The sacred forests of Zagori and Konitsa, in Epirus – northwestern Greece, are sites where chopping trees is forbidden and where it is feared that cutting down their branches can result in supernatural punishments. In most cases, sacred forests are not church property but communal or public land. Even so, the inhabitants of the communities recognize the Church as their customary manager. Sacred forests often function as protecting forests that protect the nearby villages from landslide phenomena (e.g. rock falls or avalanches), and they are not at all uncommon in mountain locations, such as the mountains of Epirus. Furthermore, in the past sacred forests may have functioned as reserve forests. Such forests, comprised usually of evergreen oaks, could offer their branches in periods of prolonged heavy snowfall so that the animals each family kept in its pens could survive. Community decisions determined the management in such exceptional cases and the benefits accrued to the Church. Also, on certain occasions even the sacred forest timber was used for works of public benefit. One such example is the forest of Gradistas in Kapesovo, some of the trees of which were used in the construction of the Paschaleios School (1861), thus enabling the Kapesovo community to participate indirectly in the donation made by the Paschalis brothers. A forest could be described as sacred if it was dedicated to a church that was located within its boundaries or the central church of the village. Excommunicated forests can also be found in many villages. Excommunication was used for forests as an unspecified threat to any would-be violator, the consequences being exclusion from the community and the rites of the Church – even his or her own funeral – social stigmatization and the scourge of bequeathing eternal damnation.
The guardians of the forests are the local communities that maintain them. Many institutions and individuals are active in promoting the sacred forests as a cultural good as well as significant sites for nature conservation.
From 2012 to 2015 a large group of scientists of various specialties and nationalities collaborated on the THALIS programme “Conservation through Religion: the Sacred Groves of Epirus” at the University of Ioannina. The Thalis programme was co-founded by the European Union (European Social Fund) and national funds through the Operational Programme “Education and Lifelong Learning”, part of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF). Investment in the knowledge society was through the European Social Fund. This research programme attempted to understand the function of sacred forests and to showcase them as forests that represent the strength of the natural ecosystems of Epirus and successful small-scale management systems.
More information on the website of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Greece: http://ayla.culture.gr/en/iera-dasi-twn-xwriwn-tou-zagoriou-kai-tis-konitsas/
More information on the programme: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298567666_Religion_and_the_Management_of_the_Commons_The_Sacred_Forests_of_Epirus