THE “HOLY SNAKES” OF KEFALONIA

For the most part, snakes are images of evil in icons. You may be surprised to learn, however, that on the Greek island of Kefalonia, not only is there a Greek Orthodox ceremony and local festival involving snakes, but there is also an icon of Mary associated with snakes and called “wonderworking.” There are even more recent versions of the image that include painted snakes. Such images are called by the type name Παναγία η Φιδούσα, — Panagia i Phidousa or Παναγία η Φιδιώτισσα — Panagia i Phidiotissa “The All-Holy One of the Snakes.” They are also sometimes called the Langouvardiotissa, after the name of a church.

The original supposedly “wonderworking” icon is said to have “appeared” when villagers living on a hill saw a tree aflame higher up the slope. When they investigated, they found an icon of Mary leaning against the burnt stump of the tree. Thinking this remarkable, they took the icon down to their village and placed it in the church for veneration. The icon, however, was not there the next morning. It was found again back up the slope, leaning against the burnt stump. Returning it once more to their village church, they locked it in. But it disappeared again, in fact three times in all. This convinced the villagers that the icon did not want to be in their church, but instead wanted a new church built for its home on the site of the burnt stump. This notion of a Marian icon that keeps returning to a certain location is a common motif in icon origin stories.

As for the snakes associated with the image, it is said that a convent for nuns was constructed near the new church. in 1705, pirates came to the island to loot and pillage, and the nuns feared for their safety. They prayed to Mary to protect them, and what happened next varies according to which version of the legend one hears. In one version, Mary turned the nuns into snakes. In the other version, she sent snakes to encircle the convent, and when the pirates arrived, they were so frightened by the snakes that they left the convent and the nuns unharmed.

On Kefalonia, the so-called agiofida — “holy snakes” — are associated with the villages of Arginia and Markopoulo. Arginia is the higher of the two, and it has a spring of water that apparently creates a damp course down the ravine to where the church at Markopoulo stands. In any case, it is the annual appearance of the snakes at the Markopoulo church that receives most publicity, though both villages hold festivals to mark the event, which has become a tourist attraction. The snakes are actually a kind of European Cat Snake classified as Telescopus fallax. They have a roughly cross-shaped mark on their heads, which of course only adds to popular tendency to see the miraculous in their annual appearance in the villages.

The snakes begin to appear in the villages roughly around August 5th-6th and 15th. These correspond, in the Greek Orthodox Church Calendar, to the period from the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus (August 6th) to the Feast of the Dormition of Mary (August 15th). The story is told that originally the snakes would come on their own and slither into the Church at Markopoulo and crawl up to the icon of Mary to venerate it at that time each year. The present-day reality is that when the snakes begin to appear in the vicinity (and people even go searching for them), they are gathered up and physically carried into the church and placed on the icons, and people like to have their photos taken with the snakes twined around their arms. It is said that many snakes used to come to the church, but that the numbers of snakes appearing have lessened over the years. Nor do they always appear, and popular belief is that it is a bad sign when they do not.

If one reads accounts of the phenomenon on various Eastern Orthodox web sites, one finds that they generally credulously accept the appearance of the snakes as a miraculous event. Some even say that the venomous snakes will not harm humans until after the liturgy is finished on the day of the Dormition of Mary. But scientists say that in any case, the kind of snake involved is not harmful to humans because the fangs are located in a position (“back-fanged”) that makes any danger unlikely.

The tendency to see such events as “miraculous” rather than as natural phenomena (such as, for example, natural migratory behavior) lies in the readiness of “believers” to say, “There is no explanation for it; it must be miraculous,” while the more rationally inclined (myself included) will say that scientific research would reveal the true and natural nature of such events. Usually when unusual events are “unexplained,” the reason is that either they have not been sufficiently investigated, or else the “miraculous” explanation gets more publicity than the less “mysterious” scientific explanation, or else there is insufficient evidence upon which to base an investigation.  But Eastern Orthodoxy has always preferred tales of miracles to the simplified form of the Occam’s Razor dictum:  The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

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