The Dragon Slayer, the Mermaid, and the Secret of Marmara | Legends from Medieval Greece #2 (Byzantium)

Interested in stories from Medieval Greece (Eastern Roman Empire)? Last time we discussed the Marble King, among other Byzantine legends. Today, we will discover the stories of the priest who vanished in Hagia Sophia, the secret of the Sea of Marmara, the giant Mermaid, and the Christian dragon slayer.

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The Priest Who Vanished in Hagia Sophia

One of the greatest architectural wonders of Byzantine history is the Orthodox Christian Basilica of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The Church is located at the Old City of Constantinople and it is surrounded by numerous legends. One of these stories is the legend of the vanishing priest.

When the Ottoman troops attacked the city of Constantinople on the spring of 1453, they entered Hagia Sophia in search of civilians who might have sought refuge there. According to the legend, a priest was holding a liturgy at that time.

Before the troops were able to catch him, he entered a door and vanished. The door closed behind him and couldn’t be opened nor destroyed. Rumor has it that the door will open once Hagia Sophia becomes a Greek Orthodox Church again. The priest will reappear and continue the liturgy.

If you know any additional details regarding this legend, feel free to leave a comment in the comment section.

The Hidden Secret of the Sea of Marmara

The Sea of Marmara, also known as Propontis, connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. It is the area ancient Greeks from Megara explored before they established the colony of Byzantion, as we’ve seen in the first episode. There is reportedly a part of Propontis that is always calm. The passage is safe to cross, no matter the weather conditions. According to a Byzantine legend, this part of the Sea of Marmara has a secret. That is the Hagia Trapeza, the Holly Table of Hagia Sophia.

According to a book by the Greek intellectual Dorotheos Monemvasias, three Venetian ships had reportedly taken the Hagia Trapeza and other relics from Hagia Sophia, intending to bringing them in Venice. The Byzantines wanted to protect the Christian relics from the Ottomans who had invaded Constantinople.

As the Venetians transported the items, the vessel that transported the Hagia Trapeza sunk. The Holly Table is reportedly still at the bottom of the sea for someone to discover and the area seems to be unaffected by the weather conditions.

The Giant Mermaid

When hearing the term “mermaid” a beautiful creature comes to mind. Half woman, half fish, probably looking like Ariel. But there is a mermaid in Greek folklore, that is feared by sailors and islanders all over Greece. This is the Gorgona (Γοργόνα) – a giant mermaid who is supposedly related to Alexander the Great.

Although inspired by historical figures of late antiquity, the myth of the Gorgona probably originates in Byzantium. This was the time period in which the mythical sirens, the half bird – half women creatures turned into the mermaids we know today.

According to this legend, princess Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great, had washed her hair with the water of the “Fountain of Immortality”. That meant it would be impossible to die, even if she tried to.

When her brother, Alexander, died, the princess was shocked. She attempted to end her life by jumping into the sea from a cliff. But, instead of dying, she turned into a mermaid. A giant mermaid to be precise who terrified sea men and islanders.

Thessalonike then migrated to the Black Sea but she would sometimes return to the Northern Aegean in search of her brother. The legend says that she desperately asks the sailors if King Alexander is alive. If they give her a positive reply, she dives into the water, looking happy. If they reply “no”, Gorgona destroys the vessel. After a while, she regrets her action and starts crying, causing a storm.

Do you know any other variation of this story? Comment down below.

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St. George, the Dragon Slayer

George of Lydda was a Roman soldier of Greek origin who is recognized as a Christian Saint. The Saint is associated with a Byzantine legend, the one of the evil Dragon. There are many variations of the story but the most popular one takes place in Libya.

George of Lydda was passing by a Libyan city (Silene), when he saw a beautiful woman crying, while being transported to an unspecified location. Saint George overheard that the woman was selected to be fed to a bloodthirsty Dragon that terrorized the area.

The Dragon looked like a winged giant lizard. It breathed fire and was able to kill humans from a distance. Rumor had it that it had arrived in the area centuries ago, causing chaos. The locals managed to appease the beast by offering it two sheep. And they would do the same every year to make sure that the dragon doesn’t attack their city. But there was a time when there was no more livestock to feed the Dragon. Or, according to another variation, the Dragon couldn’t be appeased by feeding on animals. It demanded human flesh.

For the past few years, a member of the local community, usually a peasant, was selected annually to be fed to the dragon. The selection process was not clarified but we assume that they used a draw. That year, the unlucky human to be sacrificed was no other than the beloved princess of the city. The locals protested but no one was willing to take her place.

Saint George was moved by the story. He wanted to end this custom, just like Theseus did in the myth of the Minotaur. The soldier Saint followed the trail that led to the Dragon and stopped the princess from entering the Dragon’s lair. He volunteered to be the offering. But as the beast laid down, waiting to be fed, Saint George revealed a spear and killed the dragon to everyone’s surprise.

It goes without saying that the local King named the soldier a hero and offered him a fortune. But Saint George distributed the treasures to the locals instead. It is important to note that Saint George is not the only Christian Dragon Slayer. Similar legends and stories have spread all over the world. If you know any of these, feel free to share in the comment section.

Now, if you haven’t watched the previous videos covering various Byzantine legends, don’t forget to do so. In Helinika’s channel but also in helinika.com, you can find plenty of videos and articles on the Greek language, history, and culture. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow Helinika on social media to stay connected.

What Was the Byzantine Fire (Liquid Fire)? | Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire)

One of the most mysterious and fascinating aspects of Greece’s Byzantine history, is the so-called “Greek Fire” or “Liquid Fire” (Ύγρόν Πυρ). Western Romans called it “ignis graecus” and it was no other than the powerful weapon that saved Constantinople multiple times from Arab and Rus invaders. The weapon was the most well-hidden secret of the Byzantine Empire.

The Marble King, The 100 Gates Church and More | Legends from Medieval Greece #1 (Byzantium)

People around the world read and narrate myths from ancient Greece or legends from Medieval Central and Western Europe. But stories from Medieval Greece are lesser known. Here are some legends from Greece’s Byzantine Past (Eastern Roman Empire). Keep in mind, that some of these legends are based on real historical events.

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The Legend of the Last Emperor (Constantine XI Palaeologus or…?)

Constantine Palaeologus is an important historical figure; he was the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. His reign lasted for four years, from 1449 AD until his death in the battle of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. But Constantine is also known as the “Marmaromenos Vasilias” (Μαρμαρωμένος Βασιλιάς) – the “Marble King”.

According to a legend, when the Ottomans started taking over the city of Constantinople, an angel transformed the emperor into marble and hid him beneath the Golden Gate of Constantinople. The legend says that Constantine will be revived one day and return the city to the Greeks.

But is this legend really about emperor Constantine? Some scholars argue that the “Marble King” is Emperor of Byzantine Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes, who died 200 years before the Fall of Constantinople. He is often called the “Father of the Greeks”, since he was one of the most peaceful and just emperors to have ever existed, according to the scholars.

Many people who have heard this story from their grandparents, mention certain signs and omens that will prepare us for the return of the king. For example, a bright star, probably the Star of Bethlehem that shined on the night Jesus Christ was born, will appear in the night sky.

Have you heard any other variations of the story? Feel free to share in the comment section down below.

The Church with 100 Gates

The story of the “Marble King” has inspired other legends across Greece. An example of that is the legend surrounding the historical church “Panagia Ekantotapyliani” (Παναγία Εκατονταπυλιανή) in Paros island.

 The Byzantine church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God and its name “Ekantotapyliani” means “100 gates”. The church reportedly has 99 visible gates and a hidden one that, according to the legend, it will be revealed when the marble king awakens.

In another variation of the legend, the 100th gate will be revealed when another hidden door will be found in Hagia Sophia, which is allegedly under the ground. This will be another omen that the Marble King will be awakened soon.

Kassiani’s Wit and the Emperor’s Ego

Kassiani or Kassia is a historical figure. She was a Byzantine abbess and poet who lived between 810 AD and 865 AD. According to an allegedly true story that has become a legend, Kassiani almost became the empress of Constantinople, but her wit and overall attitude scared away emperor Theofilos.

The mother of Theofilos, Thekla, had organized a “bride-show”, a Byzantine tradition that bears similarities with many other traditions around the world. The most beautiful maidens of the Byzantine Empire had gathered at the palace as soon as Theofilos was old enough to get married. Kassiani was rumored to be the new empress. She was the most beautiful and smartest of all the contestants.

The young woman immediately caught his attention and he approached her saying that the “worst things come through women” (Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω), referring to Eve. But Kassiani replied “the same for the better things” (Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω), referring to the birth of Jesus Christ by Mary.

Theofilos failed to understand Kassiani’s humor and became defensive. As a result, he rejected Kassiani and selected another woman, Theodora, instead. Kassiani ended up following a monastic life which is explained by scholars in two different ways. She either fell into depression after her public rejection or that was her initial plan anyways.

The Devilish Dog

A legend that has survived over the years is the one of a vicious black dog that would target monks and priests at Mount Athos. Some said that the dog was possessed, other that it was a demon residing in hell. But some believed that it was the devil himself.

Saint Parthenios, bishop of Lampsakos, who lived in the 4rth century AD in the Byzantine Empire, was allegedly attacked by this dog but managed to escape by blowing at it and making the sign of the cross. In his book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium”, William Dalrymple briefly narrates this story.

If you liked these stories and you are interested in learning more about Greece’s Byzantine history, don’t forget to subscribe and stay connected. In next week’s episode, we will reveal the hidden secret of the Sea of Marmara, the dragon slayer Saint, and many more Medieval Greek legends.

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Five Unique Winter Traditions from Greece | Christian and Pagan Customs

Greece’s geographic location and long history have enabled the establishment and adoption of various traditions. Some of them can be traced back to Greece’s pagan roots, others are related to the Christian Orthodox faith, and some have been adopted from other cultures and religions. Forget Christmas trees, Christmas carols, and Santa Claus. Let’s see some of the most unique Greek customs and traditions that are celebrated during the winter months.

Unique Greek Winter Holiday Traditions:

  1. The Feeding of the Water Spring and the Unspoken Water
  2. Nautical Christmas Decorations
  3. The Smashing of the Pomegranate
  4. Cutting the King’s Pie
  5. The Theophany and the Great Blessing of the Waters

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The Feeding of The Water Spring in Thessaly (The Silent/Unspoken Water)

If you have ever visited the picturesque villages of Thessaly, a region located in central Greece, then you must have noticed the traditional stone drinking fountains that are located in each villages’ central square and on some key-locations in the cobblestone routes that surround them. These water fountains, called «βρύσες» (vrises) in Greek, are being “fed” every Christmas eve or New Year’s eve.

The “feeding of the water spring” (το τάισμα της βρύσης) could be described as an offering to a deity that is connected to the water element. Young maidens walk towards the water fountain late at night and pour honey and butter to “please” it. Depending on the location, various other items, such as olive tree branches, are “offered” to the spring. The latter then starts gushing the “silent” or “unspoken” water, as they call it.

The young women fill in their clay pitchers and return home, bringing many blessings to their household. While carrying it home, they are not allowed to talk to each other or to anyone else, hence the name “silent/unspoken water” (αμίλητο νερό). This water is used similarly to “holy water”, mostly for “cleansing” the house on a spiritual level. In certain regions, the unmarried women use the water to make predictions about the future, usually revolving around their marriage and future family.

It is not clear when this custom was established in Thessaly. Its ritualistic nature and the act of making an offering to what appears to be an elemental deity can, however, lead us to the conclusion that it is rooted back to Greece’s pagan culture and religion. The “feeding of the water spring” bears close similarities to another Greek tradition, which takes place every spring or summer (depending on the region).

Klethonas (Κλήδονας) is an ancient Greek ritualistic custom that was re-established by the Christian Orthodox religion and takes place in certain parts of Greece to this day. The custom occurs in the span of two days and it entails the collection of the “silent/unspoken water” and the storage of this water in a container made out of copper. The women drink the water and sit outside, waiting to hear a voice that would reveal the name of their future husband. Another way to predict who they will marry is by falling asleep and seeing the image of their future husband in their dreams. This is not the only way to celebrate the Klethonas and the use of the “silent/unspoken water” may differ from region to region.  

Today, Klethonas is connected to John the Baptist who is believed to reveal the future. However, ancient Greek historian Herodotus and the geographer Pausanias do mention Klethonas in their observations; in ancient times, the omens of the Klethonas were revealed by Zeus through Hermes.

Since many young people leave the countryside and move to bigger cities and since the traditional gender roles have evolved during the years, customs such as the ones of Klethonas and the “feeding of the water spring” are becoming less and less known.

Before we get onto the next tradition, it is worth mentioning that similar customs take place in other parts of the world. For example, there is a Scottish custom called the “Unspoken Water” that entails the collection of water from under a bridge late at night and under complete silence. The water is then used to heal someone who is sick. There is no proof that the Scottish custom has been inspired by the Greek custom nor the opposite, which makes the tradition even more fascinating. Perhaps, the answer could be found in Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious and the set of universal archetypes that are manifested in different cultures in similar ways.

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Decorating a Christmas Boat Instead of a Christmas Tree

Nowadays, most Greek households associate Christmas with a decorated evergreen tree. This is a custom that was introduced in Greece in 1833 by the Bavarian prince Otto who ruled as the king of Greece for thirty years, but was adopted by the Greeks in the 20th century, after witnessing depictions of holiday gatherings in foreign movies and tv-shows. Since pine and fir trees are not common in the coastal areas of Greece, a lot of people use fake but realistic-looking trees that people store and re-use year after year. But what did the Greeks decorate before the adoption of the Christmas tree?

If you have ever visited Greece, then you know the importance of the sea in the country’s culture and economy. Greece, a country of 11 million people, is the world leader in maritime shipping, with the current value of the Greek-owned fleet standing at almost 100 billion dollars. If you are not new to this channel and you have watched Helinika’s playlists narrating the Odyssey and the Argonautica, then you already know that Greeks have been dominating the seas since ancient times. It comes as no surprise that Greeks have been decorating their boats -big or small- with Christmas lights for centuries.

This custom might be getting less and less popular today, however, it is well-established in the Greek islands and in the most important port-cities of Greece, like Piraeus. Since not every single Greek person owns a boat, it is very common to own a miniature wooden vessel. This vessel is put in display in the living-room and lit with various lights. Since many Greek families have members who work in maritime shipping and are often absent during the holidays, the wooden vessel symbolizes the love and devotion the whole family has for the seamen while waiting for them to return.

The Smashing of the Pomegranate

A panhellenic custom that survives to this day is the smashing of the pomegranate on New Year’s eve. When Greeks are invited to a NY’s eve party, they sometimes offer real pomegranates or objects depicting this fruit to their hosts. A pomegranate often hangs above the house’s or apartment’s main entrance, bringing luck and blessings to the household members and all of their guests.

During the countdown, minutes or seconds before the arrival of the new year, the hosts smash the pomegranate by hitting it with their right hand against their front door. In this way, the fruit’s red seeds scatter around the house, bringing luck to all of its members. If someone ends up getting red stains all over their clothes, he/she is believed to be the luckiest of the year. This tradition may differ depending on the region of Greece you visit.

It is not clear when this custom was established but we do know that the pomegranate fruit has been featured in countless ancient Greek myths and was used in agrarian rituals, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. According to the legend, pomegranates sprung from the blood of Adonis, the most handsome mythical Greek man to have ever lived. Persephone, a deity we have talked about in the past, is also depicted holding a pomegranate. That is because she was trapped in Hades, the ancient Greek underworld, after eating pomegranate seeds.

The Cut of the King’s Pie (Vasilopita)

Vasilopita (King’s Pie) is a pie that is prepared, blessed, and shared by families and organizations, such as schools and companies, on the 1st of January. The pie has a hidden coin, real or fake, and the person who finds it in his/her piece is believed to be the luckiest of the year. The recipe varies from region to region, but it usually looks and tastes like sweet bread.

The tradition is associated with Saint Basil’s (Άγιος Βασίλειος) day on January 1st, hence the name. Saint Basil the Great was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia from 370 AD till 379 AD and he is believed to be the one who brings presents to children on New Year’s Day. He is the Greek Orthodox version of Santa Claus with the difference that he is visiting on January 1st instead of Christmas.

The tradition is common in countries that follow the Christian Orthodox religion, and its roots go back to the Byzantine Empire. The tradition of the cut of vasilopita resembles the tradition of the “three kings’ cake” that is established for the past three centuries in France, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and New Orleans. However, this custom is associated with the biblical three wise men (or Kings) who visited Jesus on the day of his birth rather than with Saint Basil.

It is worth mentioning that the name Basil (Βασίλειος) derives from the ancient Greek «βασιλεύς» that means “king”. Therefore, the Greek custom is translated into “King’s Pie” rather than “Basil’s Pie”.

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Theophany, the Greek version of Epiphany

On the 7th of January, people who follow the Greek Orthodox religion celebrate the Theophany, also known as “Phota” (Φώτα). This day celebrates the baptism of Christ and symbolizes people’s spiritual rebirth. There are several customs that take place in Greece on that day but the most common one is the “Great Blessing of the Waters”.

A priest from each village, town, or municipality visits the nearest coastline and sings hymns to bless the waters and protect the people working in the sea, such as fishermen, sailors, and mariners. On the rare occasion that a village or town is not close to the sea, the priests bless the nearest pond or river. The custom’s roots take us back to the third century AD and it is obviously associated with the Christian Orthodox religion.

In some parts of Greece, the 7th of January is also closely associated with the «Dance of the Goblins”. Goblins (Καλικάντζαροι) are believed to be chthonic tricksters that are only able to step foot on the Earth’s surface when the waters are “unbaptized”. According to the legend, they roam the streets between Christmas and the 7th of January, just before the “Great Blessing of the Waters”. In some villages, the locals scare away the goblins by dancing and singing loudly or by organizing bonfires.

Ancient Greek Vampires | #GreekMyths

ancient greek vampires

Most of us know vampires from Hollywood and, of course, the 19th Century Gothic horror novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. They are blood-thirsty people (or creatures) of the night. They are called “the undead” and they are still very feared in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe. Vampires are often depicted as being pale, aristocratic, and charming. Sometimes, they resemble frightening monsters. They always seek blood but, in certain occasions, they consume people’s energy and are therefore called energy vampires. All of them fear the sunlight, garlic, and certain metals. +What if I told you that ancient Greeks believed in vampires as well?

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The Modern Greek “Vrykolakas”

The modern Greek vampire is called “vrykolakas”. A vrykolakas is an undead creature that resembles a zombie (at least in the way they are portrayed in Hollywood movies). They drink blood but they have cravings for flesh as well. According to legend, these supernatural beings were once humans. These people either got excommunicated by the Orthodox Church or followed a sinful lifestyle. After their death, they turn into horrific creatures that leave their tombs at night and scare or even hunt the living.

The fear of the vrykolakas spread among Greeks when the latter encountered some Slavic groups in the Balkan region. In fact, as many of you might already know, vampires are very popular among the Slavs. In Greece, the fear of the vrykolakas soon faded away and most Greeks are aware of vampires thanks to Stoker’s “Dracula”. What most people do not know is that stories of vampire-like creatures are way older than the Irish writer’s book and the 17th-century folklore.

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Vampires in Ancient Greece | Ancient Greek Vampires

Ancient Greeks are known for being imaginative and creative when it comes to storytelling. If you have watched Helinika’s video series narrating Homer’s “Odyssey”, then you should remember that Odysseus had to perform a ritual to be able to talk to the souls of the dead in Hades. This ritual involved sacrificing an animal and offering its blood to the souls. It is clear that Ancient Greeks believed that the dead were thirsty for blood; thirsty for anything that keeps the human body alive.

This belief seemed to have led some ancient Greek cities to take protective measures when burying their dead. Neolithic graves discovered in Choirokoitia in Cyprus indicate that people were trying to stop the dead from exiting their graves.  They would place rocks on the dead bodies’ chests, making sure that they would not escape during the night. Similar burial sites were found in other places across Greece.

Apart from these findings, ancient Greek mythology includes many stories of undead creatures that targeted people – especially at night. Empusa and Lamia were two vampiric monsters in ancient Greek folklore. Their origins are not clear; some believed they were the angry ghosts of two dead women, while other said that they were demons.

Embusa and Lamia would take the forms of beautiful women to attract young, energetic men who wandered alone at night. With their charming beauty, they would lure them into dark alleys and fields. There, they would attack these men, drinking their blood and sometimes eating their flesh.

A similar legend is the one of Mormolyceia or Mormo. A female ghost who targeted babies and young children instead. During the Byzantine times, Mormo and Lamia were considered to be the same supernatural being. In fact, it is believed that the original story of Lamia described her as a ghost that targeted infants.

According to the legend, Lamia was a Libyan queen who (unsurprisingly) became Zeus’ lover. Hera, Zeus’ sister and wife, started to harass the woman by abducting and killing her children as soon as they were born. Lamia became so enraged that started targeting other people’s babies. Ancient Greek women would often mention Lamia when their children were misbehaving to make sure that they don’t sneak out of their beds at night. Similar stories were told in other ancient communities around the globe.

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Is This the Worst Greek God / Goddess? | Evil Greek Goddess

When looking for the evilest ancient Greek god or goddess, usually three come to mind: Pluton/Hades, Pan, and Hecate. But what if I told you that there is another divine being that shares more characteristics with the devil, than the previous three: Eris.