Greek Festivals and Commemorations
Greece is a land of surprises. Whether it be the one-day seizure of power by the women, the military parades, with tanks rumbling through the city streets, the sinister masked figures dressed in animal skins and hung about with bells which disturb the winter peace, the ecstatic dances of the fire-walkers, or the sombre and moving rituals of Great (Holy) Week, there is much to be discovered and enjoyed in the religious, military, historical and folk festivals and celebrations of the Greek people.traditional carnival mummers
The traditional carnival characters which roam the streets of northern and central Greece betray many signs of their ancient origins in the rituals of Dionysos, the ancient god of wine and ecstasy.
The national and municipal commemorations which mark the passage of the year in Greece commemorate some of the many high and low points in the violent, and often tragic, recent history of this nation, which has so often found itself a pawn in the hands of foreign powers, to be used in the pursuit of their own strategic interests.
The religious festivities of Greece are famous for their rich and colourful character; whether it be the dramatic ceremonies of Theofania, when young men dive into the sea to retrieve the cross, thrown there by the bishop during the blessing of the waters; the animal sacrifices in northern Greece during the winter, and on Lesbos during the summer; the sombre ritual of Great (Good) Friday with its funeral processions for the dead Christ; the noisy celebrations of the Resurrection at midnight on Easter Day; or the many panayiria, or local celebrations, held in great cities and tiny rustic chapels alike across the country throughout the year.
Exotika or xotika: The paranormal creatures which haunt Greek folklore
Just as the genre of futuristic or “science” fiction may present us with the hopes and fears of an age and a people, so in the folk beliefs of our ancestors we may be able to gain some insight into their innermost aspirations, dreams, and nightmares; and so be enabled, in a limited fashion, to glimpse their world as they saw it. The folk heritage of the Greek people is a remarkably rich one, providing at the same time links to a justly celebrated past, and evidence of the continued fertility and inventiveness of the human imagination under very adverse conditions.
Among the most common of the Greek xotika, found almost nationwide, are the following:
aerika – a general term for spirits of the air.
arapides – ‘Moors’ – large black men who frequently guard buried treasure.
Charos – the personification of Death, who comes to the dying to take them to the Underworld.
Daoutis – a demon in the form of a goat which attacks flocks and brings sickness and death to them.
drakoi – ogres, sometimes in human shape, sometimes serpentine, who live in caves of the mountains.
gelloudes – female demons who suck the blood of new-born babies or strangle them.
gorgones – women with double fish-tails, the sisters of Alexander the Great, who threaten seafarers.
kallikantzaroi – goblins who emerge from under the ground from Christmas until Twelfth Night.
lamies – female ogres, sometimes beautiful, who often lure men to their death by drowning in wells.
moires – the three Fates, who visit a newly born baby on the third night to decide its fate.
nereids – beautiful nymphs, usually female and of the age at which girls marry.
panoukles – old women who personify and bring with them various epidemic diseases.
phantasmata – a general term for ghosts of the dead or other shape-shifting spirits.
smerdaki – small demons which attack the flocks.
stoicheia – spirits which inhabit a particular place: in homes, these appear frequently as snakes, in churches as oxen.
stringles – witch women who can transform themselves into birds, and attack newborn babies.
teloneia – St. Elmo’s fire.
vrakhnas – small child who sits on sleepers’ chests and causes nightmares.
vrykolakes – vampires. Greek vampires are not the bat-like vampires of Hollywood.
In addition to these, there are many other xotika, whose notoriety is confined to a particular region or village.
Davelis’ Cave, just outside Athens, is one of the most notorious locations in the entire country, shunned and feared by many. It seems to have the power, even today, to generate strange stories od paranormal phenomena.
It lies high on the almost-sheer south-western slopes of Pendeli, to the north of Athens, beneath a spectacular cliff, which forms part of the ancient quarries from which the marble for the Parthenon was taken. Tales of the paranormal cluster around this mountain, and particularly around Davelis’ Cave itself. During the nineteenth century, resin collectors, who would gather together in the evenings after their long day’s work, would hear musical instruments, voices raised in laughter and song, and other sounds of celebration, coming through the trees after dusk where no humans were. Shepherds would see lights moving in places known to be deserted. They would say that the neraides were dancing. Tales of strange creatures encountered on the mountain, from huge bats to horned men, were, and still are, common among local people.
left: The entrance to Davelis’ Cave lies at the foot of a large cliff on the face of the mountain above an ancient quarry.
In the eastern end of the cave mouth are two ancient Byzantine chapels. One lies against the cave wall, and is the more ancient, being entirely cut out of the rock, while the other has been added on later. The dome of the second is inscribed with the date 1234 (or 1274). A mural in this chapel representing Michael Akominatos, the last Greek archbishop of Athens before its conquest by the Crusaders in 1205 has been removed to the Byzantine Museum in Athens.
A space under the floor was used as an ossuary, and contained the bones of the hermits or monks who once lived there.
engraving of angel
The smaller chapel contains several engravings on the natural wall of the cave, probably made by anchorites (left). These may be older than either of the churches, and may date from as early as the seventh century.
Some structures within Davelis’ Cave are of unknown purpose. (See right)
buildings of unknown purpose
Behind these constructions lies the large domed cavern itself. Niches and pedestals on the walls once held statues and offerings. On the far side from the chapels is a strange stalagmite formation and a passage leading downwards. On the other side a small pool in a hollow in the wall, while at the rear, a second chamber used to be separated from the main hall by a curtain wall of stalagmites, and at the rear a tunnel once led to subterranean galleries, which were the subject of much speculation. The seventeenth century Turkish traveller, Evlia Tselepi, claimed that he was taken through extensive underground galleries by a monk of Pendeli, and it seems likely that their entrance was by means of Davelis’ Cave. Even today, on a hot summer afternoon, the air inside is cooled by draughts of cold air coming from deep inside the mountain.
The cave is known as “Davelis’ Cave” from a nineteenth century brigand who used it as a hideout. A shepherd of the Pendeli Monastery, he was falsely accused of theft by the abbot, and later killed a gendarme who mistakenly tried to arrest him under the impression that he was a deserter from the army. He soon had his own small company of followers, and came to acquire an undeserved reputation as a champion of the poor; but he robbed travellers, preyed upon defenceless villagers, and enjoyed romantic liaisons with various society ladies while on the run. From his hideaway in the cave on the side of Mount Pendelis, which bears his name today, he would, according to local people, engage in romantic trysts with the rich and eccentric Duchess of Plaisance, using an underground tunnel which connected the cave to her mansion, the Villa Rododaphne (left). He became a national hero when an Anglo-French military force temporarily occupied Piraeus, and he kidnapped a French officer on the road between the port and the city. His career ended when he was pursued and killed near Mount Parnassos, and his head taken to Athens and displayed on a pike in Syntagma Square.
interiorIn his book Attica, John L. Tomkinson argues that ‘Davelis’ is a corruption of a form of the word ‘devil’, and that the cave was originally dedicated to the worship of Pan (often stigmatized as the devil by the Church) and the nymphs. Another small cave discovered higher up the mountainside, and hidden for centuries by quarry rubble, contained two plaques as offerings to the nymphs, which are now in the National Museum.(right)
The mysteries of Davelis’ Cave by no means ceased with the end of the nineteenth century. In 1977 the military appropriated it, and used bulldozers to level the floor of the cave. Over the next few years this work unaccountably stopped and was resumed several times. In order to preserve the chapels when the ground immediately to the rear of them was removed, it became necessary to buttress their foundations with concrete. The military also defaced the very beautiful area in front of the entrance with a strange construction of concrete and (now) rusty iron built onto the side of the cliff, and excavated several large tunnels into the mountain, three near the entrance to Davelis’ Cave, and another on the far side of the mountain, before finally abandoning their enterprise in 1990.
It was said by some of those who explored these caves, in the days before the military workings blocked off access to the underground galleries, that they would never find quite the same physical structure from one visit to another. New clefts in the rock and new passages would seem to appear and disappear between visits. It was also claimed that electrical equipment would behave unpredictably.
Naturally, such a place has tended to attract, and exerted a strong fascination over, those excited by the unusual and the paranormal. Stories of moving balls of light and strange creatures seen, or half-seen; strange temperature changes, and cameras and compasses behaving oddly, are legion. One visitor found the cave swarming with domestic cats, even though there are no houses nearby…and so on. Periodically embellished in this manner by fresh rumours and stories, the sinister reputation of the cave has grown, rather than faded, over the years.
The Ancient Ecstatic Fire-Walking Ritual of Greece
The Anastenaria is a traditional ritual of fire walking which dates back to pagan times. Barefoot villagers of Ayia Eleni near Serres, and of Langada near Thessaloniki, and other places, annually walk over hot coals. As there are variations in the ritual from place to place, the following description is largely based upon the performance of the festival as celebrated at Ayia Eleni, the most authoritative Anastenarian community, and the illustrations are from the ritual at Langada.
The communities which celebrate the Anastenaria are descendants of refugees from Eastern Thrace who arrived in Greece following the migrations necessitated by the Balkan Wars and by the later exchange of populations in 1923. Each village community of Anastenarides is headed by a “group of twelve” of which the large majority are women. They gather in a special building, or in the room of a house set aside for the purpose, called a konaki. Here on an icon shelf are kept the special icons of SS Constantine and Helen which are the most precious possessions of the community. Each has a handle so that it can conveniently be carried in processions and dances, is hung with small bells, decorated with “sacred knots” made from kerchiefs, and is covered with specially made cloth envelopes. Draped over the icons and the shelf are large red kerchiefs called simadia, which are believed to possess in themselves the power of the icons. On a table nearby offerings of oil, incense and lighted candles are kept.in the konaki
On the eve of the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen (May 20th) the Anastenarides gather in the konaki, where the participants dance and sing to the music of the Thracian lyra, and a large drum. After some time, the dancing generates extreme emotional and ecstatic phenomena in the devotees, particularly in those dancing for the first time. This manifests itself in the form of violent trembling, repeated rocking backwards and forwards, and writhing. The archanastenaris hands out icons from the shelf to some of the dancers. The Anastenarides believe that during the dance they are “seized” by the saint, and enter a state of trance.
On the morning of the saints’ day (May 21st) the Anastenarides gather at the konaki before leaving together in procession, accompanied by musicians and candle bearers to a holy well, where they are blessed by the holy water. Next, they sacrifice one or several animals to the saints. In Ayia Eleni, the animal must be over one year old, and of an odd number of years of age, the most acceptable being seven. The beast must also be unmarked and it must not have been castrated. It is incensed, and then led up to a shallow pit excavated in a place previously indicated by the Archanastenaris in a trance, usually beside the roots of a tree or at the agiasma. At one side of the shallow pit candles are lighted, while, on the other stand pots of holy water and the sacrificial animal. The beast is turned upside down, with its head tilted upwards, at the edge of the pit. Its throat is cut in such a way as to allow its blood to soak into the earth. The carcass is hung and skinned to the sound of music, and the raw flesh and hide cut up into equal parts put into baskets and distributed, amongst the families of the village in a procession from house to house. preparing the fire
After lunch the Anastenarides gather again and resume their dancing. A candle is lit from one of the oil lamps in front of the icons, and given to a man who takes it to an open space in the village, where a cone-shaped pile of logs has been prepared. There a bonfire is lit. As the wood burns, men spread out the coals with long poles until they form a large oval bed. When the Anastenarides are informed that the fire is ready, they approach the place barefoot in procession, bearing their icons and simadia.
procession of the Anastenarides
Initially the Anastenarides dance barefoot around the hot ashes, but when the saint moves them, individuals run backwards and forwards across the burning coals, some bearing aloft the icons. Sometimes devotees kneel down beside the fire and pound the ashes with the palms of their hands in order to demonstrate their power over the fire. The Anastenarides continue dancing over the coals until the ashes are cool, then they return to the konaki and enjoy a common meal, with music and singing. During the next two days, they process around the village visiting each house, taking care to do so always by moving in a counter-clockwise direction. On May 23rd they conclude with a second dance over the fire, this time privately.
procession of the Anastenarides
The refugees say that in their original home, in Kosti, now in eastern Bulgaria, the ancient ceremonies were performed in full. With the outbreak of the Balkan war of 1912, the Greeks of Kosti were forced out of their village with their icons by the Bulgarians. They travelled by steamer to Constantinople, from there they were moved on Thessaloniki, finally settling in rural Macedonia. For more than twenty years they celebrated the Anastenaria only in secret, before being persuaded to perform in public in 1947. This provoked hostile response from the Church, but ecclesiastical disapproval has been counterbalanced by the active support of folklore societies, local government officials and government ministries.
According to the story told by the refugees, the origin of the Anastenaria lies in a fire which took place at Kosti in the dancing on the hot coalsthirteenth century. One night the church of Saint Constantine caught fire, and as it burned the people heard cries coming from the flames. It was the icons calling out for aid. Some villagers ran into the building and rescued them, neither the icons not their saviours being burned. Since that time, the Anastenaria has been held to celebrate their delivery. This is similar to the many stories invented to “explain” customs of unknown origin which are found across Greece. In the nineteenth century, the Byzantine scholar Anna Chatzinikolaou was able to show that the icons of the saints, today considered so important to the group, did not exist before 1833, and that all had at that time been recently repainted. There was evidence that the earliest icons depicted the red-robed Saint Helena “as if she were dancing”; clearly a serious embarrassment to a group under threat of religious persecution.
Among scholars the origins of the Anastenaria, as opposed to what the cult has become today, are a matter of considerable dispute. Although there is no evidence in ancient literature of fire-walking rituals associated with the god Dionysos, most scholars connect the Anastenaria with the widespread cult of that divinity. This association was also made by the Church authorities when they condemned the practices of the cult. Folklore scholar George A. Megas observes that “the cradle of Dionysiac worship was precisely in the Haemus area where the Anastenaria are danced today, passed down by the Greeks to the neighboring Bulgarian villages.” This latter point is made clear by the fact that the prayers used by the Bulgarian Anastenarides are recited in Greek, and that the transmission of the rites from Greeks to Bulgarian settlers in the area is a matter of historical record. Moreover, the evidence of mid-winter and carnival customs is that much that was associated with the Dionysian cult has survived throughout northern and central Greece. Katerina Kakouri has established a close connection between these customs and the Anastenaria in Ayia Eleni.
Megas has also pointed out that the state of frenzy among worshippers, observed among the Anastenarides, was characteristic of the cult of this god, whose Maenads, or female worshippers, “rushed in a frenzy over the mountains at night, lighted by torches and goaded on by the wild music of deep-throated flutes and thunddancing on the hot coalsering drums.” Certainly some observers have noted in the dance of the Anastenarides over the hot ashes, with their trance-like faces and outstretched arms, the modern successors of the infamous ancient Maenads of Dionysos, the God-intoxicated women who might, in their trance-like state, tear apart any animal they came across in their frenzied nocturnal roamings over the mountains. Of crucial importance in this context is the evidence that the modern Anastenarides may, in their frenzy, run away with the icons for a period “into the mountains”, and that this is expected as an integral part of the sacred ritual. In the last century A. Chourmouziades described how “now beside themselves, [they] run and speed like birds up the hills and into the woods and up escarpments.” D. Petropoulos observed as recently as the 1930s that “when the dance was at its height, many folk broke away in their joy and ran up towards the mountains.” This certainly recalls the frenzy of the Maenads, who roamed the mountains while out of their minds.
It would appear that in the practices of these settlers from Eastern Thrace may be found one of the most distinctive living survivals, under a very thin Christian guise, of an important part of the ancient religion of much of rural classical Greece.
The Trata and the Chapel of Saint John the Dancer, Megara
On the Tuesday following Easter in every alternate year, the women of Megara take part a traditional dance on the open space before the tiny church known as Saint John the Dancer. It is said to commemorate the building of this chapel in a single day.
To prevent the Turks from profiting from a spring on the site, which had the effect of making the women who drank from it very fertile, local people decided to secure it inside a church, but they needed the permission of the Turkish authorities to erect such a building.
By a clever stratagem they were able to convince the pasha in Corinth to allow them to build a small chapel, but only if the work could be completed within a single day. They told him that an evil djinn inhabited the spring. The pasha of Corinth did not want the inhabitants of his area troubled by evil spirits, and he thought that building a chapel over the spring would be sufficient to ensure that it would remain trapped inside. But he feared that if the Muslims of the area heard that the Christians were building a new chapel they would be outraged, and this would itself cause him trouble. So he warned the Christians that if they took longer than a single day to build it, they would lose their heads. In this way, the building would be finished before anyone could complain to him about it.
The Christians gathered together all their resources, and starting at dawn they succeeded in completing the building of the chapel in a single day. The famous dance, the Trata, is said to celebrate their success. However, folklorists note that the movements of the dance, performed by the young women, seem to indicate that it is probably a very ancient dance, which was originally performed to ensure success of the fishermen.
The Virgin’s Serpents, Kefalonia
Markopoulo is a small hamlet on the road between the two main villages of the island of Kefalonia, on the side of a mountain, enjoying a superb view of the sea. Each year, on the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin (August 15th) a strange phenomenon occurs. During the religious services, small snakes, marked on their heads with a black mark like the sign of the cross, emerge near the bell tower, and make their way towards the church itself.
These serpents enter the church through holes created for the bell ropes. They crawl over the furniture and over the people gathered there. They seem to make for the bishop’s throne, and the icon of the Virgin in particular.
These snakes, called “Our Lady’s snakes” are harmless, and are welcomed by the people, most of whom will have come precisely to witness this event. They disappear after the celebrations as mysteriously as they arrived.
Except at this time of the year, the snakes are quite invisible. Local people go out in the evening to seek for them on the evening of the 14th, and tell the others when they have seen them, because it is believed that their appearance is a good omen, and forecasts a bountiful year to follow.
For example, older inhabitants say that in 1940 the snakes did not appear. During the following year, Greece was invaded by the Axis Forces; and the serpents failed several times to appear during the course of the Occupation.
They also did not put in an appearance in 1953, the year when the island was struck by a catastrophic earthquake.
Many visitors have remarked upon the surprising behaviour of the snakes inside the building. Usually they avoid human beings, but at this time they seem uncharacteristically tame, and quite unperturbed at being handled.
When the village was attacked by the pirates of Barbarossa in 1705, the nuns in a convent there prayed to the Virgin to be transformed into snakes in order to avoid being captured. It is said that their prayers were answered, and a miracle took place. The pirates were appalled, when they entered the precincts of the monastery, to see the floor, walls and icons covered with snakes. Since then, the snakes have returned to the village at this time of the year.