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Culture

Ancient Greek Fire-Walking Tradition Featured in the New York Times (Photos)

NEW YORK – The ancient tradition of fire-walking, known locally as Anastenaria, in northern Greece was featured in the New York Times.

On May 21, in the village of Lagadas, about half an hour outside Thessaloniki, the celebration of the feast day of Saints Constantine and Helen, includes the fire-walking ritual.

The Times visited the village in 2016 to meet the family and close friends of Anastasios Gaintatzis, “some of the last remaining participants” in the ritual. Gaintatzis, who was 85, at the time “is one of the oldest fire walkers in the country,” the Times reported, adding that “his family, who once lived in what is today the Bulgarian town of Kosti, in eastern Thrace, arrived in Lagadas in 1923.”

The people featured in the Times are “members of a club formed by the Gaintatzis family in 1994 to help perpetuate the local fire-walking traditions.”

“The room was dimly lit, illuminated only by a weak yellow light bulb and the flames from the fireplace,” the Times reported, adding that “a small group of men and women, clutching the holy icons of Greek Orthodox saints, was dancing and twirling around the floor under the sound of the instruments: a Thracian lyra, a gaida, a tambourine. The dancers, surrendering to the music, had their eyes closed.”

“Everyone sang together:

Constantine the little one, little Constantine,

His mother had him, she took care of him while he was very young,

A message came for him to go to war,

He saddles and horseshoes his horse in the night,

He puts silver petals, golden nails and a pearl on the saddle,” The Times reported.

“Their voices carried outside into the rainy streets,” the Times reported, noting that “a while later, in a kind of an ecstasy, they began walking barefoot on burning coals.”

“Ethnographers believe that the ritual has its roots in the ancient Greek celebrations of Dionysus — and that, through the years, the pagan traditions have melded with Orthodox rites,” the Times reported, adding that “others believe in a local legend that attributes the origins of the ceremony to when the church of Constantine and Helen caught fire in Kosti, many hundreds of years ago.”

“According to lore, the voices of the saints were heard pleading for help inside the church,” the Times reported, noting that “villagers entered the flaming building to rescue the saints’ icons, and, when they came out, neither the rescuers nor the icons were harmed. They’d been protected from the fire by the saints.”

“The Anastenaria ritual starts at the konaki, a special shrine dedicated to the saints, where the icons are placed among the amanetia (red handkerchiefs that are considered sacred by the fire walkers) and other tributes,” the Times reported, adding that “then the musicians arrive and the celebration begins.”

Gaintatzis “has long tried to keep the custom alive by bringing new family members and close friends into the fold whenever possible,” the Times reported. “But it’s not an easy task,” he told the Times.

“It’s something that can’t be taught. It’s the saints who call you,” the Times reported.

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