With this week’s libertine and slovenly Earth Day celebrations safely behind us, we can now embrace one of our healthiest traditions—supplanting a pagan festival with a Christian one. Conveniently, we don’t even have to invent one: Today is the feast of St. George.
St. George was one of the most beloved and venerated saints of the early Church. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, especially powerful saints who came to be invoked against the plague or any extreme need.
George was born of Greek Christian parents. His father, Gerontius, had been a distinguished solder, well liked by Diocletian. He was 14 when his father died. A few years later, he decided to follow his father’s career and applied for military service under Diocletian in Nicomedia. His offer was eagerly accepted.
By the time George was in his late twenties, he was promoted to tribune in the Emperor’s guard. Tribunes were often of the equestrian rank, (hence his portrayal as a knight on horseback.) In February of 303, prompted by his co-emperor Galerius, Diocletian issued an edict commanding every Christian soldier to be arrested. George firmly defied the edict, resisting attempts of both bribery and torture to force him to apostasize. He was finally beheaded on Good Friday of 303.
He is almost always pictured on horseback with his lance thrust down the throat of a dragon. The dragon is your basic reptile, sometimes with wings, looking more or less like a small crocodile. On some images there is a maiden in the background. The dragon is interpreted symbolically to represent Satan and paganism as well as a dragon. The maiden is identified with Diocletian’s wife, Alexandra of Rome, who, according to legend, was inspired to convert to Christianity upon witnessing the martyrdom of St. George.
I always wondered about that dragon.
Many years ago, my husband and I took a trip to the Everglades. The captain of the boat we hired to go through the swamp entertained us with many crocodile and dolphin stories, of which he had a wealth. He told of dolphins strategically peeling out of a pod (a herd of dolphins) to take down a shark that had gotten too close. There was the monster croc somewhere remote (New Guinea, perhaps) decades ago that had been in the habit of dragging natives FROM THEIR HUTS for dinner—until his career was cut short by a hunter with a high-powered rifle. I thoroughly enjoyed this Old Man of The Sea’s stories—there was no hint of sentimentality about him. He loved his job, he loved the Everglades, and he had been around long enough to observe and collect a lot of nature trivia, some of which was red in tooth and claw.
It occurred to me that fairy tales about dragons, including the one about St. George, might not all be fictional.
Like most reptiles, crocs don’t stop growing until they die, and they can get horrifyingly big. Prehistoric skeletons have been found that were 40 feet from snout to tail. And in George’s time, the weapons available for croc- or dragon-slaying, such as lances and swords, required one to get up-close and personal.
If you research animal attacks on humans, crocs are pretty near the top of the list for horrifying deaths. They have special organs on the sides of their heads that are extremely sensitive to movement; they can detect the slightest ripple in the water, and even feel footsteps approaching on land. They can swim underwater toward a sound unseen, gaining tremendous momentum, and then launch their huge bodies into the air to rip their next meal from the shore. Typically they drag it into the water to drown and consume it. Evidently, they don’t need wings.
The world record for largest croc shot in recent times is held by Krystina Pawlowski, who with her husband Ron, was a professional croc hunter. This animal measured 28 feet 4 inches. It met its end along the banks of the Norman river in Queensland. Twenty-eight feet. That is almost the length of two mid-sized cars placed end to end. Now imagine the size of its head, most of which is mouth. That, my good people, is a monster. Or a dragon.
Though Kris and Ron became sentimental about crocks in their later years, the story of how they got into the business in the first place is a typically creepy one. The year was 1956:
Ron was working on his vehicle when Stefan [Ron’s step-son] ran up, shouting: “Crocodile, Barbara.”
“I looked up and, God almighty, there was my four-year-old daughter, Barbara, playing on the beach with her back to a 12-foot (3.7m) crocodile,” Ron later recalled.
“I reached in the car and pulled out my heavy-calibre rifle and blew the croc’s head apart with an expanding bullet.”
Outdoorsman and author Dick Eussen describes just how cunning they can be. One tried to snare him from his boat:
I must have been asleep for a few minutes because I woke with a start as the hair in the back of my neck was on edge. Without hesitation I threw myself forward into the center of the boat. Craige had woken up at the same time. “Jeeze mate, that mongrel missed you by this much.” We had seen her several times in the morning when we were fishing, but she showed no interest and kept well away from us. Once we relaxed our vigil she had come up and tried for me. Only a fraction of a second was between me and death by the living nightmare of the tropics, because when she came up she hit the motor and the back of the boat.
A mate of ours, Kerry McLaughlin, was not so lucky when he was taken by a 4.8-metre [15.7-foot] male croc on Cahill’s Crossing a month earlier. The incident was a sobering experience for both of us.
These are among the tamer stories. When I started researching this, the Internet had easy access to hundreds of harrowing reports—but now they are much harder to find. Perhaps the environmental movement has resorted to a bit of censorship. The saddest accounts were from the more remote areas of Africa, where protected crocs prey on villagers who come down to the rivers for drinking water, to water their flocks, and to wash clothes. It is worth meditating on how the money donated for “wildlife preservation” can also become a tool for the unjust oppression of the poor.
As Earth day has become a sort of Holy Day of Obligation in the United States, one is increasingly likely to encounter perverted ideas about animals. “Are you the parent of a new puppy?” chirped a female voice yesterday in a radio ad for some pet product. No, not unless you are a dog.
The following thought is from Whit Gibbons of PARC (Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation):
Despite the prevailing views about the sanctity of human life, some predators view people as simply another source of protein…. Ironically, humans, the invasive species, are the ones who become offended when another species takes objection to our presence.
Sadly, Whit, thanks to the likes of you, those views don’t prevail any more. But if you want to go there, is it okay that some predators simply “view” alligators as an ingredient for a stew, or as another source of lovely shoes and handbags—helpful in appearing more sleek and attracting a mate? I think I may prefer that one after all.
And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth (Gen 1:28).
As we gallop down the path of earth worship and animal sentimentality, we are ever nearer to sacrificing our children and the poor to animal gods, either symbolically or literally. Perhaps St. George’s dragon is prophetic. We may need his intercession to slay our dragons one more time.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Saint George Slaying the Dragon” was painted by Giorgio Vasari in 1551.