The Barefoot Fire-Walking Ritual of “Anastenaria” Lives On in Greece

Hundreds of people who descended on the town of Langadas, near Thessaloniki, on Monday, were treated to the ancient ritual of “Anastenaria,” in which barefoot people walk on glowing coals.

The communities which celebrate this ritual are descended from refugees who entered Greece from Eastern Thrace following the Balkan Wars of 1911–12 and the harrowing population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.

The roots of this tradition are steeped in mystery — and a bit of controversy as well.

The Anastenarides hold that the origin of the ritual lies in a fire which took place at Kosti, near the Black Sea in the thirteenth century which set ablaze the church of Saint Constantine. As the empty church burned, the villagers claimed to hear cries coming from the flames and believed that they were appeals from the icons, desperately calling out for help.

Some villagers ran into the burning church to rescue them, returning quickly with the icons — and neither the icons nor their human protectors were burned or injured in any way. This occurrence, according to the fire-walking practitioners, prompted the annual celebration which the Anastenaria holds to commemorate their deliverance from the flames.

However, many scholars do not believe this to be the true origin of the Anastenaria ritual.

It is largely believed that the ceremony is the survival of an ancient Thracian Dionysian ritual which was later given a superficial Christian interpretation in order to be tolerated by the Greek Orthodox Church, which does not support the fire walking ritual since it is viewed as pagan.

The Anastenaria ritual is also performed in Bulgaria and is an important element of the cultural heritage of the Bulgarian people. In 2009 it was included on UNESCO’s world heritage list of cultural events.