The tradition of walking on fire has existed for several thousand years, with records dating back to 1200 BC. Different cultures around the world, from Greece to India to China uses fire-walking as a rite of passage, a test of an individual’s strength, religious healing, or because of faith. Such is the festival of Anastenaria in St. Helen Village, Thrace, Northern Greece. The fire walking festival lasts for three days and ends with a private fire-walking ritual.
The Anastenaria is an unusual traditional fire-walking ritual being performed in some villages in Northern Greece and Southern Bulgaria which is being celebrated annually by the end of May. The fire walking festival takes place on Saint-Konstantinos day on the 21st of May with the whole celebration lasting for three to four days.
Dating back to Pagan times, Anastenaria is an ancient ritual of fire-walking attached to the Christian faith with Saint Constantine and Saint Helen as the central figures of the tradition. The communities which celebrate this ritual are descendants of refugees who entered Greece from Eastern Thrace following the migrations needed as a result of the Balkan Wars from 1911 to 1912. In 1923, the Greek descendants settled in Northern Greece, the place where the fire-walking ritual is being celebrated.
Every year, barefoot villagers of Agia Eleni and Kerkini at Serres, and of Langada near Thessaloniki, perform this unique annual fire ritual cycle. Which is in celebration of the name days of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.
This 3-day festival has various activities, including a procession, dancing, music, and animal sacrifice as well as fire-walking, as the main rituals of the festival. On the eve of the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen, each village community of Anastenarides is headed by a group of twelve. All these participants, the majority of which are women, will then gather in a special building or in a room of a house called a Konaki. The Konaki houses the icons of Saints Constantine and his mother Eleni which are the most valuable possessions of the community along with other objects considered sacred. All of these are decorated with sacred knots and small bells, and they have handles so that they can be easily carried during processions and dances. In the konaki, the icons are draped with large red kerchiefs called simadia and there is a table with offerings of oil, incense, and lighted candles. These simadia’s are also believed to possess the power of the icons. Also in the konaki, the participants work themselves into a trance-like state with hours of devotional dancing. Thus, the festival commences with dancing.
The next day, on the 21st of May which is the feast day of St. Constantine and her mother St. Helen, the Anastenarides will walk towards a holy well to be blessed by the holy water. Followed by the ritual of an animal sacrifice. The meat is then later distributed among the villagers.
The main event of the festival is the fire-walk at night. After lunch, the participants will all gather again and continue their dancing. Then a bed of burning coals will be prepared. A candle is lit from one of the oil lamps in front of the icons which will be used to light a bonfire. They make a huge fire and the coal is spread down when the wood burns. The Anastenarides will then dance around the fire carrying the icons of Saints Constantine and Helen. They will dance ecstatically for hours and enter a state of trance which they believe to happen because they are being seized by saints. After which, the devotees will enter the fire and walk barefoot over the glowing-red coals. Some individuals will run across the burning coals while some will kneel down beside the fire and pound the ashes with the palms of their hands. All this continues until the ashes are cool.
During the next two days, the Anastenarides will have a procession going around the village visiting each and every house. Then on the 23rd of May, which is the last day of the festival, they will conclude the celebration with a second dance over the fire in a private fire-walking ritual not open for tourists.
Most of us are afraid of walking on fire but for the Anastenarides, it is their way of praising or thanking Saint Constantine. The first emperor to stop the persecution of Christians and to legalize Christianity along with other religions in the Roman Empire.