Religion and belief systems

Being a member of the Orthodox Church and being Greek was the same thing, especially in the rural areas. The Cretan church had always been active in the fight against occupying powers, and monasteries were centers for revolts. The priests and monks helped to keep nationalism alive during the Turkish occupation.

The ritual year of the Greek Orthodox Church has many feast days. These gave people the opportunity to meet relatives and old friends and gave the unmarried young a chance to meet and possibly look for a marriage partner.

There were five churches in Agios Ioannis village: two within the walls (Agios Georgios and Aghios Nikolaos), and three just outside: the double church of Agios Ioannis and Khristos, and the smaller Panagia.

Additionally, the nearly deserted village of Aradena (the subordinate village of the Agios Ioannis township) had its own main church, Agios Michalis, and some chapels.

Several other small chapels were situated at the farther outskirts, on the boundaries of the kinotis, serving as territorial markers.

The old church of the village patron saint, Agios Ioannis, shared its space with that of the slightly smaller Khristos, which in fact formed one half of the same building – one long wall of the older church had been removed, and the parallel nave of Khristos was added, with its own separate altar.

For ordinary, everyday purposes the church of Agios Georgios was used. The main feasts of Easter and Christmas were celebrated there, as well as the feast day of the church’s patron saint on the 6th of December. The graveyard was found within its walls, and funerals and memorial services also took place there. 

Both the churches of Panagia and Agios Ioannis had Byzantine frescoes inside, as did the Aradena Agios Michalis church. 

There was no longer a resident priest in Agios Ioannis, the last one – Papa Stavridi – died in 1941. The priest who served Agios Ioannis during our stay, lived in the village of Vouvas in the eastern part of the eparchy, and his parish consisted of Agios Ioannis, Aradena, Agia Roumeli, Livaniana and Loutron. He only visited the villages during holidays, on the village feast days and for funerals, weddings and other ceremonies.

We had the good fortune of knowing that renowned individual, Papa Georgios Chiotakis,, the legendary priest of Sfakia. He was a member of the Union of Sfakian Papas, an area group of mountain priests, who made political and social interventions, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

We soon learned that Papa Georgios’s ceremonies were long. The villagers knew when to arrive in church (not too early and not too late), but somehow we never caught on. If we were told that proceedings would start at 7 o’clock in the morning, we would show up around 7:30 and find ourselves more or less alone with the priest. One time we came when the church service was almost over and received stern glances from the priest. Some of the older women would bring a chair while the rest of us had to stand for several hours in a cold church. But the ceremonies where never dull. Papa Georgios would crack an occasional joke, and during Easter celebration he called the young girls forward to sing along during the service. Fortunately, they were soon returned to being just part of the congregation since they neither knew the text nor could sing.

Easter was the most important religious festival of the year. The celebration started on Maundy Thursday. The priest held services in both Livaniana and Agios Ioannis, and he would walk back and forth between the two villages every day. The services therefore had to be held at hours that sometimes differed from what was normal. In 1979 he left Agios Ioannis around midnight after the evening service and walked to Livaniana (1,5 – 2 hours in the dark). The service of the Resurrection was held in Livaniana on Saturday evening, and he then walked back Agios Ioannis where the ceremony was held after midnight.

On Good Friday the young girls collected flowers and decorated the Epitaphion (a symbolic model of Christ’s bier). The churchbells rang all through the day. In the evening the bells called us to church at nine o’clock (and – as usual – we came too early). Almost everyone in the village was present (the women on the right side of the church and the men on the left side). The priest wished us “chronia polla” (many years), and the Epitaphios and a large cross with a crown of thorns on it, were carried around the church by the young men of the village.

The Easter Sunday service started around midnight on Saturday and lasted until early Sunday morning. The church was full of candlelight, and the congregation awaited the proclamation from the priest “Christos anesti” (Christ is risen). In 1979, most of the households in the village were present in the church.

Every family brought food or wine, and after the service a large table was laid out in the middle of the church. Among the other things on the table were baskets of eggs dyed red. Everyone would take an egg, trying to hit and crack other peoples eggs. Papa Georgios had several eggs so that he could crack eggs against everyone else’s. The eating of the eggs symbolized the breaking of the Lenten fast – which very few people observed anyway.

Belief in the evil eye (to kako mati) is found all around the Mediterranean, and is believed to be one of the oldest continous belief constructs in this area. It is recognised that a possesser of “the eye” may cast it inadvertently, without malice. In other cases envy is very much thought to be present. To protect oneself from the evil eye people wear crosses, blue “eye” beads or other charms. Charms are placed on the saddles of donkeys and mules, and often the houses are painted blue and white, the colours of protection against the evil eye. Both people, animals, plants and non-living objects can be affected.

There are several ways of testing if a person has been affected by the evil eye. One was to tie a slip knot on a rope or string. From this knot, the length of the arm was measured, from the elbow to the fingertips; to this was added the length of the width of one hand. The curer would hold on to this point and make the sign of the cross over it. The sick person would hold the end with the knot while the curer said her prayers. She would then again measure the distance from the knot to where she had been holding the string or rope. If the rope was shorter, the evil eye was causing the sickness. If it was shortened by the width of the index finger, a woman was casting the evil eye; if by the combined width of the index finger and half the middle finger, then a man was responsible. The sign of the cross would be made over the stricken part of the body and over the knot. Then the knot was pulled apart, and the spell was broken. I saw it performed one time only, when a woman had stomach pains, and one of the old women performed the ritual. Her husband was sceptical and the children laughed – but the sick woman recovered.

The ritual and the prayers against the evil eye should only be taught by a man to a woman and by a woman to a man. Today none of the younger people in the village knew what was said, and the men claimed they knew very little or nothing. It was looked upon as something the old women did, although the fear of the eye was universal. My husband was taught the prayers by one of the old women in Agios Ioannis. Few men were interested in this kind of knowledge, and women claimed to solve the problem of teaching the ritual to each other by writing the prayers on a piece of paper that was given to a man who passed it on to a woman.

Some of the men were still able to read the future in a shoulder blade bone (scapula) of the sheep. Sfakian shepherds have always had a reputation for this type of divination (called scapulimancy, or omoplatoskopias in Greek), and some scholars prematurely claimed it was dying out. Scapulimancy could still be found in the mountain villages, but none of the young men knew how to perform it. 

Shoulder bone divination was practiced at times by the men when they slaughtered a sheep on the summer pastures in the mountains. The thing they would be looking for were what a man would be interested in when he was looking after his sheep far from home; the weather, deaths, the health and lot of his flock and the faithfulness of his wife. That the practice was taken seriously was indicated by the always-present question “whose sheep did this shoulder blade come from?” when we used a scapula for eliciting “readings” of the future.

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