Folklore - Saints


John the Hermit



About St John the Hermit


The location of the cave


St John was born and grew up in Egypt. Along with 35 other pious men he went to Cyprus to live in asceticism. There they became known for their abilities to cure sicknesses. The stories of St John and his men reached the other ascetics on the island, and 39 of these joined the group. After a while all of them went on to Attaleia (Antalya) in the present Turkey, where another 24 ascetics joined them.



The ascetic community, now consisting of 99 men, prayed to God to show them a place in which they would be able to live a secluded life, as they were met with worship and glory from people everywhere. For that reason God told them to go to Crete, and in the year 1300 they sailed from Turkey towards Crete. Because of a violent storm is was impossible to berth at the south coast of Crete, so they turned around to put into port on the island of Gavdos. When the storm had died down after 24 days, the ascetics set out again. But when they were about to board the ship, God had made John invisible, so by mistake they left without him. On their arrival in Crete the ascetics found, that John was not among them. They realized, that he must still be on Gavdos, and from the beach they called for him to come. On the island John heard their call. He said a prayer, threw his tunic into the water and sailed - standing on the tunic - to Crete in three hours.


The meaning of this unique way of travelling was to show, that there are means stronger than weapons and acts of war. The fact is, that Crete which the monks had now arrived, was marked by violent interior conflicts. About 100 years earlier Venice had occupied the island, and the new rulers tried to change the former Byzantine and therefore Orthodox island into a part of the Venetian and Catholic state. They did that by - among other things - prohibiting the high-ranking ecclesiastics in the monasteries and the churches from staying on the island. The Cretan aristocracy was furthermore stripped of many of the privileges it had during the Byzantine control. Because of these prohibitions the Cretans had rebelled several times during the entire previous century, which however did not result in any changes. But in 1282 Alexios Kallergis began his 17 years long rebellion, which ended with a peace agreement (Pax Alexii Callergi), the year before John arrived in Crete. The peace agreement resulted in certain more favourable financial and religious conditions for the local inhabitants.


In Crete the ascetics now went up into the land, and they settled in the caves of Zoures and Characas near the village of Azogyres, a little north of Palaiochora.


The Zoures Cave is situated in an altitude of 535 m above sea level hidden in the vertical cliff, and the only way of getting down into it is by climbing down four iron ladders. The Characas Caves are situated in an altitude of only 250 m, but the last 20 m upwards by a rickety ladder seems to be a much bigger obstacle to climb.


The Characas Caves

From the caves they preached the Gospel to the inhabitants of Crete, for which reason they were later called The Holy Fathers (Agii Patéres). Despite hard and physically demanding work they led a very spartan life and lived on bread and vegetables only.


In this place St John the Hermit built a church in the their honour (Moní ton Agíon Patéron). It was however destroyed during the rebellion against the Turks, but has later been rebuilt. John the Hermit is sometimes mentioned under the name of John the Stranger, even though there is another saint of this name, who worked immediately after Nikiforos Fokas had recaptured the island from the Arabs in the year 961.


But John had no intentions of staying in the ascetic community. He wanted to dedicate his life entirely to God through prayer in solitude, so one day he told his companions, that he intended to set out for a place far away from human activities. The others were unhappy to hear, that he was going to leave them, but because that was the way it was, they prayed to God to give him a life in peace. John thanked the ascetics, said goodbye to them and set out towards the north in his search. He found a cave in the present village of Spilia, 3 km south of Kolymbari, and stayed there for some time, until he took up his final residence in Akrotiri near Chania, where he settled in a cave in the wild Avlaki Gorge. And through fast and prayer in the rough and barren landscape he succeeded in achieving the much coveted contact to God, which he had been constantly seeking.


The cave in Spilia


The many years of asceticism had weakened John so much, that he could no longer keep upright. One day (October 6th) when he crawled out to pick the wild herbs, he lived on, a hunter mistook him for a wild animal. The hunter fired his bow and wounded him fatally. John dragged himself back to his cave, but the hunter followed the trail of blood hoping to catch his "prey". Unhesitatingly he crawled into the cave, where he to his big surprise and fright saw John lying with crossed arms, drawing his last breath and leaving his soul to the God he had served for so many years. The hunter fell down on his knees and prayed for forgiveness, because he had killed the saint, while the cave resounded with angelic songs and was filled with wonderful fragrances. Then he hurried to Chania to tell about the saint and his own mistake. In this way John was known in big parts of Crete, and a lot of people set out for the cave to worship the dead saint, who cured all the sick.


A strange thing happened far from there in the caves at Azogyres. John's fellow ascetics, who had vowed to die at the same day as John, in fact died that day. According to local tradition they even died in the position they happened to assume at the moment of John's death - all of them 89 years old.


Every year on the 7th of October the memory of John and The Holy Fathers is celebrated according to a ruling by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Kyrillos Loukaris, in 1632. The celebration is delayed one day, otherwise it would coincide with the religious holiday of Thomas the Apostle.


Panigyri at the
Gouvernetou Monastery