The core features of the celebration of the Epiphany—such as the importance of water as a purifying force and the concept of “rebirth”—are rooted in ancient Greek traditions. The ancient Athenians had a ceremony known as “Wash.” During this ceremony, a procession of believers carried the sacred statue of the goddess Athena to the Faliro coast, close to Athens, where they washed it using salty sea water. They believed that by cleaning the dirt off the statue, they renewed its sacred forces.

For the Greek Orthodox Church, the baptism of Christ symbolizes the rebirth of man. The vast importance of this baptism is the reason why, until the fourth century, Christians celebrated New Year’s Day on January 6, along with the Baptism of Christ: they marked the new year and the rebirth of Jesus simultaneously.

It is a commonly-held folk belief that even the pictures used for Christian worship inside churches lose their original, holy strength through the years. These pictures, however, can regain their lost characteristics when treated with holy water during the ceremony of the Epiphany. This Great Blessing takes place within the church, on a special platform supporting a container full of holy water. After the church ceremony is completed, the adherents all compete to dive for a Christian cross, which is thrown into the sea (or nearby body of water), and bring it back up to the surface. The cross’s ablution in the ocean serves as the “Blessing of the Water.” Although this ritual symbolizes the baptism of Christ, following the ancient Greek tradition, it also encapsulates purification and the elimination of demonic forces.

I have been working on this project since 2008. Every year on January 6th, I photograph celebrations of the Epiphany in various regions of my home island, Crete.

—Spiros Zervoudakis

If you liked this series, you’ll enjoy these previous features: Minotaur Island, a series that seeks to reveal the “dark energy” at the heart of Crete; A Common Story, Kostas Kapsianis’ contemplation of heritage and ancestral ties in the ancient country of Greece; and Saints, photographs that follow refugees through the streets of Athens.