To Understand Our Scary World, Read About Fire-Breathing Dragons
What a princess, a knight, and an evil dragon can teach us about Covid-19.
We have not even to risk the adventure alone for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination we shall find God. And where we had thought to slay another we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone we shall be with all the world. — Joseph Campbell
I’ve lived in Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain, for the last three years. If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I’d be selling you on living here in my best “travel blogger” tone — and I’d begin by telling you about the festivals. Everyone gets the day off work and gathers in the street. Civilians set off fireworks with no regard for fingers or eyeballs. Roaming drum lines and paper-mache giants and dragons spitting actual fire will lead you to where the party’s at.
I still can’t believe I went my whole life not knowing the sense of community, the life-affirming giddiness, of turning your whole city into a playground and a fire hazard.
Of course, this year’s going to be a bit different.
The streets are empty, the drums are silent, the curtains are drawn, and the stories behind those festivals — ancient stories of princesses and dragons and townspeople and valiant knights — are frozen in place.
With nowhere for them to go, maybe this is an opportunity to examine these stories to see if they have anything to tell us about the times we’re currently living in. I’m talking specifically about The Festival of St. George and the Dragon, one of the oldest, most beloved stories of human bravery and the triumph of good over evil. It’s the ultimate “hero’s journey.”
"The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world." — Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey)
In Catalonia, St. George is St. Jordi, and he’s a patron saint of Barcelona. You’ll see his mark all over the city, from the design of the stunning Palau de la Música to one the world’s most cherished examples of architectural playfulness, Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló.
But it’s not just a Catalonian thing. Similar depictions of a horseman (the god Horus) slaying a crocodile-like creature (the god Set) appeared as early as fourth-century Egypt. People celebrate St. George’s Day around the world, with reenactments and festivals in England, Canada, Croatia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia. (Say all that in one breath, it’s a good Covid-19 test.) The story has since evolved into more modern depictions such as Sleeping Beauty, in which Prince Philip fights the great Maleficent in dragon form, and everyone’s favorite, Shrek, a parody of exactly that but with layers. Like an onion.
Here in Barcelona, the festival honoring Jordi has evolved into a day of romance and reading — essentially Catalonia’s Valentine’s Day. Here’s how it all began.