By Manoah Smiley
Here in the UK, and especially in England, St George’s day is a bit of an occasion. Often for the wrong reasons because the far right sees it as an opportunity to push their agenda.
The clock had barely ticked by midnight and up popped an article in The Independent to remind of this in it’s opening paragraph “Today is St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. Both symbolise a global and expansive sensibility and rebut those other characteristics one associates with England – twitchiness, arrogance, snobbery and supremacy.” (1). Regional newspapers, like The Manchester Evening News, have run stories with a potted history of St George in the recent past (2, 3). These tell the story of Church concerns over extremism, and what those churches do to counter it, or at least try.
Why the far right lays claim to St George surely stems from ignorance. St George is variously described as from Turkey, the Middle East, Palestine or Syria (1, 2, 3, 4). He is additionally described as being black man (2, 4) or African (3) or of African origin (5). Many sources that are commonly regarded as reputable omit this fact, and neither was I taught it at school. Even if it is disputed there are good grounds for this and it shouldn’t be swept aside. Why pass up an opportunity to throw something fascinating into education?
Wikipedia, while not mentioning his race, otherwise does a pretty comprehensive job. The list of countries and cities for whom St George is patron saint is long (6). Amongst them is England of course, and so when the day comes around it’s inevitable that at some point a friend will post an innocent looking image (like a pint of beer) calling for a celebration of St George’s day. But the image also carries some text … “SHARE this English Pint and spread the word, let’s make Facebook English for the day on Monday!”. They’ll probably get the image through a long line of friends sharing it. The original source unknown. This is how I got it, from a Portuguese friend who told me that Portugal’s patron saint is also St George, and so he’s having two pints.
It gets more interesting. The patron saint of Ethiopia is also St George. There are many wonders from Ethiopia, not least is one often called the “8th wonder of the world”. These are eleven churches that haven’t been built, they have been hewn out of solid rock. They’re old too, built in the 12th Century. The biggest of them is a monument to St George. There’s plenty of websites that have great pictures and commentaries on this amazing place (7). Ethiopian artwork also depicts St George, as a black man of course (8, 9, 11). But it’s not only in African art that St George will appear black. A 14th century Russian painting does likewise (10). And, back on beer, in 1922 an Ethiopian beer brewery was founded. It’s called St George Beer, what else?
Another association with St George is the flag, St George’s Cross. This didn’t become a symbol of England because of St George, the dates don’t match. But rather because it was the flag associated with the vast shipping fleet of Genoa. It was sensible for English ships (and those of the City of London) to adopt this flag. With it they got the protection of the Genoese, for a fee (12). Maritime law was powerful and the flag eventually crept onto the land and became England’s flag.
St George is a figure that plenty of the world can rally around in a spirit of unity, celebrate together. It’s not only about nations, continents and races, it’s also about religions. There are shrines to St George that are sacred or healing places to Jews, Muslims and Christians (13). And while St George is without a doubt an historical figure, there is also plenty of myth or legend associated with him. The dragon story for example brings Libya (14), Lebanon (13) or other places into the story, depending on who you believe. Personally I think the Dragon is symbolic and is probably recording something factual in code. Regardless it means that those who simply like the folklore can also find a reason to join in. And the dragon is great for making St George stick in our minds.
There’s another traditional association with St George’s Day in England. It marks the starting point for collecting dandelions. This little “weed” is good for us, it’s edible. That doesn’t mean it tastes good tho. The leaves and flowers are good in salad, the roots can be used to make a coffee like drink. But I brew country wines, so I’m interested in the flowers. If the good weather coincides with my spare time then i’ll be collecting some, and that Ethiopian brewery has helped me to decide on the name for it.
By Manoah Smiley
Manoah’s blog: http://homebrewedwines.blogspot.com/
Manoah’s passion: http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives/chelmsford
5. 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof. J.A.Rogers. p55.
7. for example http://www.sacred-destinations.com/ethiopia/lalibela