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Reviewed by:
  • Le culte des icônes en Grèce
  • Maria Couroucli
Katerina Seraidari , Le culte des icônes en Grèce. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail. 2005. Pp. 256. Paper €28.

This book is about the worship of icons in modern Greece based on fieldwork in several, almost exclusively Aegean, localities with special reference to sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panagia) on the islands of Sifnos, Sikinos, Nissyros and Euboea (Evia). The author employs ethnographic observation of ritual practices, focusing on religious festivals and the study of local folklore and historical literature, comparing and contrasting practices between the different sites.

In this multi-sited ethnography, Seraidari explores several of the major themes of Greek anthropology. First is the relation between the local and the national regarding both religious practices (local shrines and Greek orthodox tradition) and narratives concerning the past (local ancestors and national history). Seraidari argues that local legends are being revived during annual religious festivals and that, contrary to what happens elsewhere in Europe, Greek high tradition does not stand in opposition to low tradition; in fact, the interaction between local cults and institutionalized church practices legitimates both, in much the same way that local histories (re-enacted on national occasions) validate national history. In the village of Limni on the island of Euboea, for example, a local festival on 8 September celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary involves the transportation of an icon to the sanctuary of St. Anne in the nearby mountains, and this act is interpreted by a local folklorist/historian monk as an enactment of the community's history. According to this narrative, the Limniots' ancestors were mountain people who descended to the plains in recent times. According to Seraidari, local people, on the other hand, refer to the festival as the celebration of the Virgin's "visit to her mother," thus re-enacting the Virgin's own history. The same link between local and national histories is underlined in reference to the important national pilgrimage to the church dedicated to the Panagia on the island of Tinos, which is also the protector of the Greek army and nation. The author refers extensively to the classic study of the Tinos pilgrimage by Jill Dubisch, In a Different Place (1995), and to Michael Herzfeld's analysis of Greek national identity and nationalism in Cultural Intimacy (1997). [End Page 132]

The second question addressed by the author in this work is the link between the private sphere, represented by the family, and the public sphere, epitomized by the community and/or the nation, as seen through the organization of annual religious festivals. On the islands of Sifnos and Sikinos, those feasts are patronized by a different person each year, according to two different systems of "rotation," whereby icons (or their copies) are kept in private homes. On Sifnos, the icons which circulate are those belonging to chapels situated in the countryside, away from the main villages; the patron (panygiras) of the festival (panygiri), keeps the icon in his house during the twelve months preceding the date of the feast, which he organizes and pays for. At the end of the festivities, the icon is given over to the next panygiras, who will keep it in his home and host the feast the following year. This system contrasts somewhat with what is observed on Sikinos, a much smaller island, where only four icons are in "rotation," three of which have "doubles," that is, copies, which are given to be kept in private houses while the fourth one, which has been celebrated in such a way only in recent years, does not leave the church for the house of its patron. Patrons on Sikinos all come from the same age-group, because, according to local custom, parents add their children's names on the special panygiras list when they are very young. Seraidari also argues rather persuasively that icons are not venerated in relation to either their artistic value or religious symbolism, but because people create sentimental links with the specific objects. "A miraculous icon does not represent the Virgin Mary, it is the Virgin Mary" (p. 132). Although circulating icons are not the ones...


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