Glimpses of an Ancient Fire-Walking Ritual in Northern Greece

The room was lightly lit, illuminated only by a weak yellow light bulb and flames from the chimney. A small group of men and women, dancing and twirling on the floor under the sound of instruments, holding the sacred markings of the Greek orthodox saints: A. Thracian Lyra, A Gaida, A tambourine. The dancers, surrendering to the music, had their eyes closed.

Everyone sang together:

Hold small constantly, Little Constantine,
His mother was with him, he took care of her when she was very young,
He got a message to go to war,
He sorrows his horse at night,
He puts pearls on silver petals, golden nails and saddle.

Their voices used to go out in the streets of rain. After a while, in a kind of ecstasy, they started walking barefoot on the burning embers.

On 21 May each year, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates St. Constantine and St. Helen. In a small village in Lagadas, about half an hour from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, the celebration lasts for three days and includes a spectacular fire-going ritual called Anastainaria, for which the word is derived from the Greek “Anastasi” Nikla, which means resurrection.

In 2016 I traveled to northern Greece to meet some people who maintain these traditions.

Family and close friends of Anastasios Gentzasis are some of the last remaining contestants. Mr. Gantges, now 85, is one of the oldest fire walkers in the country. His family, who once lived in the Bulgarian town of Kosti, in eastern Thrace, arrived in Lagadas in 1923, thereafter Compulsory population exchange Between Greece and Turkey.

The people gathered here were members of a club formed by the Gaintatzis family in 1994 to help maintain local fire-fighting traditions.

Ethnologists believe that rituals have roots in the celebrations of ancient Greek Dionysus – and, over the years, pagan traditions have melted with orthodox rites.

Others believe in a local legend, which attributes the origins of the ceremony when the church of Constantine and Helen opened fire at Costie several hundreds of years ago. According to Vidya, the voices of the saints were heard inside the church calling for help. The villagers entered the blazing building to save the icon of the saints, and when they came out, neither the rescue team nor the mouse were harmed. He was saved from fire by saints.

The Anasthenaria ritual begins at Konaki, a special pilgrimage site dedicated to saints, where symbols are placed between Amania (the red handkerchief considered sacred by the fire walkers) and other rhythms.

Then the musicians arrive and the festivities begin.

The fire-fighting ceremony is usually carried out, but in 2016 a heavy rain forced the incident.

One of the group members placed large pieces of wood on the chimney and, by the time hot coal was built, everyone was ready to start. The celebrants removed the carpet, scattered the burning coal on the ground and began to walk on it one by one, barefoot, with closed eyes, drunk with almost a moment of emotion.

Some participants moved slowly, others more quickly. He followed the rhythm of music. I tried to pay full attention to their faces. He showed no signs of pain or discomfort. In fact they looked calm and serene.

When the first batch of coal was cooled, a second batch was brought out of the chimney, and the ceremony continued unabated.

Even as a spectator, I felt an outbreak of emotions while watching Fire Walker – and perhaps the deep mystery and divinity of the moment.

Anasthenaria rituals in Lagdas usually attract dozens of people from the surrounding area, but bad weather on the first day kept their visitors away. The following two days, however, as the rain stopped, many people came to see – and this time the fiery pit was set up in an outdoor area near Konki, provided by the municipality to the famous people.

Metal barricades were arranged in a large circle to keep the audience safe, and the group’s center members lit a large fire on a pile of wood. As soon as nightfall, people gathered around to see. When fire walkers and musicians left Konaki, it was already black outside. All the lights in the area went off, and the only thing you could see was the burning coal. The crowd, running over the coals of fire, kept silence.

After the celebration, the group members gathered back in Konaki and ate hot bowls of soup to help ward off the cold weather. They also gave me a bowl. Soon everyone except Anastasios Gantjetis was gone.

Mr. Gaintatzis has long tried to keep new family members and close friends alive whenever possible. But this is not an easy task.

“It’s something that can’t be taught,” he told me. “These are saints calling you.”

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