Saturday, 8 December 2012

December 4: The wild hunt for Saint Nicolas

(Thunderstorm approaching Petra; photo: Jeroen Koster)

According to Wikipedia the Wild Hunt “is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamentals in all instances is the same: a phantasmal, spectral group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting with horses and hounds in mad pursuit, cross the skies or along the ground, or just above it.”, announcing a thunderstorm and mostly taking place in mid–winter.

People still believing in this old legend must have been pretty happy these last few days seeing plenty of the Wild Hunt here on the island. For days heavy thunderstorms passed and each day we could enjoy (or quiver) while seeing bright lightshows as lightning illuminated the clouds like light bulbs, or we could wonder about the freakish lightning that was sent straight into the ground or the sea.

Was it Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus that kept the rain away for a few hours during the Christmas market which was held in the schoolyard in Molyvos on Sunday December 2? Did they also delay the Wild Hunt, in order that the villagers could get in the mood for Christmas? Or was it both Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus — who are believed to be the same person (see: Saint Nicholas)?

In German mythology the leader of the troop of hunters who chased along the thundering sky was the old German god Wodan, but there are also people who believe that it was Saint Nicholas who lead this group of men.

Some people believe that there are connections between the rituals around Wodan and Saint Nicolas celebrated of on December 6th by the Dutch. They both ride a grey horse, Wodan through the sky, Saint Nicholas over the roofs; Wodan commanded an army of black soldiers, while Saint Nicholas is helped by black servants; Wodan used black ravens to spy for him, Saint Nicholas has his servants spy on the children for him; Wodan had an upbringing role in reprimanding people who were not living according to gods laws and Saint Nicholas puts naughty children in a sack. These and other similarities lead people to believe that a few of these old German stories about Wodan were the origins of some of the Dutch rituals around the Dutch Saint Nicholas celebration.

Here in Greece there are no similarities between Wodan and Saint Nicholas. December 6th in Greece is the name day for all people named after Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), the patron saint of the seafarers. That is why there are thousands of Saint Nicholas churches to be found in Greece, most of them close to the sea. There is a Saint Nicholas church in Mytilini, close to the old harbour, an ancient mosque rebuilt in 1912 as a church. Another Saint Nicholas church on the island is the very old basilica in Petra, hidden under a huge plane tree, not far from the rock that is home to the famous Maria Glykofiloussa Church. In this ancient church you will find very old frescoes of a series of saints, amongst them of course Saint Nicholas. Some of the wall paintings are 3 layers thick, the eldest dating as far back as the 16th century. Beautiful woodcarving and a bishop’s throne 500 years old, complete the faded glory of this old basilica.

Certainly there will be more Saint Nicholas churches on the island; there are still plenty of small ports where fishing boats keep on coming in and out and they all need to be able to burn a candle for a safe journey. On December 6th all those churches will be lit with extra candles because all men called Nikos will celebrate their name day.

So Saint Nicholas exists in Greece. And it is generally believed that the Saint Nicholas so celebrated in Holland originally was the Greek bishop of Myra. This bishop was also buried in this area (near Demre, Turkey). Italian merchants believed in all the miracles Saint Nicholas did and when the muslims threatened to take over the region of Myra, they exhumed the remains of Saint Nicholas and brought them to Bari in Italy, where they built a basilica, and where his remains still rest.

I think that in Turkey they have no Saint Nicholas celebration, nor are people named after this saint. However, the Turkish government has more than once asked Italy to return the remains of Saint Nicholas: they claim that they belong to the Turkish heritage.

Maybe secretly Saint Nicholas is also for them a patron saint for seafarers. For days now, here on Lesvos as well as at the other side of the sea, intensive storms have raced over the area, causing havoc. The first winds came from the south, shaking the olive trees, causing garden furniture to fly through the air, walls to crumble and streets to flood. For two days there have been long, strong rollers from the west, making some coasts of Lesvos look like Hawaii with huge waves tumbling over the streets. It will be no paradise these days on the sea. May Saint Nicholas keep all seafarers safe.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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