21 JUNE 1963, Page 10

The Anastenaria



WE are waiting for five women to walk on fire. There must be about two thousand people out- side the ropes which enclose the village square. Inside, every five yards, a policeman to hold them back, and either on chairs or squatting round the war memorial, about fifty officials, officers, scholars, folk-lorists or mere foreigners. A man is chopping wood and heaping up the fire.

`Can you change my film, please?' says the American ethnologist. don't dare.'

She has come down from Geneva especially for today. Last year and the year before she was in Spain for a Pyrenean midsummer firewalking festival. Today she hopes to find Greek parallels, common origins.

Everywhere there is mud; on the roads mud pockmarked by cows' hooves, in the square mud merging into puddles with islands of firm ground. The fire is lit now, and spectators start to take photos. Two men come up with. a wheel- barrow and shovel sand over the puddles. Gradually the earth becomes firm, Now we can hear the tympanum beating the approach of the Anastenarides. They wind under the dripping trees, ready to dance barefoot on the fire.

The ritual started the day before, the eve of Saints Constantine and Elene. At about six the firewalkers met in the house of their leader, in the konaki, the room where the Saints' holy icons hang throughout the year, to be taken out for the festival. The Anastenarides dance till mid- night in preparation for their ordeal.

Who are they? In the late nineteenth century Hourmouziades described a religious sect of Anastenarides who came from an enclosed valley in north-east Thrace—Kior Kaza to the Turks— 'The Blind District.' Most of the villages con- cerned were Greek-speaking, but a few were Bulgarian, and both Greeks and Bulgars have been at pains to claim the festival as a national possession. In the wilds of Thrace it was an elaborate affair lasting a full week. (Dangerous, too, perhaps. According to the Great Greek Encyclopedia, a stranger who was moved to laugh at any part of the ritual was liable to be murdered by the participants.) On St. Constantine's Day a bull was sacrificed for the good luck of the village, and every night the orgiastic dance brought the Anastenarides to a pitch of religious fervour where they could tread on the burning coals. They danced round the fire, holding the icons, almost in ecstasy, crying out involuntarily; and round them in a wide circle danced the rest of the villagers. The music was of flute, bagpipe, lyre and tympanum. From time to time an Anastenares would offer his icon to the bystanders to be kissed. After the fire dance they wound in procession to some neighbouring hamlet and were welcomed there, since they carried the Saint with them. The Saint was visiting his brother, and the young men might try to stop him leaving his home.

During the rites, if a man or woman fell victim to the frenzy, began to run or jump, foamed at the mouth, shook with spasms and finally fainted, there was a phrase for it: 'The Saint took him,' or `The icon summoned him.' When he came to, he would seize an icon, dance, and rush off to the mountains, where eventually exhaustion put an end to the madness. Later, usually, he would remember nothing. And thus the Saint chose his new devotees.

They were an astonishing sect : illiterate, austere and holy, for the Saint called them and the Saint calls only the pure. They had the com- munity in their grasp. Except on St. Constantine's Day they rarely went to church. They rarely took communion, and never confessed to a priest. Perhaps their position as spiritual leaders would not allow them to show too much respect• to Orthodoxy. Relations with the church are still shaky, and at this time priests from other villages were excluded from the ritual for fear they might report it to the bishop.

And nowadays? Frontiers have shifted and populations have been transplanted. Since 1923 most of the Greek-speaking Anastenarides have found themselves in Macedonia, where they have maintained the traditional rites; first secretly in their houses, and of, recent years, encouraged by folk-lorists and now by the public, openly. There are two centres, Agia Elene and Langada. (`Don't go to Langada,' I was told by the folk-lorists. `At Agia Elene the Anastenaria are more authentic. At Langada they are organised. Many tourists.') I went to Agia Elene! a tree-girt farm- ing village in the Macedonian fenlands, where the road is elevated and dykes split the fields.

In the konaki, on the eve of the festival, there were thirty or forty people collected. It might almost have been a press conference. Dr. Spyridakis, of the Folklore Archives, was tape- recording interviews with those who knew the rites. A young Frenchman who is making a film of Greece let his floodlamps sweep across the line of inscrutable faces. It was hot inside the room, which measured only four yards by four. When I went out for air, I could see a young stork perched on the roof, imperturbable in the fading light. The tympanum was setting up its monotonous beat. Together with the reedy Greek lyre it helps to intoxicate the dancers, charming them away from contact with their environment.

Next day's firewalking is what the visitors come to see. Down the road comes the pro- cession, the Anastenarides already conditioned by hours of dancing. Suddenly they are in the square. Without hesitation a young woman crosses the smouldering embers, spread into a carpet five yards wide. The film-makers rush to take up strategic positions round the fire. The crowd and the policemen shout, 'Down, down!' The flashbulbs cease to matter, the miracle is upon us. All five women are dancing, crossing and recrossing the coals, always in time with the music, step to beat. They brandish the icons, drawing strength from the Saints. Their faces are distracted but unhurt. They are quenching the fire with their bare feet and they must dance until the ashes die, it is said. And so we see one tread violently on a large smouldering Lump, jumping on it to crush the fire out of it.

They must be called to the fire. 'For me to dance the Saint must call me. He moves my body to dance, to shout. Whatever I do or say, the Saint does. I do nothing.'

And they cry out in high stretched tones, as if in sexual transport, `Aah, aah, aah!'

What do they feel? `In the madness of the dance we see St. Elene going before us with a jug of water, which she pours on the coals. And so the fire cools us and does not burn.' The fire dance is a kind of release from a madness self- imposed. Their state is not precisely ecstatic, for they retain some slight contact with their sur- roundings, and some at least can answer ques- tions. But they feel no pain, and it has been shown again and again that they suffer no burns.

This time they were on the fire for about ten minutes, and the embers still smouldered when they finished. When I picked up a cinder from the every edge it was too hot to hold for more than a few moments. I dropped it into a puddle and it sizzled until dead.

What is it all about? To the Orthodox Church it is idolatry. The rites might have been pre- vented this year when Archimandrite Gregory Michaelides of Salonika denounced the Anas- tenaria. To the villagers it is a ritual com- memoration of an historical event. 'Once the church was burnt down. It took fire and the icons were being burnt. The whole village came out and watched. From inside the church came voices. "Aah, aah!" The Saints were groaning in the flames. Then the Christians rushed inside. It wasn't long before you could see them coming out holding the Saints in their hands, and the people were amazed and fell down and wor- shipped. And since then the Anastenarides go into the fire. .

To the folk-lorists it is a blend of Christian and pagan of a kind which illustrates a theme so close to the Greeks; the continuity of Greek culture. The earliest evidence for the Anas- tenarides is a reference to a group of Asthenaria, `possessed by demons,' who encouraged a .revolt of the Bulgars in the late twelfth century. But there is no mention of firewalking, which was perhaps imported later from the East. As to the rest of the ritual, probably Constantine, founder of New Rome which is Constantinople, and his mother Elene, who found among other relics the True Cross, have imposed themselves on elements of Dionysian ritual.

And the future? The modern three-day festi- val is only a shadow of that celebrated at Koste in the last century. The rare icon type of the dancing Saints has disappeared. The circular dance which the villagers performed round the firewalkers has become a circle of shouting photographers. The Anastenarides have lost the prestige which they enjoyed in a small, enclosed, superstitious community. Even the music is emasculated, for now the pipe or flute has dis- appeared—an interesting development, since flute and tympanum are traditionally the instru- ments of orgiastic dances. But the hard core remains; dancing, firewalking and barbaric sacrifice. When one of the dancers was asked last year whether he was disturbed by the oppo- sition of the church, he replied, 'Not at all. We have a strong ally now. The government.'