In May, 2019, I finally followed a desire that had grown inside of me for over a decade, to witness the Anastenaria fire walking rituals of northern Greece. This was a solo journey and true pilgrimage of the heart. It is said the Anastenaria is the oldest living European tradition, with elements still practiced that are unchanged from ancient times. The Anastenaria’s origins are from a part of Bulgaria that was ancient Thrace and is considered to be a part of Thracian culture that has been passed down through family lineage for thousands of years. The communities in northern Greece that practice this ritual are descendants of refugees from the Balkan wars of the early 20th Century. The rituals take place four times a year (winter, spring, summer and autumn respectively) coinciding with important events of the Greek Orthodox calendar with its main festival happening May 21- 23 as a tribute to Saint Constantine and Saint Helen. The Anastenaria is performed in five villages of northern Greece: Ayia Eleni, Langadow, Melike, Mavolefke and Kerkine and several villages in Southern Bulgaria.
It is said that the events of the ritual follow the same structure as from ancient times with the majority of the celebrations taking place within and around the community’s Konaki, or dedicated shrine. Each festival or Paniyiri, happens over the course of three days including processions, blessing of the icons, animal sacrifice, and ecstatic dancing to ritual music culminating in the fire walk where the participants dance, walk and stomp on fire coals unharmed.
Everything in this ritual is centered around the icons to which there is an incredible devotion the likes of which I’ve only seen in places like India where icon devotion is deeply practiced. The icons of the saints are adored, kissed, embraced, danced with and presented with such passion and love it is as if these icons were living beings that need to be charged with devotion each season. In the Konaki I visited, they said that the icons they possessed had been brought from Bulgaria, passed down through many generations and were “original” icons from Thrace.
For me, the most powerful element of the rituals was the music. The music is played by three archaic instruments: the drum, Lyra and Kaba Gaida (Bulgarian bagpipe). The Konaki I visited, Malike, had the drum, three Lyra and three singers. It is said that this music is the original music and that it has been unchanged for thousands of years. Some say that this ritual predates even Greek civilization.
I sat on the bench that wraps the perimeters of the room in the center of the Konaki where the dancing takes place and when the music began to play, it was feeling that shot straight through my body. It felt as though it was passing through the layers of my existence; vibrating into my bones, into my brain and nervous system. It hit me on a physical level but it was also deeply emotional. How can I explain this? It was simple, repetitive music but immediately I began to cry. I felt shook by this music. Changed.
I was so fortunate as to how I entered into this Konaki. It was through a friend of a friend who has been practicing Anastenaria for over 20 years. He allowed me to be his companion for these three days and through him I was graciously welcomed into what felt like a family’s most sacred ceremony. I felt incredibly humbled and honored to be there. This particular Konaki was very small with only about 15 people observing the rituals and 4 people fire walking. Others came to witness the fire walk late at night but throughout the whole day of ceremonies, it was very intimate and community centered. And because of this, I was allowed to also participate in the celebration as much as an observer could. I was a part of the family for these days, sitting next to the grannies, being blessed by the icons, kissing, praying and adoring them, setting the feasting table with the women after the rituals had concluded. This is not my religion or my culture but I can tell you that I absolutely felt blessed by this experience and cleansed by the music entirely.
On one of the three nights there was a thunderstorm that passed through the region. The coals still burned strong but because the mud can make the coals stick to the feet they decided not to do the fire walk. When I asked one woman, a matriarch in the community, if she felt disappointed, she answered “When I walk in the fire, time and space don’t exist. But the fire is only one element of this. There are many elements of this celebration and most of them you can’t see. They happen inside.” She pointed to the walls of the Konaki and then to her heart. I understood in that moment that this ritual is deeply personal and one of the spirit and heart.
Over the days that I spent with my new friend who introduced me into the world of Anastenaria I asked him many questions. But ultimately, I wanted to know why he needed to do this and he said for three reasons:
To cleanse myself
To be a channel for spiritual energy
When I reflected on his answer, I realized that those were exactly the same reasons that had brought me on this pilgrimage. It is less than a month after the experience and I feel that whatever it was that I experienced there, is still happening and processing inside me. I also have a need to return for I feel that I only peaked through the door of such a significant and ancient ritual.
Oh, and after watching my guide stomp on probably about a 5 inch depth of burning coals, I asked him if he, in over 20 years of practicing this ritual multiple times a year, if he ever got burnt? And he said “No, never.... well, actually once and it was because I was carrying anger in my heart.” I was stunned.