I should have known that my plans were in the hands of Fate when I got food poisoning two days before my departure from Athens to attend a much anticipated performance of fire dancing at the annual May 21st Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in northern Greece. I was determined to go. The pharmacist assured me that the box of capsules he prescribed would do the trick. Just to make sure, I bought a second box to take during the overnight train ride to Thessaloniki.
Upon arrival in Thessaloniki, I went straight to the bus depot. The fire dancing takes place in the town of Langadas, a forty-kilometer journey. As I sat in a nearby park while I waited for the bus, a strange sensation came over me. I felt disoriented, dizzy and light-headed, strangely out-of-touch with reality. My senses seemed numb as if my mind and spirit had completely left my body. I began to panic. I felt as though I were dying. I imagined the horrified reaction of my family in Canada when they learned that my body was found on a park bench here in this foreign country. Alone and anonymous, I scribbled down information about myself on a scrap of paper and put it in my pocket just in case.
Three police officers appeared. I considered appealing to them for help. Instead, I took a deep breath, sipped some water, and told myself it was all in my imagination. Anyway, it would be better to die in a hotel bed than on a park bench. So I got on the bus headed for Langadas.
Langadas is a quiet farming community with tidy houses, rose arbors and vegetable gardens. I had no trouble finding my hotel, the Lido. It’s the only one in town. I bought a souvlaki to eat and went up to my room to sleep off the light-headed and disoriented feeling I had. But even after I woke, the euphoric out-of-body sensations persisted.
I went for a walk breathing in the fresh pungent air of the countryside. Still I felt strange, disconnected from reality. I considered going to the local hospital. First I’d go back to the hotel, shower and change my travel-soiled clothes. I wanted to die looking presentable.
While combing my hair, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed how my eyes were glazed, the pupils small as pinpoints. The I realized that the strange euphoria I had felt all morning must have been caused by drugs. The diahorrea medicine!
A local pharmacist confirmed it. “You shouldn’t have taken more than the one box dosage,“ he scolded. I had overdosed on opiates. I wasn’t going to die. I was just stoned. The instruction on the package had been all Greek to me!
That trauma taken care of, I set off to find the Anastenarides, the famous mystics who dance barefooted on hot coals and somehow miraculously never get burned.
In Greece, the Orthodox Church considers Fire Dancing to be a pagan ritual, even though the initiates claim that their unswerving faith in God protects them from the fire. The Fire Dancing is performed every year on the Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in the Greek Macedonian towns of Seres and Langadas. Although the Church has ceased to heap fire and brimstone on the Fire Dancers, the ceremony is still secretive.
I roamed around the town asking several locals where I could see the fire dancing. My question was greeted with a stern look and stony silence. Why such mystery? I wondered. Near the outskirts of town, I located the small Church of the Saints, but there was only a wizened crone dressed in black solemnly tending the graves. No sign of Fire Dancers. A small midway had been set up on the roadside near the Church with carnival rides, game booths and fast-food cars. Behind the midway the field was cordoned off with a picket fence and rows of wooden chairs had been set up. A group of gypsy women dressed in bright flowered skirts and colorful kerchiefs surrounded me. They smiled at me, their gold teeth gleaming.
“Pou einai oi Anastenarides?” I asked. “Where are the Fire Dancers?” Once again my question was greeted with the typical lift of the shoulders, chin and eyebrows, which translates “I don’t know.”
Back at the Hotel Lido, I struck up a conversation with Marc, a Belgian photojournalist. He had also spent a fruitless day searching for the Fire Dancers. He had learned that the fenced-off part of the midway was where the Fire Dance would be performed.
“It’s held outside of town because of the Church’s edict,” he explained. “The presence of the carnival and gypsies gives the Fire Dancing more of a circus atmosphere, which is acceptable to the town folk.”
Marc’s detective work proved more fruitful than mine did. The next morning he located the konaki, the house of the Anastenarides where a calf had been sacrificed as part of the mystic rites.
“The house is not far from the church,” he said. “The ritual dancing begins this afternoon followed by the Fire Dancing.”
I set off toward the pastures at the edge of town. I could hear the distant throbbing of drums, and followed the sound to a low-roofed house with a long porch on which many people had gathered.
I approached the house cautiously, not sure if I would be permitted to enter but I was welcomed into a large room where benches had been arranged around the walls for spectators. The sharp aroma of incense and bees wax permeated the air. At one end of the room was a table heaped with religious relics, ornate silver icons and varnished paintings of the Saints. As visitors entered, they lit slender bee’s wax candles and genuflected before the icons. In front of the altar table, the barefooted Anastenarides, both men and women, whirled and swayed as they danced to the throbbing of a big single-sided drum, a wailing clarinet and the whining strings of a lyra. They circled the room in front of the table of religious relics. As they danced they clutched icons and waved red handkerchiefs decorated with silver and gold talismans to ward off evil and made strange groaning sounds, which give them their name. Anastenarides is derived from the Greek word anastenagmos, meaning “to groan”.
The mood in the room was one of reverence. As the haunting cadence of the music filled the room, a gray-haired elder carried around a clay smudge pot and drenched the participants and spectators with fragrant sage-scented smoke. I thought of the similarity to our North American aboriginal ceremonies.
The monotonous booming of the drum had a hypnotic effect. After several hours, in a state of Fire Dance just as hundreds of years before, their forefathers performed their perilous walk through fire.
These mysterious rituals began during the invasion of the Tartars who swept through the Byzantine Empire burning and pillaging. In a Macedonian town, a church named for Saint Constantine had been set ablaze. The parishioners who went through the flames to rescue the priceless icons were miraculously not burned. To the Anastenarides, the Fire Dance represents the triumph of good over evil. They belief it is their absolute faith in God and their ability to achieve a state of self-hypnosis, that allows them to dance on hot coals and remain unburned. It is truly an out-of-body experience.
Several hours passed. The music and drumbeats grew more intense. I felt mesmerized by the wailing minor chords of the music. Outside the konaki a large crowd had gathered. Suddenly there was a commotion. A contingent of local police had arrived. Where we to be arrested for participating in a pagan ritual? No, the police had come to escort the Fire Dancers to the carnival site.
A long processional formed. The spectators followed the Anastenarides down the country lane, accompanied by the musicians. Suddenly, as we trooped through the pastures toward the carnival site, ominous black clouds obscured the sky. A violent eruption of thunder boomed and dangerous spikes of forked lightening crackled earthward. A deluge of rain poured from the black heavens. Within minutes, the road was churned to mud and flooded with rivulets of water. As the drenching rain poured relentlessly down, the Anastenarides clutching their precious icons, ran for cover back to the konaki. I found shelter under the eaves of a farmhouse with Marc, the photojournalist.
“No fire dancing tonight,” Marc laughed. The two of us were soaked to the skin.
“Tin oh kahnomay,” I replied with a typical Greek shrug. “What are we to do?” It was the hand of Fate. I knew it!
There was still one more day left of the religious celebration. The next morning dawned bright and sunny. No sign of storm clouds. Once again I went to the house of the Fire Dancers and spent the afternoon watching the initiates dance. Just as it had the day before, a crowd gathered, the dancers performed their rituals, the musician played, and in the evening a processional formed to parade down the country lane. Then, at exactly the same moment, as the Anastenarides left their konaki, it began to storm. Once again it seemed that the Fire Dancer’s mystic communion with the Saints had been squelched by an Unseen Power.
“Somebody up there definitely doesn’t want this to happen,” I remarked to a bemused black-robed priest who watched from under the shelter of his umbrella as the rain-soaked Anastenarides scrambled back into their house.
He shrugged, lifting his chin and eyes heavenward. “Ti krema!” he said. “What a pity!” There was a smug smile on his face.
Disappointed, I left the konaki and made my way through the downpour back to my hotel. I had to leave Langadas the next morning. I’d have to wait for another time to see the Fire Dancers perform. The only out-of-body experience that year was the one I’d had on the park bench in Thessaloniki.
To View You Tube films of the firedancers: