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Some Thoughts On the Icon of St. George, the Martyr

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When we recall St. George, the most popular saint in Christianity, the first image that comes to mind is that of a brave young soldier riding a horse over a dragon (snake) and trying to thwart (kill) the dragon with a spear. The icon of St. George (picture) commonly seen throughout the world is written (drawn) based on this theme. It speaks volumes. It has a plethora of symbolic meanings. This imagery has, in a sense, an implication of an evolutionary process or a transition or in other words, a transformation that undergoes in the animal kingdom from the crawling reptile to the limbic animal and finally to the intellectual human. It is a modest attempt on the part of this author to correlate Anatomy and Spirituality and allegorically and hypothetically interpret it in the language of Psychology and Theology.

The brain is our most mysterious and mighty organ, the command and communication centre of the body which controls the nervous system, an intricate network receiving messages from the senses, processing them and then co-ordinating and directing all our actions and reactions. The home of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, creative imagination and talents, as well as the instruction headquarters for all our body functions, the brain’s power comes from electrical energy carried in the chemical substance known as neurotransmitters.

Medical scientists say that we have actually three cerebral units in the single human brain, namely, the primitive brain, the limbic system and neocortex.

Júlio Rocha do Amaral, & Jorge Martins de Oliveira, elucidate: “Throughout its evolution, the human brain has acquired three components that progressively appeared and became superimposed, just like in an archaeological site: the oldest, located underneath and to the back; the next one, resting in an intermediate position and the most recent, situated on top and to the front. They are, respectively:
1 – The archi pallium or primitive (reptilian) brain, comprising the structures of the brain stem – medulla, Pons, cerebellum, mesencephalon, the oldest basal nuclei – the Globus pallidus and the olfactory bulbs. It corresponds to the reptile brain, also called “R-complex”, by the famous neuroscientist Paul MacLean.
2 – The Paleo pallium or intermediate (old mammalian) brain, comprising the structures of the limbic system. It corresponds to the brain of the inferiormammals.
3 – The neo pallium, also known as the superior or rational (new mammalian) brain, comprises almost the whole of the hemispheres (made up of a more recent type of cortex, called neocortex) and some subcortical neuronal groups. It corresponds to the brain of the superior mammals, thus including the primates and, consequently, the human species.

These three cerebral layers appeared, one after the other, during the development of the embryo and the foetus (ontogenesis), recapitulating, chronologically, the evolution of animal species (phylogenesis), from the lizards up to the Homo-sapiens”.

According to Maclean, they are three biological computers, which, although interconnected, retained, each one, “their peculiar types of intelligence, subjectivity, the sense of time and space, memory, mobility and other less specific functions.

In 1878, the French neurologist Paul Broca called attention to the fact that, on the medial surface of the mammalian brain, right underneath the cortex, there exists an area containing several nuclei of grey matter (neurons) which he denominated limbic lobe (from the Latin word “limbus” that implies the idea of a circle, ring, surrounding, etc.), since it forms a kind of border around the brain stem.

The three characters in the icon, namely the snake, the horse, and the man (Saint George) represent, respectively the three anatomical classification of what is mentioned above and that show a continuum of traits such as diabolic, savage, humane and divine which can be seen latent in every human. St. George here, in a sense, is seen trying to subdue and tame the dragon by using the horse and he might have used the dragon to fight enemies of external temptations. Thus, the spiritual man is able to command both the limbic and reptilian instincts and to sublimate and use their God given gifts without being dominated by them. The horse and dragon are internal conflicts. St. George on the top of both dragon and horse here is indicative of the human potential in overcoming the internal conflicts that one has to face in one’s life. The victory of sanity over insanity. Dragon, the one in reference, is seen trying to devour a virgin woman. This betokens of the sexual urge in every man in wooing a woman. Precisely, the dragon here symbolizes the surge seen commonly in men who run after women with the aim of seducing the weaker sex (womanizing).

The life of a reptile is still in the preliminary stage of evolution whose basic instinct is to eat and to mate. It has an excessive craving for food and an exceeding sexual drive at this stage for its survival and procreation. In reptiles, according to the scholars of medicine, the primitive brain is so strong that it determines its character and is responsible for its self-preservation. It is there that the mechanisms of aggression and repetitive behaviors are developed. It is there that occur the instinctive reactions of the so-called reflex arcs and the commands which allow some involuntary actions and the control of certain visceral functions (cardiac, pulmonary, intestinal, etc.), indispensable to the preservation of life. The development of the olfactory bulbs and their connections made possible an accurate analysis of olfactory stimuli and the improvement of answers oriented by odors, such as approach, attack, flight and mating. Throughout evolution, some of these reptilian functions were lost or minimized (in humans, the amygdala and the entorhinal cortex are the only limbic structures that connect with the olfactory system). It is also in the R-complex that started the first manifestations of the phenomena of ritualism, by means of which the animal tries to define its hierarchic position inside the group and to establish its own space in the ecological niche.

When this reptilian nature is predominant in us, we are prone to sin leading our life to anarchy and evil.Today’s world is mad after sexual promiscuity (voluptuary) and gluttony (over eating and that too for the sake of satiating one’s palatal taste) which invite many a disease and the rate of immorality, morbidity, and mortality is alarmingly increasing.Like water dragon, the new generation has now become more or less omnivorous consuming junk food with gusto and immensely rapacious in eating anything and everything available on earth, or rather inclined to orgies.

Over the period, man, the so called crown of creation, has learnt to misuse and abuse his innate potential of sexuality. Sex ought to be expressed within the wedlock of marriage and sex outside the wedlock is supposed be suppressed or repressed. The epicurean lifestyle (living exclusively for eating, drinking and merry-making) seen in the modern society is the result of the triggering off of the primitive brain. When the primitive brain is prominent in a person, criminal traits like aggressiveness and selfishness will be all the more rampant and it is such a person who expresses the erotic love.

The next stage of evolution is to rise from the crawling stage to the limbic stage. The entirety of these structures, that, years later, would receive the name of “limbic system”, developed with the emergence of the inferior (primitive) mammals. This system commands certain behaviors that are necessary for the survival of all mammals. It gives rise and modulates specific functions that allow the animal to distinguish between the agreeable and the disagreeable. Here specific affective functions are developed, such as the one that induces the females to nurse and protect their toddlers, or the one which induces these animals to develop ludic behaviours (playful moods). Emotions and feelings, like wrath, fright, passion, love, hate, joy and sadness, are mammalian inventions, which originated in the limbic system. This system is also responsible for some aspects of personal identity and for important functions related to memory. When we grow to the limbic stage, we acquire the qualities said supra. Here we tend to express a particular kind of fraternal love called in Greek “Philia and Storgee.”

And when the superior mammals (humans) arrived on the Earth, the third cerebral unit was finally developed: the neopallium or rational brain, a highly complex net of neural cells capable of producing symbolic language thus enabling man to exercise skillful intellectual tasks such as reading, writing and performing mathematical calculations. The neopallium is the great generator of ideas or as expressed by Paul MacLean, “it is the mother of invention and the father of abstractive thought.”

We, as Christians, are supposed to attain a balanced life of spirituality. When the third unit becomes stronger in us as St. George is depicted in the icon above the horse and the dragon, we will be able to transform ourselves and evolve into mature human beings full of divine grace and glory and will be able to surmount all the stumbling blocks on our way to the glorious world of spirituality. Here we express divine love called ‘Agape’ in Greek. Virtues, like compassion, patience, humility, endurance, gentleness and self-control will reflect in our life. ‘Yogis’ or ‘Saints’ can be said to have a fully developed and active “neo pallium” for they have learned to live a life of purity by frugal food, high thoughts and good deeds. We have to climb up the ladder of life from the lower rung of inferior mammalian nature to the superior mammalian nature. The spirituality of a person is directly proportional to the development of his/her brain. Oriental Orthodox Worship involves several symbolic languages, abstract thoughts and religious activities like rituals attached to it. It is a sign of mental development that we, the Orthodox Christians, indulge in worship throughout our life. It is the sublime stage in the process of personality development.

There is a widening trend seen in modern society especially among youngsters in exposing themselves indecently in public. It seems that they have lost their shame of nakedness just like the snake and horse. This exhibitionism reveals the fact that their primitive brain and intermediate brain dominate their superior brain. St. George in the picture is seen well-armored pointing to the perfection of human development.

In tandem with the life of St George and with the words of St. Paul in Ephesians 6:10-20, let us be strong in the Lord and in the power of God’s might. Let us put on the whole Armor of God that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, let’s take up the whole Armor of God that we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Let us stand, therefore, having girded our waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which we will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And let’s take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.

In brief, what happens here is a sea-change from the stage of sensitivity of a snake to the stage of the sensibility of a saint. Although there is only a subtle change in their physical traits, there is a drastic change in their behavioral traits or rather from a raw state of life to a refined one which even the angels would be jealous of.

It is a pity that we, humans, who claim that we are superior to other animals, often behave in a way rather inferior to them. Therefore we should not let the reptilian nature in us take control of our lives, instead, we should rise up and try to attain the qualities of the super mammalian nature. It can be seen that the vegans and vegetarians are generally benign when compared with those who are carnivores.

A similar comparison is possible with the thoughts of the world renowned Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud saw the human mind or psyche as consisting of three domains, which he named the ego, the super-ego and the id. The id is the domain of instinctive drives (pleasure principle) which aims at pleasure. The super-ego corresponds roughly to what we commonly call ‘conscience’ (moral principle). It represents prohibitions and taboos as well as the values and ideals – the norms- of society. These norms are presented to the child first by its parents and later by other authority figures- teachers, for example, or just other grown –ups. These social pressures become internalized in the child and start to function as part of his or her individual personality or psyche.

Id and super-ego may clash. What id demands may be prohibited by the super-ego, and the result is conflict or tension ‘in the depths of the self’ because both Id and super-ego function largely at the unconscious level. Resolving the tension and acting as referee between the rival claims of id and super-ego are the functions of the ego. The ego is the conscious self (reality principle) because it is the part of the mind that takes account of external reality. The ego therefore has the daunting task of holding in balance the claims of id, super-ego and outside world. Here super-ego plays the role of St. George when the Id plays the role of dragon and the ego that of the horse respectively.

The environment conditions our behavior. Our thoughts, words and deeds are fashioned by what we experience through our senses. We become what we eat, what we see, and what we hear. We have to be judicious in choosing our means of life. Good companionship, good thoughts, good food, all play a vital role in our lives. Listening to a piece of music, spiritual sermon, and reciting of Holy Scriptures, and partaking in the prayer with meditation, all enhance our well being.

As we contemplate on the meaning of the Holy Icon of St. George especially on these days of commemoration and celebration of the feast of that great saintly warrior and martyr of our Lord, let us imitate him and grow to the stature of Christ, our head. Let us be as perfect as Jesus, who grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and increased in stature and in favor of God and man. (St. Luke 2:40, 52) Although the historicity of St. George is disputed among certain quarters, the love for this man of God is increasing day by day as a spiritual guide and guardian among the hearts of millions of people all over the world. A close observation on the holy icon of St. George would augment the philosophical understanding of our life on earth and would help us to lead a better spiritual life. What we need today is not just living a life of religiosity but to live by the principles of religion. The icon of St. George is a perpetual learning lesson for every human and St George, as a follower of Christ, sets before us a living example for us to emulate.

Sources referred:-

1. Júlio Rocha do Amaral, MD & Jorge Martins de Oliveira, MD, PhDLimbic system: The centre of emotions, Link- http://www.healing-arts.org/n-r-limbic.htm
2.Ackroyd, Eric. A dictionary of dreams symbols, with an introduction to dream psychology, Bounty Books, Great Britain 1993.
3. Simester, Lisha, The Natural Health Bible stay well, live longer, Quadrille Publishing Limited, London 2001

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