An extraordinary phenomenon which occurs every year on a Greek island: for about fifteen days (from the Transfiguration to the Dormition of Mary Most Holy) numerous poisonous snakes begin to crawl everywhere in the Church, and in particular around an icon of the Virgin Mary.
In a small village on the Greek island of western Kefalonia, hundreds of Greek Orthodox pilgrims flock to Markopoulo every year, a municipality in Greece located on the outskirts of Attica, to testify what many believe to be a miracle that begins every year around August 6, which is the feast of the Transfiguration.
Around the church bell tower, poisonous snakes appear and begin to crawl everywhere in the Church, and in particular around an icon of the Virgin Mary. Snakes remain in the church area until August 15, the day of the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. As soon as the Liturgy ends on August 15, they disappear again in the desert of the area. Snakes will not visible again until the following year.
The chapel in Markopoulo is built on the ruins of an ancient convent founded by Saint Gerasimo, whose remains are kept in the monastery inside a silver casket which is periodically opened by the priest of the church to allow pilgrims to address prayers directly to the saint and to venerate his remains.
Local legend varies, but the general sense of history that remains is this:
In the early 18th century, the nuns of the convent suffered numerous attacks by Turkish pirates. During one of these raids the pirates entered the convent, but this time they were terrified at the sight of numerous snakes that wore the sign of the cross on their heads. The pirates thought to eliminate the problem by starting a fire which destroyed the convent and a large part of the village.
A silver icon of the Virgin Mary was saved from the fire. The inhabitants decided to build a church on the ruins. During the consecration of the new church, the population noticed numerous snakes on the bell tower that slowly descended to the ground and all gathered around the silver icon of the Madonna, and at the end of the celebration they left, returning to where they had come from.
Since then, every year, snakes have mysteriously appeared during the first half of August to venerate the icon of the Virgin, and then leave her at the end of the festival.
Only twice the snake phenomenon did not occurr: in 1940, the year in which Greece entered the Second World War following the invasion of the Nazi-Fascist troops, and 1953, the year in which the devastating earthquake in Kefalonia occurred .
In the face of these two precedents, their appearance is considered a good sign and they are also accepted willingly, so much so as to become a real feast of the “Madonna of the snakes”.
Devotion to Saint Gerasimos
To get to the monastery, one has to go through a garden with 40 old wells. This monastery is dedicated to the patron saint of Kefalonia: Agios Gerassimos (Saint Gerasimos) is a pilgrimage destination not only for this snake phenomenon, but also for the devotion to the saint’s relics, not only of the inhabitants of the island but for all the Greeks. Agios Gerassimos founded this monastery in the mid-16th century, initially building a small cave where he slept himself and then the convent church was erected above the cave.
Still today one can access the cave which has two rooms that can be visited and the chapel above where the body of the Saint is kept.
Later the monastery was expanded but collapsed during the 1953 earthquake and slowly it was rebuilt following the Byzantine style and today it has a small chapel and a new very large and richly decorated church.
The imposing throne of the bishop was made entirely of marble and the ceiling and wall surfaces are decorated with Byzantine-style paintings.
Aghios Gherassimos died in 1579 and was canonized in 1622; he was famous for his miraculous skills with mentally ill people. Even now those who suffer from psychiatric disorders turn to the Saint for help. Two feasts are celebrated in the monastery: on August 16, when all the snakes have now retired, the death of Gerasimo is commemorated and on October 20, the date of the transfer of his remains to the monastery. On these occasions, a procession takes place during which the saint’s relics are carried under the shade of a plane tree that was planted by the saint himself. Ecclesiastical authorities, politicians, thousands of Cefalonites and tourists attend the event and the procession follows a big feast with music, dance, food and wine.