Following the age-old tradition, the icon of the Virgin Mary of Kounistra was once again returned to her “home” for one night on the 20th of November. The day started with a service at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (Panagia Limnia) and then continued with a procession to the Acropolis area where a shorter service was held outside the graveyard, constantly accompanied by gunshots fired by local men that stood above Bus Stop 4. Then mayhem descended!
According to custom, the icon is now to be carried by the locals and as this is the only opportunity for laymen to hold it, especially women, what can only be described as ‘granny war” broke out. Elderly ladies started fighting over who would hold the icon, and instead of being a dignified handing over of the icon from person to person, the dear old ladies started pulling and shouting and as soon as one got hold of the icon, another snatched it after just a few meters. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but the scene brought back images from those Monty Python sketches where gangs of grannies, “berserking” through the streets of London, attack phone booths and teenagers with their handbags.
The procession then continued to the Kounistra Monastery following the path that leads up from the Megali Ammos area. It may be a shorter walk than the main road, but nevertheless a long one. Men and women, children and elderly all followed, and some ladies even did the walk bare foot. This is what the Greeks call táma, or holy promise, which is done either in the hope of a miracle or as gratitude for one. Other forms of táma are the little metal plates that hang on icons, depicting body limbs, babies, boats or whatever the prayers concern. Walking bare foot to the monastery can also be a purely sign of faith and devotion.
At the monastery, another service was held, followed by a barbeque where everyone was invited. Feasts in connection with religious holidays is another old custom that dates all they way back to the ancient Greeks. The ancients would often celebrate their gods with animal sacrifices and afterwards the meat was shared by those attending. Today, the religion may be different but the practice lives on.
The next day, the icon was ceremoniously brought back to the main church (Three Hierarchs) in Skiathos town. This time, the attendants had changed their track suits and trainers to suits, dresses and high heels and after a quick ceremony; the Virgin was put in her little shrine in the church and as the weather was glorious, everyone went for coffee on the old harbour.
These old traditions do seem a bit extraordinary to the foreign eye, especially to those of us that have grown up in the secular north, but nevertheless they are very fascinating and well worth attending.