Archive for the ‘saints’ Category

The Three Hierarchs (4th century)

January 30, 2010

The main church of Skiathos is located just above the Old Port and is dedicated to the Three Hierarchs (Tris Ierarches), the three bishops that shaped much of today’s Christian church (sermons, monastic life, creed): St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom.

St. Basil is the Greek equivalent to Father Christmas and belonged to a deeply religious family where several members became saints. Suffering from ill health since his youth, St. Basil was especially interested in medicine and ended up founding the first public hospital in the western world. He wrote a series of texts about the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship, a topic as important today as it was then.  For a more detailed biography, please go to his individual post.

St. Gregory was a close friend of St. Basil’s and they had been fellow students in both Constantinople and Athens, where they were educated in law, geometry, philosophy, public speech and astronomy. After years of life as a desert hermit, St. Gregory went to Constantinople, where St. Basil eventually made him the archbishop. St. Gregory is often called The Theologist, as he wrote fervent speeches against pagans and scriptures for and about the church.

St. John was a priest who was so famous for his sermons that he earned the nickname Chrysostom, the Gold Mouthed (in English Silver Tongued is probably a better translation). His religious zeal often angered the emperor, who banished him on several occasions but his popularity with the people brought him back. In the end, the emperor ostracized him once and for all and St. John spent the rest of his life in Armenia.

Because the three saints were educated men of the church they are often depicted holding the Bible in one hand. Each saint has an individual name day (Basil 1/1, Gregory 25/1, John 13/11) but when a dispute broke out between their respective followers on who was the most important in 1100, it was decided they should also have a common one on the 30th of January. The three saints are patrons of students, teachers and of all education in general.

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January Saints: John the Baptist (ca. 6BC – 30AD)

January 6, 2010

There are several St.  Johns in the Greek Orthodox Saints’ calendar but the most famous one is arguably John the Baptist. The Greeks usually call him Prodromos, the Forerunner, as he was the one to prepare the way and announce the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence that his name day is celebrated the day after Theofania, the Blessing of the Waters, where thousands of Greeks jump into the freezing sea to honour the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist himself!

You have probably heard the story about John the Baptist a million times but just in case, here is a short recap:

John was the son of the priest Zachariah and Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an elderly, child-less couple who had given up all hopes of ever having children of their own. One day, the archangel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that they were going to have a son, but as the latter did not believe that was possible at Elizabeth’s age he openly doubted the angel. As a punishment he was struck dumb and got his speech back only after John had been born.

John the Baptist dedicated his life to God and preached the imminent arrival of Christ on the banks of the river Jordan. In icons, he is often depicted with wings, which plays on the Greek word Aggelos, angel, which really means messenger (John was, after all, a prophet). King Herod was wary of John the Baptist and saw him as somewhat of a rebel and had him arrested. At a party Herod’s niece, the beautiful Salome, asked Herod for the head of John as a prize for dancing and thus, poor John was beheaded. In icons this is illustrated by John standing next to or carrying his own head on a platter. There is often an axe on the ground or leaning against the very tree it was made from in the background.

Because of his decapitation, John the Baptist has become the saint that cures you from illnesses of the head: headaches, migraines, epilepsy, mental illness etc., as well as fevers. An old tradition also has it that he comes to the deathbeds of those who have not heard the Christian gospels and so gives them one last chance to be saved. He is also considered the patron saint of Freemasons.

The name John is IoAnnis in Greek and in everyday language it is shortened to Yannis for men and Ioanna for women. Men can also be called Prodromos after him, a name quite common on Skopelos. John the Baptist is a very important saint to the Greek Orthodox and his icon can always be found to the right of Christ on the iconostasis, the screen of icons, in churches. He is honoured on several days of the year, but the 7th of January is the “big” one, where everyone named after him will celebrate. This day is called Synaxis of John the Baptist, which basically means “the gathering of saints and angels”, because of what had happened the day before.

Some of the other days are:

June 24: his birth

August 29: his beheading

September 23: his conception

On Skiathos, there is a lovely little church dedicated to John the Baptist not far from the Kounistra Monastery. It is called O Agios IoAnnis O KryfOs, St. John the Hidden, because it is hidden away in the forest. Alexandros Papadiamantis tells us in his short story The Murderess, that this was a place you could go to pray if you had done something so terrible or had such bad thoughts that you could not go to your normal church, thus giving the name The Hidden a second meaning.

Another church is situated not far from the Old Town, or Kastro. This one is dedicated to the Beheading and has several grim icons of the moment. This is also where the old cemetery used to be. It was at this church some locals were struck and killed by lightning in the 1920’s, while celebrating John on August 29. Local lore has it that they were being disrespectful of the saint and so got their punishment.

Nowadays, many people go to visit the church of John the Baptist on Skopelos, as this is where the wedding scene in the film Mamma Mia was shot. Legend has it that the Baptist himself had chosen the spot for the church on top of a big rock in the sea; by putting his icon there, the locals were convinced this is where he wanted it to be housed.

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Theofania – an Old, Cold Tradition

January 5, 2010

Talk about a Leap of Faith! In freezing January, on the 6th to be exact, thousands of Greeks jump into the sea, cold rivers and lakes to retrieve a cross the local priest has just thrown in. Covered in goose bumps, the shivering winner brings it to the priest and receives a blessing in return. This is the day of Theofania, or Epiphany, when the Blessing of the Waters takes place all through the Orthodox world.

Christ is baptised in the river Jordan. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and to the left of John an axe is leaning against a tree, waiting to decapitate the Baptist.

What is really celebrated on January 6th is Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, thus the significance of the water. John the Baptist would baptise people to wash away their sins but as Christ was free of sin, the waters became blessed instead when it was his turn. Tradition also has it that this was the day of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. January 6th is also held as the day when the three Magi visited the infant Jesus, which is why this day is also known as Epiphany, the Appearance.

The Greeks, however, call this day Theofania, which can be translated as the Manifestation or Revelation of God and stands for the moment Christ was baptised and so revealed to the world as one and the same with God. The baptism was one of the few occasions when the Holy Trinity revealed itself all together: Christ the Son, God’s Voice in Heaven and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Another important reason to celebrate this day is that it marks the end of the dangerous twelve days of Christmas, when the evil Kallikantzari (see the article Christmas – A Dangerous Time of Joy) ascend from the depths of Earth to make life difficult for everyone.  These goblins are terrified of Holy Water and in the blessing of the waters, order is restored and the Kallikantzari retire to the underworld again. As the sea is now safe again, tradition has it that sailors can now return to their ships.

The Old Harbour, Skiathos 2009.

Sometimes the whole jumping-in-the-sea-thing goes terribly wrong and if you are in Greece on this day watch the 8 o’clock news on any channel as they usually show a few hilarious moments from the day: no one being able to find the cross, fights breaking out between the competitors or the priest simply being unable to throw the cross in.

Usually the cross is retrieved, though, and the winner goes from house to house to receive blessings and perhaps a little money. If someone knocks on your door and it turns up to be a freezing man with wet hair and a cross in his hand, give him a Euro or two – he deserves it.

On Skiathos, there is a service held at the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos Town, usually around 10, which is then followed by the Blessing of the Waters in the Old Harbour. See you there!

January Saints: St. Basil (330-379)

December 30, 2009

Vasilis means royal and is a very common name in Greece. The English equivalent is Basil, perhaps the most famous one being Basil Fawlty, and many Greeks by this name sometimes call themselves Bill or Billy in English. The female form is Vasiliki and the nickname is often Vasso.

The saint behind this name is Agios Vasilios (St. Basileus) and he was one of the Three Hierarchs, or Church Fathers, of Christianity. The main church of Skiathos is named after them and here you will find many icons of St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John. St. Basil is also “Ai-Vasilis” or Father Christmas to the Greeks and this is why Greek children traditionally get their presents on New Years Eve, as St. Basil is celebrated on January 1 (his death day).

St. Basil came from Cappadocia (today’s Turkey) and was born to a wealthy, Christian family where several members were saints. For example, his grandfather had died a martyr’s death, his grandmother was St. Macrina, the patron of widows, and four of his siblings were later canonised.

As his family was rich, young St. Basil was very well educated and he studied law and rhetoric in both Constantinople and Athens. His class-mate and best friend was St. Gregory, another of the Three Hierarchs, and they remained close for their whole lives. At one point, their fellow student was Julian the Apostate who obviously was not too impressed with the new religion; when he came to power he persecuted and killed many Christians, amongst others St. Reginos of Skopelos, who was executed for refusing to return to the old gods.

When St. Basil was 27 he was baptised and decided to stop being a lawyer. Instead, he went on a life-altering journey to the Middle East where he tried to live an ascetic life, which unfortunately ended up ruining his health. The strict diet damaged his liver so badly that he died before reaching 50. Meeting and living with the monks and hermits in Palestine and Egypt made a deep impression on St. Basil and when he returned home, he founded a monastery near the Black Sea.  Although he did agree with the austere life a monk must lead, St. Basil also believed that this, in excess, could border on self-obsession and come dangerously close to hubris, and therefore stated that hard work and studies were just as important and that a monk should find a balance between the two. This inspired and altered monastic life to such a degree, that St. Basil today is considered the father of communal monasticism.

At the age of 40 St. Basil became a bishop and quite a difficult one too. Here we come to one of the more interesting aspects of his personality: whilst fellow saints such as St. Nicholas and St. Spyridon were described as mild-mannered and humble, St. Basil could be very temperamental and argumentative. He especially disliked priests who acquired personal property and civil servants who did not do their job properly. As he had been a lawyer, he was very well versed in the order of things and knew how to present his case against corrupt judges and their unfair trials and he also disapproved of church officials using pompous language to seem holier than thou. This, of course, made him unpopular with the powers that ruled and the Emperor banished him several times, with little success, one might add, as St. Basil was popular with the people.

On the other hand, St. Basil was very generous and gave away much of his fortune to the poor. He was the first one to found a public hospital and a poorhouse and he used to organise soup-kitchens when famine struck. One of his main missions in life was to convert thieves and prostitutes and he would often defend those that had been treated unfairly by the authorities.

In Greece Vasilopita, Basil’s pie, is baked for the New Year. It is a symbol of St. Basil’s acts of charity towards the poor in times of food shortages and a coin is always hidden in it. The pie is cut in several pieces: one for St. Basil, one of Christ, one for the house and one for each family member. Whoever gets the coin gets fortune for the coming year. It is also St. Basil’s many good deeds that have made him the Orthodox Father Christmas, rather than St. Nicholas. St. Basil is also the patron saint of hospital workers as well as the protector of teachers.

In icons, St. Basil is depicted as a thin, dark haired man as he died quite young. He has a long, two-pointed beard and he wears a Bishop’s robe and carries the Holy Scriptures in one hand. On Skiathos, there are two churches dedicated to him: on in Kastro and the other is the Church of the Three Hierarchs, the main church in town.

The herb Basil is named so not because of the saint, but rather because of its etymology (royal). Legend has it that St. Helen found the Holy Cross because Basil grew on the spot and so, Basil represents Christ the King. Orthodox priests often sprinkle Holy Water with Basil leaves and it is perhaps no coincidence that this has become a symbol of love and faith as opposed to the pagan, ancient Greek belief that it was a symbol of hate.

To anyone called Vasilis, Vasiliki, Basil etc. chronia polla and a Happy New Year to everyone else!

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December Saints: St. Spyridon (270-348)

December 11, 2009

Although the patron saint of Corfu, Spyridon (masc. Spyros, fem. Spyridoula) is quite a common name on Skiathos and his icons adorn many of the local churches. St. Spyridon came from Cyprus and was born in 270. His family was very poor and they could not afford to give their son any education whatsoever and so, he became a shepherd. He married young and had several children but when his wife died, his life took somewhat of a turn and he became a man of the church, eventually becoming bishop.

St. Spyridon would have met our friend St. Nicholas, as they both attended the famous council of Nicaea in 325, where many of the creeds of the Christian Church (that still prevail) were determined. One famous story from this meeting tells how St. Spyridon proved the Holy Trinity by showing everyone a potsherd that suddenly caught fire and turned into dust and water; three elements incorporated as one.

Just like his fellow saints, St. Spyridon was known for his many acts of charity and he is believed to have had the powers of healing and exorcism. One of his even more impressive talents was to be able to control the elements: he is said to have stopped the flow of a stream when unable to cross it on his way to rescue a friend in need and on another occasion he lit all the candles in a church simultaneously. People also used to pray to him for rain.

In icons, St. Spyridon is depicted as an elderly man with a long, white beard, wearing a basket on his head (spyris means basket). His relics are now kept on Corfu, where they were taken by a monk to save them from the Turks. His right hand, however, now rests in Rome. On Corfu there are stories about how the saint has rescued the island on several occasions: from Turks, famine, cholera and the plague.

St. Spyridon is celebrated on the 12th of December (by Catholics on the 14th) and he is the patron saint of shepherds, potters, Corfu and the Tolstoy family. If you know anyone called Spyros or Spyridoula, wish them χρόνια πολλά (chronia polla – many years) on 12/12.

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December Saints: St. Nicholas

December 3, 2009

Being a sea farers’ country, St. Nicholas, the protector of the sailors, is very popular in Greece.  His churches overlook harbours everywhere and Skiathos is no exception. On Skiathos there are three churches in his honour; one towering over the town on the Kotronia hill (where the post box stood in Mamma Mia), a smaller one just below and one in Kastro.

But who exactly was St. Nicholas? In icons we see him as a white haired, slightly balding, elderly bishop giving benediction with one hand. The other hand holds the Bible and out of reverence for the Holy Scripture, the hand is covered with his robe. As is usually the case in icons, his face is severe, again a sign of reverence, and around him we often see images of the sea: sailors in need, ships, dolphins etc.

Born to a wealthy, Christian family in the Greek  Lycia (today’s Turkey) in 280, St. Nicholas showed very early signs of being a holy man: only three days old he stood up in his bath and refused his mothers breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, as these are days of fasting. As a toddler, he never wanted to play children’s games that had to do with bluffing or make believe. When both his parents suddenly died of the plague, young Nicholas gave away most of the family wealth to the poor and soon became a priest.

Travelling by sea, St. Nicholas once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One night, he dreamt that he saw Satan destroying the sails and when he woke up he warned the crew and the captain that they were in danger. Sure enough, a fierce storm soon came over them but through his prayers, St. Nicholas managed to save them all. It is from this story that people all over the world have made him the patron saint of the sea, and it is not unusual that Greeks light a candle or leave a gift (tama) to St. Nicholas before a sea journey.

St. Nicholas became Archbishop of Myra, not far from his home town, and eventually served under Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to make Christianity a state religion and founder of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). He was very much a loved priest, and said to have been very gentle and understanding. The list of acts of compassion and miracles during his lifetime are endless: saving himself and his fellow prisoners when arrested and tortured during the emperor Diocletian’s rule, resurrecting three babies that had been murdered, exorcising a demon from a young man etc. St. Nicholas donations were always anonymous and it was this secret gift giving that eventually turned him into Santa, albeit not in Greece (here, St. Basil is Father Christmas). One story tells us that St. Nicholas once provided three maidens with enough dowries to marry, thus saving them from slavery. He threw bags of gold through their window and the money landed in their socks, which later turned into the custom of hanging out socks for Christmas.

When St. Nicholas died at the age of about 60, he was deeply mourned and his funeral procession was attended by people from all layers of society. Thousands flocked to his grave, as his relics were believed to work miracles and in 1087, his remains were taken to Italy in an act of “saving them from barbarians”, a subject of harsh discussions between Italians and Greeks to this day.

St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th and anyone called Nikolaos, Nikos, Nicoletta etc. have their name days. The actual name in Greek is Νικόλαος, NikOlaos and it means “victor of people”. Apart from sailors, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of students, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and the Greek navy. In December, the Greeks put lighted models of boats in the streets and their homes in his honor and even though he is not the Christmas saint, St. Basil’s boats are the traditional Christmas decoration, rather than the Christmas tree.

If you know someone named after St. Nicholas, do not forget to wish them chronia polla (many years) on December 6th. Name days are more important than birthdays in Greece and a message or phone call will always be much appreciated.

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November saints: Kounistra

November 1, 2009

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Skiathos, and the icon representing her power as patron of the island is called Kounistra. The name has been a source of debate for hundreds of years but the most imaginative one is that it means “the Swinging” as it supposedly was found swinging in a tree by the hermit Symeon in 1650. The old monk had seen a shining light coming from the forest he lived next to and after months of praying and fasting he finally found its source. It was the Kounistra icon, an image of the Virgin as a young girl. Too old and weak to climb the tree, Symeon spent the night praying by the tree and at the break of dawn he hurried to Kastro to tell the locals the news. This was during the Ottoman occupation and Kastro at the time was inhabited both by Greeks and Turks and they all went to the tree to witness the miracle. Some may wonder why the Turks went as they were Moslem but then we forget that Christ and the Virgin are both recognized as holy by the Koran; in the holy scripture of Islam Mary is referred to as Myriam Ana. Apart from that, the Turks would have been just as curious as the Greeks to see the icon in the tree. The honour of climbing up the tree and retrieving the icon was given to the main priest, one Ioannis Pappas (lit. John Priest) and it was then carried back to Kastro in a holy procession. Ever since then, the Kounistra icon protects Skiathos.

Kounistra has been credited with a myriad of miracles, mostly to do with health, but what is even more fascinating is the fact that there are whispers of acts of punishment and anger by Her. When an iconographer wanted to restore the icon he met the Virgin in a dream, where She threatened to kill him if he laid a finger on Her. A local tried to cut down the tree She had been found in and died instantly. When a group of friends disrespected John the Baptist by having a party by his church in the 1920’s they were all killed by lightning. The lightning story is actually true and visitors can see the shrine dedicated in the victims’ honour but whether or not they were killed in an act of holy vengeance can, of course, be discussed. One version of the story even tells us that the Kounistra icon was found by the bodies!


The Kounistra icon carried in a holy procession.

Kounistra is today housed in the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos town, along with an icon depicting the Retrieval. Thousands of tamata, votive offerings made by people in the hope of miracles, surround the icon and a part of the tree rests against the shrine. A copy of the icon is also kept in the Kounistra monastery that was built some years after the icon was found. The first abbot of this monastery was old Symeon himself but after it was closed in the 19th century the icon was moved to town. Today, the beautiful monastery is open for visitors and it is well worth going to.

The Virgin Mary of Kounistra is celebrated on November 21. The day before, the icon is carried in a procession from Skiathos town to the monastery and then a wake is held all night. The next day it is brought back and some say that the icon is much heavier to carry back, as the Virgin is sad to leave her home.

To read more, you can buy the book: A History of Skiathos

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