Ancient Greek Ritual Revives in Serres



anastenariaAnastenaria, an ancient fire-walking ritual, which has its roots in the Dionysian rites – the Greek Orthodox church has not accepted the custom since it is considered pagan – was revived once again in Serres, northern Greece.

Every year on May 21, the Greek village of Agia Eleni fills with people who wish to witness first-hand the ancient Greek ritual that nowadays is only performed in a few villages in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria. In Greece, Anastenaria takes place in Kerkini near Serres, Lagadas near Thessaloniki, a few villages on the coast of Evros River and a small village near the city of Drama.

According to legend, the custom originated from the Middle Ages when the church of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen in the eastern Thracian village of Kosti caught on fire, the villagers tried to save the icons and relics. They entered the flaming church and grabbed anything they could reach. No one was burnt or harmed since they were protected by the saints.

Most ethnographers, however, have argued that the Anastenaria are vestiges of ancient practices of Dionysian cults.

Nowadays, the fire-walkers (anastenarides) gather in a special shrine known as the konaki, where their holy icons are placed, and they dance to the music of the Thracian lyre and drum. In the evening, a fire is lit in an open space and after dancing for some time in the konaki, the anastenarides carry their icons near the fire. They dance around it in a circle and individual anastenarides dance over the hot coals without getting burnt.