Saturday, April 21, 2018


The image of the Three Hierarchs on the small oval icon can barely be seen. This is because the metal backing has begun to rust and the oxidization has spread to the front, obscuring the august Saints’ faces in a beige haze. Nonetheless, they gaze at me through the smog of time serenely, in their heavy bishop’s attire. If they could speak, I am convinced that they would pronounce: “Be at peace. We’ve got this.”

Ever since my grandmother handed it to me, this icon, measuring no more than five centimetres in height, has been my crisis icon. It was first entrusted to my father and, according to my grandmother, it was solely through its wonderworking powers that he completed his tertiary studies. Throughout the duration of that time, it hung on his bed head, though by the time its custodian passed it on to me, the cord that suspended it had long rotted away.
Consequently, when not afforded a position among our other household gods, the three hierarchs have resided mainly in my chest pocket. They have accompanied me to all of my exams, secondary and tertiary and I am ever compelled to extricate them from my pocket and place them in the tray of the metal detector when periodically attending court, especially when presenting tenuous or rather flimsy cases in which my preparation has been slight. On the odd occasion, a security guard will offer me a knowing wink. I shrug my shoulders by way of salutation and walk away, a common bond having been established in a few seconds. My gods, are his gods.

Custody of these household gods are shared with my sister. They have borne witness to her own anxiety over her examinations, though generally, after they have steadfastly ensured the continuance of her education and progress in her career, they have been restored to my care. Not so, however with the miniscule icon of Saint Nicholas, also entrusted to me by my grandmother during my first trip to Greece. His task is to protect us from harm during voyages and as a result, while on the job, he resides securely in my toiletry bag. These days, reeking of unknown quantities of shampoo and aftershave that have encompassed him at high altitude over the years, Saint Nicholas, also imbued with the beige hue of oxidization, is in the custody of my sister, who is much more peripatetic than I. It is solely through his intercession that the Kalimniou progeny have not befallen to any harm while travelling and no other equivalent icon can take his place for power, or for efficiency. A small painted icon of Saint Fanourios hangs from the rear view mirror of my car. When asked why it is there by the uninitiated, I reply laconically: "Sat-nav."

On my shelf at home, a small square icon of Christ gazes at me accusingly. There is no escape, no justification to be offered, no argument in mitigation to be provided, in order to alleviate its judgment. This icon bores into the innermost recesses of my soul and retrieves the contents therein for interrogation. This was my study icon, given to me by my mother as a young boy with the injunction: “You can fool me that you are studying, but you cannot fool him.” One of my friend’s study icons is of Panagia holding Jesus in his arms. Whereas my icon is ten centimetres in height, his reaches up to the ceiling and was installed in his impossibly small bedroom, by his father. “Whenever I was tempted to look away from my books,” he reminisces, “I would see her looking at me, half in pity, half in pain, and I wouldn’t have the heart to let her down. So back to the books I would return. She is the reason I graduated from university.” Whenever I looked up from my books, the Pantocrator would glare at me severely. Fearing retribution, I too, would return to my desk. I am convinced that it is only through his consent having first been obtained, that the Three Hierarchs were able to prove so efficacious. As I write, he looks down at me sternly, and I look away in guilt. He knows too much.

My youngest daughter, at the age of two, has adopted the Synaxis of the Apostles as her Lares. She carries them about her everywhere, kissing them periodically, and talking to them as if she is one of them. My eldest daughter on the other hand, acknowledges an old icon of Saint George as her titular deity, as she is heavily entranced by dragons and identifies with the princess, standing patiently in the margins, awaiting her rescue with fortitude. I try to tell her that burly men who know how to kill dragons and are infused with conviction make boring dinner party companions, but she will have none of it.

We all have Lares Familiares, the equivalent of the Roman domestic guardian spirits, who in times ancient, cared for the welfare and prosperity of a household. And right around Melbourne, many of us still have, lovingly tended, an equivalent of the Roman household's lararium, a shrine to the Lar Familiaris, in times ancient, usually placed near the hearth or in a corner of the atrium and in the case of the Greeks of Melbourne, most commonly, in the kitchen. The Roman lararium often had the appearance of a cupboard or a niche containing a small statue, a niche painted on a wall, or a small freestanding shrine. Our lararium is called an iconostasis and comes in various forms. From time to time, small wooden cupboards, often intricately carved, make their appearances in sundry second hand shops in my local suburb, their custodians having departed and their progeny, worshipping other, more material deities now. Sometimes, these lararia are still inhabited by their lares, and the countenances of forgotten and discarded saints, stained black by the soot of years of votive lamps being lit before them, gaze disconsolately at me. I purchase them all, because it is not fitting that any lares should be without a home, and adopt the gods of the households of departed compatriots as my own.
On one occasion, I immediately recognized the discarded lar in the dusty opp-shop as belonging to an old lady I once knew. The face that stared at me unobtrusively from behind a copy of a Little Richard LP, was unmistakably that of Saint Eugenios, the patron saint of Pontus. Its custodian’s father, an hagiographer, had begun writing the icon at the time of the Pontian Genocide and had perished before he had time to complete it. Disembodied, save for some drapery and an arm, Saint Eugenios accompanied the rest of the family to Greece and then to Australia, despite his impairment, a constant guardian not only during their many travels but also, a companion to their trauma, a family, as incomplete as the god that protected them. I redeemed the Lar interrupted from his captivity but did not keep him. Instead, I delivered him to his erstwhile custodian’s grandchildren, explaining why the Lar that brought them forth safely from annihilation, should never have been expelled from the hearth in the first place.

There is one icon missing from my lararium. An impossibly small, paper icon of the Resurrection given to me by my grandfather thirty years ago, when he explained to me that quite soon, he was going somewhere very far away but at some time, Christouli would come to raise him from his slumber and we would be reunited again. “I will sleep with one eye open, waiting for him, and for you, pappou,” I had replied. When my grandfather died, my father took the Resurrection icon from our home and placed it in the lararium on his father’s tombstone. It has since faded and diminished to dust, and yet every night since, I have lain, my one open eye fixed upon a space in a lararium now inhabited by other lares, and which no longer exists, waiting and waiting, and waiting, while the rest of the lares, mutely and mournfully, look on in the lamplight.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 April 2018