Sunday, January 27, 2013

St. George and the Dragon: two dimensions of human beings

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

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Every religion -- Christianity too -- has many valences. Besides being centered on God, it produces narratives about the paradoxical human drama, creating meaning, an interpretation of reality, history and the world.

One example is the legend of St. George and fierce battle with the dragon recounted in the previous article. First, the dragon is a dragon, therefore a serpent. But winged, with a huge mouth emitting fire and smoke and a deadly odor.

In the West, it represents evil and threatening world of shadows. In the East, it is a positive symbol, the national symbol of China, lord of the waters and fertility (long). Among the Aztecs, the winged serpent (Quetzalcoatl) was a positive symbol of their culture. For us westerners, the dragon is always terrible and represents a threat to life or the harsh difficulties of survival. The poor say, "I have to kill a dragon every day, such is the struggle for survival."

But the dragon, as evidenced by the psychoanalytic tradition of C.G. Jung along with Erich Neumann, James Hillman, Etienne Perrot and others, represents one of the most ancient and cross-cultural archetypes (structural elements of the collective unconscious or primordial images that structure the psyche) of humanity.

And along with the dragon is always the heroic knight facing him in a fierce struggle. What do these two figures mean? Led by the categories of C.G. Jung and his disciples, especially Erich Neumann who specifically studied this archetype (The Origins and History of Consciousness , Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), and the existential-humanistic psychotherapy of Kirk J. Schneider (The Paradoxical Self, Prometheus Press, 1999) let's seek to understand what is at stake in this confrontation. It teaches and challenges us.

The path of evolution leads mankind from the unconscious to the conscious, from cosmic fusion with the Whole (Ouroboros) to the emergence of autonomy of the self. This step, fully realized, is dramatic, hence, the self must continually take it up again if it wants to enjoy freedom and autonomy.

It's important to recognize that the frightening dragon and the heroic knight are two important dimensions of the same human being. In us, the dragon is our dark, ancestral universe, our shadows, from which we emerged into the light of reason and of the independence of the self. Rightfully, in some iconography, especially in Catalonia (of which it is the patron) the dragon appears wrapped around the body of the knight. In an engraving by Rogério Fernandes, the dragon appears wrapped around the body of St. George, who is holding him by the arm, and has his face, which is not threatening at all, at the height of Saint George's. It's a humanized dragon, forming a single entity with St. George. In other images (in Google, there are 25 pages of St. George and the Dragon) the dragon appears as a domesticated animal whom St. George, who is standing, leads serenely, not with a spear but with a crook.

The activity of the hero, in this case St. George, in his fight with the dragon, shows the strength of the self, courageous, enlightened, asserting itself and winning autonomy, but always in tension with the dark side of the dragon. They coexist, but the dragon fails to dominate the self.

Neumann says: "The activity of consciousness is heroic when the ego takes on and performs the archetypal struggle with the dragon of the unconscious by itself, bringing it to a satisfactory synthesis" (Op. cit. p. 244*). The person making this journey doesn't deny the dragon, but keeps it domesticated and integrated as his shadow side. For this reason, in most stories, St. George doesn't kill the dragon but only tames it and reinserts it in its place, no longer being threatening. Hence the happy synthesis of opposites; the paradoxical self finds its balance since it achieves harmonization with the dragon's ego, of the conscious with the unconscious, of light with shadow, reason with passion, of the rational with the symbolic, of science with art and religion (cf. Schneider, p. 138*).

The facing of opposition and the search for balance is the hallmark of mature personalities who have integrated the dimensions of shadow and light. So we see this in Buddha, Francis of Assisi, Jesus, Gandhi and King.

Residents of Rio greatly venerate St. George, more than Saint Sebastian, the official patron of the city. The latter is a warrior who is riddled with arrows, therefore "defeated". The people feel the need of a brave warrior saint who overcomes adversity. And St. George represents the holy ideal.

Perhaps those who worship St. George before the dragon don't know any of this. Never mind. Their unconscious knows it and activates and carries out his work in them: the desire to fight, to assert themselves as autonomous egos that face themselves and integrate difficulties (the dragons) into a positive project of life (St. George, conquering hero). And they come out strengthened for the battle of life.

* Translator's note: Page numbers cited refer to the Portuguese editions of the texts.

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