By Light Unseen
"Superstition in the Canons"
letter to the Editor from W.R. Paton, Calymnos, Turkey

from Folklore No. 5 (1894)

SIR--I have by me three MS. Nomokánones (confessors' manuals) in vulgar Greek. I fancy they are none of them more than three hundred years old at the most. In most cases references are given under each heading to the articles of the synodic canons, the canons of the Apostles and the canons of Basil. These I cannot consult. I have thought it worth while to make the following summary of the articles relating to superstitious practices and beliefs, as it will at least show what was thought important at the date these vulgar Greek manuals were drawn up. The three volumes do not in the least correspond in arrangement or contents.

The most interesting chapter is one which says it is derived from the canon of Matthew, ch. i, 60. It is written in very bad vulgar Greek by a very illiterate person, and is sometimes scarcely intelligible. The following offenders are dealt with: (I) Those who lead about performing bears; (2) those who pursue the clouds (tà néphe diokontas) (sic); (3) those who believe in luck (rizikòn) or lucky and unlucky days; (4) those who put on their necks or heads brightly colored beads (bámmata toúteotin kánourais) or silk strings (metáxia) to protect themselves from disease and the evil eye; (5) those who keep tame snakes (this is repeated in one of the other books), or rub the skins of snakes on their eyes and mouth in order to attain their desire; (6) those who make ear-rings for their children on Holy Thursday; (7) those who use various medicinal charms (àpodémata) for headaches, etc.; (8) those who make ropes, invoking the beneficent spirits, and put them round themselves or beasts; (9) those who procure impotency by charms (this occurs in other books); (10) those who have the spirit of a python, that is, those who believe in zazápion (= ázápion = hazard); (11) those who try to find lost things by means of beans or by other magical uses; (12) those who practice the kledóna on the 1st of May or at the Ascension. There follow certain generalities, and a story of a priest who was punished for giving bread on Good Friday to some people suspected of sacrilege, with the hope that they would not be able to swallow it if they were guilty, and a story of a priest who used a stick bent to a circle for some similar purpose.

The next chapter enacts that the same penance shall be imposed on those who burn "vampires" (bourkolákous). In a subsequent chapter of the book there is a long discussion about these nasty creatures. It is there asked, "What is to be done when we find a corpse that we believe to be accursed?" (katachthónios is the word used; in popular phraseology it means "in hell", but here, probably, that the soul is still bound to the body). Before following this discussion, I will cite from one of the other books the criteria of such a corpse. They stand there under the heading "excommunication" (àphorismòs) and are stated to be derived from a book in the church of St. Sophia at Salonica. (1) õthoios echie enochèu e katárau the front parts of his body are preserved. (2) õthoios echei anathema is yellow, and his fingers are shrivelled. (3) Whoever has been excommunicated by a bishop is black. (4) Whoever has been excommunicated by the laws of God is white. (5) If a corpse be found in a tomb in good preservation, but hairless, it may or may not be excommunicated. To discover the truth, it must be dug up and put in a maiden tomb (táphon parthénon). If after some time it falls to pieces, it is all right. If not, it is excommunicate (aphorioménon). As to the vampires, the former writer says (again most ungrammatically) that there are no such things, but that the devil causes ghosts to appear in order to persuade people to dig up the ghosts' bodies and burn them, and thus commit an offence which will give himself the right to burn the offenders in eternal fire. The writer says this at some length, and it is evident that, as the subject is twice introduced in this selection of canons, the practice of burning the bodies of those whose ghosts were seen was common at the time the selection was made. It is a testimony to the survival in the popular consciousness of the idea that burning the dead gets rid of them, the idea which first prompted this rite of incineration. This I fancy, and have suggested in a previous number of this Journal, took its origin among a migratory people, who were unable to tend to their dead, and therefore did see ghosts and were pursued by vampires eager to drink their blood in sweet revenge for the neglect of the due blood-offerings.

The other references to superstitions in these books are:

Charming snakes in order that they might not bite cattle which are left out at night (reference is made to the fifty-sixth chapter of the Council of Laodicea). Charming wolves with the same purpose. Melting wax or lead (70th canon tes Tróulles, 65th and 93rd of Basil). Love-philtres (not from any stated source)--Women are accused of rubbing dough on their bodies, and giving it to eat to men in whom they wish to arouse satanic love. They are also accused (twice) of using kataménia, etc., as ingredients of love potions.