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Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

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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Today, I am honored to be a guest blogger at my friend Nicole Alexander’s blog, “The Mists of Time.” She asked me to write about my trip to Turkey and the connections between Turkey and the Arthurian legend. You can read my guest post at: http://nicoleevelina.com/2012/04/11/guest-post-searching-for-king-arthur-in-turkey/

I have blogged several times here also about the French fairy, Melusine of Lusignan, whom I consider a marginal part of Arthuriana since Melusine was raised on the Isle of Avalon.

Image of Medusa in Ephesus, Turkey, which closely resembles depictions of Melusine.

While I was visiting in Turkey the ruins of Ephesus (best known for St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and because the Apostle John and Virgin Mary settled there after Jesus’ ascension), I was stunned to see a depiction of Medusa. We all known Medusa as the woman in the story of Perseus who has a head of snakes, and if you look upon her, you would be turned to stone. Perseus uses his shield so he only has to look at her reflection and can cut off her head.

At Ephesus, the image of Medusa closely resembles many images of Melusine. Medusa is depicted with what look like two fish (possibly serpent or snake) tails. This image is close to that well-known image of the mermaid in the Starbucks logo and many other depictions of Melusine.

Melusine is herself believed to be based in earlier mythologies of water spirits or goddesses and Medusa is probably one of her literary or religious grandmothers. Their stories have similarities. According to Wikipedia: “Medusa was originally a ravishingly beautiful maiden, “the jealous aspiration of many suitors,” priestess in Athena’s temple, but when she was caught being raped by the “Lord of the Sea” Poseidon by Athena‘s temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. In Ovid’s telling, Perseus describes Medusa’s punishment by Minerva (Athena) as just and well earned.” Well-earned is questionable. Does being raped deserve such punishment? Melusine also acquires her serpent form at the rage of another–her mother Pressyne, who curses her after Melusine and her sisters lock up their father in a cave where he dies.

A typical depiction of Melusine.

I’m not the first to note the similarities between Melusine and Medusa. An interesting book that discusses Melusine’s connection to more classical myths is Gillian Alban’s Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Mythology.

Anyone interested in ancient goddesses and the Turkey connection might enjoy a tour of Turkey with Rashid Ergener, who was my own tour guide of Turkey, and the most knowledgeable tour guide I have ever known. He even leads tours in search of the Ancient Mother Goddess. Find out more at: http://rashidsturkey.com/?nav=g&dir=&g=

Turkey is a beautiful country and well worth a visit, whether or not you are in quest of ancient myths and legends.

Julius Hubner's 1844 painting of Melusine.

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I recently returned from a wonderful trip to the beautiful country of Turkey. I knew Turkey was filled with ancient history—the ruins of Ephesus, Troy, etc.—but I have always been most fascinated with the Byzantines, or the Greeks or Romans, as they called themselves. I am also struck by the similarities between Camelot and Constantinople, and particularly between King Arthur and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor. Just as Camelot was the brief shining moment before Britain was conquered by the Saxons, so Constantinople was the last remnant of the great Roman Empire which had once ruled most of the known world, including Britain. The city’s fall to the Turks in 1453 marked the end of the Roman Empire, which had stretched on for over 2,000 years.

Constantine XI, the last emperor, had a tragic ending that inspired great myths similar to those of King Arthur, so while the two were not necessarily related, although Constantine XI was named for Constantine the Great, and Arthur is often believed to be a relative or descendant of Constantine the Great, Constantine XI may be deemed a mythical or literary descendant of King Arthur in how they are both depicted as leaders who may come again.

Constantine’s tragedy lies not only in the Fall of Constantinople, but that he was the last emperor, without even an heir. He had two wives but no children, his second wife dying in childbirth. Similarly, Arthur had no children who survived him. His end is more tragic in that his son, Mordred, and he slew each other, but nevertheless, both leaders’ endings spelled the end of an era.

The people of Constantinople, the city being all that was left of an empire, held out under siege by Mehmet II for fifty-three days before the city finally fell. In the city’s last hours, Constantine would have prayed inside Hagia Sophia before going to fight with his people as the city walls were beaten down.

What happened to the emperor once the city fell has become the stuff of legend. The emperor’s body was never found, or if it were, it was not recorded. One source states that Constantine’s last words were, “The city is fallen and I am still alive,” and then he tore off his imperial ornaments so he could not be distinguished from the other soldiers and made a final charge at the enemy. According to Roger Crowley in his wonderful book about the Fall of Constantinople, 1453, Constantine was very aware that he would go down in history as the emperor who let the city fall, so he may not have wanted to be identified because of the shame he felt, and he also would not have wanted to be taken alive and forced into shameful positions of submission before the conqueror, Mehmet II.

One story claims that Constantine was identified by his purple boots, and that his body was decapitated and his head sent around Asia Minor as proof of Mehmet II’s victory, but more likely, his body was never identified and he died in a mass grave with the rest of his soldiers.

The inability to locate the emperor’s body led to myths that he had not died. Just as King Arthur is taken to Avalon before he can die so he can be healed of his wound and allowed to return again, so Constantine is preserved from death so he can return. In one such legend, an angel rescues the emperor as the Ottomans enter the city. The angel turns Constantine into marble and places him under the earth in a cave near the Golden Gate where he waits to be brought back to life to re-conquer the city for the Christians.

Just as the British have hoped for Arthur to return in their hour of greatest need—during World War II, the myth was especially prevalent—the Greeks have held onto the dream of Constantine’s return.

During the Balkan Wars and Greco-Turkish War in the early twentieth century, the name of the then Greek King, Constantine, was used to see him as part of a prophetic myth that Constantine had returned. Although Constantine XII failed to return Constantinople to Christian hands, similar British efforts have been made to recreate King Arthur through another monarch of the same name, such as King John’s nephew in the thirteenth century being named Prince Arthur, to the brother of Henry VIII who was also Prince Arthur, and even the speculation that current Prince William will use his middle name Arthur when he someday ascends the throne of Britain.

Constantine’s return seems very unlikely to me, especially when Istanbul is a thriving busy city of nearly 20 million today, and a largely Westernized if Turkish city. Had Constantine not been the last emperor, doubtless one soon after him would have been, but his myth speaks to the affection his people had for him, that they did not wish him ill or blame him for the loss of Constantinople, but rather they see him as a tragic hero, just as Arthur lives affectionately in the British people’s bosoms.

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

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