Saint Spiridion's Church, Corfu

"Saint Spiridion [Saint Spyrídhon] was the patron saint of the island. His mummified body was enshrined in a silver coffin in the church, and once a year he was carried in procession round the town. He was very powerful, and could grant requests, cure illness, and do a number of other wonderful things for you if he happened to he in the right mood when asked. The islanders worshipped him, and every second male on the island was called Spiro [Spyros] in his honour.

Today was a special day; apparently they would open the coffin and allow the faithful to kiss the slippered feet of the mummy, and make any request they cared to.

The composition of the crowd showed how well loved the saint was by the Corfiots: there were elderly peasant women in their best black clothes, and their husbands, hunched as olive-trees, with sweeping white moustaches; there were fishermen, bronzed and muscular, with the dark stains of octopus ink on their shirts; there were the sick too, the mentally defective, the consumptive, the crippled, old people who could hardly walk, and babies wrapped and bound like cocoons, their pale, waxy little faces crumpled up as they coughed and coughed. There were even a few tall, wild-looking Albanian shepherds, moustached and with shaven heads, wearing great sheepskin cloaks. This dark multi-coloured wedge of humanity moved slowly towards the dark door of the church, and we were swept along with it, wedged like pebbles in a larva-flow.

By now Margo had been pushed well ahead of me, while Mother was equally far behind. I was caught firmly between five fat peasant women, who pressed on me like cushions and exuded sweat and garlic, while Mother was hopelessly entangled between two of the enormous Albanian shepherds. Steadily, firmly, we were pushed up the steps and into the church. Inside, it was dark as a well, lit only by a bed of candles that bloomed like yellow crocuses along one wall.

A bearded, tall-hatted priest clad in black robes flapped like a crow in the gloom, making the crowd form into a single line that filed down the church, past the great silver coffin, and out through another door into the street. The coffin was standing up-right, looking like a silver chrysalis, and at its lower end a portion had been removed so that the saint’s feet, clad in the richly-embroidered slippers, peeped out. As each person reached the coffin he bent, kissed the feet, and murmured a prayer, while at the top of the sarcophagus the saint’s black and withered face peered out of a glass panel with an expression of acute distaste. It became evident that, whether we wanted to or not, we were going to kiss Saint Spiridion’s feet. I looked back and saw Mother making frantic efforts to get to my side, but the Albanian bodyguard would not give an inch, and she struggled ineffectually. Presently she caught my eye and started to grimace and point at the coffin shaking her head vigorously. I was greatly puzzled by this, and so were the two Albanians, who were watching her with undisguised suspicion. I think they came to the conclusion that Mother was about to have a fit, and with some justification, for she was scarlet in the face, and her grimaces were getting wilder and wilder. At last, in desperation, she threw caution to the winds and hissed at me over the heads of the crowd:

‘Tell Margo ... not to kiss ... kiss the air, ... kiss the air.’

I turned to deliver Mother’s message to Margo, but it was too late; there she was, crouched over the slippered feet, kissing them with an enthusiasm that enchanted and greatly surprised the crowd. When it came to my turn I obeyed Mother’s instructions, kissing loudly and with a considerable show of reverence a point some six inches above the mummy’s left foot.

Then I was pushed along and disgorged through the church door and out into the street, where the crowd was breaking up into little groups, laughing and chattering. Margo was waiting on the steps, looking extremely self-satisfied. The next moment Mother appeared, shot from the door by the brawny shoulders of her shepherds. She staggered wildly down the steps and joined us.

‘Those shepherds,’ she exclaimed faintly. ‘So ill-mannered ... the smell nearly killed me ... a mixture of incense and garlic .... How do they manage to smell like that?’

‘Oh, well,’ said Margo cheerfully. ‘It’ll have been worth it if Saint Spiridion answers my request.’

‘A most insanitary procedure,’ said Mother, ‘more likely to spread disease than cure it. I dread to think what we would have caught if we’d really kissed his feet.’

‘But I kissed his feet,’ said Margo, surprised.

‘Margo! You didn’t!’

‘Well, everyone else was doing it.’

‘And after I expressly told you not to.’

‘You never told me not to....’

I interrupted and explained that I had been too late with Mother’s warning.

‘After all those people have been slobbering over those slippers you have to go and kiss them.’

‘I was only doing what the others did.’

‘I can’t think what on earth possessed you to do such a thing.’

‘Well, I thought he might cure my acne.’

‘Acne!’ said Mother scornfully. ‘You’ll be lucky if you don’t catch something to go with the acne.’

The next day Margo went down with a severe attack of influenza, and Saint Spiridion’s prestige with Mother reached rock bottom. Spiro was sent racing into the town for a doctor ..."

MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS © Gerald Durrell 1956

"1944 - Battle between Germans and Italians for possession of island. Latest reports indicate starvation rife; town badly damaged; Jews deported; but  Church of  St. Spiridion still standing.

During the worst part of the shelling, when the inhabitants were ordered to take refuge in the stoutly built Italian school, a very large number preferred to trust in the Saint and his church was crowded with worshippers, who, to-day claim yet another miracle; for while the Italian school and other refuges like it were hit repeatedly and demolished, the Church of St. Spiridion was untouched and those in it emerged unscathed. Today it is still proudly standing (December 1945)."

PROSPERO'S CELL (Appendix) © Lawrence Durrell 1945 & 1975

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