The custom is said to have originated with the Greek population of the village of Kostis, now part of Bulgaria, when the local church of Constantine and Helen caught fire and the residents ran to save the icons
The wood is on fire, they will become hot coals and the people dancing around them, barefoot, with icons and handkerchiefs in their hands, will start to catch fire, stepping with their bare feet on the glowing coals… The sighing, a custom unique in the world, is revived today in Lagada Thessaloniki. The preparation has already started in the morning, with the mourners returning to the houses with bagpipes and lyres, and calling for participation for the lighting of the fire, in the late afternoon. The firing will begin after nine in the evening, once the coals have been digested and once the ritual around the fire has been completed.
“Anastenarias are connected to our religion, a value and a timeless truth for our communities”, explains, speaking to the APE-MPE radio station “Agency 104.9 FM”, the anastenaria Sotiris Gaydatzis, from Lagadas, Thessaloniki.
“It’s purely a matter of faith. Without her it is impossible to happen. I’ve been shooting since I was a kid, I’ve never been burned. No one knows, even when the dance around the fire has begun, how long it will burn, it is when Grace comes to him… that is why one dances a lot on the fire, another less. This is what we learned from our ancestors, this is what we do,” he adds.
The custom is very old. Legend has it that it started with the Greek population of the village of Kostis, now part of Bulgaria, when the local church of Constantine and Helen caught fire and the residents ran to save the icons. According to tradition, the flames did not touch them and they managed to get the holy relics out of the church. The tradition is revived by firing and continued by the descendants of the refugees from Eastern Romilia, in the Greek regions where they settled in the second twenty years of the 20th century (Treaty of Neygi, 1919). For example, the custom is observed in Meliki Imathia, Mavrolefki Drama, Kerkini and Agia Eleni Serres and Lagadas Thessaloniki.
The descendants of the refugees repeat the fireworks every year, honoring Saints Constantine and Helen on May 21, 22, 23, but also Saint Athanasios and Saint Euthymius on January 18 and 20 and Saint Panteleimon on July 27. “They are the patron saints of these villages and for this reason, every year they are honored by our communities. There are winter, spring and summer anastenaria”, explained Mr. Gaidatzis.
The custom has caused worldwide admiration and has attracted the attention of domestic as well as foreign media. In fact, recently, a television crew from Japan arrived in Greece to record the firing and show it in the special exhibition with religious customs. But also ordinary visitors from all over Greece come to see with their own eyes what is happening and some, in fact, do not hesitate to participate, after first being introduced to the anastenari communities and following their dance.
“We have mourners from other regions who came and loved the custom, respected it, approached it with humility and are now firing with us, they are with us in our celebrations,” adds Sotiris Gaydatzis, whose children – his son is 17 and his daughter 11- have yet to fire. He says they can do it when they feel ready. After all, this was the advice he himself heard, when he was a child, from his own father, who passed away at the age of 86 and was a sigher throughout his years.
“My father did not force me to become a sigher. He told me if and when I feel I can, then to follow. He, in fact, made a bonfire, that is, he didn’t just dance, he didn’t cross the fire from one side to the other, like most of us do, but he stood on it, stepping motionless on the burning coals… My father had a special relationship with the icons, no one else had it in this dimension, he was the only one.”
At the time of firing, it is not only the soles of the anastenaris that are invulnerable to the fire. “Any part of our body that comes into contact with the coals is not going to be harmed,” he says characteristically and adds: “At that time you can see me kneeling down and extinguishing the coals with my hand, extinguishing them in my palm . I don’t get anything. That’s what my mother used to do too… On the other hand, my children make fun of me in the summer at the sea, on the beach, when I complain because my feet are burning from the sand!”
The basic condition is faith, he maintains, because in the past there were also unpleasant incidents with some who, out of curiosity, tried to step on the glowing coals and suffered serious burns on their soles. He notes, that usually these happen from those who question the custom do not have faith in what they are doing. He clarifies, however, that at the time of the firing the mourners are not taken over by ecstasy, they simply dance barefoot, holding icons, or handkerchiefs, the “amanetia” in their hands, before stepping on the burning coals.
“The things about ecstasy are myths, we have full contact with the environment, we communicate with each other normally, we are fully aware of the situation”, underlines Mr. Gaydatzis.
The preparation of anastenari has nothing to do with diet, nor with any special technique, as he explains, they can eat or drink normally. Usually, they all dine together on a carpet spread by the fire, after the firing, when the coals are completely extinguished and the custom is complete.
Tonight, at six o’clock, the mourners will gather in their small town near the church of Agios Panteleimon, in Lagadas, and begin their preparations for the firing. Men, women, young and old will dance and rhythmically walk on the burning coals once again, as they have been doing continuously for years now, reviving this old and special custom of firing.
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