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May 21, 2020

Saint Helen and Greek Folk Customs and Traditions

Saint Helen, due to her philanthropic actions and the enormous work she undertook in the Holy Land to uncover sacred shrines for the benefit of the faithful, is especially beloved among Christians. The Greek people have associated many traditions with her name.

Asia Minor

Along with her son Constantine, they are considered patron saints of pilgrims to the Holy Land. "May you go with the help of St. Constantine, and return with the prayers of St. Helen," was said by Greeks in Asia Minor to those who traveled to the Holy Land.

Mount Sinai

At the foot of Mount Sinai, Saint Helen built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary as well as a defensive tower for the protection of monks against attacks from local nomads. The tower survives till this day and is called the Tower of Saint Helen. Later, Emperor Justinian would have a monastery built there.

The Anastenaria from Eastern Thrace

According to local legend, the Anastenaria fire-walking tradition began when a fire broke out in the Church of Saint Constantine and Helen in the village of Kosti in Thrace (now in Bulgaria). The villagers defied the danger and entered the blazing church to save the icons, emerging unscathed. The miracle is now celebrated each year when the ‘Anastenarides’ walk barefoot on burning coals holding an icon of Sts. Constantine and Helen. This custom takes place where refugees from Thrace settled, such as Mavrolevki in Drama, Agia Eleni in Serres, Kerkini in Serres, Strymoniko in Serres, Langada, Meliki in Imathia. It is worth noting that the Church opposes this custom, which is in fact related to ancient Dionysian rites.

The Islands

In many parts of Greece, they tell their local stories that the Saint passed through their land and blessed their places by founding churches either when going to Jerusalem or returning to Constantinople. Rhodes, Kalymnos, Tilos, Kastelorizo ​​(where with St. Constantine they are the patrons of the island), Naxos, Paros are just some of the Greek islands that are proud to have hosted Helen.

In Paros, St. Helen prayed that the Virgin Mary would find her worthy to find the Cross when she arrived in Jerusalem and vowed that in return a temple would be built in her name on the island. Later, having found the Cross, she fulfilled her vow and built the temple that today is called Panagia Ekatontapyliani. The surviving building is a work of the Justinian era, but during the restoration work carried out in the 1960s, under the supervision of the academic Anastasios Orlandos, it turned out that the tradition was correct: the Justinian temple was preceded by a wooden-roofed basilica of the time of Constantine the Great.


According to the Chronicle of Leontios Machairas, Helen landed at the village of Mari in Cyprus, which is why the river that exists there was named Vasilopotamos (Royal River).

Tradition has it that Cyprus was plagued by many years of drought. The drought had devastated her, the inhabitants had left, and those who remained were tormented by hunger, thirst, and the poisonous snakes that had flooded the island. St. Helen prayed and then the heavens opened. Heavy rains flooded the thirsty land, and for the first time in many years, a rainbow appeared in the sky. That is why the rainbow is called by the Cypriot people the "Belt of Saint Helen".

Another tradition in Cyprus states that St. Helen trapped forty devils in a pit and built a small church dedicated to her and St. Constantine. The people do not seem to be concerned with the contradictory fact that no one builds a church dedicated to their own name. Thus, the devils remain there to this day, because the grace of the Saint does not allow them to leave.

In Cyprus, the Saint, according to tradition, founded three monasteries:

1) The first is the Holy Monastery of Stavrovouni, after a divine revelation, where she left part of the Holy Cross, the cross of the good thief and one of the nails of the Crucifixion. The monastery is located 9 km west of the Nicosia-Limassol road, at an altitude of 750 meters and the whole mountain was named Stavrovouni for the Holy Wood that is hosted in it. The monastery in honor of Helen is also called "Royal Monastery".

2) The second is the Monastery of the Honorable Cross, just outside the village of Omodos (etymologized by the Latin Homodeus, "the house of God"). The monastery already existed when Helen arrived in Cyprus, but she left a piece of the sacred Kannavos (the rope with which they had tied Christ on the Cross) and thus was associated with her name. This information is given to us by the chronographer Kyprianos and is the only one we have for the first construction of the monastery.

3) Finally, on the south side of Mount Pentadaktylos is the ancient Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is also called the "Monastery of Saint Helen".


Why doesn't Saint Helen have her own feast day or churches? In Peza Pediados of Crete, on Great Friday, the women sing a masterful "Lamentation" to the Virgin Mary that attempts to explain this question. In this dirge there is a dialogue between Christ and His Mother, which is shocking when one pays attention to the lyrics. In the song, when she sees her son on the Cross, she desperately wants to commit suicide. Christ prevents her from committing this act of despair, since this will set an example for other mothers to kill themselves if they tragically lose a child. She must show patience and courage, in order to give courage and consolation to other mothers who may lose their children over the course of the centuries. When Jesus dies, therefore, she goes back home and sets a table for consolation. At that moment Saint Helen walks by the house, where the following dialogue takes place between the two women through the window, with Saint Helen saying: "Who has seen their son on a cross and the mother at a table?" Then the song continues: "May you never be chanted for or liturgized for Saint Helen, since you did not console the poor mother." Therefore, according to this Cretan tradition, the reason St. Helen does not have her own feast and churches, is because she was cruel and mocked the Virgin Mary. The people are again indifferent to the fact that St. Helen lived about 300 years after the Crucifixion. With a simplistic myth, they want to explain the curious fact that the Saint does not have her own celebration and churches.


Fragrant basil, which is the inspiration behind a thousand songs, and a much-beloved herb of the Greek people, is also associated with Saint Helen. When the Saint arrived in Jerusalem, she did not know where to dig to find the Holy Cross. As she walked around anxiously, she smelled a wonderful scent. Looking to see where the exquisite fragrance came from, she spotted a place where it was full of green bushes, and they were the ones that smelled so beautiful. Then she realized that she had to dig at this point and there, under the root of the fragrant herb, she found the Cross of Christ. Since then, this humble plant has been called "royal" (vasilikos) because it sprouted at the point where the "King of the World" was crucified and because it led the Empress to find the sacred relic.