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Epiphany defeats hobgoblin evil



In my son's Athenian flat on the evening of 5 January things were as expected when two small children are part of a household: a goodly amount of clutter, a high level of noise. But certain different sounds were suddenly heard in the outside corridor, and my daughter-in-law leaped into action: rugs were straightened, cushions plumped, and toys magicked away.

Hobgoblins and Christmas treeThe children and I awaited developments: very soon the doorbell rang, and a genial, white-whiskered priest in full regalia entered. And then I remembered that the next day was Epiphany, a very old feast day, celebrated even before Christmas was established as a holy day, and ranked third in importance after Easter and Pentecost.

The priest was accompanied by an acolyte bearing a bowl of blessed water; the priest himself was carrying a cross in his right hand and in his left a bunch of basil, the royal herb, which he regularly dipped into the water. We were immediately sprinkled to the accompaniment of chanting, and thus blessed, house and all. We kissed the cross, the children received a tiny paper icon, and the priest went on to the next flat.

Epiphany is a many-layered feast day. Whereas the Western Church emphasises the visit of the Magi to the Christ-Child, Eastern Orthodoxy stresses the significance of Christ's baptism in the river Jordan, a happening heavily symbolic of cleansing by water and light, and one that gave evidence of the Holy Trinity. It is no accident that 7 January is the feast day of John the Baptist, who in Orthodoxy is called the Fore-runner.

Another reason for the importance of Epiphany is the belief that the 12 days of Christmas is a period during which the world is threatened by various wicked spirits, most particularly the ones known as kallikantzaroi, hobgoblins, the spirits of the dead: at this time they emerge from Hades (via a cave not too far from where I live) and roam the Earth. Legend has it that they have red eyes, cloven hooves and monkeys' arms, and that they live on a diet of snakes, frogs, and worms.

During the year their main aim is to wreck the Tree of Life, which supports the Earth. Every Christmas finds them mad with rage because the ineffable good of Christ's birth thwarts their evil intent, and so they leap to Earth in order to vent their spleen on human households by polluting food and water. They can also force people to dance their way to exhaustion and death.

The kallikantzaroi are darkness, evil, the shadow side of the human soul. The weapons against them are all-cleansing fire and all-seeing light. The belief is fading these days, but when I was first in the village my pupils instructed me: many said their grandparents kept a log burning continuously on their hearths for the whole 12 days, and despite some street lighting most old people never ventured out at night without a torch or a candle. But Epiphany defeats hobgoblin evil.


"Such was his belief in protective powers that he was not surprised that the jar stayed in position for years, despite the vagaries of the weather."


Ideally, the Orthodox attend church, taking containers with them. They receive a measure of holy water, and then carry it carefully home. One neighbour, I remember, was in the process of acquiring a new roof for his house, and made sure his jar of blessed water was somehow cemented in to the highest point of the structure: such was his belief in protective powers that he was not surprised that the jar stayed in position for years, despite the vagaries of the weather.

After church many people then go to the Blessing of the Waters, which is always a test, given the winter weather. (Things are easier for the Southern Hemisphere diaspora.) Still, shivering young men usually line up in substantial numbers and dive into the water the moment the garlanded cross is flung as far as the Bishop's strength permits. The winner seizes the cross and holds it aloft.

In Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew rewards the victor with a necklet of chain and cross. And throughout the Orthodox world the victor can expect good luck during the coming year.

As for the rest of us, we are reminded yet again of the continuing struggle between the forces of good and evil.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Eastern Orthodox, Greece



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Existing comments

Excellent Gillian. Your article brings another ancient understanding of the Ephiphny beyond the Western concept. As the various traditional beliefs become lost in time and concept , the stories are lost, which is a pity. Who knows what the real truth is behind Christmas and many of the feasts. Your article was informative and enlightening. Thank you. Mick from Canberra

Mick | 17 January 2019  

I always enjoy reading your articles, Gillian. This one is very special, thanks. When we last visited Athens we spent some time in the Plaka where the oldest Orthodox church in Athens is located. I loved it. The part of your story that especially touched me was about the priest (and acolyte) knocking on the door and sprinkling the blessed water on the household. Lovely.

Pam | 17 January 2019  

Thank you for this lovely evocation of Epiphany (the Blessing of the Waters) in Greece, where such rituals are still imbued with meaning and significance.

Jena Woodhouse | 17 January 2019  

It is unusual in our part of the world (UK) to see young people adhere to traditional beliefs and traditions. I am sure a lot has been lost and am delighted to have your analysis of the rituals and hope that they continue as the focus of family life and values.

Maggie | 18 January 2019  

Thanks so much Gillian for those interesting insights about epiphany. It makes my understanding richer.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 18 January 2019  

I remember, years ago, when the BBC was planning to make an episode of the program 'The Long Search' in Romania, Orthodox like Greece, but then under Communist rule, the Cultural Attaché in London said he was glad that they were going to film 'the folklore'. I think these ancient Christian traditions, which absorbed and adapted so much from the previous culture, are a bit more than 'folklore'. Some of these ceremonies, one of which you relate so well, can actually give believers in them a sense of protection and wholeness from what they perceive as the hostile forces in this world. It always intrigues me that entities in British and other folklore, like Cornish pixies and Scottish fairies are anything but benign.

Edward Fido | 18 January 2019  

Terrific article Gillian - thank you. I am also interested in the image used - do you have a caption for it? Good wishes.

Christine Nicholls | 19 January 2019  

There is something to do with key festivals - no matter the religious philosophy (if I might term it like that) - which delights the adults (for whom the mystery has long been revealed) and thrills with excitement those much younger - strangers into the home - rites performed - maybe some reward. I remember Christmas when I was seven or maybe eight - still believing the tale of Santa Claus flying around the world via his sleigh and reindeer - and the cake, beer (the scenario set by our step-father) and carrot straws for the animals left on the kitchen table for his visit and the dire warnings given that should we hear him we must never look - for if we did, apparently, all our gifts would in thst instant disappear. And oh my goodness on that night or in the wee small hours - I heard him drop the sack of presents outside the door to the room I shared with my little brother. In fright I pulled the sheet (hot summer's night) high above my head and remained still and - and - and fell asleep! Receipt of presents was assured - and at at first hint of light in the sky - my brother and I were feeling for our pillowslip-filled surprises. But the lesson Gillian was not as strong as you recount for Greeks - those twelve-days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany - that age-old battle between good and evil - the evil vanquished. If only so easily dismissed - the political evil being done in so many partsof the world right now - being led by the US - and strongly supported by our own land and the kallikantzaroi unleashed within our federal parliamentary halls! Oh come soon, please, our own epiphany!

Jim Kable | 20 January 2019  

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