Wherever one might go in the Eastern Mediterranean, a handsome Adonis awaits: for he rejoices in many names in this part of the world. Every Easter an Adonis blossoms in the garden of the heart of all Greeks: call him Lazarus, Hyacinthus, Dionysus or Zeus Zagreas of Crete. Lazarus today in Greek Orthodox Christianity partakes of all these Gods of Spring, that had died but now return with the quickening world once again. So in Spring flower wreaths are made for Lazarus: in Crete on the Saturday of Lazarus, the cycle of Easter opens. In Northern Crete, up in the mountains of Psiloritis (Ida), the women bake the Lazarus bread; in Eastern Crete children make a little Lazarus out of bamboo and flowers. Priests prepare for Palm Sunday with a branch of a blooming olive tree as well. A message is concealed in this tradition, a intimation of the Great Resurrection to come in one week. The rites overlap with ancient traditions, such as the bringing of eggs, olive branches and flowers to the burial-grounds, where loved ones rest. Baskets with eggs, decorated with flowers are carried by the children of the families; songs are sung by the children from door to door. In Anogia, families that have lost a relative within the year bake sweet bread and bring it to the church.
Today the churches are decorated with palm fronds, branches of the olive and other trees: a faint echo of rituals practised in Ancient Greece at the Elefsinian Mysteries, possibly even then referring to Death and Resurrection. On Palm Sunday traditionally people eat fish, just like on the 25 of March. Such consumption of fish at a funeral is something we find also in ancient Phoenicia, before it became adopted in the Eastern Christian world. Remember the fish was later the symbol of Jesus Christ himself: Iesus X(Christus) Theou Uios Soter (Ixthus = Fish in Greek). During this week in Greece no one uses a hammer, a nail or plays cards … a week of severe fasting begins on Good Friday, and hardly any food is consumed, unless it be orange, lemon or bread with vinegar: all tastes must be bitter and vinegar is certainly that!
Women during the week dye hard-boiled eggs: primarily on the Thursday. The women also prepare the Epitaphios: a coffin full of flowers. Morning takes place in the church, just as for someone beloved and close to them. Bread baked by the women is used in the service: handed out by them, in place of the priest. Here too we glimpse an ancient custom that has survived till this day. A service is held all Thursday night – under candle light; the church is full of flowers, and the scent rises in the candles’ warmth – so very sweet – as the mourning continues. Then too is the time where people mourn their loved ones: for at this moment the gates of the underworld are open. In the Great Thursday rituals of Greek Orthodox Christianity the presence of the ancient traditions of the young God of Vegetation in Crete is still obvious.
Great Friday is the saddest day of the week. Once again women play the predominant role in the rituals: she is the Mother, the Sister; she prepares the body to be buried. The Epitaphios is prepared: lifted up, it passes out of the church and a procession begins .. one that involves the whole community, village, or city parish. They parade on foot around the boundaries and, where possible, through every street by every house … even unto the cemetery – for does not Christ make his way to the underworld and return? The borders between this world and the underworld on this night are very thin indeed. Finally, they all return to the church .. the cycle is now complete. In many villages of Crete a large cross is borne at the head of the procession – a reminder to everyone that Christ has been removed from the instrument of his torture. In certain areas of Crete (Agarathos Monastery and Apanosifi) on Great Friday, the flocks of the local shepherds are rounded up and made pass under the Epitaphios, so that they are blessed as well. Food eggs, sweet bread, and wine are taken to the cemeteries and presented to family members that have passed away: a glass of red wine is offered to the soul, so it may rest in peace.
Saturday is a pensive and quiet day – until Midnight. Then Christ Rises — the sky is filled with the light of fireworks, noisy bangers burst underfoot .. chasing away any lurking demon by their thunder. People embrace, kiss each other and with their fresh-lit candles, walk joyfully homewards. The house lintel is blest with a smoky cross; its inhabitants settle to a specially-made soup. For, says one .. Christ has Risen (Hristos Anesti), and another responds .. In truth Arisen (Alithos Anesti). The exchanges are murmured cheerfully on every side.
After a long period of fasting, protein is enjoyed once again – a lamb roasted on a spit or in the oven with greens. Sweet bread and eggs .. and lots of wine, for life has beaten death again.
23 APRIL USUALLY (DEPENDING ON THE DATE OF EASTER). SAINT GEORGE MEGALO MARTYR – THE GREAT MARTYR
Saint George embodies the ideal Cretan male: a protector, brave, an accomplished horseman, a warrior, the defender of womenfolk. The very embodiment of Spring, this saint drives away dragons, evil, disease and saves children from illness. In many areas of Crete on this day churches and Monasteries dedicated to this saint hold a blessing of the flocks. Milk is used in the communion, instead of wine. Horse races are arranged through all out the island. The horses of Saint George are feisty little beasts, of warm mettle: part Arab and part the old Cretan bloodline.
TUESDAY AFTER EASTER – THE FIVE VIRGINS OF ARGYROUPOLI
This rite has its roots in an old Roman cemetery: legend has it that five virgins lived and died there. Springs run through the area, indeed Argyroupoli is famous for its fresh water. Today a small church has engulfed the five tombs of the Virgins. On the Tuesday after Easter Sunday locals from Argyroupoli and the nearby villages assemble there. They collect Holy Water. Flocks are brought to the church, milked and blessed by the priest. The service is held outside, in nature, as is often done in many churches in spring time in Crete, and Greece.