The names, the customs and the glory of our beloved Panagia

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...Image via Wikipedia
Religious festivals and saints’ days in Greece are always a big deal. They bring families together – the younger members of which are often named after their elder relatives – reinforce the bonds of local communities, resuscitate age-old traditions and buttress the people’s faith. They also serve as excellent occasions for matchmaking and even for settling old scores – many a local festival degenerates into a brawl that is later settled amicably over food and even more wine. Every saint is revered, but none as gloriously as the Virgin Mary, or Panagia (All-Saintly), is on August 15, the biggest religious event in Greece after Easter and Christmas, a national holiday that is observed by the civil service and private sector.
Panagia pronounced “pah-nah-YEE-ah”), also transliterated Panagia or Panagia, is one of the titles of Mary, the mother of Jesus, used especially in Orthodox Christianity. Most Eastern Orthodox churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary are called Panagia; the standard western Christian designation of “St. Mary” is never used in the Orthodox East, as Mary is considered the holiest of all human beings and therefore of higher status than the Saints, literally a “Saint in the superlative”.
Otherwise known as the “Easter of the summer” August 15 is indeed one of the biggest celebrations of the Orthodox Church. The Virgin Mary has been given many names, depending on the way she was depicted in each icon that was painted of her. Also the theological status, the age of the icon, the way the icon was found as well as its origin also have played a major factor In the names the Orthodox Church has given her.

Such names include:

  • Angeloktiste (Angel-Built)
  • Bebaia Elpis (the Certain Hope)
  • Boetheia (the Helper)
  • Brephokratousa (the Infant-Holder)
  • Chrysopege (the Fountain of Gold)
  • Deomene (the Supplicant)
  • Eleousa (the Merciful)
  • Eleutherotria (the Liberator)
  • Evangelistria (the Bearer of Good News)
  • Galatiane or Galatousa (the Nurse)
  • Giatrissa (the Healer)
  • Glykophilousa (of the Sweet Kiss)
  • Gorgoepekoos (the Quick-To-Listen)
  • Gregorousa (the Vigilant)
  • Hagia Skepe (the Sacred Protection)
  • Hagia Zone (the Sacred Girdle)
  • Hodegetria (the Leader)
  • Hypermachos Strategos (the Defending General)
  • Kataphyge (the Safe Haven)
  • Megalochare (Of Great Grace)
  • Myrobletissa (the Spring of Myrrh)
  • Myrtiotissa (of the Myrtles)
  • Nerantziotissa (in the Bitter Oranges)
  • Pantanassa (the Queen of All)
  • Paraportiane or Portaitissa (by the Gate)
  • Paregoretria (the Giver of Solace)
  • Phaneromene (the Revealed)
  • Pharmakolytria (the Deliverer from poison)
  • Platytera ton Ouranon (the Wider than the Heavens)
  • Ponolytria (the Deliverer from pain)
  • Thalassine (of the Sea)
Speaking of icons, some were found in the most miraculous ways, motivating and inspiring Christians to establish churches in her name. In fact, thousands of believers flock to worship these icons every year and the summer enjoys a string of festivities on August 15th, on the day of Her Assumption. For her Assumption is not a day of mourning, but a celebration of joy for the union of the mother with her beloved son.
Celebration of the Virgin Mary around Greece (festivals, events)
Given the geographical diversity of this land, every region of Greece celebrates in its own unique style, and there is a revival of customs and traditions in honour to Her Glory at various churches and monasteries with a variance of names. The following is a list of some of the better known traditions in various areas across Greece.
Cyclades (Tinos) – Panagia Megalochari
This day is concentrated to Megalochari. Thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Greece and from abroad, surpassing 30.000 people every year, come to the Megalochari full of faith and threats, warm, implores of Her Grace. Among them are many distressed human beings, physical and mental invalids, persecuted and suffering people. The representatives of the Government, other official, as well as the military guard of honour arrive on the eve, while masses of people are crowded in front of the Church, trying to adore the Megalochari and if possible to secure a place inside the Church. While the adoration continues throughout the night, those who remain nude the Church offer continuous prayers and ask Our Lad to give them health and peace to the whole world. Many of them carried away by the mystical and inspiring atmosphere which is created inside the Church and flooded by the lights of faith, come to see the image of the Virgin n the trembling light of the lamps and the smoke of incense. Then the shouts, the outbursts of the sacred emotion, ascend to the heavens and electrify the crowds, who in an unworldly uproar sing hymns of thanks, expectation and faith. These are the moments when the Divine Grace chooses to act and to perform miracles. Mutes find suddenly their voice and mad with joy run to kneel in front of the Icon. Paralytic children, blind girls find again their precious health and in a confusion of shouts and emotions express their gratitude to the Megalochari. On the day o the feat, the noise and the traffic on Tinos resemble that of a Megalopolis. Its population of 3000 is increased ten times overnight. Its houses and streets are full with people. In its small harbour a forest of masts is rolling rhythmically and the flags greet the light of the brilliant day of the feast of our Lady, which is also a feast of every Christian soul. The agitated crowds move towards the Church. In endless queues, which are formed in front of the Church, the pilgrims wait for their turn under the burning August sun to adore Her Grace. The big candles, which every one of them has vowed to light in front of the Holy Icon, protrude from the crowd in the form of real spears and arrows of a strange army fighting for the salvation of its soul. Black-dressed mothers with children loaded on their backs, persecuted orphans and black-dressed youths, who have lost their health, ascend the wide avenue on their knees. Sweat running down their faces like drops of blood waters the hole earth, their faces changing from the superstition, while continue their hard course, because they have vowed to walk in this way the distance between the quay and the Throne of Her Grace, because they believe that the love and protection of the Great Protectress will be much sweeter, after they have felt the agony and hardships, and have gave through the martyrdom of Jesus Her Son in the ascend to Golgotha for the explanation and the salvation of the world. At 10 a.m. an official procession of the Holy Icon takes place, after which the clergy and the officials go aboard a special vessel to the point exactly where on August 15th 1940 the destroyer ”ELLI”, one of the best Greek navy vessels at that time, was treacherously and cowardly sunk by an Italian submarine. There a requiem is held and a laurel crown is thrown on the wet tomb of the glorious ship and of the innocent victims of its crew. At noon starts the departure of the believers by the big passenger liners, which on that day make special passages to Tinos. All leave the island re-baptized n the eternal source of the Grace of the Megalochari.

Imathia – Panagia Soumela
Thousands of Orthodox Christians from all over the Motherland and around the world flock to this area in northern Greece each year to attend the events that take place at Panagia Soumela. It is the historic church located on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the village Kastania. The church was built in 1951 by Pontos refugees, in commemoration to the historical monastery, the ruins of which are located on Mount Mela, near Trabzon in the Black Sea (see relevant story by clicking here). Following the procession and the liturgy, Pontian bands from Macedonia offer pilgrims a unique experience with traditional tunes and a celebration that does not end.
  • Panagia Soumela  – The Athenian – The icon of the Virgin Mary of Soumela, painted by the Evangelist Lukas, was placed initially in a monastery near the Acropolis of Athens and  named Panagia the Athenian. Later, the icon was placed in a temple built in Thiva, one hour (92 km) northwest of Athens to honour her grace. This temple was also named Panagia the Athenian.
  • Panagia Soumela – The Soumela – In about 380 A.D. the icon miraculously “flew” to mountain Mela in Trapezounta (Trebizond) in Pontos, Asia Minor. After a dream, the two monks  Varnavas and Sofronios began a long journey from Athens to find the icon at  mountain Mela. Going through Meteora, Agion Oros (Holy Mountain) at the Athos  peninsula, Maronia in Thrace, they continued on to Constantinople (Istanbul), and  finally arrived at Trapezounta of Pontos at a village called Couspidi. There they  were informed about the presence of mountain Mela where they discovered  miraculously the icon in a cave one hour (42 km) south of Trapezounta. The two  monks decided to build a monastery and the first temple was inaugurated with  many festivities in 386 A.D. The monastery earned great respect and reputation  throughout the entire Orthodox world until the tragedy of Greek Hellenism in 1922. In 1924, the monastery was ruined completely by the Turks.  
  • Panagia Soumela – The Vermian – Before the monks of the monastery left Pontos, they buried the  icon along with some rare heirlooms in the nearby monastery of Saint Varvara  (Barbara). In 1931, the monk Amvrosios Soumeliotis brought the icon to Greece  and it remained in the Byzantine Museum of Athens until 1952 when Dr. Philon  Ktenidis initiated the foundation of a new monastery on the top of the Vermion  Mountain, one hour (92 km) west from the city of Thessalonica in Macedonia,  Greece. Since that time, Panagia Soumela continues to offer Her Grace to the  thousand of believers who visit her every year.

Kozani – Panagia Mikrokastro
In Siatista, Kozani, a unique custom comes to life every year. This custom dates back to the time of the Ottoman Empire when Christian Greek slaves were given the opportunity to ride on horses so as to display their bravery and desire for freedom. The horses’ beautification starts with special care and style on the morning of 15th August. On the animal’s forehead they put mirror and above the ears fresh-cut flowers, laces with bobbles and ju-jus; while in the place of bell they place teeth of wild boar. In the horse’s tail they make braids and tie up colored ribbons. The decoration completes with spurs and small bells, placed on various points of the animal. Then, the horsemen, dressed with silky neckerchief on the neck with the knot on front and triangle hang on the back, start for ‘Panagia of Mikrokastro’. As the riders reach the Monastery, kneel the icon of ‘Megalochari’ and attend the Divine Operation, the litany, and afterwards take the way back for Siatista. In the small temple of Ai-Lias in Mikrokastro, the riders stop for a little rest. Around the midday they reach in the church of St Athanassios outside Siatista, where are welcomed with music from a crowd of people. Then, a procession is formed, during which becomes demonstration of riders’ virtuosity, that reaches to the interior of the city, where the residents welcome them festively in order to follow traditional dances in the squares of Hora and Geraneia

Evros (Ferres) – Panagia Kosmosoteira
Locals of this Evros town enjoy yet another festive liturgy in the afternoon hours at the Virgin Kosmosoteira Church. Following the liturgy, a procession of sacred images is held and the festivities end with a local feast. The monastery of Panagia Kosmosoteira (Our Lady, Saviour of the World) includes a fortress wall (with towers and a gate) and a catholicon (main church) in the type of the cross-in-square church with two columns and five domes. The iconographic decoration is a magnificent specimen of high quality painting of the School of Constantinople, dated to the 12th century. Built in the wall of the SE corner is a clay ornament representing an eagle. The monastery was founded in 1152 by Isaakios Komnenos. Two hundred years later, it was converted into the mosque of Suleyman, and five and a half centuries later was again converted into a Christian church.

Magnesia (Skiathos) – Panagia Iconistria 
In 1655 there lived a hermit in his cell in these mountains of Skiathos. He was very devoted and prayed day and night. He saw a strange but striking light one night deep away in the woods. He became curious and anxious at the same time. To satisfy his curiosity he walked up into the woods following the bright light. While he was walking, the light abruptly disappeared. He felt somehow that it is a sign from God for his prayers. The hermit finally came across a pine tree and was amazed to see an Icon of something that looked like Virgin Mary. He could not believe this but high up in the branches there it was. He stayed at that location for the entire night praying below the pine tree and when day broke he walked to the nearby castle and shared this experience with other people here. These people formed a group and immediately went up to the same spot where the hermit had seen the icon. Since that moment the Virgin Mary also known as Iconistria, meaning an Icon which shines like a star, has been considered as a protective deity the island. Locals here will tell you about several ways in which they have been healed and how different kinds of miracles have happened since then. After some years a monastery was constructed near the same place where the icon was seen and the icon found by the hermit was kept in the monastery. Residents and visitors to this island just off of Thessaly flock here every year for the festivities on August 15. On the eve of her Assumption, a procession with the icon is held around the town in a setting of piety, with enchanting sounds that glorify the Virgin Mary.

Lesvos (Agiassos) – Panagia Agiasotissa
On the eve of the Assumption, locals from Lesvos set out on foot and walk some 25 kilometers from the town of Mytilene to reach the church of Panagia Agiasotissa, where they set up camp for the night. On the next day and following the procession of the icon a string of festivities are held with music and traditional dancing, while locals and visitors also get to sample many local dishes as well. d. There are offerings of great value in the church of Panagia Agiasotissa. In this church is the icon of Panagia Vrefocratousa, a work of artist Evangalisti Louka brought over from Jerousalem in 803 AD by Agathon of Efesos. The first church was built in 1170 while the one currently standing was built between 1816-1838.

Cyclades (Paros) – Panagia Ekatontapiliani
The most famous and oldest church of Paros is the Church of Panagia Ekatontapiliani (Our Lady of the Hundreds Gates) or Katapoliani, which is also considered as one of the most important Byzantine Monuments of Greece . Located in the capital of Paros, Parikia, the church is believed to be miraculous and every year, thousands of Pilgrims visit it for its celebration, on the 15th of August. This church is supposed to have been built according to the orders of Saint Helene, mother of Constantine the Great (the first Christian Emperor) when she stopped in Paros, during her travel to the Holy Land of Palestine in order to find the Holy Cross.  Pilgrims from all over the country, together with tens of hundreds of tourists gather here to venerate the image of Panagia Ekatontapyliani (which was created in the 17th century) and take part in the festivities. After the procession of the epitaph, a grand festival is held that lasts until the early hours of the morning, While this is occurring, the port of Naoussa (on the other side of the island) is suddenly surrounded by the arrival of the “pirate boats” which light up the harbour and bring with them even more festivities and dancers who fire up the island’s infamous “Mbalo Dance”.

Dodecanese (Nisyros) – Panagia Spiliani

According to legend, around 1400 a farmer discovered an icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave near the hot springs of Mandraki. He took it to the church of Panagia Potamitisas (The Virgin Mary of the Rivers). The next day the icon was missing, supposedly stolen, but a few days later it was found by locals in a cave on the 30m high rock. They brought it back to the church of Panagia Potamitisas and again the icon miraculously returned to the cave on the rock. This happened three times until the inhabitants decided to transform the cave into a holy church and leave the icon there. This cave church was called Panagia Spiliani (The Virgin Mary of the Caves), and later the monastery was built above the cave. The Virgin Mary is the protector of the island Nissyros (aka Nisyros, Nissiros). The monastery is located on the northwestern side of the harbour of Mandraki on a 30m high rock. 270 steps lead up to the holy cave which still contains the miracle-making icon of the Blessed Virgin. To be exact there are two churches, the north church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin and the south church is dedicated to St Haralambos.  Women dressed in black take a leading role in the religious activity on this day. They remain at the monastery of Panagia Spiliani  to worship and clean the area while two parallel religious rituals take place – one by the priests and the other by the women in the role of priestesses that follow strict fasting. On the day of the Assumption, the liturgy is followed by a procession around the icon of Virgin Mary to the village to bless the feast. The priestesses hold trays with boiled wheat and pave the way for the sacred icon. When the icon arrives in the main village, a grand feast is staged with the traditional “koupa” dance, while locals and visitors get an opportunity to sample local delicacies.

Cephalonia – Panagia Fidoussa
On the island of Cephalonia we have the Panagia Lagouvarda or Panagia Fidoussa. This church is found at Markopoulo village. Every year at the beginning of August little mysterious snakes appear and crawl around on Virgin Mary’s icon until August 15. The snakes have a small cross on their head and their tongues are also in the shape of a cross. They are known to belong to the Telescopus fallax species, also known as the European Cat Snake, and they appear in and around the courtyard of the church, on the walls and on the bell tower. The snakes show no fear while the services are held and are harmless during the festivities. As soon as the Liturgy concludes on the 15th of August, they become hostile and aggressive and disappear back into the wilderness of the area. The snakes cannot be found until the following year. (Click here to learn more about this phenomenon )

Celebration of the Virgin Mary around the globe

The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary or Panagia is a public holiday in many countries, including Austria, Belgium, Chile, Ecuador, France, Greece, Lebanon, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Senegal and Spain. In Eastern Orthodox churches following the Julian Calendar, the feast day of Assumption of Mary falls on August 28, and is a public holiday in FYROM.

  • Egypt: Coptic Christians, as many other denominations, observe a 15-day fast for this religious holiday. However, unlike the Greek Orthodox Church, which fasts from August 1 until the day of the celebration, the Coptic fast runs from August 7 until August 22. The first fast for this holiday was recorded in writing in the 13th century.  
  • Germany: In Germany, the first ripe walnuts or hazelnuts are called Mary’s nuts (Mariennuesse) and are given to children. People often go out into the fields and meadows to collect herbs with medicinal and culinary properties. Some of these are then placed beside altars, while others are fixed to the walls of houses and stalls. Although it is celebrated as a public holiday in the state of Saarland and the predominantly Catholic municipalities in Bavaria, August 15 is treated as a normal working day in the rest of Germany.
  • France: Lourdes, a village in the southwest of France close to the Spanish border, has become a centre of Christian pilgrimage after a girl claimed that a beautiful lady appeared to her in the Grotto of Massabielle on 11 February 1858. Many Catholics believe that this was the Virgin Mary and millions of people now attend the special celebrations held in Lourdes on August 15 each year.
  • Guatemala: In the Guatemalan town of Santa Cruz del Quiche, the Feast of the Assumption is combined with the Fiestas Elenas (August 16-20) and celebrated for almost an entire week. The fiesta’s highlight is the famous Native American Snake Dance, also known as the Dance of the Jesters. The dance involves the use of live snakes, some of them poisonous, which are released onto the dance floor. Each of the dancers scoops up a snake and lets it wrap itself around him while continuing to dance. One of the dancers wears a fur-trimmed suit and carries a stuffed fox and threatens the audience as children try to pull on the fox’s tail. In Mesoamerican tradition, the stuffed fox represents the earth’s fertility and the snake the rain that falls on earth, bringing to it life.
  • Spain: Known as the Virgen de la Paloma, the tradition of the Feast of the Assumption traces its origins as far back as the 18th century. As in Greece, it is a very popular time of celebration and a major public holiday. It also does not last just one day: starting on August 11, it continues until August 15, when it wraps up with a procession of an icon of the Virgin through the streets. Similar festivals are held across Spain, including the Festa Major de Gracia in Barcelona.
  • Italy: In Sicily and rural areas outside Rome, a procession is the main event on August 15, a day also known as Ferragosto. A statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the town to an arch of flowers, and is met by a procession bearing a statue of Christ. Both statues are inclined toward each other three times, and then the Christ figure precedes the figure of Mary back to the parish church for a special benediction.

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