Hundreds of people descend on the town of Langadas near Thessaloniki each year in late May to participate in the ancient ritual of “Anastenaria” in which barefoot people walk on glowing coals.
The communities which celebrate this ritual are descended from refugees who entered Greece from Eastern Thrace following the Balkan Wars of 1911 to 1912 and the harrowing population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
The origin of Anastenaria
The roots of this tradition are steeped in mystery—and a bit of controversy, as well.
The Anastenarides hold that the origin of the ritual lies in a fire which took place at Kosti, near the Black Sea in the thirteenth century which set ablaze the church of Saint Constantine. As the empty church burned, the villagers claimed to hear cries coming from the flames and believed that they were appeals from the icons, desperately calling out for help.
Some villagers ran into the burning church to rescue them, returning quickly with the icons —and neither the icons nor their human protectors were burned or injured in any way. This occurrence, according to the fire-walking practitioners, prompted the annual celebration which the Anastenaria holds to commemorate their deliverance from the flames.
However, many scholars do not believe this to be the true origin of the Anastenaria ritual.
It is largely believed that the ceremony is the survival of an ancient Thracian Dionysian ritual which was later given a superficial Christian interpretation in order to be tolerated by the Greek Orthodox Church, which does not support the fire walking ritual since it is viewed as pagan.
“The Anastenaria are religious communities of Orthodox Christians, known for their devotion to Saints Constantine and Helen and the fire-walking rituals they perform in their honor,” writes historian Dmitri Xygalatas. “These rituals are part of an elaborate annual ritual cycle, which culminates with the festival of the two saints every May.”
According to Xygalatas, “the festival, which lasts for three days, includes various processions around the village, an animal sacrifice, music and ecstatic dancing. The most dramatic moment of the festival is the fire-walking ritual itself, where the participants, carrying the icons of the saints, dance over the glowing coals.”
“This practice is very old. Since the nineteenth century, Greek ethnographers have almost unanimously argued that the Anastenaria derives from the ancient orgiastic cults of Dionysus, constituting a continuous tradition of almost three millennia,” he added. “This is something that most people who have heard about the Anastenaria know, and to which many Greek anthropologists attest.”
“However, such a claim is completely unfounded,” he says, and “a more careful study of the sources reveals that the theory of the Dionysian origins of the Anastenaria has been intentionally constructed and later uncritically reproduced, resulting in a false version of history.”
The Anastenaria ritual, which is also performed in Bulgaria, is an important element of the cultural heritage of the Bulgarian people. In 2009 it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list of cultural events.