Firewalking and Anastenarides

Written by Konstantia Douka

The custom of firewalking is the culmination of an annual ritual cycle of the Anastenaria. It is primarily performed on May 21st, which is the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen, in the wider region of Macedonia and Thrace. Its roots are deeply embedded in antiquity and were later Christianized.

The more recent historical appearance of the Anastenarides’ firewalking custom dates back to the 11th century in the northeastern regions of Eastern Romelia and the coasts of the Black Sea. From the 18th century onwards, there are records by scholars of the time, such as Anastasios Chourmouziadis, a professor at the Great School of the Nation.

The geographic core of the custom is the villages of Kosti and Brodivo, villages of Greek-speaking Orthodox populations in the southeastern part of Eastern Romelia (which now belong to Bulgaria). According to legend, when the Agarenes set fire to the church of Saints Constantine and Helen, some villagers, bold and devout Christians, rushed barefoot into the fire and saved the icons without getting burned. Since then, popular stories say that firewalking is a remembrance of this event.

From 1913, during the Balkan wars until the population exchange in 1923 (when these villages came under Bulgarian rule), the Anastenarides left with the icons of the Saints and scattered in many rural areas of Macedonia, primarily. The areas in Greece where firewalking and the Anastenaria are performed include Lagadas in Thessaloniki, Agia Eleni in Serres, Agios Ioannis in Serres, Kerkini in Serres, Mavrolevki in Drama, and Meliki in Imathia.

The firewalking ceremony nowadays lasts about three days; however, the Anastenarides prepare spiritually and physically from October. On Saint Demetrius’ Day, October 26, the Anastenarides gather at the “Konaki” and decide if the custom will be performed in the coming year.

Apart from the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen, there are other days throughout the year when firewalking is performed. These are less prominent but equally important. These days are on the feast of Saint Athanasios and Saint Panteleimon.

On the eve of Saint Constantine’s Day, they gather at the “Konaki,” a place for storing the sacred relics and icons of the Saints, called “Charres” and “Papoudes” respectively, as well as the vows “amanetia,” red scarves. Inside this space, preparation is done with psalms, lighting candles, and incense where the icons, vows, and offerings of seeds, barley, and wine are blessed. It is supported by music with dominant instruments being the drum (daouli) and the three-stringed Thracian lyre, while more rarely with the bagpipe or zurna. The icon of Saints Constantine and Helen, adorned with dedications, scarves, and ribbons, is usually found within the space where the Chief Anastenaris takes it and signals the start of the “dance,” following the rhythm of the instruments. This ritual will continue all night.

The next morning, on the feast day, the animal sacrifice takes place, usually of a ram or a bull 3, 5, or 7 years old, which is adorned with ribbons and flowers. The animal is led behind the Konaki or the church, accompanied by music, blessed by the priest, and then sacrificed. The meat is distributed to the homes of the Anastenarides. The procession returns to the Konaki where the wood that has been gathered begins to burn. As the wood turns into embers, the Chief Anastenaris signals the Anastenarides to emerge from the Konaki with the musicians. They form a procession with lit candles usually held by small children and a group of elder Anastenarides with their relatives. After circling the field where the burning took place three times, the Anastenarides’ songs begin, belonging to the cycle of “akritic songs” such as “Pa’ se prasino livadi” and “O Konstantinos o mikros,” which describe the feats of a hero named “Konstantinos.”

Barefoot, starting with the Chief Anastenaris, one by one, in pairs or groups of 6-8 people, from the oldest to the youngest, the Anastenarides walk on the burning embers, raising their hands high, like a prayer or open in the shape of a cross. They hold the icons tightly in their arms, step, dance, and sigh loudly. The firewalking will be completed once the embers have burned out and it is sealed with a feast at the Chief Anastenaris‘ house or the Konaki, after the symbols of the ritual have been safely placed inside.


Read also


  • ’68 Documentary: A historical documentary of the Anastenarides’ ceremonies in Agia Eleni, Serres, filmed in 1968 by the Venezuelan director M. L. Carbonell.
  • Domna Samiou Archive


  • Loring Danforth, The Anastenaria of Agia Eleni: Firewalking and Religious Experience, Plethron Publications, 1995
  • Iason Evangelou, Firewalking, and Anastenarides: Attempts at Scientific Interpretation of Acaia, Dodoni Publications, 1994
  • Nikos Pavlou, Ecstatic Phenomena, and Ethnology: L.M. Danforth’s Book “The Anastenaria of Agia Eleni: Firewalking and Religious Experience”
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