Posts Tagged ‘orthodox’

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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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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