Reduced to ashes, 2019

Single-channel video, 05:32

“Anastenaria” is a religious ritual performed in a small number of villages in Northern Greece and South East Bulgaria. During this ritual, people of all ages dance for many hours, with icons and other sacred objects in their hands, until they reach a trance-like state of mind. The repetitive and evocative rhythm of music does not just accompany this ritual dance but plays a particularly significant role in the participants’ experience. The ritual climaxes with the “Anastenarians” dancing barefoot over hot coals, until there are only ashes left.

The Dionysian origins of the ritual (according to others it is even older) triggered my interest a few years ago - when I first heard about “Anastenaria”. I have been intrigued to look at the point where the destructive power of fire meets with Bakkheia (the frenzy that Dionysus induces in the Dionysian Mysteries), in which individuality vanishes.

Nowadays the celebrations of Saints Constantine and Helen form the frame for the current Christian adaptation of the ritual. For the “Anastenarians”, dancing on embers recalls the rescue of their holy icons from the fire that burnt down a church in the village Kosti, their homeland in Eastern Thrace, when the icons themselves “cried for help” according to the legend.

Over time, the ritual has gone through a lot of transformations and interpretations. It continues, though, to maintain its cathartic function for the participants, who seem to experience through it a feeling of purification, leaving behind whatever torments them. Their burdens are symbolically represented by fire; hence, the “Anastenarians” keep dancing until they properly extinguish the coals, until they reach - together - a state of rebirth through this self-transcendent experience. Their ritual dance, when seen stripped of its mythological connotations, apparently becomes an ultimate expression of a primordial human need, which keeps calling for help from within the flames, like their holy icons.

All Content © Nikos Papangelis