A greek friend, Irene Zoppas, had told me of a miracle that she and many other Greeks consider to be the greatest miracle in the Greek Orthodox Church. She explained that the miracle happens on 15 August on the Feast of Assumption of Mary on the little Island, Kefalonia in the southern part of the Adriatic Sea close to Odysseus" home island, Ithaka. Later I read about it in Louis de Berni?res" book Captain Correlli"s Mandolin that sold over a million copies in England and gained the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the category Best Book in 1995. The book which primary stage is Kefalonia tells of the miracle in the following way: "In the middle of the month a horde of non-veneous snakes, unknown to science, embellished with black crosses upon their heads and skin like velvet, had wriggled out of apparent nothingness at Markopoulo. They had filled the streets with their writhing and creeping, had approached the silver icon of the Virgin, had installed themselvs upon the bishop"s throne, and at the end of the service had diasppeared as qietly and unaccountably as they had come" (70-71). Mrs. Zoppas explained that people come to the island from all over Greece and that Greek Television usually broadcast the event. In these years the vipers are less numerous than in earlier times, yet they are numerous enough for the pilgrims to pick them up, play with them, let themselves be photographed with them and pray an extra prayer to the Virgin on precisely that day and place, certain that some extra graces will follow on such a prodigy of the Lord.
But stop! What is going on here? Is not the snake usually the symbol of evil and synonym for the Devil? Does not the First Book of the Bible read that it was the snake that tempted Eva in the Garden of Eden so that both she and Adam where expelled from Paradise (Gen. 3) and does not the Last Book of the Bible refer to the Devil as "The Old Serpent" (Apoc. 12,9)? How is it possible that the snake in the Greek Orthodox Church apparently has obtained such positive symbolic value that one of the most important miracles of the Greek Orthodox Church is one with snakes? In order to obtain an aswer to these questions we travelled to the Island of Kefalonia in order to be one of the many pilgrims that each year come to the island to take part at the ceremony.
The pilgrims coming to Kefalonia are many in the middle of August. All flights from Athens to Kefalonia were booked long before I made an attempt to obtain a ticket, so I had to take the boat from Brindisi in Italy in the company of Italian tourists looking forward to the glorious beaches of Kefalonia. The wonder occurs in the church of the village Markopoulo, a tiny hamlet of a few houses, a bell tower and a church, lying on the road between Kefalonia"s two main villages on a mountainside with a wonderful view over a laguna and the deep blue Greek sea. On the path descending towards the Church situated a bit down the slope of the mountain, I am surrounded of Greek Orthodox priests with their flying black robes and characteristic cylinder hats, of black clad nuns revealing nothing but the face, much like traditional muslim women, and of families, strolling down towards the Church. Bazars of all sorts hedge the path, selling everything from grilled mais to childrens toys and CD"s with the newest in traditional Greek music. Greek Orthodox priests sell Orthodox rosaries, nuns sell 20 to 150 cm long candles that are kindled in the church in order to energize particular petitions. The place has all the traits of a festival, and this impression that is, the closer one gets to the Church. Loudspeakers all around the Church area amplify the liturgy of the Church that already has been on for more than an hour. Finally through the gate of the Church Square, I spot the first viper. A group of pilgrims watch it smiling and pet it one after the other or hold it in the chest while being photographed with it. A little girl, sitting safely on Daddy"s arm, first looks sceptically at the viper but is convinced to reach out with her index and tuc the snake on its head, whereapon she quickly pulls it back to her lips with an exited smile, although the viper has not wriggled once. Closer to the Church stands another group of pilgrims that inferring from their identical name tacs must belong to the same group, touching the viper one after the other. Inferring from the four-five vipers I see they are between 30-60 CM long, and really look nice.
Father Iannis Messoloras from the Island"s Capital City, Argostoli, explains that the snakes appeared around the Church a few days prior to the feast. "Today you don"t see as many vipers crawling around on the ground. The pilgrims simply pick them up before they reach the Church, but in ealier days when there were more vipers and less pilgrims they had plenty of time to crawl into the church and honour the Icon," he says. "The vipers used to be more numerous than today, especially before the Second World War, I don"t know why. Some years they did not appear at all. These were bad years, such as the year in which the Germans extermined all the Italian soldiers that before had been their allies. It has always been a bad sign if the vipers did not appear."
Inside the Church the generally dry heat of the island has become rather heavy and humid due to the many candles and the pushing of the pilgrims. The faithful place their candles in broad stands filled with sand, make the sign of the cross and say a silent prayer, before they line up in the cue leading to the beautiful silver icon of the Virgin with the Baby Jesus. When they arrive at the icon they bow low, make the sign of the cross and kiss the Icon. Now there are no serpents on the icon because of the amount of pilgrims, but according to Father Iannis it is this Icon of Mary that without the kisses of the pilgrims is the serpents" primary goal.
The best choir of the island stands in front of the so-called Iconostasis - the wooden wall with icons that separates the normal area of the church from the holiest with the altar. Once in a while the doors are opened to the altar and one can see the priest who interacts melodiously with the tenors and the basses. To the right of the choir is the bishop"s throne, which when empty symbolises the presence of the bishop who in turn symbolises the presence of Christ. Tonight the throne is occupied by the bishop of the island in person, Metropolitan Spyridan Kalafat?kis. At the important moments of the liturgy it is he who sings the lead, and later he gives a sermon. I his left hand he holds his bishop"s rod, a brass pole of about 150 cm, crowned by two snakes of brass. It reminds much of the symbol of medical science, only that I never have seen a such on anything else than paper. Suddenly I notice with surprise that a live snake is winding itself up towards the two bronze-snakes of the rod. From the bishop"s hand it slowly kreeps upwards, while he hymns another line. The bishop seems only to notice it when it is on its way up his sleve. Then he takes it down again and winds it a couple of times around the pole. It is obviously the acrobatic viper on the bishop"s rod that is the primary goal of attention of the pilgrims.
Even though the service ends half an hour before midnight, the bishop keeps his promise of an interview the same evening. "Yes, it is true that the miracle is very important to us Greek-Orthodox," he sais. "Biologists have investigated the phenomenon without being able to gain any satisfactory explanations why they chose to crawl out of their hides up towards the church on exactly this day. The Ceremony is therefore the frame of a non-explanainable fact in nature. At the same time - and this is to my view even more important - the appearance of the vipers is a fact in the realm of faith. We have many miracles in the Greek Orthodox Church that are more spectacular and unexplainable, but this wonder has particular symbolic value. You witnessed how the snakes are not afraid of human beings. Normally, vipers shy away from everything that moves, just as they in our part of the world will attack you with poisonous teeth if they feel threatened. These vipers do nothing of the kind; they are no-longer dangerous. In the Western Churches it is often forgotten that the viper in the Bible, although often the symbol of evil in certain contexts represents something good. As an example you can take the account of the Israelites who were chastised with lethal snake-bites in the desert. When Moses interceded for the people, Yahweh instructed him to produce a bronze-snake and place it on a pole. All, that looked at it, would be healed from the poison and save their lives (Num. 21:4-9). This event is echoed in the Gospel of John where Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection: "... (John 2:14-15). When our bishop"s rods are crowned by two bronze-snakes it is a symbol of the healing of the Israelites in the desert but even more of the mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. As you may know, medical science has taken their symbol from the account of the Bible."
"Why does it happen on the feast day of the Virgin Mary?"
"There has always been a conflict between Mary and the snake. In Genesis God tells the viper, after it has caused Adam and Eve"s expulsion of paradise: "... (Gen. 3:15). Since the Fathers of the Church who called Mary "The New Eve" we have been convinced that the woman of this prophecy is the Virgin Mary, and her seed is Christ. Furthermore, we believe that the Death and Resurrection of Christ has fulfilled this prophecy. God causes these vipers to honour Mary as a symbol that her seed, Christ, already has conquered evil. It is a victory, we all long and must fight for, so that it can gain all hearts, but in the world of faith, Christ already has won over death and lead us to eternal life. Jesus always has honoured his Mother for loving him with an intensity that only she has done. I think this is why he lets them honour her. If the animal that is lowest on the scale, creeping in the dust, honours Mary, then this is a sign of Christ that he wishes us to do the same."
"An old legend tells that a hord of dreadful pirats once attacked Kefalonia. In order to chase them away, an entire nunnery was transformed into vipers that scared the pirats away from the island; this should be the origin of the vipers of Markopoulo. Could one not be tempted to see a bit of superstition in this wonder?"
"I am not able to say much about this account or on the origin of the vipers, but calling the miracle superstition would be clashing against fundamental principles of our faith. Christ is alive today as he was 2000 years ago, and he can give us signs today as he could then. These vipers remind us every year of the fact that Christ has won victory over the Devil and over Death itself, and this is no superstition but a fact of faith."
On the boat home to Italy I watch the now suntanned Italians and wonder, if any of them know about this special ceremony and phenomenon, that again this year has occured on this earthly paradise, Kefalonia, a few miles away from the beaches that they are now leaving. Is there anything that could reconcile the apparently disparate worlds of the tourists and of the pilgrims?
Perhaps it could be Louis de Bernieres and Steven Spielberg. According to Irene Brooks-Baker from London, who like most other Kefalonia-tourists has read the book, Steven Spielberg was on the island filmatising the book, while Chretiens Magazine were there. However, I did not see him among the pilgrims of Markopoulo.
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