Who would have thought that in Orthodox Greece there is a real pagan festival called Pyrovassia? But it really is. True, the participants of the festival themselves consider it to be primordially Christian. The enchanting fiery spectacle, accompanied by dancing on hot coals, begins on May 21 and lasts for three days.
The date does not change from year to year and was not chosen by chance, since it is on the 21st day in the Orthodox church calendar that the day of memory of Saints Constantine and Helena is celebrated. Then is the pagan component of the holiday? Let's talk about everything in order.
HistoryThe Pyrovassia (Anastenaria) festival takes place only in two villages in northern Greece: Ayia Eleni, near Serres, and Langadas, near Thessaloniki. At the beginning of the 20th century, the inhabitants of these settlements moved to Greece from Eastern Thrace, the territory of which now belongs to Turkey. At home, the Anastenarians have been practicing similar festivities since at least the 13th century AD.
According to legend, the first ceremony was performed around 1250. It happened like this. Once in the village there was a fire ― the church of St. Constantine caught fire. From the temple in flames, people heard the voices of the saints, praying to save them. Without hesitation, the village men rushed to rescue the icons, and left the burning building alive and unharmed. Since then, in memory of this event on May 21, the day of Saints Helena and Constantine, Anastenarians arrange festive prayers, sacrifices and walk on hot coals. The last ritual does not cause any harm to health.
Well, how can a simple amateur not believe in a miracle? Certainly there is something in it. However, similar rituals associated with fire-walking (nesting) were widespread in antiquity. Now they also take place in different parts of the globe. Historians suggest that the founders of voluntary "executions" on their bodies were Hindu ascetics, thus achieving purification and liberation from all worldly things.
This practice took place in China, and in Japan, Mauritania and Polynesia, and even in some regions of Russia. So, on the feast of Ivan Kupala, people not only jumped over a burning fire, but also walked on hot coals.
Greek researchers believe that the origins of Nestinism should be sought in the ancient festivals of Dionysus, which were popular throughout Hellas and even beyond its borders. So in the south of present-day Bulgaria, Anastnarian festivities are still preserved in some villages. The rituals use the Greek language, which serves as evidence of the Hellenic roots of the origin of the rite.
Let's get back to the festival itself. Preparations for the main ritual begin in advance. Even in winter, the Anastenarian community buys a sacrificial animal, most often a black bull or a ram, in a club. The lamb must be of a certain age and parameters. So, for example, the slaughter of a castrated animal is not allowed. This rite is an echo of the cult of the god Dionysius, since there are no such ceremonies in the Orthodox Church.
Then, on the eve of the celebration, believers gather in special buildings "konaki" in the evening, a kind of prayer house. For the holiday, "konaki" is decorated with icons of saints, each image is hung with a bell. There, the Anastenarians pray and then dance to the accompaniment of the Thracian lyre and tambourine. The monotonous rhythms of the percussion instruments seem to put the participants into a trance state. The smell of incense and burning candles enhances religious ecstasy. By the morning of a sleepless night, most believers are already in a state of light trance.
CelebrationMay 21 is the main day of the holiday ― sacrifice. After the church service, people go to a special place in the open air, where, surrounded by pots of holy water and candles, they perform the rite of slaughter. The ritual is carried out in such a way that the blood from the throat of the animal flows into the ground. The meat is then distributed in equal parts among all the believers. With "prey", they go home to have lunch. The main dishes on the festive table are lamb or beef dishes.
By evening, the community again gathers at the agreed open place. Men kindle big fires. Believers bring icons of saints with them and place them at a distance. A burning lamp is placed in front of them. When the fire burns out, and red-hot coals are formed, the turn of the most important ritual comes ― fire-walking. All actions are accompanied by rhythmic beats on the big drum.
First, the Anastenarians dance around the fire, gradually entering a trance. Then some participants step on the hot ashes near the fire. After some time, you can see dancing on the hot coals. At the same time, the faces of people are calm, their gaze is distant, their eyes are half closed. Many carry icons over their heads, dancing right with them. In a state of deeply religious ecstasy, some fall to their knees and scoop up the ashes and coal with their hands.
After the ritual, all participants do not have even the slightest damage. For many spectators gathered around, this spectacle causes a real shock. You can see dancing on the hot coals. At the same time, the faces of people are calm, their gaze is distant, their eyes are half closed. Many carry icons over their heads, dancing right with them. In a state of deeply religious ecstasy, some fall to their knees and scoop up the ashes and coal with their hands.
Believers spend the rest of the evening in konaks, where they all eat together, sing songs and dance. For the next two days, the Anastenarians visit each other's houses, while making their rounds counterclockwise. Traditional treats are wine and raisins.
On the final day of May 23, believers gather in the elder's house, where they eat the traditional gifts of the earth: beans, onions and bread. The festival ends with a final dance on the coals, which is performed at the central crossroads of the village. It should be noted that in our time, the Greek Orthodox Church does not persecute the Anastenarians, and the rites have now become public. Now the festivities gather a lot of spectators, who specially come to enjoy the village folklore.
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