Dancing on Fire
On May 21 villages in northern Greece celebrate fire-walking rituals, in an annual festival called Anastenaria. Although according to many ethnographers these events have origins in ancient Greece and the feasts of Dionysus, through the years it was connected to the Orthodox religion and today is performed on the celebration day of Orthodox saints Constantine and Helen. Myth has it when the church of Saint Constantine in the Bulgarian village of Kosti caught fire, the voices of the saints were heard from the inside. The villagers, who rushed into the flames to rescue them, were protected by the saints and left the burning church unharmed.
I first heard of this tradition many years ago, but now it was about time to witness this unique phenomenon for myself. So, I travelled to Lagadas, about half hour outside Thessaloniki, Greece. There, I found Mr. Tasos Gaitatzis, a 80ish-year-old man who has inherited this tradition from his ancestors. His family have been doing this for as long as he can remember, and now he is passing the legacy to his children. Mr Gaitatzis’s family and a few other close friends are the group of anastenarides who walk into the fire when the time comes. They first gather at the konaki – a special shrine dedicated to the saints – and dance to the music of the Thracian lyre and drum, whilst holding the holy icons of the Kosti saints that Mr. Gaitatzis acquired and are dated more than 200 years old.
The festival lasts three days, from May 21 to May 23, but this year because of the rainy weather the ritual on the first day was performed inside; by way of lighting a fire in the fireplace. The music started to play, people from the village started to gather and the floor soon cleared from all the carpets to welcome the hot coals. Holding the icons, candles and red kerchiefs that are supposed to be blessed, anastenarides circled the red hot coals dancing to the rhythm and singing a song about “Constantine the little boy”. After a while, the head of the group walked into the fire and soon all of them were dancing on it. When the coals where burned out, a new batch was thrown on the floor and the ritual continued.
All of the visitors were looking at them in awe, including myself. When there were no more burning coals, the group continued dancing and singing. At the end, they wished everyone good health and long life. Looking at their feet there was no indication that those people have just walked on fire. They were only covered in ash, and none of them was burned. It is said that if they don’t feel spiritually ready, they don’t go in. The celebration concluded with all the visitors leaving and the anastenarides having a rich meal inside the konaki.
Demetrios lives and works in Athens, Greece as a freelance photojournalist. Over the years he has worked in various media outlets in Greece and abroad, including the Greek TV station ANT1 TV, the online edition of the Greek newspaper Proto Thema and Daphne Communications – one of Greece’s leading publishing groups. Since 2015 he has been a blogger for The Huffington Post Greece. Currently, among other things, he is covers his country’s sever economic and political crisis, as well as the refugee crisis in Europe and Middle East.