Carried by the crowd, I moved from the searing heat into the shade of the church. The priest muttered quiet prayers and incantations, and approached me with his arms outstretched before him. He raised the snake and pressed it to my forehead, to my lips, to my chest.
He turned to the old woman next to me, a widow, and repeated the gesture. She clutched her walking stick and received the blessing gratefully with a series of sharp nods which sent the tail of her black headscarf billowing into the air.
It was the hottest part of the day in the height of summer and most of Greece was comatose – turning crispy on sun loungers, or lurking in cool, darkened rooms — except for in this one village on the island of Kefalonia. Hanging high in the hills above Katelios, Markopoulo is fairly unremarkable as Greek hamlets go — except that is, on 15 August every year, when an entirely remarkable phenomenon occurs. Coinciding exactly with the feast of the Assumption, small snakes with black crosses on their heads appear in the village and find their way into the Church of the Virgin.
When the festivities are over, the snakes disappear, only to return at the same time the following year. It’s not known exactly what causes the snakes to come, although the most likely explanation is that Markopoulo might be on their annual migratory route. Villagers bring them to the chapel and drape them over the icons.
Cars wind their way up the hillside and fill narrow streets as people come to witness the phenomenon and be blessed with the snakes, which are considered to bring good luck.
The following day, 16 August, is also particularly holy for islanders, who arrive in their droves at the monastery of Valsamata high in the mountains to celebrate the feast of Saint Gerasimos, the patron saint of Kefalonia. The ritual I witnessed here was no more unusual than the snake festival of Markopoulo. The body of Gerasimos — a monk from the 16th century — never decomposed properly despite being buried and dug up twice, and is paraded through the streets in a glass casement.
The only dead body I’d seen in real life up until that moment was dead Lenin, embalmed as he is in his creepy Moscow mausoleum – so yeah, it made me feel a bit weird.
Travelling demands for us to respectful and open-minded out of necessity though, and this especially true where religion is concerned. There are times we must cover our heads and our shoulders, take our hands out of our pockets, remove our shoes and put our cameras away.
But actively seeking to understand local religions and customs can also be one of the most rewarding aspects of travel. Not only does it enrich your insight into a place, but it’s possibly the best way to connect with the people you meet along the way. My parents always impressed me with stories of being invited to Greek Orthodox weddings and into Turkish homes by strangers just because they bothered to ask them about their religion. An appreciation for pilgrimage and the concept of being on a lifelong journey, means that religious people are often sympathetic towards travellers, however secular your own particular journey might be.
Sure – the experience of being blessed with (by?) a snake was fairly bizarre, as was seeing ancient human remains being paraded through the streets but I’ll never regret dragging myself away from the beach to witness these ceremonies. While they may have been alien to me, they were completely unique to the place I was in and gave me an insight into Kefalonian culture that went beyond the tavernas and plate smashing (which, I must add, I got plenty involved with too).
My memories of these events may be like fever dreams now, but they’re good to be able to recall — especially living in London where displays of religion are for the most part unostentatious and unobtrusive, hidden away in closed communities or grand cloistered buildings. I like to remember, to take myself back – especially on days like today, the day of the Feast of Saint Gerasimos – that there are people out there who subscribe to a completely different way of living than we do in our little London bubble.