The Anastenária Custom Explained.
The folklore custom that is predominantly connected with the feast of St Helen and St Constantine is the world famous “Anastenária”, a ritual of ecstatic dance and fire walking. Haven’t you heard about it?
Let me paint you a picture…
The custom is mainly located in the village of St Helen in Serres. The community was called Kakaráska and was renamed at 14/1/1927. The majority of the residents are refugee’s descendants. They were betaken to the region during the tragic persecutions of 1914-1922, when they were violently chased away from Kosti village in Eastern Thrace. Refugees brought the custom with them in their new homeland and tradition has it connected to a miracle:
At the time of the prosecution, the village was set to fire and the church of St Helen and St Constantine had turned in to the flames. People had to get the altar icon of the saints to support and comfort them during the hard times they were going and were about to go through, but the great fire ruining the temple discouraged them. However, there was one man who defied the fire and dared to jeopardize his life to save the icon. He went inside the temple and through the flames that devoured the sacred heirlooms he saw the two saints. They covered him with their cloaks, they guided him through the thick smoke to the place where the icon was and safely showed him the way out. This way he saved the icon which flames hadn’t touch at all. In remembrance of this miracle, every year on May 21st Anastenária is conducted.
According to the folklorist G. Lekakis, the custom comes from the times of St Constantine when his orphic (orphan) citizens conducted the orphic mysteries to honor Orpheus. Those were religious secret ceremonies that the Emperor allowed them to perform freely. So, after his death the faithful continued to perform those ceremonies on St Constantine’s name day.
The ritual starts on the evening of May 20th at the konáki (a special room in the house of the older anastenári where he keeps his icons – called anastenária as well). There, men and women gather to pray and meditate. At some point, lyre and davul begin to play the tunes of the ceremony. Anastenárides then start to dance an ecstatic dance, holding icons of the saints, amanátia (special, considered to be sacred handkerchiefs that pass on from one generation to the other) or podiés (fabric icon containers). The dance continues on until midnight.
Early in the morning, next day, they sacrifice a black animal; usually a bull and they prepare a kind of stew called courbáni which then is distributed to every house in the village.
On the evening people gather and start to dance on the konáki again. After sunset they begin a procession towards the central square of the village, where they have previously built a large fire. By that time the flames have fainted and only embers are left. The dance continues all around the ember and then Anastenárides leave the crowd and holding tight icons, amanétia and podiés, barefoot all of them, they dance upon the burning coal, towards all directions, singing hymns, traditional songs of the day – usually about Constantine; either referring to him directly as the saint either as the fictional Constantine Akritas which is a persona of the saint. The ones who dance on the embers are believed to be the chosen ones that were “caught by the saint”. It is popularly thought that some of the dancers reach a religious state of trance while dancing, explaining why their feet don’t burn and allegedly don’t feel any pain. When there only ashes left from the fire, Anastenarides take all of the sacred items back to the konáki. Fire walking is repeated again on May 23rd.
Traditionally the right to perform the ritual is hereditary and the head Anastenáris is succeeded only by his or her son or daughter and only when he or she too old or ill to continue performing it. In Bulgaria they have the exact same custom with the same ritual, but there it’s called Nestinarstvo and the ones who perform it are called nestinaries.