The Anastenaria (Bulgarian Нестинарство, Greek Αναστενάρια) is a traditional fire-walking ritual performed in some villages in Northern Greece and Southern Bulgaria. 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 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
The Bulgarian and Greek villages perform a unique annual ritual cycle, which begins on May 21 and ends on May 23 every year. The central figures of the tradition are Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, but all the significant days in this cycle coincide with important days in the Greek Orthodox calendar and are related to various Christian saints. The two major events in this cycle are two big festivals, one in January and particularly one in May, dedicated to these two saints. Each of the festivals lasts for 3 days and involves various processions, music and dancing, and an animal sacrifice. The festival culminates with a firewalking ritual, where the participants, carrying the icons of saints Constantine and Helen, dance ecstatically for hours before entering the fire and walking barefoot over the glowing-red coals, unharmed by the fire
Each community of the Anastenaria has a special shrine known as the konaki, where their holy icons are placed, as well as the "signs" of the saints (semadia), votive offerings and red kerchiefs attached to the icons. Here, on the Eve of the saints' day, May 20 Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, they gather to dance to the music of the Thracian lyre and drum. After some time they believe that they may be "seized" by Saint Constantine and enter a trance. On the morning of the Saints' day, May 21, the gather at the konaki and proceed to a well to be blessed with holy water, and sacrifice animals. The rules about the nature of the beasts to be slain are precise, but differ from village to village. In the evening a fire is lit in an open space, and after dancing for some time in the konaki, the "anastenarides" go to it carrying their ikons. After dancing around it in a circle, individual anastenarides dance over the hot coals as the saint moves them. The ritual is also performed in January, during the festival of Saint Athanasius, and fire-walking is done indoors.
According to some myths the custom originated in the Middle Ages when the church of Saint Constantine in their original home in Kosti, now in Bulgaria, caught fire, and the voices of the saints calling for help could be heard from inside. The villagers who braved the flames to rescue them were unharmed, being protected by the saints. Most ethnographers, however, have argued that the Anastenaria are vestiges of ancient practices of cults of Dionysus .
The Anastenaria today
Today, the rituals of the Anastenaria are performed in five villages of northern Greece: Ayia Eleni, Langadas, Melike, Mavrolefke, and Kerkine. In addition, the ritual is still performed in six Bulgarian villages in the Strandzha Mountains: Balgari, Gramatikovo, Slivarovo, Kondolovo, Kosti, and Brodilovo.
- Xygalatas, Dimitris (2011). "Ethnography, Historiography, and the Making of History in the Tradition of the Anastenaria" (PDF). History and Anthropology. 22: 57–74. doi:10.1080/02757206.2011.546855.
- Danforth, Loring M., Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement, Princeton University Press, (Princeton NJ, 1989)
- Kakouri, Katerina, Dionysiaka, (Athens, 1965)
- Megas, George A., Greek Calendar Customs, 3rd ed. (Athens, 1982)
- Turkish Anastenaria
- The Anastenaria: The Ancient Ecstatic Fire-Walking Ritual of Greece
- Nikov, Nikolay. Holidays of the Bulgarians in Myths and Legends, 21 may, (Yambol 2004)
- Tomkinson, John L., Festive Greece: A Calendar of Tradition, Anagnosis, (Athens, 2003) ISBN 960-87186-7-8
- Nestinarstvo - the Bulgarian version of this ritual.