek from the 5th century), the icon plausibly have been brought into the Malsabha by the migrating-parties (the Knanaya?); and right-fittingly into the dark and exotic land in India. A shining hero was what was required for the pioneers into the demon-filled, disease-aired, serpent-infested but fertile-heaven (St. George is also the patron for land tillers and agriculturists). The icon would probably have enthralled the local communities too with hope of a saviour in a land obsessed with sarpa-dosham and rahu-ketu. The icon fitted perfectly for the SyrChrs and taken root ever since.

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