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Volume 9, Number 4



The authors describe the survival of the ancient health-seeking ritual of hanging multicoloured rags and ribbons from the branches of sacred trees, both in Greece and Cyprus. They present original photographs and review the existing literature. They discuss the origin of the custom, its meaning, its symbolism and its universal appeal. and they compare the attitudes of this custom to certain psychologic attitudes encountered in hospitalized patients today.

In this paper we trace the survival of ancient Greek magicoreligious medical practice1 in modern Greece. We were encouraged to undertake this task by a recent editorial in Humane Medicine that welcomed papers describing religious concepts and practices that had an application to medicine.2

A strange phenomenon for non-Greek observers is the accommodation of ancient idolatry in current Christian worship; for example, the survival of incubation in several Aesculapia.3 This practice continued strongly at Trikka, the homeland of Aesculapius, far into the Christian era.4 The exchange of an Aesculapian cult for worship in a church is a strong argument that the ascendance of Christianity did not diminish Aesculapian tradition and the attachment to Hippocratic medicine5. The key to understanding these events is the distinction between the real meaning of any religion and the form its worship takes. Usually the form of worship is older than the religion itself, and the application of the ritual is more universal, because the pathways through which religious feelings and awe are provoked are limited. All priests and magicians use ritual to achieve their goals. This use of ritual has aptly been called the "technology of religion."6 We should not feel scandalized by a continuity of the same rituals in Greek Orthodox worship and in idolatry and magical procedures or rush to infer that the deeper meanings of each doctrine are similar. The attentive observer should distinguish between the surface of the myths, their underlying meaning and their deepest nucleus.7 The Christian Church, organized during the late Roman period amid a pagan world, had to incorporate a good proportion of that world's pomp in order to make progress against it. A characteristic example is the baptismal ceremony with its abundance of elements that resemble ancient rituals of water worship.8


We take as a model for some general observations the custom of hanging multicoloured rags or ribbons from branches of "holy" trees, hoping to invoke for the individual or his family supernatural protection or the restoration of health. This custom was once observed in many nations. In Greece it was reported first by Homer, Herodotus and Pausanias during the Bronze, Classic and Roman ages. Today it only survives in rural areas, in communities that retain their rituals, magic practices and religiosity. In periods of great cultural change, such as the late Roman period, rural communities provide for the student a reliable sample of common beliefs. The inhabitants of these areas are less educated and more conservative, strongly resisting any change. The wealth usually found in urban centres predisposes its citizens to build grandiose temples and perform lavish ceremonies; here extravagance in worship weakens the rituals and undermines religious feeling, and high aesthetic achievements tend to wean people from their faith.9 It is characteristic that in classical times in Greece when the Olympic religion reached its peak, religion served art and not vice versa.

We visited several sites in central and southern Greece and in Cyprus inhabited mainly by people of the Greek Orthodox religion and photographed and documented surviving examples of this ritual of votive offerings. We also reviewed scholarly articles concerning this practice in other parts of Greece. Lastly, we compared our findings with some psychologic attitudes observed in patients treated by modern medical techniques.


Agios (meaning saint) Solomone's church is a subterranean chapel near the town of Paphos in Cyprus, where the saint reputedly lived. A huge, old tremithos tree hid the entrance of the cave, protecting the saint from antiChristian bandits. According to the tradition, an unfaithful man started to cut down the tree with an axe. Saint Solomone appeared from her cave, paralysed the man's arm and so saved the tree. Until recently, the cave, which now is a chapel, used to attract many pilgrims. The old tremithos tree stands outside the chapel, and upon leaving the cave pilgrims hang votive rags from its branches. By doing so, they believe their prayers will be answered and they will have a happy and healthy life.

Agios Nikolaos's monastery in the forest of Spata on the borders of Achaia and Elia counties in southwestern Greece is the main point for pilgrims in this area. An icon of this saint was found in a cave in the forest during the 19th century, and since then several instances of miraculous healing have been reported at the spot. Near the cave votive rags and silver-plated votives are hung on a wild strawberry tree. Usually the cloths are from an afflicted part of the body (e.g., a glove from a paralysed hand). We found the strawberry tree 3 years ago during an archeologic expedition.10

Panagia Eleousa's (Charitable Virgin Mary's) convent is located also in the county of Elia. Inside a limestone cave in the vicinity of the convent, local women collect water as it drops from the stalactites and drink it to increase milk production when they are breast-feeding. They hang votive rags from the iron bars that close the entrance to the cave.

Agios Georgios Mandelas's cave is a chapel amid the rock complex of Meteora in central Greece. On these slopes and peaks stand six active monasteries and the ruins of several others; the oldest was built in the 14th century. Together they constitute the second biggest monastic city in Greece, next only to Mount Athos. In a cave on one of the steepest slopes is the chapel of Agios Georgios Mandelas (Saint George with the Handkerchiefs). Tradition says that during the Turkish occupation of Greece, in the 17th century, a local Muslim landowner cut some trees from the saint's sacred forest. In revenge, Saint George paralysed the man's hand, but he was cured after he offered the saint his wife's veil or yashmak, the most valuable gift a Muslim can give. In memory of that donation, worshippers hang huge pieces of cloth once a year on a line supported by trees beside the cave's entrance. Young men from a neighbouring village compete in a climb up to the cave, using ropes, then carry down parts of the cloth, which they keep in their homes as talismans of good health.


Man probably started to worship trees at the beginning of civilization because the first conceptions of god were phytomorphic and not anthropomorphic.11 Every religion and mythology has a sacred tree, usually set beside holy water in a sacred garden. The first "statues" of gods were dry trees, the xoana, which primitive man believed had fallen from the sky. The ancient German word for temple means holy forest,12 and the Greek word "temenos," which still means a place for worship, referred originally to a part of the wilderness allocated to a god.13 This choice of deity is natural for a primitive society based on hunting, where fruits from wild trees were the only nonanimal food. A recent paper in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine14 has described the beginnings of dendrolatry.

Apparently man began to worship trees by hanging gifts from their branches in ancient times. Homer tells us that Trojan women hung ribbons of valuable cloth over the xoanon of the goddess Athena. The fabulous Golden Fleece was hung from a tree in the sacred forest of Kolchis, amid an abundance of medicinal plants.15 During the Bronze Age, worshippers hung valuable offerings on the sacred oak at the oracles of Dodoni in northern Greece. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC, reported that Xerxes, king of ancient Persia, hung gold and jewels from a willow tree after each of his victories. Ceremonially, Roman emperors draped loot from their battles over a sacred oak in the vicinity of Capitolium.12 Traditionally, carcasses or skins of sacrificed animals are hung from the holy tree while the sacrifice itself takes place above their roots.16 Since the 17th century AD in Britain, worshippers have hung garlands of flowers and multicoloured ribbons over the "May" tree to celebrate the coming of spring,12 and a well-known derivative of Nordic myth is the decorated "holy tree," the Christmas tree. In time the ceremonial hanging of offerings over trees came to be associated with health benefits.

This ancient custom is an international one. Pausanias, the 2nd century AD traveller, described a xoanon of the goddess Hygeia, who was protectress of health and daughter of Aesculapius, God of Medicine. The xoanon, which was erected at the Aesculapion of Titani near Corinth, was covered with ribbons of precious cloth, which the women of the area dedicated to the sacred wooden "statue" to secure good health.17 The passing centuries have not withered the habit. On the top of Mount Kyccos, in Cyprus, pilgrims still hang pieces of cloth on wild bushes as they seek a miraculous healing (Niceforos, Abbot of Kykkos Monastery: Personal communication, Feb. 20, 1992). On the same island they sometimes sacrifice a hen and sprinkle its blood on a wild tree from whose branches the patient has hung an article of clothing.16 Several examples have been reported on the mainland of Greece18 and from northern Greece.19 We have found sacred trees hung with votive rags near the churches of Saint Paraskeve at Houmnikon near Serres, Saint John Koureliares (Saint John with the rags) near Cavala and Saint Therapon Jajaliares (the healer saint with the tatters) on the island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea.

On the other side of the Aegean Sea, that is, on the west coast of Asia Minor, especially near the town of Mersina, the habit was widespread among the local Muslims and the Christians who lived there until 1992 when they were expelled to Greek mainland.19 The West Asian origin of the decorated sacred trees had been thoroughly reviewed by Kalokyris.20

With the rapid urbanization of Europe and the decline of religious practice, the custom has become almost extinct, although it was common there.21 In southern Wales,22 trees near sacred wells were covered with rags to assist in the healing of wounds. In Rumania pregnant women would hang one of their garments under a tree on St. George's day to petition for an uneventful delivery.12 To protect people during a cholera epidemic, they pinned ribbons on their clothes and hung them around the necks of horses.18 Even today in Ireland rags are hung from trees for medicinal reasons.19

The ceremonial hanging of clothing and other items from trees derives from the age-old belief that anything that comes in close contact with the body, be it clothes,18 parts of human tissues, for example, placenta,12 hairs or teeth,18 absorbs the strengths and weaknesses of the person. In anthropology this belief is known as harm or healing by sympathy.23 Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut off. The Holy Shroud of Turin and the Holy Wood are said to heal the faithful because they have absorbed Christ's powers after being in close contact with Him. Monks and soldiers start their careers by throwing away their civilian clothes, thus shedding any connection with their weak and sinful pasts. In general, all the rites of passage such as birth, marriage, death and miraculous recovery from disease are signalled by a change of clothing.24 Thus, it is only natural to hang clothes that are associated with disease over a sacred tree, which, because it represents Nature and Divinity, can absorb harmful emissions. Moreover, because they have been used for this purpose for centuries by the rural communities, trees acquire the qualities of a totem. "The first stage of totemism is the close link between several persons and the creation of a group. The next stage is the affinity of this group with a nonhuman object, usually a plant or an animal."25 Therefore, patients in Greek villages who participate in magicoreligious practices don't feel embarrassed because their ceremonial act is accepted by the community. In contrast, hospitalized patients who feel the urge to "throw away" their diseases by removing any prosthesis, machinery or biologic tissue that they identify with their disease (e.g., a catheter for peritoneal dialysis or a failed kidney transplant) will feel isolated and uneasy.

We conclude that under the surface of a naive superstition, the custom of hanging clothes from sacred trees as a healing procedure has a widespread and time-honoured tradition. The custom expresses a deep psycho-logic belief that diseases can be cured by a semimagical interaction with the spiritual and natural environment. It is not easy to discredit such a belief.


We thank the Reverend Father Papageorgis Papakonstantinou of the Theoskepaston Church, Paphos Cyprus, and Monk Theophanis of Varlaam Monastery, Meteora, Greece, for their assistance in obtaining the photographs and gathering information.


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  25. Idem: Ibid: 120-123
*Renal Department, St. Andrews Hospital, Patras, Greece
†lnternational Hippocratic Foundation, Kos, Greece
‡Department of History of Medicine, Athens University Medical School, Athens, Greece
Address for correspondence: Dr. Spyros G. Marketos, Medical School, Athens University, 2O Patr. Ioakeim St., Athens, GR-10675 Greece