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Dragons and Saint George

Saint George is patron saint of England - and many other places, from Moscow to Beirut! His origins are obscure and stories conflict. Did he come from Cappadocia in modern Turkey or Lydda in Palestine? Was he even a corrupt Arian Bishop of Alexandria, lynched in 361 CE? The most popular stories of his martydom take place under the Emperor Diocletion on 23rd April in either 287 or 303 CE. Surviving many tortures and performing miracles at the same time, he was finally beheaded. The famous story of Saint George and the Dragon is relatively late, appearing in the 11th century and made popular in the 13th-century Golden Legend.

Silver Crown coin of 1951, produced for the Festival of Britain, showing a helmeted and plumed, naked Saint George on horseback, facing right, cloak flying behind him, attacking a dragon with his sword. The date, 1951, is in the exergue, and the coin lies on top of its box, which is dark red, and the text, Festival of Britain, is visible.

Saint George on the 1951 Festival of Britain commemorative Crown piece.
EAMMM : 2016.13
Silver, 39mm diameter, 1951; collected in Suffolk.

Greek tourist souvenir replica of a Byzantine icon of Saint George slaying the Dragon, with George and another figure behind on horseback, haloed and fully clothed, facing right, holding a lance in both hands to spear the dragon, which is held on a rope by a maiden in blue. A tall castle with many people on top is in the background. All on a gold field.

Greek tourist souvenir replica of a Byzantine icon of Saint George slaying the Dragon.
EAMMM : 2016.13
Lithograph and gilt on pressed-fibre board, 94mm long, 70mm wide, 17mm deep, early 21st century; collected in Norwich.

The Meaning of the Dragon

In the West, the Dragon is traditionally seen as an evil force, sometimes conflated with Satan. As a result, the dragon is frequently a symbol of something to be overcome. For the temperance movement, this meant alcoholic beverages, so that Saint George would be the righteous teetotaler defeating the demon drink.

Church of England Temperance Society medal in bronze, showing Saint George attacking a Dragon with a lance (left) and (right) a sceptre across an open book, with a crown at the top. The text on the book reads, "Whether therefore you eat or drink or what so ever ye do do all to the glory of God". Church of England Temperance Society medal in nickel?????, showing a sceptre across an open book, with a crown at the top. The text on the book reads, "Whether therefore you eat or drink or what so ever ye do do all to the glory of God".

Church of England Temperance Society medals in bronze and base metal ("silver"), showing Saint George attacking a Dragon on the obverse.
EAMMM : 2019.18.1 ("silver") and 2019.18.2 (bronze)
Copper alloy and base metal, 33mm diameter (42mm over loop), late 19th or early 20th century; collected in Norwich.

The myth of a hero slaying a Dragon goes back before Christianity, however. In Greek mythology, Apollo slays Python and Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea-serpent, Cetus. In ancient Egypt, Set stands in the prow of the Barque of the Sun every night, deflecting the attentions of the serpent, or dragon, Apophis. In Norse mythology, Thor's nemesis is the World Serpent, Jörmungandr. But, in the legend of Jason stealing the Golden Fleece from its guardian Dragon, he does so thanks to the actions of the maiden, Medea! That tale takes place in Colchis, modern Georgia, and there dragons and serpents have traditionally been seen as more protective, with ram-headed serpent bracelets discovered by archaeologists that very much resemble those on the Gundestrup Cauldron.

Further East again, oriental Dragons are a much more benevolent force, bringing prosperity, fertilising rain, and wisdom (in the form of a pearl). They are not slain by heroes, but dance in the streets to bring their benevolence to the people.

Chinese low war drum, with multi-coloured, stylised Dragon painted curled around on the skin. its head, with prominent teeth, in the middle.

Chinese processional "low war" drum showing the Dragon face (the other has a phoenix). The drum contains a rattle to enhance the sound.
EAMMM 2015.16
Wood, skin, steel, 260mm diameter, 95mm deep, probably made in Canton in the 1920s or 1930s; collected in Holt, Norfolk.

The head of a Chinese-style Dragon being danced during the Norwich Dragon Festival in 2014.

A Chinese-style dragon being danced during the Norwich Dragon Festival of 2014.
Picture by Chris Wood.

Booth's coffee cup or can, of straight-sided form, with underglaze blue transfer design of chinoiserie Dragons and lattice edging, with gilt lines.

Booth's coffee cup or can with underglaze blue transfer design of chinoiserie Dragons and lattice patterns.
EAMMM 2017.28
Earthenware, 57mm high, 54mm diameter, 82mm width over handle, 1906-1948; made in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent; collected in Norwich.

Japanese saucer showing two, two-legged, three-clawed green Dragons, and two phoenixes, with a blue design in the centre and blue pattern edging. Reverse of the saucer showing Japanese text and blue leafy pattern.
Detail of the saucer showing a two-legged, three-clawed green Dragon, with cross-hatching in black, highlights in red, and blue and yellow marks around.

Japanese Imari (Hichozan Shinpo) porcelain saucer with enamel-painted Dragons and phoenixes.
EAMMM 2021.5
Porcelain, 137mm diameter, 27mm deep, 1868-1912; made in Arita, Japan; collected in Norwich.

Whilst the Western and Eastern Dragons seem very different, they are actually very similar; it is the human response to them that varies. Dragons are an embodiment of wild, powerful forces of nature: fire, air, desert and minerals, but especially water: wild oceans, powerful rivers, and rain - they are the givers and withholders of rain. The hero - George - tames that wild nature and controls it for the benefit of agriculture and civilization. Indeed, in Central Europe, he is Green George, bringer of agricultural prosperity. In Islam he overlaps with the Green Prophet, al-Khidr, a trickster-like figure who brings wisdom and life from having drunk of the waters of immortality. It is interesting that George is not usually shown with a dead dragon (as is Saint Michael), but in the act of pinning it. He can restrict the dragon's power to allow civilization to flourish and release it when more primal energy in needed. He is also usually seen on horseback. Perhaps the horse is the Dragon tamed?

A rainbow over the sea at Salthouse in Norfolk, with glowing ends and a faint second arc above, beach in foreground and clouds above.

A complete rainbow over the sea at Salthouse, Norfolk
Picture by Chris Wood, September 2017.

An idea that pulls everything together - indeed is like the missing piece of the jigsaw - was published by Robert Blust in 2000. His theory is that Dragons began as rainbows - the universal phenomenon caused by the polarity of rain and sun. He points out that the Rainbow Serpent is far from unique to indigenous Australian traditions and appears to develop into the various dragons seen around the world as agriculture takes hold, cities appear, and nations centralise. The rain-giving and rain-taking, divinely and mysteriously shining, gold-bringing rainbow is fought by sun gods and gods of thunder and lightning alike - Apollo, Thor, Indra... It is no accident that Thor is a god of thunder and farming! Eventually (in the West) the Dragon comes to be seen as embodying the bad forces, leaving the rainbow as a sign from God.

Norwich: A Dragon City

The city of Norwich is often called a Dragon City. The Guild of Saint George overlapped with the city corporation and had a procession every 23rd April, headed by Saints George and Margaret (also a dragon-slayer), with a tourney-style dragon, called Snap. Come the Reformation, the saints disappeared from city mayor-making processions, but the Snap remained. He still leads the Lord Mayor's Procession today.

The Ethelbert Gate to Norwich Cathedral from Tombland, with a relief of a knight on the left, with sword and small shield, and dragon on the right, checkerboard pattern in flint above.

A knight and a Dragon facing off across the Ethelbert Gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Picture by Chris Wood, April 2018.

Dragons appear elsewhere in the city too. On King Street, there is Dragon Hall, named after the dragon spandrel in its Great Hall. Three such spandrels are to be found in the Refectory at the Great Hospital on Bishopgate, as well as a bench-end carving of Saint Margaret emerging from a Dragon in the associated church of Saint Helen. Saint Margaret appears in a modern carving above the door to Saint Giles' church too. A Dragon and knight face off across the Ethelbert Gate to the Cathedral on Tombland, and a radiant mural of a red dragon (by Malca Schotten, 2016) now gazes down onto the city's shopping heart. As a more ephemeral, but long-lasting symbol, the Dragon has been the symbol of Norwich's annual Beer Festival since the early 1980s.

A retired Nowich Snap Dragon in the old display in Norwich Castle Keep in 2018.

A retired Nowich Snap Dragon in the old display in Norwich Castle Keep (part of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery).
Picture by Chris Wood, 2018.

The 1999 Norwich Beer Festival log, showing Robert Kett and th Norwich Dragon (in green andyellow for Norwich) sharing a pint and shaking hands, with barley, oak leaves and acorns.

The 1999 Norwich Beer Festival logo, commemorating 450 years since Kett's Rebellion, with Robert Kett and the Norwich Dragon shaking hands and sharing a pint of beer.
Graphic by Norwich & District Campaign for Real Ale, after a design by Chris Wood and Helen Surman, 1999.

Norwich actually has two polar forces: the Lion and the Dragon. The Lion started as the medieval symbol of royal power in the castle, surrounded by wyverns, but the City took on the Lion, in its look-at-me mercantile pomp, with the wyverns transmuting into the Dragon that weathered the storms of religious change to come down to us as Snap and gaze down from modern murals. The controlling corporate Lion sits contentedly at the heart of the City, whilst the Dragonís wild, anarchic energy swirls around, bringing the City its prosperity and cultural vigour.

A modern replica of the plaques marking the boundary of Norwich Castle Fee, with Lions in the centre and Dragons (originally wyverns) around. The text around them says, "This roundel marks the boundary of the Castle Fee, an area of the city directly controlled by the Crown until 1345."

A modern replica of the plaques marking the boundary of Norwich Castle Fee, with Lions in the centre and Dragons (originally wyverns) around.
The text around them says, "This roundel marks the boundary of the Castle Fee, an area of the city directly controlled by the Crown until 1345"
Picture by Chris Wood, 2020.

Occasionally, Norwich even has a Dragon Festival (the last one was in 2014) and the 2015 summer public art trail organised by the Break charity was Go-Go-Dragons, featuring 84 large dragon sculptures, individually decorated by artists, set out around the city.

Card laminate display piece, designed to resemble a copper or gold coin, with a Dragon of the kind set up as art installations around Norwich in the 2015 Go-Go-Dragons Festival. The text around the edge reads "Dragons at the Forum Norwich 2015".

Card laminate display piece, designed to resemble a copper or gold coin, with a Dragon of the kind set up as art installations around Norwich in the 2015 Go-Go-Dragons Festival, part of a display at the Forum, Norwich, and later distributed.
EAMMM : 2019.2
Card laminate, 252mm diameter, 2015; collected in Norwich.

Further Reading

Silver Crown coin of 1951, produced for the Festival of Britain, showing a helmeted and plumed, naked Saint George on horseback, facing right, cloak flying behind him, attacking a dragon with his sword. The date, 1951, is in the exergue, and the coin lies on top of its box, which is dark red, and the text, Festival of Britain, is visible.

Saint George on the 1951 Festival of Britain commemorative Crown piece
EAMMM : 2016.13
Silver, 39mm diameter, 1951; collected in Suffolk.

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