Reduced to ashes

Single-channel video, 05:35

“Anastenaria” is a religious ritual performed in a small number of villages in Northern Greece and South - Eastern Bulgaria. During the main part of the ritual, people of all ages dance for many hours, holding icons and other sacred objects in their hands, reaching a self-transcendent state. The repetitive and evocative rhythm of music does not just accompany this ritual dance but plays a particularly significant role in the participants’ experience. A bonfire is lit and the coals are then spread on the ground. The ritual reaches its climax with the “Anastenarides” dancing barefoot over the hot coals, until there are only ashes left.

The ritual is thought to have its origins in the Dionysian Mysteries that evolved in mainland ancient Greece, though according to others it is even older. Nowadays the celebrations of Saints Constantine and Helen form the frame for the current Christian adaptation of the ritual, which is still however considered as heretic by the Orthodox Church. The communities that currently participate in the ritual consist of families descending from refugees from Eastern Thrace that settled in Northern Greece during the forced migration movements that followed the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. For the “Anastenarides”, dancing on embers recalls the rescue of their holy icons from the fire that burnt down a church in their homeland, 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 “Anastenarides” keep dancing until they properly extinguish the coals, until they reach - together - a state of rebirth through this 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