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The religious communities I photographed called Anastenaria. The religious beliefs of the members of those communities appear to be no different than the average Greek’s. The group consists of people of all ages and educational backgrounds. They participate fully in Orthodox Christian religious life and rituals. Their dogmatic beliefs are no different than those of the average Orthodox Greek layperson, and they go to church regularly. What sets them apart from the rest, however, is that —in addition to the Church rituals— they observe a unique annual ritual cycle, which begins on October 26 and ends on August 15 every year. The central figures of the tradition are saints Constantine and Helen, but all the significant events in this cycle coincide with important days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, and are related to various Christian saints. The most dramatic moment of this ritual cycle is the firewalking ritual itself, where the participants, carrying the icons of Saints Constantine and Eleni, dance over the burning-red coals. The duration of the festival is three days

Finally, the festival begins on the Eve of the Saint’s day, May 20. In charge of the ritual is the Arhianastenaris, the leader of the group. The preparation takes place in the konaki, a special room built specifically for this purpose. Inside the konaki, candles and incense are burning. The icons of Saints Constantine and Eleni, wooden rectangular gold- or silver-plated emblems of portable dimensions (usually 30 by 40 cm) picturing the two saints, are placed in a distinguished spot. They are partly covered with a red cloth and decorated with flowers, scarves, ribbons, money, and various offerings (anathimata). These offerings are made by or on behalf of people who are severely ill, as an appeal to the Saints for healing. They are usually made from silver or gold, and they often depict the part of the body that needs to be healed, e.g. a hand or a heart. Within the konaki, the Anastenarides stay up all night, dancing to the sound of the lyre and the drum, praying and meditating.

The procession begins from the konaki, and it includes the Anastenarides, children holding candles, the musicians, as well as various spectators and tourists. When they arrive at the fire, they begin dancing around it, spinning and moaning, until they reach a state of trance. Then, holding the icons of the Saints, they start walking on the burning coals until the fire has been completely put out

The Anastenarides claim to be guided by Saints Constantine and Eleni, especially the former, who often appears in their dreams and gives them advice or orders. They draw their inspiration from the icons of the saints. According to one legend, at some indefinable mythical time the church of Saints Constantine and Eleni in Kosti, the alleged birthplace of the cult, caught fire. As the church burned, the villagers heard the icons crying for help. The bravest rushed into the burning church to save them; neither they nor the icons were harmed by the fire. To commemorate this miracle, the citizens of Kosti organised an annual firewalking ritual.

Dimitris Xygalatas