Sunday, 14 August 2011

The miraculous world of Mary

(Interior of the Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos)

On Monday August 15 it will be Maria Assumption. After Easter this is the biggest holiday in Greece: when Maria will be taken into heaven. It is said that Maria spent the last years of her life in Ephesus, across the Aegean in Turkey, just opposite Samos. The Virgin Maria had been taken there from Jerusalem, by the apostle John, in order to escape the prosecutions of Christians.

On a hill, just beside a source John built her a house. Maria died after nine years living in Ephesus. The apostles buried her coffin in a cave a few kilometres from her house. St. Thomas however couldn’t make it on time for the funeral and when he did arrive, they all returned to the cave. Opening the coffin so that St. Thomas could have a proper goodbye it was revealed that Maria’s body was gone, although the coffin had been properly locked before opening: Maria had been taken to Heaven.

This is the story of the German nun Anna Katherina Emmerich
(1774 – 1824) who had, during her life, experienced plenty of visions from the lives of Jesus and Mary. When, at the end of her life, she became seriously ill there were few people she allowed around her. One of them was the German poet Clemens Brentano who wrote down Emmerich’s stories and later published them.

This is how curious people started to look for the house of Maria, that Emmerich had described so clearly, in the surroundings of Ephesus. In 1881 a priest from Paris found the location, but nobody believed he had found the house of Mary. Ten years later a group of people found the same location and this time they were believed. It was the ruins of an old monastery, with behind a path leading to the top of a mountain, a little stream passing by and a source. It is amazing to think that a German woman, who had never been there, had described this place so accurately. Later scientists revealed that under the remains of the monastery from the 6th – 7th century, there were indeed walls from the first century. Today the house of Maria has been rebuilt and it is a very popular place of pilgrimage.

Greece’s number one place for Maria pilgrimages on the island of Tinos – say the Lourdes of Greece – is also connected to a story from a nun who had a vision. The nun Pelagia was aged only fifteen in 1822 when Mary told her where to find an icon. So people went digging in the field she described and at the second try they indeed found an old icon, which is said to have been made by the evangelist Lucas. It has been attributed with so many miracles, curing people from illnesses, that the church Our Lady of Tinos (PanagĂ­a EvangelĂ­stria) was built to house the icon. It now attracts thousands of pilgrims. Even today many people pray to Maria to be cured and in return they promise to travel to her church on their knees, or even rolling or on their stomach..

Lesvos has two pilgrims centres dedicated to Maria: the
Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos and the Maria Glikofiloussa church in Petra. The story of the icon in the church on the rock in Petra says that the icon belonged to a fisherman who always took it with him. In a rough sea the icon was lost. Once ashore, the fisherman saw a tiny light glowing on a huge rock and there he found his icon. He took the icon back to sea and again the icon got lost. When he found the icon for the second time on the huge rock, he realised that he had to build a church and leave the icon there. The church is from the seventeenth century and was rebuilt in 1840.

Another miraculous story is that of the Church of Lagouvarda in Markopoulo on the island of Kefalonia (Cephalonia). Each year in the first weeks of August this church is visited by snakes! When the people come to honour Mary during the 14th and 15th of August, the little snakes not only crawl around the icons, but are also passed from hand to hand by the believers. When Assumption Day is over, the snakes disappear as quickly as they came. These snakes belong to the Catsnake family (Telescopus fallax ) and are said to bring luck. Their non-appearance in the church during two years was seen as a bad omen: in 1940 when the island was occupied by the Italians during World War II and in 1953, in the midst of August when serious earthquakes destroyed large parts of the villages on the island.

It is another story involving nuns explaining these odd visitors. Once a monastery with nuns in Markopoulo was besieged by pirates. The nuns were very scared and they prayed to the Holy Mary saying that they preferred to be changed into snakes rather than fall into the hands of the pirates. And so it happened. When the pirates finally penetrated the monastery they were met by hundreds of snakes and they fled as fast as they could, leaving the monastery unharmed.

So here in Greece people keep occupied with Mary and her miracles during the month of August; the faithfull flood all the different places of pilgrimage, such as Agiasos and Petra, where it’s so busy you wouldn’t think there is a crisis going on.

I myself am not such a big believer, but I have to thank Mary on my bare knees for bringing back my dog Humpedumpy. We had to take her to the vet in Mytilini and when she arrived in the city she panicked, got off her collar and ran away. For ten days she was lost in the big city. Then a friend phoned me saying that she had seen the dog walking in a busy street outside of Mytilini where I was later able to pick her up. In the meantime my beloved Labrador Black Jack has died after a short illness but I guess no miracle can be produced to bring him back.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki


  1. Thorkild Christensen16 August 2011 at 13:09


    .. And thank you very much for your latest post.

    Reading about Mary and The Assumption brings back early memories from Greece. The first time I went abroad as a young man - I was 19 years old at the time - I had the luck to experience the Assumption on Tinos. My friend and I arrived by ferry (an old re-build Danish ferry, Jens Bang now called Naiaes) late in the evening - early in the night on the 14. of August 1975. To our imense surprise the whole city of Tinos was awake - and the pilgrims were crawling on their hands and knees from the harbour to the church.

    From that moment I fell in love with Greece. Luckily for me my wife shared and shares this affection - so each year we spend as much time as we can in Greece.

    We discovered Lesvos in 1989 - and have been there 14 - or 15 times since. Last time this July where we stayed at Panselinos for 3 weeks.

    We used the small beach besides Adonis' cottage almost daily - and we are both sorry to learn that Black Jack has died. We both enjoyed seeing him get his daily shower at the sea-side.

    I have been reading your blog since you started in 2005. So of course I had to by a copy of "Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream" before we went home. I know the texts - but what a beautiful book! I know I'll be coming back to the text and art-work in this remarkable book when my longing for Greece will be worst: In the middle of winter with sub zero temparatures and a heavy wind blowing in more snow and ice from North-East.

    My only regret now is that I didn't take my camera to the beach. Black jack would have made a perfect picture - especially after the bath when rubbing his back. I did take one fast picture the last day before going home. You can find it on

    So, keep up the blog. I'm convinced that you have quite a following - I for one think it's really nice to read on a weekly basis about a place that tends to take up more and more of our time.

    Many Greeting from Denmark


    Thorkild Christensen & Gitte Gregersen


    P.S And thank you for sharing the beach... It beats any swimming pool any time.

  2. Thank you, Thorkild and Gitte! I am still very sad because of Black Jack...