Tuesday 20 October 2015

Agios Fanourios and Fanouropites

Agios Fanourios: Not Your Ordinary Orthodox Saint


Agios Fanourios is a ‘new’ saint as Orthodox saints go. His icon appeared around 1500 in one of those miraculous icon discoveries that happen all over the Orthodox world (1) and, although his name was clearly written on the icon and his twelve martyrdoms depicted in detail around the frame, no one had ever heard of him!

The original icon – with a few shiny additions!

 That turned out to be an advantage for his subsequent legend. With little other than his depiction as a Roman soldier and a suggestive name (Fanourios derives from the ancient Greek verb faino which means “I reveal”), his admirers had a virtual tabula rasa on which to create his story. Therefore, we can see, not only a myth in the making, but the subsequent speed with which a myth can take hold providing it fulfills the needs of its creators.
In short order, Fanourios ‘acquired’ his special talent, a prostitute for a mother, and a remarkably sweet tooth. 

The Saint of the Lost and Found…

His special talent- revealing what has been lost - is perhaps a natural outcome, given his name. (Orthodoxy can be amazingly literal at times!) This talent can entail the retrieval of something physical, spiritual, or involve a revelation of some sort, - for instance, the name of a bridegroom for a hopeful young woman.  This last ability alone assured him a prominent place in the popular imagination as did his uncanny ability to find lost keys, documents, - virtually any lost household item. Mention his name today at any gathering in Greece and you will hear stories about how, against all odds, he helped someone find…

The Offering:

An offering as well a prayer given in the right spirit came to be what the saint required and the only acceptable offering was a cake, the now famous fanouropita which can be baked at any time of the year as needed but most especially on August 27(2), the saint’s feast day.

Thanks to Panos Foodblogger

The idea is to have the cake blessed by the priest and then distributed to friends and fellow parishioners. Like all “tamata”(3), the cake is a physical representation of the prayer. It can be offered either for something hoped for or in gratitude for something already received.

Fanouropites waiting to be blessed and shared

I wondered about that cake. Did the candle he was holding in his icon have anything to do with it?  That idea seemed absurdly anachronistic until I looked up the origin of candles on cakes and was fascinated to learn that the custom dates back to ancient Greece when sweet cakes with lit candles were an especially popular offering to the goddess Artemis. (4). Such bloodless offerings were given, not exactly as a quid pro quo, but more as an affirmation or reaffirmation of a perceived spiritual connection, a point of potential contact, no doubt mixed with the hope that such an offering would be appreciated and a wish or two granted. Many such offerings were shared by the temple goers.
  So the idea of a lit sweet offering was out there in the zeitgeist and in the Greek zeitgeist at that. Did it somehow find its way back into Christianity via Fanourios in much the same way as the ancient idea that the smoke from candles could rise to the heavens and influence the gods was transferred into Christianity early on? (It is also possible that the custom of blowing out the candles and making a wish is related to this last idea; the resulting smoke goes up after all!)

There are other shared offerings in Orthodoxy. Bread or sperna (koliva) at memorial services are examples, but only Fanourios gets a cake.

 And Not Just Any Cake

The delicious fanouropita goes the ancients one better; it must contain no eggs and no dairy, no animal products whatsoever (5), so it is suitable for those fasting, no small thing in a country where fasting is still a regular part of the religious year. There are other rules as well. The cake traditionally must contain only 7 ingredients, or 9 –both mystic numbers and therefore possessing inherent magical qualities. The cutting and eating of the fanouropita (and simultaneously naming the wished for revelation) is part of the ritual as well. I like to think of it as a brief moment of sympathetic magic shared with friends or fellow worshippers.

The Traditional  Nine Ingredients:

 There is a little wiggle room for variations. In Orthodoxy there usually is. Sometimes the cook sneaks in an extra favorite spice.

cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, raisins, cinnamon and clove powder (or 5 spice mix), vegetable oil, orange juice,  brandy, icing sugar


olive oil, white sugar, raisons, orange juice, chopped walnuts, mixed spice, flour, baking powder, brandy

The result is delicious and a great excuse for a party.

 Thanks  to pondos-news.gr

Two links to recipes will follow but first…

What about his Mother?

This ritual has one rule that many of my Greek friends do not always understand because today fanouropites are often made more in the spirit of a folk tradition and the  wish  is made by the cook  and participants without the church blessing. Nonetheless, the proper response when receiving a piece of fanouropita is ‘Ο θεος σχωρέστ΄την μανα του Αγιος Φανουρι  May God forgive Saint Fanourios’ mother”.

 This is surely the most bizarre detail of his created legend, that his mother was a prostitute and assigned to Hell. It suggests to me that there must have been a lot of anxiety at the time the story originated about the fate of those whose lives did not meet Christian standards. That even a saint could have a terrible angst about a loved one who rejected Christianity may have been comforting. It made him more ‘human’. 

And, of course, given the Orthodox belief that prayers can alter the fate of the dead, the oft repeated incantation with each and every piece of fanouropita must have already gone a long way to mitigate any final judgement on Fanourios’  wayward mom!

 You Don’t have to be Orthodox To Bake a Fanouropita! 

 Two Excellent Recipes:
1.     A step by step recipe appear in English on youtube:
2.     If you prefer print, Panayiotis Foodblogger has a great version: cookmegreek.blogspot.gr/

(1) On Rhodes, during the Ottoman occupation, an old church had been demolished and bits and pieces of it left intact inside a defensive wall.  When another building project required that the wall be demolished, the saint’s icon, miraculously intact, was discovered. (Of course, there are other versions.)
His ‘tortures’ seem to be exactly those of Saint George and the figure is a Roman soldier so, in spite of the new name and the candle, some scholars equate Fanourios with Saint George.  Fanourios is also credited with the usual powers associated with all soldier-martyrs. He apparently proved up to punishing the Ottoman Turks by blinding those who refused to allow a church to be built in his honour. He undid the spell when they repented. There are little resonances with Dionysos in his ability to free prisoners and have them appear free in the market place etc etc. as well as echoes of other saints.  Orthodoxy is full of such resonances.

(2 Fanourios, Fanouris, Fani, Fanouria, and Nouris all celebrate on his name day. The Church does not exactly regard the blessing of fanouropita as part of its Holy Tradition, but nonetheless, has included the blessing in the liturgy on that saint’s feast day. This elasticity in regard to popular saints and traditions has a long history and has gone a long way to strengthen the Church with ordinary people.

(3) See Tamata in the abc section of this blog.

(4) Apparently these were sweet cheese pies!

(5) The vegan debate about honey as an animal product has not gained much ground in Greece to date.


  1. Interesting! The Catholic equivalent is St Anthony of Padua...

    Anthony, Anthony, turn around
    What is lost, must be found.

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