Although it details the heroic feats of a religious figure, the story became a generally popular theme. Its popularity began in the 12th century and continued to grow in the subsequent centuries.
The story tells a tale of evil in the form of a dragon, a God-send hero in the form of Saint George, and deliverance for the masses at the hands of this hero. Many versions of the story exist, although these differ only in some fine details with the general theme of the story remaining consistent.
The actual origins of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon date back to pre-Christian times. Saint George himself was historically believed to have been a soldier in the Roman army.
One of the horsemen cohorts of the Roman army used a standard bearing ‘Draco’ or dragon. In the pre-Christian Roman culture, several depictions exist of a horseman spearing a dragon. These depictions were later transported to the Christian world and incorporated into the Christian culture.
Like many other pre-Christian themes and motifs, Christianity also incorporated the legends of a hero slaying a dragon. The earlier mentions of a Christian hero trampling a serpent date back to the 5th century. This myth was first associated with Saint Theodore Tiro.
The earliest versions of the myth involving Saint Theodore are from the 7th century, and by the 10th and 11th centuries, the myth of Saint Theodore slaying a dragon was fairly common.
In the 11th century, the legend of dragon slaying was transferred from Saint Theodore to Saint George.
The story became immensely popular in the Byzantine Empire, prompting its recreation in many forms of art. From the Byzantine Empire, the story was carried by the Crusaders back to the Western World. In the 13th century, an Italian author wrote the ‘Golden Legend’ in which the incident of Saint George and the Dragon is recounted.
This made the tale gain popularity in Western Europe as well, eventually becoming an integral part of the art and culture.
In the most popular version of the story found in the Golden Legend, the dragon lived in the countryside. A city nearby was forced to pay tribute to the dragon every day.
First, this tribute was in the form of sheep, then like men, and finally as women and children. One day the king’s daughter’s name came up in the lottery for the dragon’s tribute.
She was then dressed as a bride and sent to the dragon’s lair. Saint George came upon her and when the dragon came to eat her, he wounded it with his lance. Then he used a piece of cloth to yoke the dragon and carry it back to the city on a leash.
Once in the city, Saint George offers to kill the dragon if the city residents convert to Christianity. The populace happily does upon which Saint George kills the dragon and beheads it. A church is then built on the very site where the dragon is killed.
The different versions of the story dispute the location of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon. Some early versions placed the location at Cappadocia, which was an Anatolian province during the Roman Empire.
The Golden Legend version of the story shifted the location of the tale to a place called ‘Silene’ in Libya.