Anastenaria - perhaps the oldest living tradition on the European continent.
Updated: May 22, 2020
This is an account of my journey witnessing the Anastenaria. The information I have here is primarily from conversations with the people who practice Anastenaria as well as my personal research.
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 in northern Greece. This was a solo journey and a true pilgrimage of the heart.
It is said the Anastenaria is the oldest living European tradition, with elements still practiced unchanged from ancient times. The Anastenaria’s origins are from a part of Bulgaria that was ancient Thrace and this fire walking ritual is considered to be a part of Thracian culture that has been passed down through family lineage for generations. The communities in northern Greece that practice this ritual are descendants of refugees from the Balkan wars of the early 20th Century. These families firmly claim that the origins originated in the Middle Ages when the church of Saint Constantine in their original home in Kosti, Bulgaria, caught fire. When the villagers heard the voices of the burning saints calling to them from inside of the church they rushed in to rescue the icons emerging from the fire unharmed thanks to the protection of the saints. However, the overwhelming opinion of ethnographers is that the ritual predates even modern Greek civilisation being vestiges of Dionysian cults who's origins can be found from 1500–1100 BC.
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. This mother and son duo can be likened to Dionysus and his mother Semele who died by fire. The Anastenaria is performed in five villages of northern Greece: Ayia Eleni, Langados, Melike, Mavolefke and Kerkine and several villages in Southern Bulgaria.
It is said that the music used during the three days of ceremony is the original music that has been used since ancient times and that it has been unchanged for thousands of years.
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 at the end of each night where the participants dance, walk and stomp on fire coals unharmed. All actions of the ceremony revolve around holy icons of the saints.
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. I was told that this music is the original music and that it has been unchanged for thousands of years.
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 a 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. For these days I wasn't a tourist but a humble observer allow to sit beside the family. 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.
Here is a tiny snippet of the music played during the Anastenaria. I only recorded it when my guide, a man participating in the Anasternaria, nudged me and whispered, "Record this!".
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:
1. To cleanse myself
2. To be a channel for spiritual energy
3. To heal
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 a 10cm 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.