The Firedancers Of Greece
Feature by Willard Manus

Each year at this time, in many provincial villages of Greece, the locals reenact a drama whose pedigree scholars have traced back to pre-classical times. The drama is a startling relic of the ritualistic celebrations of the God Dionysos. While each village produces its own variation of the ceremony, the basic elements remain the same: animal sacrifice, ecstatic worship, and a bare-foot dance upon a bed of fiery coals.

The pagan rite is enacted by the Anastenarides, the sacred companies of devout men and women who live in the villages of Thrace and Macedonia. Many are resettled refugees from Asia Minor who brought their devotions back with them unchanged to the parts of Greece from which they first came. The Anastenarides are true Orthodox Christian but consider themselves something special besides.

The influence of the Anastenarides affects village life throughout the year. They are special people who pray apart from the local church, either in a private chapel or a sacred grove. They join their fellow villagers for a celebration of the liturgy generally only twice a year: on the Feast of Epiphany and on the Feast of Saints Constantine and Helena, their patron saints.

The chief Anastenaris is always a man known for the simplicity and purity of his life. Membership in his group is usually hereditary, as are some of the tasks in the fire-dance ritual itself, such as lighting and supervising the sacred fire or being custodian of the “handkerchiefs,” the small veils used to decorate the holy icons.

The Anastenarides frequently have been opposed by the Greek Orthodox clergy, who have criticized their devotion as “extravagant.” In 1833 an attempt was made to suppress the fire-walking ritual entirely. The icons were collected on order from the Patriarchate, and in every village they were tossed into a bonfire to be destroyed by the very element they had conquered annually. But the devotion persisted. The villagers had new icons painted or they lovingly repainted old ones scorched and blackened by the flames.

Today the ritual is tolerated by the Orthodox establishment, but in some villages the local priest may refuse to take his place beside the icons when they are displayed in the grove. It is his responsibility to bless the worshipers, but should he the blessing will be administered by the chief Anastenaris. Preparation for the fire-dance ritual begins in January, when the Anastenarides collect money in one of the holy handkerchiefs to purchase the animal whose sacrifice will begin their rite. If the village is wealthy, it will be a bull; if poor, a lamb. Each villager contributes what he can, even though the cooked meat will be meted out only to the initiates. It is understood that the sacrifice is being made for the benefit of the entire community.

At the beginning of Lent, the chief consults the icons to see whether the saints will give permission for the performance of the mime of Kalogeros, a clear survival of an ancient fertility drama.

Its main participant is a young man, masked and clad in animal skins and decorated with bells. He capers through he village banishing evil and is free to make bawdy remarks, especially to young, unmarried girls. If the chief is touched by ecstasy while burning incense and candles before the icon, the village will have its festival; if he is not, the ritual will not be performed.

On the eve of the feast of Constantine and Helena (May 21), the initiates gather at a shrine to meditate and pray. Their meditations will be accompanied by the music of a lyre, played with a bow, and by the powerful beat of a drum. In the morning the ceremony commences with the Anastenarides gathering to sacrifice the animal which has been lovingly tended and groomed. Church candles have been attached to its horns and a garland of red flowers is hung round its neck. It is ritually killed above a pit so that its blood will flow down into the earth, enriching and blessing it.

After the feast, the Anastenarides join the other villagers in church for the solemn celebration of the Orthodox liturgy. Then a procession carries the icons to the sacred grove. In the evening the initiates dance near the sacred fire to prepare themselves for the actual fire-walking. When the coals are ready, they lift the icons high and walk on to the simmering coals to dance. There is no hysterical frenzy, no cries or invocations. The Anastenarides straightforwardly and calmly perform a good act, giving witness to the power of the icons for the benefit of everyone.

Scientists, doctors and anthropologists have attended the fire-walking ceremony and examined the feet of the dancers both before and after the ceremony. No one has ever discovered any kind of deception or serious damage to the dancers’ bare feet. For three nights the Anastenarides keep dancing on the fire to invoke their gods. The climactic dance takes place at midnight on May 23. That’s when the chief takes the icon and enters the fire. He dances not for his own joy but to implore the saints to have mercy on the village, to protect it throughout the year and grant it a bounteous harvest. In Thrace, his ancient home, the rituals of Dionysos are alive and well.