In the Russian Orthodox tradition today is the Saturday of Souls (or Soul Saturday), the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης),a Christian martyr of the early 4th century. Within the Orthodox tradition in general there are several days that can be marked as Soul Saturday. Saturday is chosen because it was a Saturday when Jesus lay in the tomb after the crucifixion on Friday and before the resurrection on Sunday. Usually Soul Saturdays occur in Lent, but the Russian Orthodox one falls on the Saturday before 26th of October. Soul Saturday is especially marked as a day of prayer for the dead.
The earliest written accounts of the life of Demetrius were compiled in the 9th century, although there are earlier images of him along with the 7th century Miracles of Saint Demetrius collection. According to these early accounts, Demetrius was born to pious Christian parents in Thessaloniki in Illyricum in 270. The biographies say that Demetrius was born into a senatorial family and was run through with spears in around 306 in Thessaloniki, during the Christian persecutions of Diocletian and Galerian.
After the growth of his veneration as saint, the city of Thessaloniki suffered repeated attacks and sieges from the Slavic peoples who moved into the Balkans, and Demetrius was credited with many miraculous interventions to defend the city. Hence later traditions about Demetrius regard him as a soldier in the Roman army, and he came to be regarded as an important military martyr making him extremely popular in the Middle Ages (in parallel with the more Western Saint George).
Originally in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Saturday before the Feast of St. Demetrius was a memorial day commemorating the soldiers who fell in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), under the leadership of St. Demetrius of the Don, and came to be known as Demetrius Saturday. Now it is a more general commemoration for all departed souls.
St. Demetrius was initially depicted in icons and mosaics as a young man in patterned robes with the distinctive tablion of the senatorial class across his chest. Miraculous military interventions were attributed to him during several attacks on Thessaloniki, and he gradually became thought of as a soldier although there is no historical evidence for this. An ivory from Constantinople of the late 10th century shows him as an infantry soldier, but an icon of the late 11th century in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai shows him as before, still a civilian.
Another Sinai icon, of the Crusader period and painted by a French artist working in the Holy Land in the second half of the 12th century, shows what then became the most common depiction. Demetrius, bearded, rather older, and on a dark horse, rides together with St George, unbearded and on a white horse. Both are dressed as cavalrymen. Also, while St. George is often shown spearing a dragon, St. Demetrius is depicted spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, who according to legend was responsible for killing many Christians. Lyaeos is commonly depicted below Demetrius and lying supine, having already been defeated. Lyaeos is traditionally drawn much smaller than Demetrius. In traditional hagiography, Demetrius did not directly kill Lyaeos, but rather through his prayers the gladiator was defeated by Demetrius’ disciple, Nestor.
A modern Greek iconographic convention depicts Demetrius with the Great White Tower in the background. The anachronistic White Tower acts as a symbolic depiction of the city of Thessaloniki, despite having been built in the 16th century, centuries after his life, and the exact architecture of the older tower that stood at the same site in earlier times is unknown.
According to hagiographic legend, as retold by Dimitry of Rostov in particular, Demetrius appeared in 1207 in the camp of Kaloyan of Bulgaria, piercing the pagan king with a lance and so killing him. This scene, known as Чудо о погибели царя Калояна (“the miracle of the destruction of tsar Kaloyan”) became a popular element in the iconography of Saint Demetrius. He is shown on horseback piercing the king with his spear, paralleling the icononography (and often shown alongside) of Saint George and the Dragon.
I’m not really all that comfortable with saints as battle heroes. Slaying pagans and persecutors of Christians does not gibe too well with the Sermon on the Mount, cornerstone of Christian belief in my worldview. It is understandable in the context of the war-torn Middle Ages, but for me is a perversion of Christian belief that has continued to the present day. I can understand calling on the saints to protect the faithful during times of attack; turning that around into a battle cry to be the attackers of pagans destroys the Christian message. I’m not confident that “Love Your Enemies” is a message that will ever fully penetrate.
In the Russian Orthodox tradition it is usual to make dishes of boiled wheat grains and offer them in church on Soul Saturday before eating them communally or as a family. I’ll probably give a recipe for wheat porridge at some point, but it’s not my favorite, even when cooked with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. Instead I’ll turn to the cuisine of Thessaloniki. Because Thessaloniki remained under Ottoman rule for about 100 years more than southern Greece, it has retained a lot of its Eastern character, including its culinary tastes. When you get away from the nonsense of ethnic rivalry you will see that traditional Turkish and Greek dishes have a lot in common. Thessaloniki’s Ladadika borough is a haven for foodies with most tavernas serving traditional meze which has both Greek and Turkish influences blended.
Generically meze (Turkish: meze; Greek: μεζές) is a selection of small dishes to accompany drinks which can also be used as an appetizer course. The dishes can be just about anything under the sun from hummus, falafel, and babaghanoush to ground or skewered lamb, beef stew, and marinated pork. Furthermore, meze can be rich and varied, or extremely simple. For Soul Saturday I think a simple, but delicious meze dish is in order. One that I find satisfying as a snack or appetizer is pictured here. It is common in Greek cuisine.
Serve a block of feta cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with oregano along with kalamata olives accompanied with crusty bread. If you eat the cheese, olives, and bread together you have a somewhat astringent but tasty blend of flavors. Good for the soul as you reflect on the departed.