Friday, February 01, 2013

Saint George rides in!

One thing that brightened the turn of the years 2012/13 for me was the reappearance from Skylight Press of my little book Magical Images and the Magical Imagination in a sparkling new edition. An interesting work this, first published by an heroic little American publishing enterprise, Sun Chalice books, back in 1998 and 2003, run by an old colleague of mine Colstone Brown.  And not least because I consider it one of the best books I have ever written, containing in a small compass the distillation of nigh on fifty years of esoteric experience in easy to follow terms. Armed with this and a determination to follow through there is arguably little need for any other book if you want to know what magic is all about. An assessment supported by the fact that since it went out of print a decade ago it has sold several thousand in pirated form. Now at last it is restored to the  bounds of respectability and supplemented with additional material on Qabalistic pathworking and the Tarot.
            However, when it comes to magical images there is ever an element of surprise, and on seeing the new edition I was immediately struck by the evocative picture on the front cover – an icon of St George. Not that the image of St George appears within the compass of the book, but on due reflection he certainly is far from out of place in this graphic pole position, and raises some interesting points in terms of magical imagery and its function.
            Despite his legendary accretions as a slayer of dragons he was in fact a real person, an officer and tribune in the Roman army in the time of the Emperor Diocletian. His father had served the emperor well and this young Greek followed in his father’s footsteps and became quite a favourite of the emperor. (We use the term Greek in the wider sense insofar that he was born around 280 A.D. to noble Greek parents, his father from Cappadocia in Asia Minor and his mother from Lydda, currently in Israel, southeast of Jerusalem).
            Unfortunately for George, who had been brought up as a Christian, in 302 Diocletian took it into his head to go in for a little religious persecution, insisting that all soldiers in the army should make a sacrificial offering to the Roman gods. The young Christian tribune objected, and although the emperor tried to avoid a confrontation, offering him gifts of land, money and slaves if he would comply, in the face of St George’s public defiance he felt he had no other option than to persecute him in the accustomed manner. After ingenious forms of torture (then performed in public rather than in private in our more enlightened times) George was eventually despatched by having head cut off on April 23rd 303 outside the walls of Nicomedia.
            His suffering and fate were not without consequence, insofar that his bearing so impressed Diocletian’s wife, that the empress Alexandra herself converted to Christianity and suffered a similar fate. After his death  the future saint’s body was returned to his mother’s town of Lydda where it eventually to become enshrined in a cathedral dedicated to him.
            However, this was but the beginning of a wide and interesting supernatural career, becoming a patron and protector in the affairs of men. One event struck me quite forcibly when I was investigating the history of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and its possible Faery and Holy Grail connections. As is well known, the Grail story has a central motif of a maimed king whose fate is closely connected with the state of the country that he rules. There was indeed such a king in an actual country at much about this  time, in the form of Baldwin IV, the leper king of Jerusalem, whose kingdom was in fast decline through the internecine power struggles of the time. He came to the throne in 1174 at the age of thirteen and in a condition that some thought more dead than alive – although he survived until the age of 24 sustained by heroic faith in his duty and his cause.
            It so happened that Count Philip of Flanders was making a play for power at this time. This was the lord who provided Chretien de Troyes with the original manuscript from which he produced the Le Conte del Graal. Count Philip had turned up at Jerusalem with the idea of marrying a couple of his vassals to sisters of the leper king, possibly invading Egypt, and also with a couple of nieces in tow who were direct descendants of the first rulers of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I – who were credited with faery connections via Ida of Lorraine from the Knight of the Swan. (For further details of which consult my forthcoming Book of Melusine of Lusignan in History, Legend & Romance from Skylight Press).
            Be all this as it may, the situation in the autumn of 1175 was that Philip had gone storming off to the north of the Holy Land in something of a spat and drained all the forces of the Kingdom away from Jerusalem, which the great Muslim military leader Saladin, then ruler of Egypt, saw as a golden moment to strike against Jerusalem and wipe this Crusader kingdom off the map for ever. Hence he swarmed up from Egypt with a vast army of 26,000 troops  confident of an easy victory against the young Leper King who, with most of his forces drained away by Philip of Flanders, could muster less than 600 knights and perhaps a few thousand infantry.
            Possibly suffering from over confidence, and possibly from letting his troops run riot, including desecrating the shrine of St George at Lydda, Saladin suffered a crushing defeat, ninety percent of his army were wiped out, and he only saved his own skin by having a racing camel upon which to flee back to Cairo. The victorious Christian army of the Battle of Montgisard put down their miraculous victory in part to having a relic of the Holy Cross with them, before which the young king prostrated himself before going into battle, and also, significantly, the aid of St George, who was witnessed fighting on the side of the Christians. Which would no doubt teach the infidels not to mess with his shrine again!
            Oddly enough, St George is known and respected by Muslims to this day in the Middle East, as well as venerated by Christians.  He has with them the reputation of being able to cure insanity, and a 19th century traveller, Elizabeth Finn, reported that they commonly called him El Khudder – “The Green” although she did not know why, although green is of course regarded as a very holy colour in Islam. Interesting therefore to see that, coincidentally, the main colour cover of the new edition of Magical Images and the Magical Imagination should happen to be green!  Even at present shrines of St George can be a focus for Christians, Moslems and Jews – each in their own way – the Jews associating one of his dedicated sites with the birth place of Elijah.
            Which leads us to the question of how the saint spread his influence far and wide, to include being patron saint of England – as well as of Georgia, Catalonia and Aragon amongst other kingdoms. His red cross flag was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 as a device for their ships to seek protection from the Genoese fleet in the Mediterranean at the time of the Crusades – he being also a patron of the city state of Genoa.
The historical chronicler Froissart also mentions St George being evoked by the English in the Hundred Years War with France, famously recorded in Shakespeare’s  Henry V.  And who, who has seen the film, can deny something of a thrill as Sir Laurence Olivier cries “God for Harry, England and St. George!” as he urges his troops once more into the breach at Harfleur?
            However, why, where and when did the dragon slaying come in to the saint’s military record? In the fully developed legend a dragon had made its lair by a spring near a city, possibly in Libya, so that the citizens were unable to access water unless they offered the dragon some sheep to eat. When they ran out of sheep the required offering was a maiden,  chosen by lot, until the king’s daughter drew the short straw. As she was offered up it so happened that St George was passing by, who slew the dragon and rescued her. In gratitude for which all the citizens of the town converted to Christianity.
            The maiden is frequently shown on Greek icons, as indeed on the one on my book, standing in the background as St George deals with the dragon, and pious commentators equate her with the empress Alexandra, wife of the emperor Diocletian. Others see the dragon as Satan, or as unredeemed elements within ourselves. You can make your own choice.
However it would seem that the roots of the imagery go deeper than that, and it is possible to see here a version of the ancient myth of Perseus and Andromeda, or even an earthly manifestation of the archangel Michael. There is indeed a tradition of two military saints, St George and St Demetrius, being representatives of the archangels Michael and Gabriel, the first on a white horse, the latter on a red.
Nor is there a faery connection missing, for in the late romance Huon of Bordeaux, the eponymous hero enjoys some miraculous escapades in the Muslim world, aided by no less than Auberon, the faery king, whom he met in the forests of middle Europe on the way. Auberon later appears as Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream although without reference to the startling assertion, insisted upon in Huon of Bordeaux, that the faery king was the twin brother of St.George – both having been born of a liaison between Julius Caesar and Morgan le Fay! One does not have to take this too literally of course, although if one probes a little behind the dynamics of magical images one may well find evidence of archetypal links between human and faery traditions that may not be so ludicrous as might first appear.
For my part, I am content to have the image St George fortuitously
emblazoned upon the front of the new edition of Magical Images and the Magical Imagination, in the hope that he may discourage the internet pirates effectively as his flag discouraged the pirates of the Mediterranean eight hundred years ago!