The Anastenaria is a traditional ritual of fire walking which dates back to pagan times. Barefoot villagers of Ayia Eleni near Serres, and of Langada near Thessaloniki, and other places, annually walk over hot coals. As there are variations in the ritual from place to place, the following description is largely based upon the performance of the festival as celebrated at Ayia Eleni, the most authoritative Anastenarian community, and the illustrations are from the ritual at Langada.
The communities which celebrate the Anastenaria are descendants of refugees from Eastern Thrace who arrived in Greece following the migrations necessitated by the Balkan Wars and by the later exchange of populations in 1923. Each village community of Anastenarides is headed by a "group of twelve" of which the large majority are women. They gather in a special building, or in the room of a house set aside for the purpose, called a konaki. Here on an icon shelf are kept the special icons of SS Constantine and Helen which are the most precious possessions of the community. Each has a handle so that it can conveniently be carried in processions and dances, is hung with small bells, decorated with "sacred knots" made from kerchiefs, and is covered with specially made cloth envelopes. Draped over the icons and the shelf are large red kerchiefs called simadia, which are believed to possess in themselves the power of the icons. On a table nearby offerings of oil, incense and lighted candles are kept.
On the eve of the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen (May 20th) the Anastenarides gather in the konaki, where the participants dance and sing to the music of the Thracian lyra, and a large drum. After some time, the dancing generates extreme emotional and ecstatic phenomena in the devotees, particularly in those dancing for the first time. This manifests itself in the form of violent trembling, repeated rocking backwards and forwards, and writhing. The archanastenaris hands out icons from the shelf to some of the dancers. The Anastenarides believe that during the dance they are "seized" by the saint, and enter a state of trance.
On the morning of the saints' day (May 21st) the Anastenarides gather at the konaki before leaving together in procession, accompanied by musicians and candle bearers to a holy well, where they are blessed by the holy water. Next, they sacrifice one or several animals to the saints. In Ayia Eleni, the animal must be over one year old, and of an odd number of years of age, the most acceptable being seven. The beast must also be unmarked and it must not have been castrated. It is incensed, and then led up to a shallow pit excavated in a place previously indicated by the Archanastenaris in a trance, usually beside the roots of a tree or at the agiasma. At one side of the shallow pit candles are lighted, while, on the other stand pots of holy water and the sacrificial animal. The beast is turned upside down, with its head tilted upwards, at the edge of the pit. Its throat is cut in such a way as to allow its blood to soak into the earth. The carcass is hung and skinned to the sound of music, and the raw flesh and hide cut up into equal parts put into baskets and distributed, amongst the families of the village in a procession from house to house.
After lunch the Anastenarides gather again and resume their dancing. A candle is lit from one of the oil lamps in front of the icons, and given to a man who takes it to an open space in the village, where a cone-shaped pile of logs has been prepared. There a bonfire is lit. As the wood burns, men spread out the coals with long poles until they form a large oval bed.
When the Anastenarides are informed that the fire is ready, they approach the place barefoot in procession, bearing their icons and simadia.
Initially the Anastenarides dance barefoot around the hot ashes, but when the saint moves them, individuals run backwards and forwards across the burning coals, some bearing aloft the icons. Sometimes devotees kneel down beside the fire and pound the ashes with the palms of their hands in order to demonstrate their power over the fire. The Anastenarides continue dancing over the coals until the ashes are cool, then they return to the konaki and enjoy a common meal, with music and singing. During the next two days, they process around the village visiting each house, taking care to do so always by moving in a counter-clockwise direction. On May 23rd they conclude with a second dance over the fire, this time privately.
The refugees say that in their original home, in Kosti, now in eastern Bulgaria, the ancient ceremonies were performed in full. With the outbreak of the Balkan war of 1912, the Greeks of Kosti were forced out of their village with their icons by the Bulgarians. They travelled by steamer to Constantinople, from there they were moved on Thessaloniki, finally settling in rural Macedonia. For more than twenty years they celebrated the Anastenaria only in secret, before being persuaded to perform in public in 1947. This provoked hostile response from the Church, but ecclesiastical disapproval has been counterbalanced by the active support of folklore societies, local government officials and government ministries.
According to the story told by the refugees, the origin of the Anastenaria lies in a fire which took place at Kosti in the thirteenth century. One night the church of Saint Constantine caught fire, and as it burned the people heard cries coming from the flames. It was the icons calling out for aid. Some villagers ran into the building and rescued them, neither the icons not their saviours being burned. Since that time, the Anastenaria has been held to celebrate their delivery. This is similar to the many stories invented to "explain" customs of unknown origin which are found across Greece. In the nineteenth century, the Byzantine scholar Anna Chatzinikolaou was able to show that the icons of the saints, today considered so important to the group, did not exist before 1833, and that all had at that time been recently repainted. There was evidence that the earliest icons depicted the red-robed Saint Helena "as if she were dancing"; clearly a serious embarrassment to a group under threat of religious persecution.
Among scholars the origins of the Anastenaria, as opposed to what the cult has become today, are a matter of considerable dispute. Although there is no evidence in ancient literature of fire-walking rituals associated with the god Dionysos, most scholars connect the Anastenaria with the widespread cult of that divinity. This association was also made by the Church authorities when they condemned the practices of the cult. Folklore scholar George A. Megas observes that "the cradle of Dionysiac worship was precisely in the Haemus area where the Anastenaria are danced today, passed down by the Greeks to the neighboring Bulgarian villages." This latter point is made clear by the fact that the prayers used by the Bulgarian Anastenarides are recited in Greek, and that the transmission of the rites from Greeks to Bulgarian settlers in the area is a matter of historical record. Moreover, the evidence of mid-winter and carnival customs is that much that was associated with the Dionysian cult has survived throughout northern and central Greece. Katerina Kakouri has established a close connection between these customs and the Anastenaria in Ayia Eleni.
Megas has also pointed out that the state of frenzy among worshippers, observed among the Anastenarides, was characteristic of the cult of this god, whose Maenads, or female worshippers, "rushed in a frenzy over the mountains at night, lighted by torches and goaded on by the wild music of deep-throated flutes and thundering drums." Certainly some observers have noted in the dance of the Anastenarides over the hot ashes, with their trance-like faces and outstretched arms, the modern successors of the infamous ancient Maenads of Dionysos, the God-intoxicated women who might, in their trance-like state, tear apart any animal they came across in their frenzied nocturnal roamings over the mountains. Of crucial importance in this context is the evidence that the modern Anastenarides may, in their frenzy, run away with the icons for a period "into the mountains", and that this is expected as an integral part of the sacred ritual. In the last century A. Chourmouziades described how "now beside themselves, [they] run and speed like birds up the hills and into the woods and up escarpments." D. Petropoulos observed as recently as the 1930s that "when the dance was at its height, many folk broke away in their joy and ran up towards the mountains." This certainly recalls the frenzy of the Maenads, who roamed the mountains while out of their minds.
It would appear that in the practices of these settlers from Eastern Thrace may be found one of the most distinctive living survivals, under a very thin Christian guise, of an important part of the ancient religion of much of rural classical Greece.