Posts Tagged ‘icons’

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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Kounistra Day

November 28, 2009

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.

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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