It is hard to overstate the importance of Mary to Catholic and Orthodox Christians around the world, but in Greece, the worship of Mary is elevated to another level.
This importance of Mary to the Greeks is demonstrated by the wide number of local customs that are celebrated across Greece.
The churches of Panayia Evangelistria on Tinos, Panayia Ekatontaliliani on Paros, and the Monastery of Panayia Soumela on Mount Vermio are popular for religious pilgrimages in Greece at this time of year.
Let’s take a tour round Greece and look at some of these unique festivals in a bit more detail.
One of the largest religious pilgrimages of Hellenism takes place on Tinos, the Cycladic island associated with the Virgin Mary. On August 15th every year, believers flock to the Church of the Blessed Virgin to venerate the miraculous image of Mary. Believers who have made a tama (a promise in exchange of a miracle) sometimes crawl all the way from the port to the church, climbing up the stairs on all fours to worship the icon. An Epitaph procession also takes place, similar to the Good Friday procession for Christ. Festivities honouring the Virgin Mary run until August 23rd when the island also marks the anniversary of the sinking of the battleship Elli by the Italians.
Many excavations were carried out to locate an icon of the Virgin Mary that was thought to be buried on the island after a nun living on the island dreamed of the icon one night. An icon of the Virgin Mary was indeed found buried there on January 30th 1823.
The story goes that St. Pelagia, a nun living on Tinos, dreamed of a lady who explained to her how much she had suffered, having been buried for many years.
In St. Pelagia’s dream, the lady ordered her to wake up early the next morning and begin digging in the field of Ant. Doxaras to uncover a sacred icon.
Eventually, an icon of the Virgin Mary was uncovered, and just a few years afterward, officials decided to celebrate the feast of the Virgin Mary annually, on the date of her Dormition.
From the early 1800s until today the island has celebrated Her Grace for an entire week, from Aug. 15-23.
Every year, a great mystery occurs at the Holy Monastery of Panagia Fidousa (Lady of the Snakes) in Markopoulo, on the Ionian island of Kefalonia. Believers head to the church to see the small snakes that miraculously appear in the belfry only on the August 15th feast day. According to tradition, the snakes bring luck to the island and the church committee collects them. When the snakes don’t appear, the parishioners brace themselves for a hard year ahead, seeing the absence of the snakes as a bad omen.
Local people here celebrate this holy Feast from August 6th through 15th in the village of Markopoulo on the island of Kefalonia. Many snakes of all kinds and sizes are found inside and outside the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary there, earning them the name The Virgin Mary’s snakes.
The snakes are a part of a legend on the island which says that nuns from the convent there asked the Virgin Mary to save them after pirates attacked the convent somewhere around the year 1200. Many snakes then suddenly appeared between themselves and the marauding pirates, saving the nuns from a terrible fate.
And snakes have appeared almost every year in the nearby church on Assumption Day since that fateful day centuries ago. If they do not appear, locals say that it portends bad luck – and proving this legend to be true, they did not appear in both 1940, during the Second World War, and in 1953, when Kefalonia was hit by a deadly earthquake.
3. Panagia Soumela, Imathia
Panagia Soumela, a historic church at the slopes of Vermion, near Kastania village, was built in 1951 by refugees from Pontos in memory of the historical monastery. A miraculous icon of Our Lady, crafted by Evangelist Luke, is taken on a procession. Pontian bands from Macedonia also take part in the celebrations.
Throughout the area of Imathia, the ultimate symbol of Pontian worship to the Virgin Mary is embodied in the ancient icon of the Panagia Soumela.
The descriptive name given there to the Virgin Mary, “Soumela,” comes from the tale of how, in the late fourth Century AD, the Virgin Mary appeared to the monks Sofronios and Varnavas. She asked them to build a monastery dedicated to Her, and led them to Mount Mela.
The Virgin Mary is called Soumela, since in the Pontian dialect “sou Mela” means “at Mela Mountain.” The priceless icon of her by the same name, thought to be originally painted by the apostle Luke, had resided at the original Soumela monastery, which is now located in Turkey.
The icon was spirited away and buried in a hole in the ground for safety before the monastery was taken over by Ottoman forces, but was found many years later in its place of safekeeping. It now resides in the new Panagia Soumela Monastery, near Veria.
4. Koufonisia boats to the Virgin
Unique festivities take place at the chapel in Lower Koufonisi. After the services, food is offered by the inhabitants who are transported by boats to Ano Koufonisi. Upon their return, parishioners and others party on the island until dawn with music, ouzo and fresh seafood.
In celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, worshippers on the island of Koufonissia gather around the church after services and enjoy a feast in Her honor. They then hold a sailboat race in the harbor to celebrate Her Grace.
5. Virgin Mary of Mikrokastro
The tradition of pilgrim riders dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and is symbolic of slaves that showed their bravery by displaying horse-riding skills. On the eve of the feast, horsemen collect in groups at the squares of Hora, Gerania and Bunia to lure locals and their guests to the feast. On August 15th, riders gallop to the Virgin Mary Monastery at Mikrokasto, Kozani, before returning to Siatista, the square of Hora, where the celebration continues.
6. Virgin Agiasotissa on Lesbos
Starting from the city of Mytilene, pilgrims walk 25km to reach the churchyard of the Virgin Agasiotissa. After an overnight stay, they take part in festivities on August 15th that include the procession of an icon around the church, as well as music and dance at the village square.
7. Singing islanders at Magnesia, Skiathos
The Epitaph of the Virgin Mary takes place in a unique atmosphere, accompanied by choirs singing together.
8. Panagia Ekatontapyliani of Paros
Ekanontapyliani is an impressive early Christian church with impressive architecture that makes it worth a visit. Believers from around Greece gather to venerate the icon of Panagia Ekatontapyliani, which is included as part of an Epitaph procession that culminates into a big party with Parian wine and other delicacies. At the port of Naoussa, dozens of boats approach the pier with lit torches, and a ‘pirate’ arrival is re-enacted followed by island dances, that include the ‘Balo’. The church, known as the “Church with 100 Doors,” is also referred to as “Panagia Ekatontapiliani.” It has 99 visible doors — plus one that will only become visible when the Greeks take Constantinople (known today as Istanbul) once again.
9. Panagia Spiliani on Nisyros
Black-clad women stay at the monastery of Panagia Spiliani, located in the castle of Knights. They clean the area and worship Virgin Mary. Two rituals take place. On the one hand, there are the priests, and on the other hand there are the women in the role of ‘priestesses’ that do 300 prostrations per day and sing to Our Lady. On the Dekapentavgousto, the priestesses hold trays of boiled wheat and pave the way for the sacred icon. Following the procession, there is drinking, singing and the dancing of the ‘Koupa’.
10. Alonissos Island
This Aegean island celebrates this holy day on Aug. 15. If you are visiting this beautiful Northern Sporades island on this day, be sure to not only watch, but participate in, the reenactment of a traditional wedding. Locals dress up as guests who take on the role of relatives in the wedding, while the bride appears in a traditional dress, called a “morka.” The groom, best man and wedding guests attend the celebration at the church and then everyone celebrates with live traditional music played on the lute, violin and clarinet, and dances traditional folk dances.