Epiphany; Blessing the waters of Santorini
You think it’s too cold for a dive in Santorini during January? Well, you have all good reasons to think so since we are in the middle of winter. (Yes, even on our magic island). But then, why are there so many young men doing it every year on the same day and what are they racing for in the freezing water of the caldera?
It may seem like a winter-sports event but it is actually all part of an ancient religious practice, dating back in the 3rd century AD. That’s a nice tradition indeed performed on January 6th, the day Christians celebrate the Epiphania (=Appearance) or Blessing of the Waters.
Religious sentiment meets exhilaration and joy for the day commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist, and the banishing of the mischievous goblins back to the hollow earth for another year round, according to popular belief.
So, what is there to see?
Epiphany in Greece is known as “Theofania” or “Fota”.
Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of Christians that closes festively the twelve days that started on the Christmas Eve. (photo shot in Kamari beach, Santorini, taken from http://armenisths.blogspot.gr/2011/01/blog-post_07.html)
The first sanctification of the Epiphany (The Enlightenment) takes place in church on the eve of the holiday. Afterwards, the priest goes from house to house holding a cross and a basil branch. As he walks through each house, he uses the basil to sprinkle (bless) all the areas of the home.
One of the main traditions of the Epiphany holiday is the Kalanda (carols) sung by children on Epiphany’s Eve over sweets or a small amount of money. (photo)
The big sanctification takes place the following day, January 6, the day of the Epiphany in Greece.
On that morning, a long procession is formed starting from the church and following whatever road leads to a body of water – the sea, a river or even a reservoir. Up in front of the procession are the cherub icons, followed by the priests dressed in their best holiday splendor, then the VIPs, followed by all the people. In the bigger cities, the procession becomes more elaborate with the addition of music and military contingents.
(photo shot in Kamari beach, Santorini, taken from http://armenisths.blogspot.gr/2011/01/blog-post_07.html)
At the end of the sanctification ceremony a priest throws a cross into the water, thus blessing the waters.
Then, those who dare – mostly young men – dive into the icy water to recover the cross. The lucky one who returns the cross to the priest is supposed to enjoy good luck and health for the entire year.
In all Greek cities and villages the priests bless the waters with the Holy Cross on that day, while many brave swimmers jump into the icy sea or river waters despite the cold weather to catch the Cross and get the priest’s blessing for the year. (photo shot in Kamari beach, Santorini, taken from http://armenisths.blogspot.gr/2011/01/blog-post_07.html)
It is one of the most significant days for the Orthodox Church, as it marks the only day when The Holy Trinity (God, Son and the Holy Spirit) appeared together revealing the Holy Mystery of true Divinity.
Faithful Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by Saint John the Baptist. This ritual is seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. (photo shot in Kamari beach, Santorini, taken from http://armenisths.blogspot.gr/2011/01/blog-post_07.html)
Sprinkling the Epiphany Waters also cleans the world of the mischief-prone Kalikantzaroi, the goblins trying to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season.
Continue reading if you are a history lover – or fancy folk stories of magic and witchery
In Greece, Cyprus and the Greek diaspora throughout the world, the feast is called the Theophany, or colloquially called the Phōta (Greek: Φώτα, “Lights”). It marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing, as the tumultuous winter seas are cleansed of the mischief-prone kalikántzaroi, the goblins that try to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season.
Sending the goblins back to the underworld
From Christmas Eve until the Epiphany, goblins are believed to climb up from the depths of the Earth. They walk around the streets and alleys, the millhouses and rivers and get inside the houses from the chimneys. They tease and hurt people, who are afraid to walk the streets at nightfall and keep their homefires lit at all times to keep this creatures away.
These goblins, or “kalikantzaroi”, are daemonic black creatures with long tails, sharp cloves and goat or donkey legs. Some people say they are satyrs (the followers of God Dionysus) others that they are possessed souls of dead people. Some modern theories even claim they are aliens living under the surface of the Earth.
The most effective mean by which these terrible goblins are expelled from the houses of the god feared people is the “protagiasis”. “Protagiasis” is the first sanctification held on the eve of Epiphany, called also “small sanctification” or “Enlightenment”. On that day, the priest tours all the houses with the Cross and sprinkles holy water using one strand of basil, so he “sanctifies” or “brightens” the rooms of the house.
Orthodox tradition and medieval magic
Some women, especially with Eastern origins, still practice ancient magical techniques. Such is the case in the island of Mytilene. In this island of Northeast Aegean, while the young men dive to catch the Cross, women must simultaneously fill a pumpkin with water from 40 waves. With that water and a piece of cotton dipped in it, they have to clean all of their holy icons without talking throughout this process (“silent water”) and then throw this water out in an area where no one ever steps on (in the crucible of the church).
In other regions, people take the Holy Water from Epiphany and sprinkle it together with ashes on the four corners of their house, to send the bad spirits away and cleanse it from all evil.
A chance for a fresh start
When dogmatic, The Baptism of Christ symbolizes the rebirth of man. This was of so great importance, that until the 4th century Christians celebrated New Year in Baptism of Christ, on January 6.
Greek Orthodox Church teaches that on that day a miracle happens as the nature of water changes and becomes incorrupt.
It is also important to note that this Holy Water from the Epiphany can be used only on people who haven’t been, for any reason, cleansed by Confession or Holy Communion. In that way, sinners are given a chance to care for their bodies and souls. So if you don’t want to drown your demons in alcohol, this is your best and most healthy option to get rid of them!
Today’s Celebration of Epiphany
Fishing boats resting in Vlihada’s small port, Santorini
Epiphany celebration is a unique event, especially in regions located by the sea such as Santorini and all greek islands! We highly recommend experiencing this cathartic traditional fest – it could make a very good reason to visit during holiday and extending your visit until January.
We wanted to share some of our pictures from this year’s celebration so that you will be tempted to join us and see it in person next year! Unfortunately the weather today was extremely harsh with very strong winds and heavy rains so most churches chose to celebrate in the premises of their yard instead of heading to the sea. Nevertheless, we got a chance to enjoy some wild, winter sceneries of our beloved volcanic island.
Waves on volcanic black rocks, Vlychada fishing port, Santorini
Winter hit hard today giving us beautiful pictures. Here, Vlychada beach Santorini
Maybe next year we will be luckier!
Kisses and may the True Light guide your way!
Eleni & Thomas