From Horus to Saint George slaying the dragon

From Horus to Saint George slaying the dragon

In this article, we'll see how the famous legend of Saint George slaying the dragon originated in ancient Egypt, and in particular with Horus.

Saint-Georges: from harpooning king to legionary Horus

What could be simpler than interpreting the image of St. George on horseback, spearing the dragon?

Indeed, from Ethiopia to Russia, the image is constant.

The classic legend :

Some place the legend of George in the Greek world, near the town of Silene, in Libya, where there was a monster to which the population had to deliver a goat every day. Its victims were the young men and women of the land, and even the king's daughter, whom George met on her way to sacrifice to the dragon. Mounting his horse, he pierced the monster with his spear. He then advised the princess to tie her belt around the beast's neck, and it obediently followed him like a dog.

Saint George and the dragon, Paolo Uccello

Paolo Uccello. Saint George and the dragon (c. 1470)

The king, Horus the harpooner

Going back in time, in Egypt, in the 18th dynasty (mid-14th century BC), in the funerary furniture of the little king Tutankhamun, we find the elegant gilded wooden figure of the young sovereign, standing on a light basket, busy throwing a large harpoon. This age-old gesture, repeated on the banks of the Nile, recalls the archaic attitude of the chief mastering the crocodile or hippopotamus at the bottom of the river.

Little king Tutankhamun

Much later (over thirteen centuries later!), on one of the walls of the Ptolemaic temple at Edfu, dedicated to Horus the solar falcon, we find the reflection of this magical composition. It's Horus, with his heroic human stature and hawk's head, camped on the deck of his river boat, piercing the hippopotamus (Set) he has just chained to the bottom of the water with his long harpoon. The beast's diminutive proportions, compared to that of the harpooner, underline the latter's power. This is Horus, conqueror of the evil animal, protector par excellence, eternalizing the destruction of nuisances. 

Horus sharp Set, Edfou temple

Capturing the hippopotamus, temple of Efou

Interpreting the Egyptian myth

The Romans took up the theme and turned it into a composite image, creating a compromise accessible to occupiers and occupied alike. The monster to be destroyed could just as easily have been a large crocodile, while the victor retained his human form - only his hawk's head recalled his primitive identity in divine form, having replaced that of the sovereign. Then, to dominate his adversary, Horus no longer stood on the deck of his boat; instead, like a Roman legionary, he was depicted riding his mount, something an Egyptian would never have done. We are fortunate enough to have the transitional Coptic image in the Musée du Louvre, depicting a hawk-headed Roman horseman slaying the demon, embodied by a crocodile. As far away as Ethiopia, the iconography of Saint Sisinus continued the gesture of the solar Horus destroying the Evil One.
This age-old theme was carried from Byzantium to Russia, then on to Western Europe, where the Nilotic monster was replaced everywhere by a dragon.

Horus Legionary

A providential transitional image is provided, in Roman times, where "Horus the Savior" appears dressed as a Roman legionnaire and mounted on horseback. He is, however, recognizable by his falcon head. The hippopotamus is replaced by the Nilotic crocodile.

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