April 23rd is St. George's Day around the world. Its time to repost this article, an excerpt from The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature by Gary R. Varner.
The gods of the Old and New World include a number of characters with various powers, secrets and origins. India has several thousand individual gods and goddesses, which rule the minutest aspect of life—from the rains and the flow of the water to the operation of machinery to luck and fertility. Popular American culture has reduced this number down to one but one with thousands of personalities, purposes and origins. Neither culture is that much different from the other in this regard. To see American high school and college football or basketball players stop after a touchdown or basket is made, kneel on the playing field and thank god for the point or hear musicians accepting awards but thanking god for their success is not any different from the shaman or animist thanking a god or spirit for things much more important. Such as surviving another day.
My point in saying this is that all religions treat their deities in the same way. It used to be the practice to cajole and even threaten the gods to ensure delivery of the expected event. The gods we worship today have evolved directly from those that our ancient ancestors worshiped thousands and thousands of years ago.
St. George certainly is not considered a god. However, he does figure prominently in Christian mythology as the slayer of the demon-dragon and the protector of the faith from Pagan ideology. But, what is he really? A simple answer is that St. George was created in the 4th century CE, as were most other Catholic saints, from a Pagan origin. Estonian folklorist Mall Hiiemäe wrote of St. George:
“Perhaps the richness of the tradition accumulated on St. George’s Day should rather be viewed in the light of the fact that the Greek form Georgius means a ploughman, a cultivator of land. And when trying to divine the ancient predecessor of the holiday, one should better consider such tradition that is connected with spring-time vegetation as well as the concentration of special customs on certain pre-Christian dates to mark the awakening of nature and the arrival of spring.”(1)
St. George’s Day has been celebrated all over Europe and Britain and has figured prominently in the various rituals of spring. St. George has also been called Green George—the spirit of spring—throughout that part of the world. Barbara Walker directly links Green George, or St. George, to the Green Man. She says, “his image was common in old church carvings, a human head surrounded by leaves or looking out of a tree trunk.”(2)
The importance of George in Eastern European countries cannot be diminished. Russian proverbs such as “George will bring spring” and “There is no spring without George” are common as they are in other Slavic countries. Finnish sayings of “St. George comes with his fish basket” alternate with others that indicate that he brings grasses. What George is, is fertility. He is the fertility of green plants, fish, game and people. He is directly associated with peoples ability to survive and to provide for themselves. This is no more evident than in France where statues of St. George were carried through the cherry orchards of Anjou to ensure a good crop.
East European lore also states that the earth of winter is poisonous and cannot be sat or walked upon before St. George’s Day. It is on St. George’s Day that the earth is reborn and is once again alive.(3)Frazer tells us “amongst the Slavs of Carinthia, on St. George’s Day…the young people deck with flowers and garlands a tree which has been felled on the eve of the festival. The tree is then carried in procession, accompanied with music and joyful acclamations, the chief figure in the procession being the Green George…”(4) Other rituals of St. George’s Day include the blessing of crops in the Ukraine where, after the blessing given by a priest, couples lay down in the fields and roll several times over the newly sprouted shoots. In Southern Slavonia childless women used to hang a chemise on a fruitful tree on St. George’s Eve hoping that a creature will sleep in it overnight or at least tread through it. The next morning the woman will put the chemise on once again in the hopes that her desires for a child will be fulfilled in the next few months.(5)
In the 19th and early 20th centuries shrines of St. George were sought out by women hoping to become pregnant. “…in Syria”, wrote Frazer, “it is still believed that even dead saints can beget children on barren women, who accordingly resort to their shrines in order to obtain the wish of their hearts. …But the saint who enjoys the highest reputation in this respect is St. George. He reveals himself at his shrines which are scattered all over the country…”.(6)
In England St. George is an important part of the annual Mummers Play. This event, normally held around Christmas, Easter or All Souls Night (7) has been part of the local landscape since the 14th century. These dates are important to examine. Obviously, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, but it is also the birth date of many other Saviour Gods including Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, Osiris and the Syrian Baal and marks the winter solstice. Easter is named for Eostre or Ostara—Goddess of Spring and the celebration of the rebirth of vegetation. All Souls Night is, of course, Halloween, the Pagan New Year. The origin for these Mummers plays, according to John Matthews, probably date from pre-Christian, male society rituals. (8) As with all folkways, the play has changed over time and it is now a two-part event. The first part of the play is referred to as the “Hero Combat” and the second is the “Sword Dance”. “The Mummers plays recorded over the past 300 years”, wrote Fran and Geoff Doel, “have largely been intended for performance at the Christmas period and so have the Sword Dance Plays of the north-east of England…The swords of the dancers like into a magical symbol…They pretend to draw the swords together to decapitate,…the victim symbolically dying and reviving.”(9)
I do not agree with Matthews’s theory of the origins of these dances and plays but I do believe that the death and revival theme of the event is directly related to the rebirth and renewal of life afforded in the spring. The many bits of folklore from around the world associated with St. George’s Day give credence that this was, at one time, a very significant, worldwide event. An event that predated Christianity by untold ages. Ronald Hutton notes that the Mummers’ Play have been recorded from 824 different English communities, and while the “earliest definite one dates from the 1730s…the centerpiece of the action, a combat between champions in which one is killed and then revived, is an enactment of a theme so common and widespread that it must be archaic.” (10)
Janet and Colin Bord also link St. George, who appears in the Mummers’ Plays, with the Green Man. “The theme (of the Mummers) is generally the same”, they wrote, “as in the Green Man or Green George ceremony of May Day, that is, of death and rebirth of nature…These mummers’ plays had their origins in the same pagan times as the Green Man rituals when human sacrifice was part of the annual round of life, and in mankind’s attempt to regain the favour of the gods who seemed to have deserted them.”(11)
The ancient origin of the Day is indicated by the many Estonian customs associated with it. According to Hiiemäe, “more than one tenth of the reports concerning St. George’s Day customs in Estonia, have something to do with snakes. One would think that the image of George slaying the dragon would render snakes as the counterpart of evil. However, it is to the contrary in Estonian lore. The snakes, according to Hiiemäe, are “used in repelling and preventive magic to help the cattle thrive and people fare well and also to cure people’s diseases…”(12)It would appear that snakes are not indicative of evil but of good—as long as the snake used in ritual was killed before St. George’s Day.
Various other traditional rituals of Estonia and Eastern Europe have played some part in the creation of St. George’s Day. Hiiemäe notes, “interesting reports come from North-East Estonia where the cattle-magic practiced on St. George’s Day has merged with some traits of a woman’s holiday dating back to the tribal era”.(13)Other pagan holidays/festivals that have merged with St. George’s Day include Ploughing Day and the Shedding of Yellow Leaves.
Even though St. George continues to be an important folk-hero, appearing throughout the Old World in various festivals to mark important dates, the Church began to refer to him as “the imaginary saint” because he “was so shamelessly involved in fertility rites.”(14)
Another more direct link to the Green Man image is circumstantial. In some Bulgarian icons of St. George he is shown with a “Medusa head” on his breastplate—however the “Medusa” is in reality a face with two vine tendrils coiled on either side. Whatever George’s true origins it cannot be denied that he is intricately linked to nature’s resurrection every spring and the abundance of plant and animal life that results. He is part of the daily life and ritual of many peoples around the world that view him as the bringer of fertility and the continuation of life on earth. He is, in this way, the Green Man.
1.Hiiemäe, Mall. “Some Possible Origins of St. George’s Day Customs and Beliefs” in Folklore, Vol. 1, June 1996, published by the Institute of Estonian Languages, Tartu
2.Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Edison: Castle Books 1996, 339
3. Hiiemäe, op cit
4. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1993, 126
6. Frazer, Sir. J. G. Adonis: A Study in the History of Oriental Religion. London: Watts & Company 1932, 60
7. O’Hanlon, Maggie. Customs & Traditions in Britain. Hampshire: Pitkin Unichrome 2000, 9
8. Matthews, John. The Quest for the Green Man. Wheaton: Quest Books 2001, 124
9. Doel, Fran and Geoff. The Green Man in Britain. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Ltd. 2001, 81
10. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1993, 328
11. Bord, Janet and Colin. Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of Britain and Ireland. London: Thorsons 1995, 270
12. Hiiemäe, op cit
14. Walker, op cit