Firewalking Ritual in Northern Greece Blends Faith and Tradition

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In the village of Mavrolefki, northern Greece, locals gather at a small shrine, clutching icons of Greek Orthodox saints, and dance to the rhythms of lyres and drums. This marks the beginning of "Anastenaria," a centuries-old ceremony culminating in a barefoot walk across hot embers.

Anastenaria, celebrated at the end of spring, commemorates an event from the village of Kosti, now in modern-day Bulgaria. According to legend, centuries ago, a church in Kosti burned down, and villagers, heeding the calls of Saints Constantine and Helen, rushed into the flames. Miraculously unharmed, they rescued the sacred icons—paintings of holy figures revered in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

As night falls in Mavrolefki, a large fire built from long sticks is reduced to a circle of white-hot embers. Hundreds of spectators stand behind a fence, watching as the brave few prepare to run across the burning coals.

“You definitely sense something at the core of your existence that makes you feel more redeemed, more freed,” said Haris Porfyridis, 48, moments before he took part in the ritual. Emerging unscathed, he noted, requires unwavering faith. “Sometimes, we feel a cold wave coming down to our feet and putting out the coals… If you challenge what’s happening even momentarily, you could get burnt.”

The ritual, a blend of ancient ecstatic dancing and Orthodox Christianity, was brought to Mavrolefki and four other villages by ancestors who migrated from Turkey in 1922. While physicists offer scientific explanations for the phenomenon, emphasising the careful technique needed to avoid injury, the villagers attribute their safety to their faith.

Fifty-year-old Maria Hriti, a yearly participant, believes the fire-walk is about conquering fear. “Some people may say ‘No, this doesn’t happen’… but we can reach another dimension when we believe and when we forget about our fears,” she said.

Her father, Kyriakos Hritis, 81, has never taken the leap of faith. “My deceased grandfather, my grandmother used to tell me that the saint had to show you a sign, a mark, and tell you ‘Get into the fire and you won’t get burned’,” he recounted. “But something holds me back, saying ‘No, don’t set foot, don’t step in, you’re not ready’.”

As the embers cool and the ceremony concludes, the villagers of Mavrolefki reflect on another year of Anastenaria, a testament to their enduring faith and cultural heritage.

(Source: Reuters/Pictures by Alkis Konstantinidis)

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