Saint George and the Dragon: two Dimensions of Human Being. Leonardo Boff

Saint George and the Dragon: two Dimensions of Human Being


Every religion, including Christianity, is multi-faceted. Besides being centered in God, it develops narratives about humanity’s paradoxical drama, creating meaning, an interpretation of reality, history, and the world.

An example is the legend of Saint George and his ferocious combat with the dragon, recounted in the previous article. In the first place, the dragon was a dragon, and consequently a snake. But it was a winged one, with an enormous mouth that belched fire, smoke, and a deadly odor.

In the West, the snake represents evil and the menacing world of darkness. In the East, the snake is a positive symbol, the national symbol of China, lord of the waters and fertility, (long). Among the Aztecs the feathered serpent (Quezalcoatl), is a positive symbol of their culture. To us Westerners, the dragon is always terrible and represents the threats to life or the harsh obstacles to survival. The poor say: “I have to kill a dragon every day, such is the struggle for survival”.

But the dragon, as shown by the psychoanalytic tradition of C. G. Jung with Erich Neumann, James Hillmann, Etienne Perrot and others, represents one of the most ancestral and cross-cultural archetypes (structural elements of the collective unconscious or primordial images that structure the psyche), of humanity.

And alongside the dragon, the heroic horseman always appears to confront it in ferocious fight. What do these two figures mean? Following the categories of C. G. Jung and his disciples, especially Erich Neumann, who specifically studied this archetype (A história da origem da consciência, Cultrix 1990), and the existential-humanistic psychotherapy of Kirk J. Schneider (O eu paradoxal, Vozes 1993), we can try to understand what is at stake in this confrontation. It teaches and challenges us.

The path of evolution takes humanity from unconsciousness to consciousness, from cosmic fusion with The Whole (Uroboros) to the emergence of the autonomy of the ego. This step, fully realized, is dramatic; therefore, the ego must continuously renew it, if it wants to enjoy liberty and autonomy.

It is important to recognize that the terrifying dragon and the heroic horseman are two important dimensions of the human being. To us, the dragon is our ancestral universe, darkness, the shadows from which we emerge towards the light of reason and the independence of the ego. It is not for nothing that in some iconographies, especially in that of Catalonia (Saint George is its patron saint), the dragon appears wrapped around the entire body of the horseman. In an engraving by Rogério Fernandes ( the dragon appears enveloping the body of Saint George, who supports him with his arm, and has its face, not threatening at all, level with the face of Saint George. It is a humanized dragon making a whole with Saint George. In other images (Google has 25 pages devoted to Saint George with the dragon), the dragon appears as a domesticated animal that Saint George, afoot, serenely leads, not with a spear but with a staff.

The activity of the hero, in this case Saint George, in his struggle with the dragon, shows the strength of the ego, valiant, illuminated, that affirms itself and conquers autonomy, but is always in tension with the dark dimension of the dragon. They coexist, but the dragon never dominates the ego.

Neumann says: «The activity of consciousness is heroic when the ego assumes and realizes by itself the archetypical struggle with the dragon of the unconscious, taking it to a satisfactory synthesis» (Op. cit. p. 244). The person who undergoes this journey does not disown the dragon, but maintains it, domesticated and integrated as his shadowy side. Therefore, in the majority of the narratives, Saint George does not kill the dragon, he only domesticates it and puts it in its place, no longer threatening. This is the happy synthesis of opposites; the paradoxical ego finds equilibrium because it harmonizes the ego with the dragon, consciousness with unconsciousness, light with shadow, reason with passion, the rational with the symbolic, science with art and religion (Cf. Schneider, p. 138).

Confronting the opposites and searching for equilibrium are characteristics of mature personalities, who have integrated the dimensions of dark and light. We see it in the Buddha, in Francis of Assisi, Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Cariocas greatly venerate Saint George, more than Saint Sebastian, the official patron saint of the city. Saint Sebastian is a warrior riddled by arrows, consequently, “defeated”. The people feel the need for a warrior saint who overcomes adversities. And Saint George represents the ideal saint.

Perhaps those who venerate Saint George confronting the dragon know nothing of this. It does not matter. Their unconscious knows it and activates and realizes its work in them: the desire to fight, to affirm themselves as autonomous egos that confront and integrate hardships (the dragon) within a positive project of life (Saint George, the victorious hero). And they are strengthened for the life struggle.

Translation by Melina Alfaro,, done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.



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