Sacred Pilgrimage to Greek Island Shrine Binds the Nation

The centuries-old Dormition of the Virgin festival on Tinos, held every year on August 15, is more than a religious holiday. It's an expression of national unity.


In modern Greece, the festival dedicated to the Dormition of the Panagia, or the passing of the Virgin Mary from earthly life, is celebrated on August 15, marking the end of the 15-day fast in her honor. The feast was first celebrated in the 7th century.

The official ideological rituals are adapted to the agricultural calendar. Hence, the Orthodox liturgical year is established through the Panagia’s biography. It begins around autumn, and several important moments in her life are celebrated before and around sowing and during the germination and growth of the corn crops. The Dormition of the Virgin is celebrated during the dead period of the grains’ cycle, and the August 15 cycle ends with the memorial service nine days after her death.

 

August 15 is celebrated with special reverence all over Greece, and on this day pilgrimages are made to the greatest shrine of Greek Orthodoxy, on the island of Tinos. Here, the festival is particularly important due to several reasons:

In 1823, after a nun named Pelagia observed several mystical visions, she and some other islanders found the miraculous holy icon of the Annunciation of the Panagia. According to tradition, in her visions, Pelagia repeatedly saw the Panagia, who ordered her to start excavations to find her icon, buried for many years, and to build her “house” in that place. The icon was unearthed in the field where it had remained since a church built on the ruins of a pagan temple was destroyed in the 10th century. Two years before the icon was found, the Greek War of Independence (1821) had broken out. The discovery of the icon, the construction of the Church of the Annunciation, the enormous crowds of pilgrims and all the miracles worked by the icon contributed to an act in 1971 by which the island was declared a sacred island by governmental decree. Pelagia was also sanctified.

Below the main church are several chapels. In the first is a holy spring, where pilgrims collect water which has powers of fertility and cures sickness. According to tradition, the well was found during the excavations in search of the icon. The well was dry. On the day the church’s cornerstone was laid, it filled up with water. The source is seen as a miracle, and the chapel of the holy water is called the “Life-Giving Spring.” The Holy Foundation of the Annunciation is a complex institution of national and international dimensions, being the island’s most important source of income. The different parts of the sanctuary are gifts. Much of what is given as offerings is retained. Much is also sold: Most of the jewelry is auctioned, and the livestock, olive oil etc are sold. The Church of the Annunciation as an organization is a powerful force in local politics, and a philanthropic institution that controls a vast amount of wealth. The health business is illustrated by the church sending talismans all over the world, on request from people who cannot go to Tinos.

Revered icon

The miraculous icon is attributed to the apostle and evangelist Luke, who is believed to have painted it during Mary’s lifetime – thus tying it to the origins of Christianity and directly to Mary herself. It shows Gabriel appearing to Mary with the announcement of Christ’s birth. Today, the icon is covered with offerings of gold and precious stones, and it is not possible to see what it portrays.

All year round, pilgrims come to Tinos, but the crowd of devotees grows during the days around the August festival. They come to the shrine and leave their “tamata,” votive offerings to the Panagia for her help, mainly with health problems. Before leaving for Tinos, a mother may say, “Save my child, my Panagia, and I will crawl on my knees, all the way towards your icon.” Women especially make their way up to the church barefoot, on bare and bleeding knees, or even on their stomachs, and bring with them various offerings, sometimes tied on their backs: candles as tall as the donor, as well as icons. They may also bring silver candlesticks, censers, wine or sheep. The most common offering is a silver- or gold-plated ex-voto (tama) representing the person who has been miraculously cured by the icon, or the cured limb itself or the person or limb wanting to be cured, or a ship. The street, named Megalochares, leads from the harbor to the church. It is lined with shops and booths.

 

At the top of the hill, in the doorway to the church, the pilgrims offer their candles. Afterwards, they line up on the steps at the Church of the Annunciation, waiting their turn to enter the main chapel, to “proskynema” – i.e. to perform the set of devotions a pilgrim does upon entering the church, particularly the devotions in front of the icon. The black pilgrim cloths are left as dedications either to the icon or downstairs on the ruins of the Byzantine church. Most pilgrims confine their attentions to the main sanctuary and the chapel of holy water below the church. Here they take some earth from the hole where the icon was found. Afterwards, they queue up to obtain holy water.

In addition to the thousands of pilgrims coming on their own, several pilgrimages are organized by the church, particularly in connection with the August 15 holiday. People in wheelchairs also participate. The festival culminates in “the all-night service,” between the 14th and 15th, and the following procession. Many pilgrims sleep in the courtyard. Many also spend the night inside the church, while the priests and cantors sing invocations. At the same time, many fetch earth and water from the chapel below. Both are considered particularly holy now. Accordingly, they are more powerful, and during the “panegyrikos” of the Panagia, many children are baptized in holy water from the “Life-giving Spring.”

Ideology

The Dormition of the Panagia was also an important ideological festival for the new Greek nation-state of 1821, combining the celebration of the Dormition with the day of the armed forces, as illustrated through several ceremonies: The service is followed by a procession at 11 a.m. when the icon is carried down the main street. Top government members and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, followed by clergy and notables, are present. A detachment of sailors marches in the procession; the Hellenic Navy always sends warships to Tinos on August 15, because the Panagia represents the intimate and hazardous relations of the Greeks with the sea. The national ideology is also manifested through the speeches given by the authorities, and by the posters announcing the festival. Here, the Panagia is hovering over the national symbol, the Acropolis of Athens. Another poster may depict a mixing of modern and ancient symbols. The message is always the same: August 15 is proclaimed as the day of the armed forces, and the symbols of the navy, the air force and the army are illustrated. We meet the double nature of the occasion as both a patriotic and a religious holiday, in agreement with the traditionally close connection between the official Orthodox Church and the nation-state, in a patriotic sense.

Her icon is carried in procession, and also over the sick and women wanting to conceive: Before the service finishes, a long queue of pilgrims lines up in the street waiting for the icon, and as the icon is carried down the street they bend over so that the icon may pass over them; in the 1950s they used to lie down. During the procession military jets fly over the island, accompanied by salutes fired by warships in the harbor.

 

After the procession arrives at the harbor, a service is followed by a speech given by the attending member of the government. The ceremony officially ends when the clergy and the officials board a warship, which carries them to the point where a Greek destroyer, the Elli, was sunk by an Italian submarine on August 15, 1940. Here, another service is held, and the priest and the president throw laurel wreaths into the water where the ship and its crew went down. Meanwhile, the ships blow their horns and the jets pass overhead. “We came to pay homage to the Panagia, who helped us to beat the fascists,” said one of the survivors of the Elli’s crew in 1993.

After the patriotic ceremony, the procession returns to the church. As on the way down, mothers try to defy the police lines to bring their sick children closer to the icon. The aim of the procession is so the icon may pass over the pilgrims, to purify them for another year, but also so that the Greek nation is purified. In short, August 15 is a special day for Hellenism, combining religion with patriotism, and the Dormition on Tinos is a profound social event.

Gender and identity

The festival is also an excellent occasion to study the relationship between the female and male world. Is the Greek nation’s identity male as opposed to female? Partly yes, partly no. Yes, because the Greek nation and its identity belongs to a male, linear history according to an analysis based upon a distinction between two kinds of time, female and male, which I have developed into female and male values. On the other hand, we also meet a combination of a linear, male history, and, on the other, a cyclical and monumental female history characterized by repetition and eternity, since the Panagia announced the resurrection of Greekness. In many ways she represents Greece, and might be seen as embodying Greece in her eternal aspect. The account of the finding of the icon and the building of the church also represents women’s time, because of the miracles and visions, embedded in men’s time. The Panagia represents the domestic realm, but she also stands as a national and local political representation beyond the domestic realm.

The cult of the Panagia has been important since the early Byzantine period, when, according to legend, she revealed herself on the walls of Constantinople and Athens and saved her cities. Since then, the vision of the Panagia has accompanied the Hellenic Armed Forces. The victory belongs to the Panagia as the commander-in-chief. According to some, the banner of Greek resistance was first raised on March 25, 1821, the feast day of the Annunciation, which is now celebrated as a day of double import, Greek Independence Day and the day of the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. So, two rebirths, of humankind and of the Greeks, are combined. This double rebirth is implicit in much of the shrine’s iconography, ritual and history, for example the scene on the icon.

 

The finding of the icon was considered a divine sign, indicating the support of the fight and confirmation of the liberation of the country from the Turks. So the history of the icon is intimately bound to the history of Modern Greece. Accordingly, military and political dignitaries represent the government at the feasts of the Church, making these days appropriate occasions for articulating the relationship between nationalism and religion and between Church and state.

Below the main sanctuary of the church is a mausoleum commemorating the sinking of the Elli. Annually, wreaths are laid in honor of the heroes of the Elli, and a service is given in front of the mausoleum. They are also laid on the harbor.

National symbol

So this is both a religious pilgrimage center and an important national symbol, paralleling the resurrection of Greece, after “2,000 years of sleep (the ancient) or 850 years of burial (the Byzantine).” This is demonstrated by the importance of showing ancient and Byzantine symbols, illustrated by a lion from the neighboring ancient sacred pilgrimage island of Delos and the rests from the Byzantine church that once housed the icon. These symbols also bear witness to the two, or double set of, Greek identities – the ancient and the Byzantine, the “Hellenic,” or outward-facing, and the “Romeic,” or inward-facing.

Instead of saying that political discourse makes use of religion and religious symbolism and finds opportunity for its expression in religious occasions such as those celebrated on Tinos, I would rather suggest that there is a combination of the two, since religious discourse also makes use of politics and political symbolism. This intermingling is particularly manifested by the posters announcing the festival on Tinos today. Despite this maternal participation, all the official rituals performed by representatives of the nation-state and the Church may be classified as belonging to a male world, representing male values, identities and statuses.

An expression of faith

For Greeks, the events of August 15 are an expression of faith, and particularly of women’s faith and their identification with the Panagia. Generally, the Greek woman’s identity and status belong to female values, and the Panagia has a key role: Nevertheless, during the ritual chaos, which is apparent in the procession, we see a female world contra a male official world represented by the Church and the police. The festival is dedicated to the most important mother, the Panagia. In Greece, women are the guardians of their family’s spiritual health, which cannot be separated from physical health, given the role of prayers and vows in healing and protection.

Accordingly, on Tinos, we see a tension between the official priesthood and the representative of the individual family. Women are the most frequent pilgrims arriving at Tinos. Women most often undertake the most difficult acts of pilgrimage, such as crawling to the church to assure the well-being of the family. Therefore, one needs to see pilgrimage in the context of Greek gender roles, and particularly women come to a female divinity who dies yearly, is reborn and gives birth again, in the same way as Mother Earth and thus the agricultural year. Women’s time is nonlinear and repeated, embodied in women who in the context of daily life give birth, raise children, prepare food and tend to the dead in an endless cycle, and who come to the shrine as pilgrims to offer themselves that this cycle might continue. The divine female force we see through the Panagia here makes history female, embodying cyclicality and resurrection.

 

We meet this in the activities that are most often performed by female pilgrims, such as vows, prayers and offerings, accompanied by oral sharing of stories of miracles. These are determined by, and conform to, the shape of events and problems of everyday lives, and hence are gendered, continuous and in a constant flux. Women’s tasks, roles and natures are related to an eternal Mother Goddess, female domestic sphere and history. So women come to the Panagia with prayers related to timeless or eternal issues of health, children, death and birth, because they pray and make offerings to conceive, to be healed, or they make vows and requests on behalf of others. These requests belong to repetition, having a cyclical nature. The body of the Virgin Mother demonstrates the maternal cult, since her body does not die but moves from one spatiality to another within the same time via Dormition. Although a male-dominated religious hierarchy controls the Church, women most frequently attend church and domesticate its interior as seen through their offerings and its regular ritual practice. Many dedicate their woven offerings, as well as bread, flowers and other items produced by women as part of their domestic role.

Greek women have their own values in addition to, or running contrary to, the male view, depending on how the male view suits their own thinking. Women display their “poetics of womanhood,” according to which the point is to show how to be “good at being a woman.” Several topics in the festival, such as the importance of the female body, motherhood, and women’s general activities in the religious sphere, are important means of manifesting “a poetics of womanhood.” The female body provides a significant source for social symbolism: It plays an important role in the “poetics of womanhood,” because bodies have social meanings that may be used in public performances. The female body creates and represents the family and social relations in a variety of contexts. A woman makes a public performance when crawling on her knees to the church with her sick child on her back in the hope of healing, but the action takes validity through the sacrifice and suffering of the self on behalf of others. Through the maternal role, the mother’s own body is constantly offered as a sacrifice, and this sacrifice may be dramatized in women’s pilgrimage to the shrine dedicated to the Panagia.

The festival is dedicated to the nurturing, healing and suffering Mother Goddess, the Panagia, the “All-Holy One,” the one who dominates all the others. She is at the head of the entire church because she was the vessel of Christ. Her two festivals, the Dormition and the Annunciation, are the most important official festivals both religiously and politically. The Panagia is essentially a human intercessor and a mother, since her maternal role is emphasized within the Orthodox tradition, as well as her power within the heavenly and secular world. Further, Greek women are strong and active persons in their own right, thus paralleling the divine Panagia. By focusing on the meaning of the rituals that women carry out, we change focus from a man’s world to a woman’s world, considering values and cults, which are important to women. We realize that these cults are also important to the official national ideology.

 

There are several meanings and values connected to the festival and its rituals, popular and official, female and male, since the pilgrimage site on Tinos presents an interrelationship of history, ritual and gender. Here, different interests – sacred and secular, local and national, personal and official – all come together – we meet an intersection of social, economic, religious and political life, learning that a political explanation can never entirely account for cultic arrangements.

 

Evy Johanne Haaland is a Norwegian researcher (Dr/PhD, history) and government scholar. She is a former Marie Curie Intra-European Fellow of the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

This article was previously published at ekathimerini.com.



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