If you’re learning to speak Greek because you fell in love with Greek culture and traditions, you probably know that religious traditions, specifically Greek Orthodox traditions, play a big part in Greek culture. Whether you’ve found yourself near a Greek Orthodox church in Greece or in the U.S., it’s possible you’ve heard church bells ringing on a Sunday morning walk, or have even gotten sprinkled with holy water during Holy Week.
Growing up in the Greek church, I felt just as relaxed people-watching by the sea as I did inside the little churches in Greece. There was the bearded chanter, chanting thousand-year-old hymns, and the priest with a big, decorated bible, but there were a few things that were different from what I was used to back in the U.S. First, the church service was entirely in Greek, instead of half in English and half in Greek. Second, everyone was dressed much more modestly. One summer, I was kindly gifted an ankle-length dress out-of-the-blue by my Greek cousin after I wore a dress that went above my knee. I got the hint, and made sure to pay more attention to how people were dressing in their places of worship. I’ve also had run-ins with ideas that I had never encountered in the U.S. like the evil eye, walking saints, and weeping icons.
Despite my many experiences with Greek Orthodoxy in Greece, I’ve never had the chance to be in Greece during one of the most important religious holidays: the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Each year on August 15th, the Greeks celebrate the death, or “falling asleep,” of the Virgin Mary. In Greek, Mary is referred to as the Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer,” or the Panagia, meaning “all-holy,” and is considered one of the most significant figures in the Greek Orthodox religion.
The Virgin Mary is an important figure in many branches of Christianity as well as in the Islamic church. Because of the Virgin Mary’s significance, August 15th is one of the most prominent Greek holidays, which falls only behind Easter and Christmas in importance. Over 88% of the Greek population identify as Greek Orthodox, so it’s no surprise that the holiday plays a large part in Greek culture.
In Greek, the holiday is known as the “Κοίμησις τῆς Θεοτόκου” (kimisis tis theotokou), but in English, it might be referred to as many different names. The holiday may be called the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, the Dormition of the Holy Virgin, the Assumption of Mary, the Dormition of the Mother of God, and, most formally, The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
Greek Traditions and Celebrations
The variety of names for the holiday parallels the variety of customs surrounding the Dormition of the Theotokos. Throughout Greece, strict fasting begins on August 1st in preparation for the holiday. Believers are expected to refrain from meat, dairy, oil, and wine, just as they do during Lent, a period of fasting before Easter. Fasting continues until August 15th, and then some good Greek food is enjoyed to celebrate the holiday. Additionally, regular church services are held in almost every parish during the weeks leading up to the holiday. Though these traditions are present throughout most of Greece, keep reading for some of the most famous legends and varying traditions from three islands across Greece.
Tinos is home to one of the most famous celebrations of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The island itself is associated with the Virgin Mary because of a story about a nun, St. Pelagia, who dreamed about a buried icon of the Virgin Mary somewhere on the island in 1822. After digging for the icon throughout the island, it was eventually found in 1823. Ever since then, the island celebrates the Dormition of the Theotokos with events surrounding the miraculous icon for one week from August 15-23. Each year thousands of believers come to the island to venerate the icon in the Church of the Blessed Virgin, a Greek Orthodox church on the island named in the Virgin Mary’s honor.
The pilgrimage is one of the most significant religious pilgrimages of Hellenism. Many of the pilgrims will crawl on their hands and knees all the way to the church from the port, which are about 1km apart. The town has even taken care to create road dividers and padding on the concrete for the pilgrims. It is said that venerating the icon can heal disease. Another of the most well-known events during the week is the procession of the icon through the city, which is followed by thousands of believers holding lighted candles, many of whom try to touch the icon for extra blessings.
The celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Kefalonia is well-known throughout Greece because of a peculiar yearly phenomenon. Every year around August 15th, in the village of Markopoulo, small snakes appear inside and outside the church. Legend has it that around 1200, a convent of nuns were praying for safety from a pirate attack. During their prayers, hundreds of snakes appeared between the nuns and the pirates, saving their lives. This story gave the snakes the title, the Virgin Mary’s snakes, and is thought to be why the snakes appear in the village each year.
Since the day the snakes saved the nuns, snakes have appeared in the church in Markopoulo almost every year, except for two fateful years. The snakes weren’t present in 1940, the year the Italian Army invaded Greece during WWII, as well as in 1953 when an earthquake destroyed the island resulting in the death of hundreds and displacement of thousands. Thus, the absence of snakes is considered a bad omen on the island. In general, snakes are considered friendly to humans and sometimes are seen with small cross-like shapes on their heads.
3. Lesvos (Agiasos)
Like Tinos, the island of Lesvos is home to another famous pilgrimage, which is renowned throughout Greece. Agiasos, a village on the island, became famous after another story about a miraculous icon. This time, the story goes that a nun used an icon of the Virgin Mary to cure a Turkish administrator of an illness in 1701. After the miracle, many pilgrims came to the island to see the icon. The tradition continues today as pilgrims still walk the 25km from the village of Mytilini up to the Church of the Virgin Mary, where they stay overnight and venerate the icon and the Theotokos.
Greek Vocabulary to Remember
You probably learned a few good vocabulary words while reading this post, but I wanted to add a few extra in case you ever find yourself in a conversation about Greek culture or religion. In this vocabulary list you’ll find all of the words you just learned plus a few new words.
Θεοτόκος (theotokos): the Virgin Mary
Παναγία (panagia): the Virgin Mary
Εκκλησία (ekklisia): a church
Γιορτή (yiorti): a religious holiday
Νηστεία (nistia): a fast (period without food)
Γιορτάζω (giortazo): to celebrate
Φίδι (fidi): snake
Φεστιβάλ (festival): festival