Magazine article Russian Life

In the Footsteps of St. George

Magazine article Russian Life

In the Footsteps of St. George

Article excerpt

If you have traveled to Moscow recently, chances are you've seen his image on subway walls, in shop windows and even on bus tickets. But just who is that red horseman with the spear? Murad Agdzhi takes us on a trek through the distant past, as he traces the mysterious origins of Moscow's patron saint.

St. George - Moscow's symbol and coat of arms - has once again become the city's own. So much so that the Moscow boss who doesn't have a picture of St. George on his office wall - a place of honor until recently reserved for Soviet leaders - is rare indeed. From times of old, churches and streets have been named after him, and bronze sculptures have depicted him killing the dragon with a spear. At one time all but forgotten, George's image is now plastered all over the city. But how and when did George receive a Moscow residence permit? And, in the end, what do we really know about him?

Since 1380, Moscow has related to George as a bringer of victory. Prince Dmitrii Donskoi carried his icon onto the field of Kulikovo, the Russians' first victory in their attempt to escape the Mongol yoke. Soon afterwards, a sculpture of a mounted soldier, fragments of which are preserved to this day, appeared on the main tower of Moscow's Kremlin. Then, in 1497, Prince Ivan III had George's image engraved on Moscow's great seal, and the horseman became part of the city's life once and for all. But at that time, Muscovites were not yet calling him George. Instead, they spoke of the "rider," whose name was Mikhail.

According to Eastern church tradition, the horseman was always depicted looking to the right, in accordance with the rules of posolon, or turning. In the West, by contrast, he looked to the left. In the Time of Troubles, St. George succeeded in exposing a western pretender to Muscovy's throne, who, out of ignorance, had a left-facing horseman engraved on his seal. Needless to say, the first documents gave the imposter away.

Since those difficult times, a prayer has arisen about the Moscow horseman connected with the miracles he wrought. Or perhaps there were other reasons. In any case, gradually, over the course of the 18th century, he acquired a new name: Georgy Pobedonosets (George Bringer of Victory).

Still, it was only in Moscow that he was known as George. Elsewhere, he was the Velikomuchenik (Great Sufferer) or Strastoterpets (Passionate Sufferer). In general, the saint has an amazing number of names. The Moslems call him Jirjis, Khyzr or Keder; the Turks - Jargan or Gyurdahi; and the Slavs - Gyurgi, Yuri, Yegory, Yezhi or Irzhi. In other countries he is known, variously, as George, Georg and Jose.

But he is most revered among the Ossetians. Like Moscow's Saint George, the Ossetian saint is a horseman, but there the resemblance ends. The latter is a grey-haired old man on a three-legged winged horse - Uastyrdzhi.

Quite possibly, this is the most ancient image of Saint George. Which would mean that he already existed - before his birth. This apparent paradox can be explained in the following way. The culture of the Ossetians (or the Alan, as they used to be called) is very old. Their roots are in Persia and Tibet, and there, long before the birth of Christ, legendary heroes - youths in the image of old men - were already well-known. After the Ossetians learned about Christianity, ancient spiritual values were simply supplemented by the new ones.

This practice of combining traditions is natural and results in invisible links of time and culture. For example, the Slavs call George the "beast driver" and even "farmyard god." At the same time, they see in him features of Yarila and Yarovit - ancient fertility gods. For the Moslems, his exploits are also linked with the name of Allah. And finally, he contains qualities of the ancient eastern characters Khadir and Ilias - bringers of immortality and wisdom - who in turn passed on these qualities to George.

Wherever you look, there is a different St. …

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