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Snakes were a powerful symbol of regeneration and healing in ancient Greece, where harmless snakes were placed in the rooms of the sick and injured and the rod of Asceplius, a snake entwined round a staff, is an oft seen medical symbol, as is the caduceus of Hermes (albeit confused with the rod of Asceplius and used as a medical symbol, it's the symbol of commerce and negotiation).

The Minoan civilisation revered a snake goddess and Delphi, site of the most famous oracle, was originally home to Python, a female guardian of the underworld. Elsewhere, Jason and his argonauts had to defeat a huge serpent which guarded the Golden Fleece.

Kefalonia is famous for its annual Snake Festival, held in the village of Markopoulo, above Katelios, on the evening of 14 August and the morning of 15 August. A similar festival is held, at the same time, higher up the mountain in the village of Arginia.

Legend has it that once there was a convent at Markopoulo and the nuns, fearful of pillaging pirates, prayed to the Virgin to be saved.  
God turned the nuns into small snakes (odd choice, but who are we to debate it?) and they were spared. Every year, just before the Festival of the Virgin Mary, holy snakes with a black cross on their head return to the church at Markopoulo and ascend the bell tower.

Such is the popularity of this occasion that Greeks from all over the world visit and Markopoulo is transformed from a very sleepy little hamlet in to the place to be.

Market stalls line the narrow lane down to the church and parked cars stretch along both sides of the main Argostoli- Poros road for a considerable distance in both directions.

Undoubtedly, any snakes in the vicinity would be trampled underfoot so they are rescued in advance by the locals and taken in to the church for sanctuary. Needless to say, the tiny church is crammed full with visitors wishing to see the safe return of the snakes, for if the snakes don’t appear it is a very bad omen: only twice in recent history have the snakes not appeared: the year of the AXIS occupation and in 1953, when the devastating earthquake occurred.

An event not to be missed!

Several varieties of snake reside in Greece but you’re quite unlikely to see a snake unless you’re out and about in a car, when you may come across some squashed on the road, especially in May and June. The vast majority are harmless to humans – especially if you don’t disturb them… don’t disturb the snakes! They are shy, timid creatures and will rapidly slither away if approached. They do a good job keeping down the creepie-crawlies, let them continue!

Markopoulo snake, photo via ex-Elios-Pronnoi website

The Markopoulo snakes are a sub-species of the European Cat Snake, for anyone interested in herpetology, the following have been seen on Kefalonia (list via euroherp.com):

Caspian whipsnake
European Cat Snake
Four-lined Snake
Grass Snake
Leopard Snake / European Ratsnake
Montpellier snake
Sand Viper / Sand Adder

Lizards & geckos
Balkan Green Lizard
Balkan Wall Lizard / Skyros Wall Lizard
Blue-throated Keeled Lizard
European common gecko
European copper skink / European Snake-eyed skink
European Legless Lizard / Sheltopusik
Greek lizard
Kefalonian / Peloponnese Slow Worm
European Bent-toed Gecko / Kotschy’s Gecko
Mediterranean House Gecko / Turkish Gecko

Common Newt / Smooth Newt

Frogs & Toads
European green toad
European toad / Common toad
European tree frog
Marsh Frog

Terrapins, Tortoises, Turtles
European pond terrapin
Striped-neck terrapin / Western Caspian turtle
Hermann's Tortoise
Loggerhead turtles

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