By John Sanidopoulos
On the Feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, or Agia Skepi, on October 28th, we implore the defense and assistance of the Queen of Heaven: "Remember us in your prayers, O Lady Virgin Mother of God, that we not perish by the increase of our sins. Protect us from every evil and from grievous woes, for in you do we hope, and honoring the feast of your Protection, we magnify you."
Though celebrated outside of Greece on October 1st, the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos was transferred to October 28th after World War 2 with the annual commemoration of Ohi Day (Oχη). This was done to commemorate the great help and protection of the Theotokos to the Greek nation throughout its history, and especially during World War 2 at which time many of her miracles were reported.
It was precisely on 15 August 1940, off the eastern coast of Greece near the Aegean island of Tinos, an island especially dedicated to the Holy Virgin more than any other, that a great tragedy struck. As thousands upon thousands of pilgrims were celebrating the solemn feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the crew of a Greek light cruiser called Elli was also participating in the festivities off shore. Suddenly the ship was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian submarine. The wharf of Tinos was also torpedoed amongst the festivities. This initiated the beginning of Greece’s involvement in World War 2, it was their Pearl Harbor.
Greece officially entered the war on 28 October 1940. This is celebrated annually as Ohi Day ("Ohi" is translated as "No") commemorating dictator Ioannis Metaxas’ (1936-1941) refusal of the Italian ultimatum. The ultimatum demanded of Greece to allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified "strategic locations" or otherwise face war. Most scholars today say the actual reply was not “οχη” or “no”, but the French "Alors, c'est la guerre" ("Then it is war"). Upon his declaration it is reported that thousands of Greeks stormed the streets and began shouting "Ohi" to the Italian ultimatum. On 6 April 1941, Hitler attacked Greece for the first time and united his German forces with those of the Italians.
The relationship between the Theotokos and the modern Greek nation stems back to the Roman Empire, which was saved countless times at her intercessions, especially for Constantinople, a city which was dedicated to her since the fifth century. This was revived in modern times during the Greek Revolution of 1821. For this reason, in Athens on the 25th of March in 1838, when the first official celebration of the Greek Revolution took place, by a decree of King Otto it was determined that the 25th of March would be celebrated as the day of National Regeneration, although the Revolution had started a few days earlier. In fact, the choice of this particular date shows the importance and the major role that Virgin Mary played in the lives of Greek people, as the “time” that the Greek Revolution broke out was also considered the “time” for religious elation, for it is on this date that one of the greatest feasts of the ecclesiastical year is celebrated - the Annunciation to the Theotokos by the Archangel Gabriel. It is no coincidence that the two biggest holidays of Greece coincide with feasts dedicated to the Holy Virgin. As the poem by Popi Matsouka – Zachari from Arta titled "The Message of 25th March" indicates:
Panagia and Freedom
Two sacred words
Two words with a meaning
That fills our hearts
With thrill and awe.
The Mother of all people
And cherished Freedom
The dream of all people
With a heavenly glow, they shed light on
Two visions, two unfading ideas
Don’t ever stop,
They are both yours:
The MOTHER and FREEDOM
And the hearts of all of us are with you!
The role of faith in the Virgin Mary in Greece was also outstanding during World War 2. Her role was catalytic not only because she constituted the basis of the people’s faith, but also because, with her miraculous interventions, she proved to have been the greatest ally of the Greek army.
Of course, miracles and apparitions were reported in many regions of Greece during the war, but at the front, at the Greek – Albanian borders and on Pindus, the Virgin Mary was the protector and the leader of those who fought for their country under difficult circumstances. Their faith was so strong that they could see her encouraging them and “covering” them protectively, while they were fighting on the snowy mountains of Pindus and Albania.
The account given by Vassiliki Bouris, niece of Spyridon Houliaras, who fought at the borders, is characteristic. According to her, Spyridon Houliaras used to narrate incidents of the war to his relatives before he died. The one that affected him the most, however, was a miracle of the Virgin Mary. While the soldiers were fighting under really adverse conditions, the Panagia appeared in front of them and as a protector “covered” them with her mantle and led them towards their enemy, ready to confront them.
This miracle is also corroborated by the accounts of other soldiers of that time who fought on the mountains of Pindus. At the front, Greek soldiers saw the same vision everywhere: at nights, they could see a tall, slim female figure walking with hermantle resting on her shoulders. For the soldiers she was none other than the Virgin Mary, the defender and general of the Greeks.
Tasos Rigopoulos, a soldier in 1940, reported from the front in Albania:
"My brother Niko. I’m writing from an eagle’s nest 400 meters higher than the top of Parnitha. Everything around me is snow white. The reason I’m writing is not to tell you about the charm of snow-covered Morova and all its wild greatness. My purpose is to share with you what I’ve experienced, what I saw with my own eyes; something that I’m afraid you won’t believe if you hear it from others. A few moments before dashing against the blockhouses of Morova we saw a tall woman dressed in black standing still some 13 meters away. The guard yelled: 'Identify yourself.' There was no answer. He yelled angrily once more. At that moment, as if struck by electricity, we all whispered: 'The Panagia!' She hurled herself at the enemy as if she had eagle wings. We followed her. We could constantly sense the bravery she was transmitting to us. We fought hard for a whole week until we finally took the Ivan-Morova blockhouses. […] She was always dashing forth. And when, victorious at last, we were advancing to defenseless Koritsa, our Great Defender turned into steam, smooth smoke, and vanished into thin air."
On the mountain ridge of Ronteni, the soldiers of the 51st independent battalion, under the commands of Major Petrakis also witnessed a miracle. From the 22nd of January and on, every evening at half past nine the enemy’s heavy artillery commenced fire against the battalion and the road that was used by transport vehicles. There was a lot of nervousness and heavy casualties. The daring scouts were unable to locate the enemy’s artillery. Apparently, the enemy was changing its position every evening. The situation was really desperate. It was an evening in February when the enemy artillery was heard firing once again. “Panagia, help us, save us!,” shouted the Major spontaneously. Suddenly, a bright cloud came into sight from a distance, something like a halo was formed and the image of the Theotokos appeared. She started bending towards the ground and stopped right over a ravine. Everybody in the battalion shivered as they witnessed the miracle. “A miracle, a miracle!,” they shouted and they prayed and made the sign of the cross. Immediately, they sent a message to the Greek artillery, the Greek canons fired, and right after that there was a silence. The Greek bombs had achieved a perfect strike.
"No matter how faith is expressed during war, it is certain that it offers assistance to the soldier who is tested. And the image of the protector makes him hopeful and optimistic. …People from Arta, fighting at the front, were afraid neither of mortars nor of enemy bullets, as long as they had the image of the Panagia in front of them.” Yiannis Tsarouchis, after having painted “The Virgin of Victory” on the cap of a box of herring, having in mind a badly painted picture of the Virgin that was going around the camp, was on his way to the commander of the battalion in order to present his work. The painting had already acquired a fame for being miraculous, and on his way to the commander some soldiers from Arta “being in a state of religious excitement, demanded that the miraculous icon spend at least one night at their camp. All the soldiers were shouting: 'The Virgin, the Virgin. Leave it here for one night.' Suddenly, the alarm sounded. […] We lied down, according to the orders we had. None of the soldiers from Arta did the same. 'Hey! Comrade! How can you be scared when you hold the Virgin in your hands?' one said. It was also characteristic that on the military identification cards, right next to the personal details, there was a picture of the Panagia. And just moments before they attacked, they would pray, shouting 'Panagia mou!' (my Virgin!) three times, and dash forth.
N. Dramountianos explains the following miraculous occurrence which he witnessed during the war of 1940:
"Our company received an order to overtake and gain elevated ground for a bridge. We set up a bulwark within the cliffs. As soon as we were ready, a thick snow began to fall. It fell continuously over two nights and reached as much as two meters in certain areas. We were blockaded from the commissariat. We each had food in our sacks to last us a day. Due to the hunger and cold we did not have a sense 'for tomorrow' so we devoured it all.
From then on torment ensued. We rid our thirst through the snow, but our hunger was enraging. We became skeletal. Our morale continued to flourish, but nature has its boundaries. Some submitted. The same end awaited us all 'for faith and country.'
Than an inspiration from our captain gave us the miracle! Out of his breast pocket he took out a paper icon of the Panagia, he placed it in the high place, and invited us around him: 'My brave young men!' he said. 'In this crucial circumstance only a miracle can save us. Kneel down, entreat the Panagia, the Mother of the God-man, to help us!' We fell to our knees, lifted our hands, and entreated fervently. We did not have time to stand before we heard bells ringing. We thought this strange and grabbed our weapons. We took our place 'with purpose.'
Not a minute passed and we saw an enormous mule approaching fully loaded. We sprang up! An animal without a driver to be passing through the mountain, with at least a meter of snow is absolutely not natural. Our Lady Theotokos drove him. All together we thanked her by chanting quietly, though whole-heartedly, 'Ti Ypermaho' (To you the Champion Leader) as well as other hymns. The animal had on him an entire commissary of food: kouramanes (coarse army bread), cheeses, preserves, cognac and other things.
I endured many and unimaginable hardships in the war. But this remains unforgettable, because there was no way out. A way out was given however by the Panagia."
The importance of the Virgin Mary’s miraculous interventions was acknowledged by the Greek state right after the end of the Second World War. For this reason, the celebration of Agia Skepi, which in 626 A.D., by the Virgin's miraculous intervention, saved Constantinople from the Avaroi (Turkish-Mongolian Nomads), and which was officially established to be celebrated on October 1st centuries ago, was transferred in 1952 to the 28th of October to remind the people of Greece of her miraculous intervention during the most difficult period for the Greek people.
1. An oral account given by Vasiliki Bouri, resident of Lepiana in Arta, to Heleni Mpalaska on 3/11/2007.
2. An account of a fighter of the Resistance which was presented in a special programme of the TV channel SKAI on 28 October 2007.
See also: The Miracle of the Panagia Skripou in Orchomenos on September 10, 1943