LAGKADAS, Greece — Sotirios Gkaintatzis danced across burning coals, his stomping bare feet raising sparks and puffs of smoke as he held aloft an icon of Saints Constantine and Helen.
Gkaintatzis is the leader of a group of anastenaria — the devotees of St. Constantine who celebrate these centuries-old rites in a smattering of small villages near Greece’s border with Bulgaria.
Firewalking is the most spectacular and public of these annual rituals that include dancing, prayer, and shared meals in the konaki, a private dwelling where the icons are preserved for generations.
“Dancing and firewalking is like communicating with the saints,” Gkaintatzis said through a translator before leading the solemn ceremony in the middle of a residential street in Lagkadas. “It cannot be translated into words. It’s all a matter of faith.”
This year’s festival carried extra meaning for Gkaintatzis’s group. It was the first since his father — the group’s former leader — died last summer, passing on the role to Gkaintatzis, who has been involved since boyhood.
On Monday and Tuesday evening in Lagkadas, anastenaria made the sign of the cross before kissing the saints’ icons as incense and music from drums, a lyra’s strings and a bagpipe filled the room. Then they danced with the icons.
“The aspect of how it’s possible to walk on fire is not the most important thing,” said anastenari Maria Luisa Papadopoulou, who’s been participating in the rituals since feeling called to do so more than two decades ago.
“Every time I’m afraid, and I’m doing this,” she added, making the sign of the cross as she watched a pile of oak branches burst into flames a couple of hours before they would turn into coals. “Always there’s an amount of fear related to respect.”
But most of all, the anastenaria feel empowered through the saints’ intercession to put out the smoldering embers. The firewalking becomes a symbol of purification and healing, not unlike similar rituals from North Africa to the South Pacific islands in which devotees undergo potentially dangerous, painful experiences as a sign of empowerment through belief.
As the darkness fell, Papadopoulou and a half a dozen other firewalkers took off their shoes and socks. After a final reverence, they carried the icons in procession through the garden onto the street where a bed of coals glowed. A small crowd gathered to watch.
The tradition originated in the late 1800s in Kosti, a small town a few miles from the Black Sea in what’s now Bulgaria, said Gkaintatzis, whose ancestors are from Kosti. His family was among the ethnic Greeks forcefully relocated to the region in the population exchanges driven by the Balkan Wars a century ago.
When the church of Saints Constantine and Helen in Kosti burned down, villagers walked through the flames to rescue the icons. They were unscathed, believing it was the result of the saints’ miraculous intercession.
The three-day festival centers on May 21 — this year, the date of Greece’s widely watched national elections. For Orthodox Christians, it is the feast day of two of their most important saints, Constantine and his mother, Helen.
Constantine, a fourth-century Roman emperor, converted to Christianity and laid the foundations for the Byzantine Empire, one of history’s most significant global powers, whose imprint deeply marks this region.
But the Orthodox church long persecuted the anastenaria’s devotion, seeing in the dancing and firewalking traces of pagan rites, said Loring Danforth, an anthropology professor emeritus at Bates College in Maine who wrote a book about the rites. Even today, priests tend to look askance and avoid participating in the celebrations.
The participants, however, are quick to emphasize their closeness to Christian doctrine. They’re also eager to preserve the mystery of their unique manifestation of faith.
“It’s a charisma to walk on fire. It cannot be interpreted or taught,” Gkaintatzis said.