St George Deciphered: the Origin of this Mythology is Revealed by the Etymology of the Name itself
Steve Moxon, Sheffield, England. firstname.lastname@example.org
A Creative Commons copywright applies
Just as is the case with Robin (Hood) and (King) Arthur, the name itself of (St) George turns out to be the key to the origin of the mythology, not that here for once etymology has not been to the fore in attempts to identify who/what is this figure. That the hitherto assumed Greek etymology is mistaken should have been apparent from the mundanity of the meaning: ‘rustic’ / ‘farmer’ is hardly befitting. There will have been translation into Greek, because Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. Instead, the origin appears to be two closely related (almost antonymic) Gaelic words: giorghal, ‘brave, fearless, strong’, which are of course the key qualities of St George, envisaged, as he was, as a soldier; and giorac, ‘cause of fear, dread, panic’, which would be apposite in reference to the ‘monster’ adversary. Giorghal also has the meaning ‘feat of arms’, which would indicate the conflict and that it is an important test. A cluster of quite a number of inter-related words show the deep etymology is also Gaelic and is not borrowing from another language. Inherent in the etymology, it seems, is the notion of a protagonist and his adversary. The historical background — to the mythology, that is, not to the figure of St George as a real personage, which he was not — is that the emperor Constantine was key to establishing Christianity in Palestine, and having long been based in northern Britain where ancient mythological customs and figures were co-opted by Christianity, it seems he may have brought namings from Britain to Palestine to re-name and appropriate a local cult there. Then again, the most ancient ‘Celtic’ mythology was to some degree pan-European, so it may have been an influence emanating from elsewhere, and possibly a common mythological substrate apparent from similar beliefs of military personnel from different parts of Europe as they mixed together in Palestine. Inasmuch as St George is any importation to Britain, it seems to be a re-import of what was here already in pre-Christian guise. Once again — as with Robin Hood and King Arthur — it’s regeneration lore: the usurping of the ‘old king’ by the ‘new king’, in a sympathetic magic ritual of spilling the blood of the earthly manifestation of the deity on to the land to make it fertile.
The confusion and obscurity of St George’s origin once again (as with Robin Hood and King Arthur) suggests an ancient one, with the etymology either not the same as for the eponymous common ‘Christian’ name or its precursor. A pre-Christian origin is indicated by St George’s Day being April 23, which, being May 4 before the major calender change in 1752, would have been the final day of what originally was a five-day May celebration as with ‘Celtic’ major festivals. It’s celebrated across Europe and even into Georgia and Russia — beyond the reach of the Catholic and into the realms of the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, in the Orthodox church, St George is celebrated not only additionally but more importantly on November 3, which is precisely at the end of the ancient festival diametrically opposite on the calendar to that in May. The inference must be that St George represents or is associated with a deity pertaining to both of the two most important ‘Celtic’ festivals of Beltane and Samhain: presiding over the start of both the ’light’ and ‘dark’ (half) years of the ‘Celtic’ pastoral calendar — not the agrarian calendar of ‘the farmer’ that the assumed Greek etymology of George would have us believe. There is of course the possibility that the representation or association originates prior to ’Celtic’ times or more widely than among ‘Celtic’ peoples, but this is unlikely given the antiquity and the geographical spread of proto-’Celtic’ language and peoples. Most likely, then, George is associated with the pan-’Celtic’ deity Brigid (various spellings) or her predecessor in the evolution of myth. As with Robin (Hood) and (King) Arthur, (St) George in effect may well be a go-between figure, bridging the divide between mankind and the supernatural, representing the ‘king’ in regeneration mythology. This last anyway would seem the case from St George’s role in traditional seasonal English mummers plays, the main focus of which is St George’s death in combat and his subsequent revival. As Peter Millington outlined in 2017 (in a chapter in the book by Michael Heaney, Percy Manning: The Man Who Collected Oxfordshire): “These plays are often said to dramatize the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, but Dragons are in fact very rare. Saint George is often King George or Prince George or a completely different potentate, and his opponent may be a Turkish Knight or a soldier ʹSlasher ʹ or any of a number of characters. And when it comes to the fight, the hero is as likely to be killed as his opponent. In fact the variety of antagonists is so great that the only certain purpose of the dispute is to provide a body for the Doctor, who is the one constant character in the hundreds of versions that have been collected nationwide.”
It’s usually but mistakenly accepted that St George was an import with Crusaders returning from Palestine, where they had encountered St George as a major saint. This is belied by the earliest recording in England being several centuries before the Crusades (the first of which was in 1095): the seventh century (Bede). St George also featured in early Irish calendars. As Michael Collins, the author of the most recent investigation (in 2018: George and the Dragons: The Making of English Identity) cites, research of original documents by Professor Olivier de Laborderie shows that there was no cult of St George associated with the crusades; at least not the early ones. Certainly, returning Crusaders did not bring about a cult of St George in England. A saint is not how George was considered by the English populace: their warrior-saints were Edward the Confessor, King Edmund and St Cuthbert. Not until the mid-fourteenth century, through the efforts of Edward III (in setting up the premier order of knights — the Order of the Garter — with St George deemed its head), and the dissemination of the George and the dragon story by Caxton’s book, The Golden Legend, published in 1483, did George become pre-eminent in this regard. So it was that as a baptismal name George did not become current until after the Middle Ages. All of this betrays a lack of Christian roots, as does the absence of an officially recognised link between St George and a dragon figure until the eleventh century. It’s as if the Christianisation is playing catch-up with the original. All suggests the probability that George is a mythological figure pre-dating his Christianisation as a saint, and too early to have been recorded in historical document, of course. The popular standing of St George may well be based on a similar figure with very deep foundations in vernacular lore, so that the original and the Christianised version became mutually reinforcing.
The usual historical-figure account of what actually is a mythological personage, as would be expected is based on no actual historical evidence. Supposedly an individual named Georgios was a Palestine-born Greek Christian in the Roman army, whom early Christians are purported to have commemorated after his martyrdom, allegedly in 303 AD. The notion that he was Greek likely is simply that his name was rendered into Greek, with Greek being the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. There is no record of anything concerning such a figure either at the time or long afterwards. As Michael Collins notes, there is only circumstantial evidence for a real personage, with written sources at the earliest at least 200 years after his supposed martyrdom, that “have too much in common with similar documents about saints who are known to be legendary”. In 494 AD, a figure was canonised (declared a saint) by Pope Gelasius. The Pope’s words are an interesting choice: he declared (St) George to be one of those “whose names are justly revered among men but whose acts are known only to God”. This does not sound like a reflection of an actual personage but well befits the co-option of a popular non-Christian figure — a ‘pagan’ deity — so as to help attract people to Christianity or adhere them to it. The very first testimony was in the fourth century AD, by a pilgrim named Theodotus, who visited Lydda and claims to have seen St George’s tomb and a church dedicated to him, with a feast day to commemorate the dedication of the church and deposition of relics on November 3. This would have been less than a century after a cult at Lydda had become established through the interest of the emperor Constantine. Constantine was born in the Balkans (Serbia) to an Illyrian (Balkan) father and Greek mother, and was sent to northern Britain before he became emperor. He was made emperor at York and continued his reign whilst in Britain and only much later based himself in the then Greek city he re-named Constantinople. Campaigning against the Syrians, Constantine championed the Syrian Christians, instigating tolerance towards Christianity and actually promoting it (to the point of being persuaded to convert himself, but which he did only on his death-bed). These campaigns brought in to Palestine and Egypt mercenaries, not least ‘Celts’, the presence of which may be the basis of the notion that St George was a Palestinian-born soldier. Constantine, having used the device of melding religion to help establish Roman authority in Britain, surely likewise would have done the same in order to consolidate Roman authority in Palestine and other places in the region, and likely had taken mythological notions with him from Britain. However, these essentially may have been little different to those from many European regions. Military personnel may have had a common deep mythological heritage, that became apparent in Palestine.
Interestingly, St George had a ready reception in Ireland, judging by his afore-mentioned featuring in early Irish calendars, indicating that St George likely mapped well on to ancient mythology there. In Ireland, before Christianity there was an association between a cross and a serpent or dragon, long presaging the later Christian association. The cross is a prehistoric symbol in many if not almost every culture, representing the sun, or (in terms of the cross functioning to divide a circle into quadrants) the sun/seasons, and the cross of the pan-’Celtic’ deity Brigid appears to predate the Christian one. The Irish patron saint, Patrick, was reputed to have driven out of Ireland all of the serpents and snakes, not least the Ollipeist (Gaelic ‘great worm’). Given this background, together with the success of using Gaelic lexicons to reveal the derivations of the two major English (British) mythological figures of Robin Hood and (King) Arthur, then it must be considered likely that the (St) George moniker likewise will be unlocked by Gaelic etymology. Norse and Welsh lexicons do not contain any candidates. The possibility that the appellation is simply George or its similar precursor as a loan word into Gaelic for it then to come into English is not the case: the Gaelic take on George is Seoirse.
The standard derivation of George in St George is Greek georgios (pronounced gheh-ore-gos), ‘a land-worker, farmer’ (or, adjectivally, ‘rustic’); a compound word ge-orgeo, ‘to work or cultivate the land’. But as already pointed out, the name is most likely a rendering in Greek of another language, given that Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. So the original name would have been rationalised as a near-sounding Greek word, thereby erasing the original meaning. There was in Ancient Athens Zeus Georgios, a god of agriculture; a form of Zeus (which means ‘shine’), the Greek’s sky and chief god. His festival was an autumn one consecrating ploughing and sowing. This cannot be the right identification as it post-dates a pastoral way of life or pertains to areas other than where pastoralism and the associated festivals continued. Zeus in any form remained a Greek God, not a pan-European one, and in the specific guise of Zeus Georgios has never been well known, and remains so today even in contemporary scholarship. This is no basis of a famous mythological figure across Europe, especially considering the mundane meaning — as a qualifier, ‘rustic’ might conceivably be the epithet for a deity if its power is conveyed in what it qualifies, but hardly as a standalone moniker. Another suggested Greek etymology is gyon, ‘wrestler’, which might be a little more apposite but in sound is a long way from ‘george’; likewise a proffered Hebrew root of gerar, ‘holy’.
Much more promising ‘Celtic’ candidates are not hard to find in old Gaelic dictionaries. The Pronouncing Gaelic Dictionary (from where is the pronunciation given herein) and Coneys’ Irish-English Dictionary (1849) both list giorag, pronounced ‘ge-ur-ag’, from Irish giorac, ‘fear, dread, panic, cause of fear, dread’, together with a number of related words, showing that it isn’t a loan word from any other language (see below). The evoking of dread/fear of course would refer not to the hero but to the ‘monster’ he slays. Strikingly, a very similar, archaic Scottish Gaelic word is its antonym: giorghal, ’brave(ry), fearless, strong‘, also given as meaning ‘feat of arms’ — a display of prowess, usually with a variety of arms, often involving combats both on horseback and on foot. This would befit a knight but also the combat between protagonists in regeneration lore — the usurping of the ‘old king’ by the ‘new king’, as in the case of Robin Hood and Little John using staffs and wrestling, before knifing. It seems, then, that variants of the same word denote or could denote opponents; the one, the cause of dread, and the other, embodying the bravery and strength to defeat it. This would be in line or not out of line with the snake-eating-its-own-tail nature of the ‘old king’ giving way to the ‘new king’ who in turn becomes himself the ‘old’ king’ to be usurped by the ‘new king’, and so on ad infinitum. More than this, standard regeneration lore features the ‘old king’ actually being revived from the dead by the goddess. [Note that both giorac and giorghal are also in forms with an initial c, which would be pronounced ‘k’, but such words have an aspirant form, denoted initial ch, which then can give rise to a ‘g’ sound.]
Another angle on St George is to look at what in England he usurped: St Michael. The only archangel (chief angel) in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament he is named as a protector of Israel. In the Book of Revelation in the New Testament he is portrayed as the leader of heaven’s armies in the war against Satan, and is thus considered the patron saint of soldiers in Christianity. As with St George, the name of St Michael has been assumed to be from the Hebrew: mikha’el, meaning “who is like God?” But this is a question: the first part of a rhetorical question & answer, missing the reply, ”no-one”. It’s a most bizarre attempt at etymology; obviously forced, on the assumption that it must be Hebrew, but the language easily could be that of the military and other personnel who came in with the conflicts under Roman empire overlordship. As with George, the etymology looks more likely Gaelic: macail, ‘like a son’. This could not be more apposite. As the Archangel, like Jesus Michael is God envisaged in human form, the better to make sense of God’s nature. But as he’s not God per se, and neither can he be the son of God per se, he is indeed as if a son. There are similar, perhaps derivative Gaelic words that denote key properties of St Micheal: meachainn, ‘mercy’, and meachuinn, ‘power, discretionary power, will’ (the spellings actually are interchangeable, so there seems to be one word with both meanings): St Michael’s role supposedly is to reveal the secrets of mercy and righteousness.
Turning from the figure St George usurped in England to that he usurped in Palestine: this was St Menas (Mena, Minas, Mena). According to Bob Stewart, in his book, Where is St George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong (1977): “Pre-dating George, with exactly the same theme and attributes, was the immensely popular Eastern figure, St Mena. … St Mena had absorbed a cult deriving from ancient Egypt, then was in turn absorbed by Saint George, possibly in an attempt to draw eastern Christian energy away from the obviously pagan faith.” St Mena was exactly akin to George in supposedly being a soldier in the Roman army martyred because he refused to recant his Christian faith. The assumption is that the name is the Greek personal name Menas, though in turn this is thought to derive from the pre-Christian Egyptian name Mena, borne by the Pharaoh Mena (or Menes) who unified Upper and Lower Egypt in 3100 BC. Yet this too could be of Gaelic derivation, given the perfectly apposite candidate, meamna, ‘magnaminity, courage, bravery, strength’; meamnach, ‘magnaminous, courageous, brave, strong’.
Back with St George and Gaelic derivation: there is a considerable number of Gaelic words with meanings pregnant with association to facets of George & the dragon mythology. The previously cited giorghal is a compound word, with a stem that mistakenly has been taken to be a word borrowed from Greek meaning ‘hand’, in that it seems similar, but no etymological connection has been shown. It is surely cíorr, ‘lame, maimed’ (see John O’Brien’s 1768 Irish-English Dictionary). Maiming is a key facet of the ‘new king’ / ‘old king’ combat in regeneration mythology. There is the Gaelic word geargán, ‘little fierce one’: gearg denotes grouse (heath-bird) but was often used figuratively for warrior (or king) from their aggressive territorial behaviour (they’re a lek species), including making drumming noises with their wings. The Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language has garg, ‘fierce, angry, bitter’, traceable back to Proto-Celtic gorgo- / *gergo-, ‘rough’. With more than a dozen closely related words showing this is not a borrowing, there is diogan, ‘revenge, vengeance, severity, cruelty’. The word for ‘warrior’ is gaisgeach, with a more specific meaning of ‘one bearing arms’ and having prowess or skill to become a champion, from gaisced, ‘weapons, arms, armour; valour, prowess, feats of arms, skill at arms’). A word with the range of inter-related meanings all of which would be applicable to St George — ‘a virgin, a saint, a warrior’, also ‘holy’ — is gearait. Seemingly harping back to the pastoral way of life identified in connection with a Gaelic derivation, is gerrjo-, ‘driving cattle’: gearraidhean is a place where cattle is driven to in summer. Adding together all of the relevant words from Gaelic — noting they each have varying grammatical forms and very closely related but different other words — there is a veritable cluster of inter-related meanings that does indicate a likelihood that Gaelic is the parent language regarding thing St Georgian, because words borrowed from another language rarely proliferate, particularly in the manner of tangential meaning. There is, then, a fair degree of confidence that Gaelic etymology is the key to the full flush of ancient British mythologies, with St George in this regard joining Robin Hood and King Arthur.