By Mario Baghos
Generally speaking, traditional cultures and civilisations have a threefold representation of reality comprised of heaven, earth, and the underworld. In the holy Orthodox Church we also have such a representation, with the qualification that these three levels of reality should also be interpreted mystically, in a way that is relevant for our present experience. Seen in this manner, heaven, earth, and the underworld constitute existential states or modes of being: to be ‘heavenly’ is to partake of God’s grace which is above us yet also within all things; to be ‘earthly’ is to be passionately attached to the things of this world (nevertheless, one can be on earth and still live a ‘heavenly’ life, the way the saints do); and the ‘underworld,’ Hades or hell, is how God is experienced by those who have not turned to him in this life—his love is experienced as an unendurable fire.
This view of reality is especially relevant when considering the dragon, which appears in many cultures and civilisations—and most emphatically, in the hymnographical and artistic representations of the Church—as an agent of chaos or evil. This reptilian creature, usually depicted with wings, or sometimes merely as a serpent, is facing downwards, towards the earth. Unlike human beings whose calling to godliness is manifested in their upward posture, the serpent crawls on its belly and eats dust from the ground (Genesis 3:14), thus symbolising ‘earthliness’: a passionate attachment to worldly desires which—on account of the selfishness which such attachments exacerbate—lead to wrong choices, and thus to evil which is an outcome of our misuse of our freedom. The dragon, or serpent, strives to create the conditions for a life not lived in accordance with heaven (remember the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Matthew 6:10). This is why in Genesis the devil—who is actually an archangel which fell through its misuse of freedom of choice—is depicted as a serpent (Gen 3:1-5, 13-15): it leads Adam and Eve away from the heavenly life in Eden by exhorting them to disobey the commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s free choice to embrace this temptation led to their exile from Eden, their fall from the heavenly life, which introduced sin and death into the world.
But, for Christians, the fall was undone when the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, freely chose obedience to the will of God the Father for the plan of salvation, thereby succeeding where the old Adam had failed. Our Lord Jesus Christ is therefore the New Adam, who, through his self-sacrificial love, defeats the state of death inaugurated by the old Adam by rising from the dead. He defeats the devil also, by plundering Hades while reposed in the tomb; and with his resurrection from death he opens up the gates of paradise—and re-establishes the heavenly life—for all those who participate in his body, the Church, in the here and now and in the age to come.
Since the devil has already been defeated, then why is it that we depict saints, like the archangel Michael or George the Trophy-Bearer, as defeating the devil in the form of a dragon, in icons in the Orthodox Church? In relation to the archangel Michael, it is because this great general of the angelic hosts was tasked with throwing the dragon and his demons out of heaven when they pridefully turned against God. In relation to St George, an answer can only be found if we dwell more on the work of Christ himself. While we have seen that the devil/dragon has indeed been defeated by Christ, this, it must be acknowledged, has occurred mystically within the Lord who is the alpha (Α) and omega (Ω), the beginning and the end, the first and the last, of all things (Rev 1:8,17, 22:13). Hence, because the Son of God who rose from the dead two-thousand years ago is also the creator of the universe (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and the One who will return at the second coming to judge the living and the dead, then all that he accomplished in his ministry—including the defeat of sin, death, the devil and the inauguration of his kingdom on earth in the Church—has occurred objectively within him. That is why, in order to benefit from what the Lord has lovingly accomplished for us, we need to be baptised into his body, the Church, and we must partake of his body and blood in the Eucharist, which is a participation in his very life which has defeated death forevermore. Subjectively, therefore, we still sin, are tempted, and die, until we are—if we strive in the Church and God wills it by his grace, initiative, and purpose—totally conformed by grace to his presence in the age to come. The important qualification, however, is that the saints actually participate in his kingdom in the here and now, and, while still liable to temptation, sin, and death, nevertheless are transferred to his eternal kingdom when they pass from this life to the next, where they pray to God in our behalf.
In summary, Christ has objectively defeated the dragon forever in his person, and this defeat needs to happen subjectively in our lives, as we journey—by God’s grace—to his kingdom. The Lord even allows us to be tempted by the devil and his demons so that we might realise our sinfulness and be led through these temptations back to Christ. This is what we observe in the lives of the saints, and this is what we can discern in St George’s encounter with the dragon. The slaying of the dragon is often described as taking place before the saint’s encounter with the emperor Diocletian that led to his martyrdom; it can even be said to have been a preparation for his Christ-pleasing death.
The story is set in various places, in Asia Minor, in Lebanon, or in Libya, and describes a pagan king, a persecutor of the Christians, whose territory is menaced by a man-eating dragon. This dragon makes a nest near the local lake, from where the inhabitants of that land get their water. The king, under the advise of his pagan priests, decides that in order to placate the dragon’s hunger, all families should sacrifice one child each to the beast by drawing lots. When the lot fell on the king to sacrifice his only daughter, he lamented his decision greatly, for she was beautiful and he loved her very much. Nevertheless, in accordance with his prior judgement, he took her outside the city gates and offered her up as a sacrifice. Providentially, it happened that St George, who was returning from a campaign, passed by that region and encountered the young maiden in distress. She told him all that was about to happen to her, and the saint compassionately decided to defend her against the beast. When it emerged to devour its prey, the holy George prayed to the Trinitarian God before lancing the dragon and taking it captive. The saint instructed the girl to drag the creature into the town by her belt. Exposing the dragon’s powerlessness in the face of God the Trinity, with whose help St George defeated it, the inhabitants of the city followed the example of the king and his daughter and received baptism; right after the saint dispatched the beast for good.
This story is full of important symbolism that relates directly to the life of St George and his martyrdom. The dragon is here an image of the devil, for we have seen that it is described as a dragon in the book of Revelation, and perhaps manifests itself as such, for we know from the lives of the saints that it can take various forms. The city could be any city of the ancient world, for during St George’s lifetime the Roman Empire that governed most of the European continent and the Near East had not yet become Christian. The idol worship inherent to paganism, practiced by the king and the inhabitants of the city, is shown to be self-defeating; to worship idols is ultimately to be enslaved by the devil, the dragon, which terrorises the pagans and eats their offspring—it is antithetical to life. The young maiden is a victim of this idol worship, which exacerbates the passions—the ‘earthly’ way of life described above—and leads to our being attacked by the enemy, the dragon. When St George comes to her aid, he is able to defeat the dragon but only because he humbly invokes God the Trinity. (Indeed, the fact that God comes to his aid shows that he is already close to God.) The maiden, empowered by the example of George and the grace of the Trinitarian God, demonstrates her victory over idolatry and the passions when she drags the dragon by her belt. The victory over the earthly way of living engendered by paganism is then transferred to the whole city and to its king when they embrace Christ and receive baptism, which means to receive—and to strive to undertake—a heavenly way of life.
Thus, the story of St George killing the dragon is relevant to his time and place and to Christians everywhere. We need to partake in the life of God the Trinity in the Church so that the dragon, which has once and for all been defeated by Christ, might be defeated in our own lives. That the dragon was defeated by St George (with God’s help) in his life is organically connected to his death as a martyr, for this story is often recounted before the depiction of the ordeals he had to endure for the sake of Christ and in imitation of him. The saint was able to endure them because of his victory over the enemy, which, from the account of his martyrdom, we know he had power over by the grace of God (for instance, when through prayer he exposes the evil spirits in the temple of Apollo, and their idols come crashing to the ground). In fact, many icons depicting George as a dragon-slayer show him being blessed by Christ and as receiving a crown of martyrdom from the hands of an angel sent by the Lord; meaning that this important story should be interpreted through the lens of Christ’s ultimate victory over the dragon, which he also accomplishes in the saints in whom he comes to dwell.