Monday, 4 July 2016
The Greek roadside shrines remind travellers
of a life lost and so many lives saved
I was at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday [3 July 2016] in the local Greek Orthodox parish church in the village of Tsesmes, which is just a stroll from Julia Apartments, where I am staying in Platanes, just a little east of Rethymnon.
It is a typical Greek village church, but with very few frescoes and small in size, perhaps because when it was being built in 1970s nobody planned for the tourism boom in this part of Crete – and if they did, they no-one ever imagined that non-Greeks would go to church in a small, ordinary Orthodox church on Sunday.
But there are even smaller replicas of Orthodox churches that first-time visitors often ask about in conversations with a long-time visitor like me.
Road-side shrines or kandylakia (καντηλάκια) are small shrines that can be seen throughout Greece, usually on the side of roads, often on awkward corners and bends on the road, but sometimes too in the gardens of homes or even at the entrance to a restaurant.
These shrines, which look like miniature typical Orthodox parish churches, are unique to Greek culture and life. They seem to be especially prominent on winding, steep roads, on hairpin bends and on precipitous slopes.
Usually visitors are told they commemorate someone who has died in a tragic accident. But sometimes they are thank-offerings from someone who survived a potentially fatal accident. In these cases, they have been paid for by a survivor or a survivor’s family to give thanks for a life saved rather than a life lost.
These kandylakia or small shrines can be made of concrete, stone, metal, wood, wood, marble and even ceramic materials. Although they often look alike, each one is unique.
Inside, they usually have icons, perhaps of a favourite family saint, and beeswax candles or votive lamps lit by olive oil. Some may even have even have a small hand censer for burning incense.
Greek custom expects at least one icon and a votive candle inside a shrine. Some families include small bottles of holy oil and request that the date and name of the person who died or who was saved is inscribed on the kandylaki.
The shrines have a central door, along with some small windows so the burning lights inside can be seen by passers-by. In some cases, especially in larger cities, kandylakia may even be large enough for someone to walk into and use as their own small prayer corner.
In the more mountainous parts of Crete, kandylakia may be carved into the side of a cliff rather than being erected as free-standing shrines on the side of a road.
In large cities, such as Athens and Thessaloniki, they are also used by passers-by as public prayer corners where they can stop and pray when the neighbouring church is closed, or saving them the time and commitment of visiting the church in the middle of a busy or fraught day. They may even have a small donation box.
In some cemeteries, I have seen kandylakia where people may pray for or commemorate dead family members.
Some kandylakia are the size of a child’s playhouse with space inside that is just large enough to hold small ceremonies. These can serve as private chapels on private property, or they may be used as the family’s private icon or prayer corner.
The kandylakia represent the world of Greeks in miniature: their religious outlook, their attitudes towards families, relatives and ancestors. For the Greeks, remembrance is a cornerstone of society, remembrance of family, history, religion and culture. Family members say prayers there periodically and tend a shrine as lovingly as they would tend a grave.
The kandylakia reminds every Greek traveller of the need to learn a lesson from a close-call around the bend and to appreciate life. They are warning signs from local families to passing drivers. Just as they can mark one life lost, they can also mark many lives spared.