The room was dimly lit, illuminated solely by a weak yellow gentle bulb and the flames from the hearth. A small group of women and men, clutching the holy icons of Greek Orthodox saints, was dancing and twirling across the flooring underneath the sound of the devices: a Thracian lyre, a gaida, a tambourine. The dancers, surrendering to the music, had their eyes closed.
Everyone sang collectively:
Constantine the little one, little Constantine,
His mom had him, she took care of him whereas he was very younger,
A message got here for him to go to conflict,
He saddles and horseshoes his horse within the evening,
He places silver petals, golden nails and a pearl on the saddle.
Their voices carried exterior into the wet streets. Some time later, in a type of an ecstasy, they started strolling barefoot on burning coals.
Each yr on May 21, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Constantine and Saint Helen. In the small village of Lagadas, about half an hour exterior Thessaloniki in northern Greece, the celebrations final for 3 days and embody a spectacular fire-walking ritual referred to as Anastenaria, the phrase for which derives from the Greek “anastasi,” that means resurrection.
In 2016 I traveled to northern Greece to satisfy a few of the individuals who keep these traditions.
The household and shut pals of Anastasios Gaintatzis are a few of the final remaining contributors. Mr. Gaintatzis, who’s 85, is among the oldest fireplace walkers within the nation. His household, who as soon as lived in what’s at this time the Bulgarian city of Kosti, in japanese Thrace, arrived in Lagadas in 1923, after the compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
The folks gathered right here had been members of a membership fashioned by the Gaintatzis household in 1994 to assist perpetuate the native fire-walking traditions.
Ethnographers consider that the ritual has its roots within the historical Greek celebrations of Dionysus — and that, by the years, the pagan traditions have melded with Orthodox rites.
Others consider in a neighborhood legend that attributes the origins of the ceremony to when the church of Constantine and Helen caught fireplace in Kosti, many lots of of years in the past. According to lore, the voices of the saints had been heard pleading for assist contained in the church. Villagers entered the flaming constructing to rescue the saints’ icons, and, after they got here out, neither the rescuers nor the icons had been harmed. They’d been protected against the hearth by the saints.
The Anastenaria ritual begins on the konaki, a particular shrine devoted to the saints, the place the icons are positioned among the many amanetia (crimson handkerchiefs which are thought-about sacred by the hearth walkers) and different tributes.
Then the musicians arrive and the celebration begins.
The fire-walking ceremony is normally carried out exterior, however in 2016 a heavy rainfall compelled the occasion indoors.
One of the group members positioned massive items of wooden on the hearth and, by the point scorching coals had fashioned, everyone was prepared to start. The celebrants eliminated the carpet, scattered the burning coal on the bottom and, one after the other, began strolling on it, barefoot, with closed eyes, virtually drunk with the feelings of the second.
Some contributors walked slowly, others extra shortly. They adopted the rhythm of the music. I attempted to pay shut consideration to their faces. They confirmed no indicators of ache or inconvenience. In truth they appeared slightly calm and peaceable.
When the primary batch of coal had cooled, a second batch was introduced out from the hearth, and the ceremony continued unabated.
Even as a spectator, I felt a swell of emotion whereas watching the hearth walkers — and maybe even the deep thriller and divinity of the second.
The Anastenaria rituals in Lagadas normally entice dozens of individuals from the encircling space, however on the primary day the poor climate saved most guests away. The following two days, nevertheless, after the rain stopped, many individuals got here to observe — and this time the fire-walking pit was arrange in an outside space close to the konaki, supplied to the celebrants by the municipality.
Metal boundaries had been organized in a big circle to maintain the viewers protected, and within the middle members of the group lit an enormous fireplace on a pile of wooden. As evening fell, folks gathered round to observe. When the hearth walkers and the musicians left the konaki, it was already pitch black exterior. All the lights within the space went off, and the one factor you may see was the burning coal. The crowd stared in silence as the hearth walkers rushed onto the embers.
After the celebration, the members of the group gathered again on the konaki and ate scorching bowls of soup to assist chase away the chilly climate. They supplied a bowl to me, too. Soon everybody had departed aside from Anastasios Gaintatzis.
Mr. Gaintatzis has lengthy tried to maintain the customized alive by bringing new relations and shut pals into the fold at any time when attainable. But it’s not a simple activity, he stated.
“It’s something that can’t be taught,” he advised me. “It’s the saints who call you.”