Hi All! I am sharing more Greek customs today, this time telling you all about the use of vigil lamps and frankincense in Greek Orthodox homes. At the bottom of the post you’ll find the link to my newsletter where I share more fun stuff from my Greek life as well as a load of FREE kindle books for all!
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I recently shared the Greek custom of memorial food that involves wheat berry (it’s in this newsletter if you missed it) so today I thought I’d write about another thing my countrymen do to honour the dead, which is to light a vigil lamp for them. Of course, a vigil lamp doesn’t just have this use. Vigil lamps are lit in Greek homes on all big religious holidays too. Every home has at least one corner in the home (usually the bedroom), where icons are placed on the wall (along with the wreaths from the wedding ceremony of the home owners so the marriage can remain blessed). The vigil lamp is often placed in the same corner too. I have such a corner in my bedroom, but in the recent years, following the deaths of my Corfiot grandparents and then my mother, I created a second shrine in my study, and I burn my vigil lamp in there amongst icons and photographs of my deceased family members. It all helps to keep their memory alive and my spirit connected to them.
The light of the flame serves to remind us that God is light, and that we have a divine light (our soul) inside us too. When the lamp is lit in the memory of a deceased, it is believed that it promotes the peace of their soul. Traditionally, a lamp is always kept lit on the grave for that very purpose, but those not able to visit the grave daily, may light a vigil lamp at home for the souls of their departed loved ones. Vigil lamps come with a cup which you may fill with just olive oil, or water and olive oil if you don’t wish to keep burning the lamp all day. For example, if you intend to leave the house as it’s not really advisable to leave a lamp burning at home unattended.
Put in some water first, then the olive oil. The latter will naturally float on top. To use a vigil lamp you will also need a float made of cork and a box of wicks. The wicks look long and pink, as you can see in the photograph below. After you put the wick through the hole in the float, squeeze the wick above the float with your fingernails to flatten it and thus stop it from sinking lower through the hole. The shorter the wick on top of the float, the smaller the flame and the longer it will burn. Nowadays, tall votive candles are available to buy everywhere in Greece to place on graves. These burn unattended for days on end. However, the traditional burning of olive oil is believed to be the best offering.
The burning of frankincense usually goes together with the lighting of the vigil lamp. Personally, I burn frankincense on the big religious holidays and any other time when the energies in my home seem stuffy, negative or off kilter. Over the years, I’ve grown quite sensitive to energy and instinctively know when to do this. There is no set interval, so if you want to try this too for your home, just use your instinct to decide when is a good time. In the above photo, you can see the necessary tools for frankincense burning. i.e a suitable bowl (with a handle, as the bowl itself gets pretty hot), frankincense resin and charcoal discs to put the resin on. To ignite the disc, hold it in the air between two fingers and place the flame of a lighter under it. As soon as it starts to spark, place it in the bowl and blow on it to encourage it to light up further. I light the charcoal disc in front of an open kitchen window and sometimes turn on the kitchen ventilator too for good measure.
The reason is that when the charcoal ignites it produces thick white smoke as it starts to spark, a noxious thing to breathe in. So give it a few seconds to let out the worst of it. When it subsides, carefully drop a couple pieces of frankincense resin on the disc, depending on their size. Before going around the house with the bowl in your hand, ensure you have opened one window in every room, even if it’s just a tad. Why? Because this will allow your logical mind to accept and understand the notion of ‘sending away’ the stale energy. Stale energy in the home needs to be removed or it will cause all sorts of bad things like misfortune, disease or disarray…
Well? Are you interested to find out how I remove negative energy from my home? It’s quite an original process, that’s for sure, as I go around the house not once but three times, each time holding a different thing. Very easy to do, and lots of fun!
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