Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Shooting stars and hidden Marias

(Panagia Krifti near Melinda)

If you know a lot about astronomy, you will also probably know some Greek mythology. In ancient times the gods of Olympos very generously awarded spaces in heaven to a god, person, animal or even an object, when they died: Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Orion, Orpheus, Perseus, Prometheus, Sirius and his dog, the horse Pegasus, Argo (the Argonauts’ boat), Chrysomallos (the sheep that lost its golden fleece — sought by Jason and his Argonauts), dolphins, bulls, fishes and eagles... you will find them all shining in the sky, each with an interesting story to tell.

For ages August has been called ‘the month of the shooting stars’. It’s caused when the earth wanders through the cluster of meteorites called the Perseids. Timelapse photography can make you think hundreds of these space travellers come into the atmosphere at the same time, but that’s because the cameras are left ‘open’ all night. But if you look persistently with the naked eye you can indeed see two ‘stars’ falling at the same time and dozens through the course of an hour.

However the romantic image of falling stars is not quite true. What you are seeing is the debris of a meteorite colliding with the earth’s atmosphere. And that’s probably a good thing because you wouldn’t want to look up at your favourite constellation like Canis Major and suddenly see Sirius, its brightest star has suddenly fallen out of the sky… So that does not happen, because the shooting rockets of light you see flashing through the sky are just ordinary lumps of space debris.

Many people – including me - believe that when you see a shooting star you should make a wish. So an event such as Earth’s passage through the Perseids could be the jackpot, because on the night of August 12-13 I saw at least thirty of them and believe me I made lots of wishes.

You could call August the month of luck and not only because of the annual shooting star festival. You can also ask the Holy Virgin Maria (Mary the mother of Jesus) for favours because August 15 is the day she rose to Heaven. In the Greek Orthodox church it is called the Dormition (rather than the Assumption) and theologians say she did not take herself into Heaven, but was lifted up by God.

You can stare all night into the sky and see shooting stars, but nobody ever saw Maria ascending into the heavens. Here on Earth her passing is celebrated by pilgrimages to and services in all churches dedicated to her and there are plenty of them in Greece. The church of the Panagia Evangelistria on the island of Tinos is the most popular church of Maria in Greece, followed by the Panagia church Vrefokratousa in Agiasos, here on Lesvos.

August is also the month when the Greek islands are usually cooled down by a dry north wind, the meltemi, but last night, instead of the hoped for cool wind we got a hot storm with temperatures of 34°C. We had been are desperately waiting for the meltemi because the humid heat wave seemed to be going on forever.

Even in this heat pilgrims dragged themselves up the 114 steps that lead to the church of Maria Glikofiloussa, atop the mighty monolith of rock in the middle of Petra, the second most important place for Maria pilgrims on Lesbos. Or they walked all the way up to Agiasos to melt there with the rest of the hot sticky crowd.

There are cooler and less crowded places to honour Maria. Close to Plomari there’s a very small church by sea at the foot of the mountains: Panagia Krifti, or ‘the hidden Maria’. The story is that at the beginning of the nineteenth century a beautiful girl was pursued by a group of Turks (who still occupied the island at the time). She ended up at the foot of a mountain, and as her mounted pursuers closed in she saw no way of escape. She prayed to God, who showed her a cave where she could hide. Once inside the entrance was concealed and in this miraculous way the girl escaped the men. Later she dedicated the cave to Maria and a chapel there was then named the Hidden Maria. You can only reach it by a steep footpath which starts after Melinda, on the road from Plomari, or by boat. Next to the chapel there is a hot spring. The Greek refugees from Minor-Asia who arrived here in 1922 came to see Maria as their patron saint and again, during World War Two the church was a hiding place from the Germans.

The Panagia Krifti of Plomari is pretty well known and visited regularly especially in the summer because it is such a nice place. There is however another Panagia Krifti on the island, which is not so easy to find and much less known. It is hidden in the pinewoods that cover the mountains between Parakila and Vatoussa and you can reach it by a path that goes off one of the many roads leading to the Profitis Ilias (monastery) and it is as well hidden among the rocks. It once belonged to the larger monastery of Lemonas close to Kalloni and only God knows how many people once hid out there.

Even though the path from near Melinda which leads to the Panagia Krifti is very steep, and the other Panagia Krifti is so well hidden, there are still plenty of people who know how to find these hidden Marias on August 15.

And already there has been one miracle this year: the Turkish government allowed the celebration of an Orthodox service in the Soumela Monastery in the Pontus region in Turkey on August 15. After an ancient icon of Maria was found in a cave there, this impressive monastery was built 1200 metres high on the slope of a steep rock. However, after the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923 it was shut down and the icon and other holy artefacts were moved to a different monastery in (Greek) Macedonia while the Soumela monastery became a tourist attraction because of its spectacular site and buildings.

This year thousands of Orthodox worshippers from Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Greece and North America were due to attend a service held for the first time there since 1923. When I looked up the weather in Trabzon, on the Black Sea (which the monastery is near) I saw the temperatures were much lower than on Lesvos and, something was expected we can only dream of — rain— and I bet that from this great rock you would have a superb view of the shooting stars of August!

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