Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at LeonardoBoff.com.
by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
In Brazil and other parts of the world, there are millions of people watching soap operas on television. Currently, one -- "Salve Jorge" -- takes place in Cappadocia, Turkey, where St. George lived.
There is a longstanding debate among scholars about the place of his birth. It has been widely discussed by Malga di Paulo, a researcher into the saint's life, who provided the data for the current soap opera. Her book will be published soon. For Malga, who knows Cappadocia thoroughly, all indications point to that place as the homeland of the famous martyr. Others put it at Lod, Palestine, now Israel, where a shrine was built in his honor.
There's very little we can say with certainty on the subject. The school of critical historians of the lives of saints and martyrs, arising from the seventeenth century, the Bollandists, and their work, the Acta Sanctorum, leaves the question open. Another group, built around A. Butler, based on the Bollandists, and accessible in Portuguese through the 12 volumes of Lives of the Saints (Vozes, 1984) asserts: "There are a number of reasons to believe that St. George was a real and true martyr who suffered death in Lydda (Palestine) probably in the period before Constantine (306-337). Beyond that, it seems that nothing can be stated with certainty"(Vol. IV, p. 188).
I am inclined to say that Palestine, not Cappadocia, is his birthplace. The reason is based on the fact that there might have been a confusion of names. Indeed, there was a bishop named George of Cappadocia in Cappadocia, a historically well-confirmed fact. He entered the history of theology because of the controversy about the nature of Christ: might he just be like God (the Arians) or be God Himself (the anti-Arians)? Such a discussion divided the Church. The emperor Constantius II (one of his titles was Pope) wanted to ensure the unity of the empire through a single confession, in this case, the Arian one. He occupied Alexandria -- the focal point of anti-Arian resistance -- militarily and imposed George of Cappadocia, who was later killed, as the Arian bishop (357-361).
My hypothesis is that the first compilers of the life of St. George, in the 5th century and later in the 12th century, confused St. George with the familiar George of Cappadocia and so they made him be born there. One hypothesis.
Leaving aside the discussion, it's important to remember his best known representation: a warrior mounted on a white horse, wearing armor, with a red cross on a white background, facing a terrible dragon with his sharp spear.
As his father was a soldier, he pursued that career. He was so brilliant that the emperor Diocletian incorporated him into his personal guard with the high office of tribune. When the emperor forced, on pain of death, all Christians to renounce Christianity and worship the Roman gods, George refused and stood up for his fellow believers. Imprisoned and tortured, the legend says that he emerged miraculously unscathed from the lead cauldron and several poisonings. But he ended up being beheaded.
At first, he was revered in the West as simply a martyr, with his typical palm. Over time, and especially due to the Crusades, he became depicted as a warrior, with his own weapons, and associated especially with the confrontation with the dragon, a symbol of evil and the devil.
The legend best known in the West is the following one:
Once, George, as a soldier, passed through Libya in northern Africa. In the small town of Silca, people were living in terror. In a neighboring lake, there reigned a terrible dragon. His breath was so deadly that no one could get near to him to kill him. He charged two sheep a day. Having finished those, he demanded human victims, chosen by lot. One day the lot fell on the king's daughter. Dressed as a bride, she went to meet death. And behold, St. George then appears with his white horse and with his long spear. He strikes the dragon and conquers it. He ties its mouth with the princess's girdle and leads him gentle as a lamb to the city center. And all, grateful, were converted to the Christian faith.
He has been the patron of England since 1222 but officially only since 1347 with Edward III, and is celebrated with a feast (St. George's Day), and also of Russia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece, Catalonia and many cities.
When the Vatican revised the list of saints in 1969 and removed the popular Saint George from it, for reasons not entirely clear, a major controversy arose. There was a general outcry, especially from England, Catalonia and the Corinthians soccer team. Cardinal Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, an ardent Corinthians fan, interceded with Pope Paul VI in 1969 to keep the veneration of St. George, at least as an optional celebration. To which the Pope replied, "We can not hurt England or the Corinthians nation; go on with the devotion." In 2000, John Paul II, with pastoral sense, revived the feast. Saint George is present in African traditions -- Ogum for Umbanda and Oxossi for Candomble-Nago. In Rio de Janeiro, April 23rd, which is his feast day, is a municipal holiday, as he is the unofficial patron saint of the city.
In the next article we will try to decipher the basic archetype behind the warrior St. George and the dragon. Until then, we make ours the popular prayer:
"I will go clad and armed with the weapons of St. George so that my enemies having feet do not not reach me, having hands do not strike me, and having eyes do not see me....that my enemies be humble and submissive to Thee. Amen."