The thoroughly modern cult of the Panaghía

Every year on the 15th August, thousands of faithful from across Greece make the pilgrimage (προσκύνημα: proskínima) to the island of Tinos, for the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (Παναγία: Panaghía). The pilgrimage is often as part of a táma (τάμα: dedication) performed as a request for healing. The most dedicated will crawl along a processional route on hands and knees to kiss the icon of the Panaghía and to deposit a votive offering in precious  metal depicting the body part whose healing they are praying for. More VIP supplicants prefer to visit privately (or in the presence of just a few press cameras) and make a discreet donation. Many a political and social reputation has been healed by the Panaghia in this way

Although its customs may appear deeply ancient (or embarrassingly primitive, depending on one’s standpoint) the Panaghía of Tinos was born along with modern Greece, swaddled in both ancient Greek elements and European influence. It is a thoroughly modern cult, where religion meets money and politics.

The shrine at Tinos was founded in 1823 when a local nun was guided by a dream of the Panaghía to the site of a Dionysian temple, where under her direction an icon of the Annunciation was found. The Orthodox Church shares with the Catholic a tradition of “Marian apparitions“, which link the healing powers of the Virgin to specific sites, which become the focus of religious pilgrimage. The cult of the Panaghía is often attributed ancient roots in the cult of the virgin goddess, and the accoutrements can be eerily similar, but in most cases it is a much more recent phenomenon brought on by the “growing pains” of a more secular modernity. When St Pelagia had her revelatory dream, the Greeks were waging a war of independence against the Ottoman empire, which resulted in the foundation of the modern Greek state. Many of the leaders of the Greek insurrection, including island privateers, vying mainland warlords and intellectuals, visited the shrine to pray for victory (often, one imagines, against one another). Construction of a fittingly monumental church commenced in straightened times, often incorporating marble “repurposed” from the shrine of Apollo on the neighbouring island of Delos. Like Delos, the island shrine acquired a much larger significance.

The early guardians of the shrine were arguably more enlightened than its more recent keepers. In 1825 the management of the shrine was bequeathed to an independent charitable foundation (Πανελλήνιο Ιερό Ίδρυμα Ευαγγελιστρίας Τήνου (ΠΙΙΕΤ)). Aside from upkeep of the shrine, the Foundation has over they years funded schools and scholarships, modern art, public works, disaster relief, as well as the first welfare system in Greece. Its founding charter called for complete independence under state supervision, and a lay board of Trustees. The Trust lost its independence briefly during the military Junta of 1967-1973. It recently lost it again, probably irrevocably, when the Greek parliament amended the law in 2014 to transfer its management to the Orthodox Church, a move that can only be interpreted as a political gift to the ambitious local bishop.

The Panaghía of Tinos became involved in many key events of modern Greek history, mainly through the charitable works of the Foundation supporting Greek refugees in wartime. Its next big date with history, as every Greek schoolchild will tell you, is the sinking of the Greek warship Elle by an Italian submarine on 15 August 1940, which precipitated Greece’s entry into World War II. At the time, the Elle was anchored in the harbour to participate in the festival of the Assumption, so the act was seen as particularly provocative, and the remains of the sailors who perished are now venerated in a crypt adjacent to the church. Although in reality the political machinations were a bit more complicated than we are generally taught in school, this event was key in the decision of then Dictator Metaxas’s decision to say “no” (“ΟΧΙ”) to Mussolini’s demand to occupy Greek territory in his eastward campaign. Because of this event, the 15th August celebration has a strong militaristic character and is attended not only by the country’s political leadership but also by its top military brass and as much hardware as the budget will allow, while the Panaghía is carried in procession by sailors in uniform. 

Anyone following recent Greek politics will see where this is leading. OXI as a statement of resistance was resurrected recently in July’s “bailout referendum,” and the WWII connotation was ladled on by the present government in their incitement to the people to refuse the (coincidentally, German-led) rescue plan for the Greek economy. The 1821 insurrection has also featured strongly in their rhetoric, which painted Greek negotiations with the country’s creditors as a brutal war of resistance. Even though by most objective standards, the Greek government has now said “yes” to much worse terms than were on the table a few weeks ago, they have done so in a grudging spirit. This year’s 15th August festival, coming less that 24 hours after the most gruelling overnight session so far in the Greek parliament, could provide another opportunity, if they are unwise enough, to stoke the spirit of resistance in their domestic audience.

Syriza, as a rag-tag army of former Communists and Socialists, are ostentatiously non-religious (with the exception of a few blatantly tokenistic gestures), but their junior coalition partner, the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), led by Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, make up for their lack of public piety in spades. The combination of Church and military pomp will be a tough one for them to resist. However, they will probably avoid crawling on all fours, lest it bring back more humiliating memories.

Βοήθειά μας (Voíthiá mas). May she come to our aid.

And καλό χειμώνα (kaló himóna: a good winter), as the 15th is the traditional end of the holiday season, and time to get back to work.

POSTSCRIPT: The 15th August service is traditionally broadcast live on TV. This year the national broadcaster ERT chose to broadcast from Panaghía Ekatontapiliani on Paros, while the Tinos service was shown on private channel Skai TV. ERT was reinstated by the Syriza/ANEL government as one of its flagship “justice” policies after being shut down and replaced by a rebranded state channel under Samaras. Skai was officially boycotted by Syriza during the referendum and is generally targeted as part of the “toxic”, “oligarchic” private media. The bishop of Tinos pointedly thanked the channel owner by name for stepping in to broadcast his service. The significance of this gesture will probably become clearer when the Tsipras government starts to deliver on its promise to “properly enforce” Greece’s selectively applied media regulation.

Photo from protothema.gr

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The thoroughly modern cult of the Panaghía

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