The Blessing of the Waters

By J. T. Bent

[Editorial note: the following is an article by James Theodore Bent, an explorer, archaeologist, and author who died in 1897. This version was published in 1909. Amos Staff has made some edits; and added footnotes, illustrations, and hyperlinks. The original article is in the public domain.]

A 1910 postcard from Skiathos. Panagnia Limnia Church is visible on the left-hand side. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was anxious to be present at the early liturgy of the morning of Epiphany to witness the ceremony of the blessing of the waters in the pretty, quaint village on the island of Skiathos [1] in a far-away corner of Greece. It was a great effort, for the night had been cold and stormy; however, by some process which will never be quite clear to me, I managed to find myself at the door of the one church with its many storied bell-tower [2], soon after four o’clock. Very quaint indeed it looked as I went out of the cold darkness into the brilliantly lighted church, and saw the pious islanders kneeling all around on the cold floor as the liturgy was being chanted prior to the blessing of the waters [3]. Near the entrance stood the font filled to the brim; and close to it was placed an eikon or sacred picture, representing the baptism of our Lord; around the font were stuck many candles fastened by their own grease; whilst pots and jugs of every size and description, full of water, stood about on the floor in the immediate vicinity of the font.

After the priest had chanted the somewhat tedious litany [4] from the steps of the high altar, he set off dressed sumptuously in his gold brocaded vestments, round the church with a large cross in one hand, and a sprig of basil in the other, accompanied by two acolytes, who waved their censers and cast about a pleasant odor of frankincense. Every one was prostrate as the priest read the appointed Scripture, signed the water in the font and in the adjacent jugs with the cross and threw into the font his sprig of basil. No sooner was this solemn impressive ceremony over than there was a general rush from all sides with mugs and bottles to secure some of this consecrated water. Everybody laughed and hustled his neighbor; even the priest, with the cross in his hand, stood and watched them with a grin. The sudden change from the preceding solemnity was ludicrous [5] in the extreme.

Before taking his departure for his home each person went up to kiss the cross which the priest held and to be sprinkled with water from the sprig of basil. Each person had brought his own sprig of basil which he presented to the priest to bless, and in return for this favor dropped a small coin into the plate held by one of the acolytes. Basil is always held to be a sacred plant in Greece [6]. The legend says that it grew on Christ’s tomb, and they imagine that this is the reason why its leaves grow in a cruciform shape. In nearly every humble Greek dwelling you may see a dried sprig of basil hanging in the household sanctuary. It is this sprig which has been blessed at the Feast of Lights. It is most effectual say they in keeping off the influence of the evil eye.

From their homes by the shore the fishermen came, and all the inhabitants of Skiathos assembled on the quay to join the procession which descended from the church by a zigzag path, headed by two priests and two acolytes behind them waving censers, and men carrying banners and the large cross.

Kamari Beach, Santorini. Theophanic Procession from church to sea. (Source:

Very touching it was to watch the deep devotion of these hardy seafaring men as they knelt on the shore whilst the litany was being chanted, and whilst the chief priest blest the waves with his cross and invoked the blessing of the most High on the many and varied crafts which were riding at anchor in Skiathos harbor. When the service was over there followed, as in the morning, an unseemly bustle, so ready are these vivacious people to turn from the solemn to the gay. Every one chatted with his neighbor and pressed forward toward a little jetty to see the fun. Presently the priest advanced to the end of this jetty with the cross in his hand, and after tying a heavy stone to it he threw it into the sea. Thereupon there was a general rush into the water; men and boys with their clothes on plunged and dived until at length to the applause of the bystanders one young man succeeded in bringing the cross to the surface, stone and all. A subscription was then raised for the successful diver, the proceeds of which were spent by him in ordering many glasses of wine at the nearest coffee shop [7], and the wet men sat down for a heavy drink—to drive out the chill, I suppose.

In many places you will find the boats hauled upon the beach the day before Christmas, and nothing will induce their owners to launch them again until after the blessing of the sea. I am sure the captain of our steamer shared the superstition, though he chose to laugh at the islanders’ ways; for a few hours after the sea had been blessed we put out into it, and I imagine could have started hours before if our captain had been so inclined.


[1] Skiathos is an island in the Aegean Sea’s Northern Sporades, belonging to Greece and resting in the district of Thessaly.

[2] Most likely the Church of Panagia Limnia (Holy Mary, Παναγία Λιμνιά). Built in 1829, its bell tower is distinctive and easily recognizable. It was built on the former site of a small church dedicated to Saint Xaralampos.

[3] The Blessing of the Waters at Epiphany is also known as The Solemn Blessing of the Waters, Theofania/Theophania/Theophany, or Fota/Ta Fota. In the Greek Orthodox faith, it commemorates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. In some parts of Greece, the priest throws a cross into the cold January seawater and young men dive in and find it. The one who retrieves the cross is said to be especially blessed into the new year.

[4] ”somewhat tedious” being a subjective assessment

[5] humorous or laughable in nineteenth century usage, which may include absurdity but doesn’t always.

[6] basilikos: “herb worth a king”; also vasiliko; “basilike” is the Greek adjective for kingly or royal. It is the root of both basil, the herb, and basilica, the later Latin for a stoa dedicated to kingly/royal (sacred/sacral) purposes.

[7] See also: ”Greek Coffee Culture” or here.

Leave a Reply