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Snakes swarm Kefalonia church in preparation for Greek festival

From August 6- 15 each year, thousands of snakes descend on the Church of the Virgin in the village of Markopoulo on the Greek island of Kefalonia.

The dates themselves are significant as the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus is celebrated on August 6, while the Feast of the Dormition of Mary is celebrated on August 15.

Legend has it and depending on who tells the story, 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 and they were spared.

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A second version of the story explains that during an attack by pirates, the nuns asked for the protection of the Virgin Mary and she responded by sending thousands of dangerous snakes upon the intruders that left the monastery and the nuns unharmed.

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.

If the snakes do not appear it is considered bad omen and the only two times they failed to appear were in 1940, the year Greece entered the Second World War and in 1953, the year of the great Kefalonia earthquake which occurred on August 12.

The snakes are actually a kind of European Cat Snake classified as Telescopus fallax.

They have a roughly cross-shaped mark on their heads, which of course only adds to popular tendency to see the miraculous in their annual appearance in the villages.

The European cat snake is venomous, but because it is rear-fanged (fangs are located at the back of the upper jaw), it rarely injects its venom in defensive biting and is therefore considered no threat to humans.

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