On St. George and his day

On April 23 it’s St George’s Day in England, the feast day of the English national saint—though you’ll find precious few people celebrating on April 23 (if they do it’ll more likely be for Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday), or paying much attention to St George in the rest of the year for that matter.

I’m now going to spoil things by devoting an entire blogpost to St George. But in truth the last time I ever gave much thought to him was in the middle of Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there’s now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge with some interesting folklore associated with it. It is a dragon, azhdaha, slain by Hazrat-e Ali: a crevice running along the top of the ridge was caused by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water his groans, and the milky water that flows out from its head his penitential tears.

This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, with his horse Doldol and sword Zulfiqar, who slew the dragon, rescued the girl (the camels too, one hopes), and according to some versions converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by Ali’s self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.

The same story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in actual fact. My immediate reaction to it was to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity.  I certainly wasn’t the first to make the connection: British officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with St George told of features of the landscape near Kabul.

But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?

The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans.

To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat Ali, though, we don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story has always essentially been about is the establishment of order and civilization in the face of the forces of chaos. Often it involved the securing of water, the essential commodity for settled agriculture: in the St George folklore water is regularly being hoarded by the dragon until it is released by the hero. That’s a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example; while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too. In pre-Islamic Iran, though, the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected the beliefs of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a constant battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel. (On all this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is incredibly interesting.)

When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious symbolism.

Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world, and that were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf.  Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art). So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.

It’s still quite a way from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.

Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of Bamiyan. One quite popular theory has been that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation may be the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a very tempting idea, but also very unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of the myth of the dragon fighter that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.

So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same.

Llewelyn Morgan is a Professor in Greek and Roman Literature at Oxford University, and the author of The Buddhas of Bamiyan.

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