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Posts Tagged ‘St. George and the Dragon’

Surprisingly, I had not come across mention that King Arthur was connected to the White Horse of Uffington until recently when reading Benjamin Merkle’s The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great.

The White Horse of Uffington

Early in the book, Merkle mentions speaking to someone who suggested King Alfred the Great may not have been real. This outlandish statement, since we know Alfred was King of Wessex from 871-899, reveals that King Arthur and King Alfred the Great may be confused in the popular imagination. The same may be said about their legends associated with the White Horse.

The White Horse of Uffington is located in the Berkshire Downs. It is 374 feet in length and made of chalk. Every few years, it is rechalked to maintain its appearance. The White Horse is believed to be the oldest hill figure in Britain, some experts dating it back to 1000 BC. Some even think it represents a dragon, although it more closely resembles a horse in my opinion. In fact, similar images have been found on coins from the period which have caused scholars to think it may have represented some sort of local horse goddess, one form of Epona, a fertility goddess who was worshipped throughout the Celtic world and known to be a protector of horses.

As for King Arthur, Whitehorse Hill is also sometimes referred to as Mount Badon hill, the site where Arthur allegedly defeated the Saxons in 516 AD. Another story connected to King Arthur is of Wayland, the Norse god of blacksmithing, who is said to have had his forge about a mile away. Some legends even say that Wayland forged Excalibur. One legend says the horse leaves the hill once a year to graze, but others say it will not leave the hillside until King Arthur returns, and then the horse will dance on the Berkshire Downs to welcome the king home. These legends are all entertaining, but given that the horse is about twice as old as King Arthur would be, a connection between them seems unlikely.

The belief that the White Horse of Uffington actually looks like a dragon has also given rise to the stories that this is the very spot where St. George, England’s patron saint, famously killed the dragon.

The White Horse at Westbury

As for King Alfred, he also was said to have fought a decisive battle here, the Battle of Ashdown against the Danes in 871. He fought under his brother Aethelred who was king at the time but would die a few months later. Ashdown was the only of several battles that year that the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex won. We also don’t know for sure that this hill was the sight of the battle, though Merkle says it is the likeliest candidate. Interestingly, at Westbury is another White Horse. This one we know dates only to 1778 when a local resident created it. Evidence exists, however, of another White Horse at this location facing toward the current horse. Records of that horse date only to the seventeenth century but many think it was created to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ethandium in 878.

We will likely never know the truth about the history of the White Horse of Uffington, but one thing is for sure, it was there long before King Arthur or King Alfred, who probably both knew it well.

To discover more interesting places associated with King Arthur, I highly recommend Scholarly Sojourns’ Arthurian Tour, Uncovering Camelot.

Not surpringly, a white horse was chosen for King Arthur to ride in the 2004 film “King Arthur” starring Clive Owen.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

 

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We all know the name of St. George, and most of us know he’s the patron saint of England. We know he slew a dragon, and we may remember Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry V: “For Harry, England, and St. George.” And doesn’t it seem fitting that April 23rd, the very day Shakespeare not only was born but also died, is St. George’s Holy Day?

But St. George was not English. I knew that and that he actually was from somewhere in the Middle East, but I wasn’t quite clear on where until recently. And then in March this year, I visited Turkey and discovered St. George was from that land, although to call him a Turkish saint would not be correct either since the Turks would not reside in modern-day Turkey until centuries after his death.

St. George died in 303. The date of his birth is not known exactly, but it is generally thought to be somewhere around 275-281 A.D. That means St. George lived in Roman times. In fact, he was a Roman soldier in the Guard of the Emperor Dioceletian from Syria-Palaestinea.

What about the story of his slaying the dragon? How is that possible when dragons are mythical? The dragon has long been associated with the pagan religions. Think of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which was a metaphor for driving out the druids or the old religion. Snakes, serpents, and dragons are fairly interchangeable as terms for pagan religions.

You see, St. George was a Christian, but the Emperor Diocletian was one of Christianity’s greatest enemies, and he issued an order for all Christian soldiers in his army to be arrested and half to be put to death. St. George went to the emperor to protest, and being much respected by the emperor, Diocletian tried to get him to recant, but St. George refused. He was eventually put to death. His death as a martyr served as inspiration to others to convert. After all, the Christian Church is said to have been built on the blood of the martyrs. His suffering and death by decapitation are said to have so moved the empress and a pagan priest that they also converted and were put to death.

The story of the dragon evolved from this event which is believed to be fairly historical. Exactly how a literal dragon entered the story is unknown, but the Crusaders brought the story of St. George and the Dragon back to Europe with them. In the tale, a maiden is offered to the dragon, but St. George rescues her and slays the dragon. The parallel to Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda is obvious. This story became so popular that St. George became the patron saint of England. He is a popular saint in several other countries besides England, including Portugal and Georgia (although it is not named for him), and of course, Turkey. In fact, he is one of the very few Christian saints who is venerated by the Muslims.

In Turkey, St. George remains very popular, although he is best known in Christian depictions in Byzantine Christian churches in Cappadocia (which claims to be his birthplace) that date to the Middle Ages and were carved out of the rock. I visited one such church while I was there, and I purchased the lovely icon pictured here in Ephesus at the Home of the Virgin Mary.

St. George is often depicted with a red cross and riding a white horse. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-96), the Redcrosse Knighte is an idealized version of Christianity based primarily on St. George. More recently, he was depicted in the 1962 film The Magic Sword (also known as St. George and the Dragon, St. George and the Seven Curses). You have to be a real fan of cheesy older movies to sit through this film—I have but I wouldn’t again—but it’s interesting for how a saint can become such a myth and enter popular culture. And who’s to say that, on some mythical level, St. George and King Arthur do not ride together, guarding England, or should I say Britain? For Britain was not England in Arthur’s day any more than St. George would have known a place named Turkey.

The story of St. George, be it myth or history or a little of both, will live on for years to come. I encourage you to investigate it more.Monastery/Church carved into rock in Cappadocia. St. George is depicted in such a church in the area.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. Visit him also at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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