Monday, 2 December 2013

Roadside Shrines in Greece

R is for Roadside Shrines


Surely roadside shrines are something every visitor to Greece has encountered, photographed, and wondered about. They can be prolific. I have done my own unofficial survey of the frequency of roadside shrines on average in the Peloponnese and came up with an astounding two and one half per kilometer.  At first I didn’t believe it, but experience has proved me right time and time again except in the Mani, the Peloponnesian middle finger for reasons I may take a guess at when I get to the Mani. They are there but nowhere in the same numbers as the rest of the Peloponnese. This is not to say they are not prolific in the rest of mainland Greece and in the islands, but only that I have not actually made a count there.

 I did play the numbers game on the super highway between Corinth and Athens once and was astounded that the same statistic applied. When the road was widened, the shrines were moved by the work crews to the new verge and placed there, sometimes well, and sometimes askew. There is obviously quite a compelling taboo about obliterating a roadside shrine; it reminds me of ancient Greece where there was a taboo about destroying anything once it was sanctified. (And now that the topic has arisen, there were roadside shrines in Ancient Greece too and passersby would blow them kisses!)

Each and every shrine will contain an icon of a saint , sometimes more than one, a kandyli (a lamp with a floating wick in oil) in front of the icon, a container with extra  oil, matches, wicks, and possibly some flowers or other personal offerings.  It can get quite crowded.



Why are they there?

 Road accidents would appear to be the number one reason, and the multitude of shrines on various dangerous curves and passes in the Peloponnese work better than danger signs as a warning to passing motorists.



Some of these can be very poignant,  and are obviously visited and looked after. There may even be a ceramic disc with a photograph on the outside of the lost loved one.


And they spring up fast. A terrible accident occurred near our home and within a month, three separate shrines had been erected on the roadside to honour and remember the dead.
Happily, another reason for a roadside shrine is to indicate that there is a church or monastery in the vicinity. This makes sense at a crossroads or if the church is out of sight, but the enthusiasm for these shrines has made it likely to be there even if only meters away. In recent years another reason for this has arisen. Churches, once always open, are now locked up – too much theft.  In Greek, roadside shrines are called proskynitaria  (προσκυνιτάρια), places to pray in front of, and therefore a passing worshipper can kneel or make the sign of the cross and, in the larger ones,  light a candle in front of  the nearby church’s saint’s icon. Their tiny doors are always open.


Sometimes the aesthetics can be quirky enough to have you gritting your teeth.


But many such shrines are gifts and some donors have a stronger sense of the giving of the gift than of its aesthetics.

Today there is quite a booming business in roadside shrines which are sold at building yards selling bricks, stone, sand and cement. The ones below are shrines-in-waiting on the road to Thebes:


That wedding cake imitation of the church in Tinos  at the back would look wildly out of place on the mainland, but perhaps its awaits some islander nostalgic for home.

By far the most interesting Roadside Shrines are either home-made or at least built to specifications like this one on the North Peloponnese.  The “church yard may only have two dimensional trees but there is a pretty fair try at a three dimensional bell tower:


This one in the middle of a busy intersection in Tripoli is certainly a one off, and a credit to the metal worker's imagination.


Another oddity comes from in the middle of nowhere near Aroania ; its construction is eccentric to say the least.
The top looks like part of a cheese grater

Some can be quite large and here the reason may simply be to honour a particular saint who has shown favour.


 Anything a little larger than this starts to look like a chapel.

This next one combines piety and utility. It is a bus stop in Arcadia:

Some would appear to be made by building specialists. I have seen them with aluminum double glazing, professional brickwork and so on but my favorite in this category so far is the following:


I am guessing an extremely neat  plumber; when you open the door you see that a special compartment has been provided for matches and wicks.

The old ones seem more ornate than many of the the ones on sale today.


And some are such perfect miniatures you will find yourself photographing them without their stands and passing them off as the real thing:


True, some do look in need of a compassionate passerby to do a little weeding or painting, but even so, they remain in place.



  These emblems of a long tradition are, at the same time, paeans to the streak of individuality and idiosyncrasy that is so much a part of the Greek character. Any regular visitor to Greece who has not made a small photographic collection of these roadside gems would have to have the soul of a doorknob. 
















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