March 21 (Western calendar – Jun 3, Orthodox calendar) is the celebration of of Saints Constantine and Helena. It is known in Bulgaria as the day to enact rituals to prevent hail, but more famously it is known as the date a few villages in Strandja, Bulgaria, and few others in Greek Macedonia enact the ancient belief in fire-walking.
See also anastenária and nestinarstvo under DANCES< 3b.1stGENERATION
Fire-walkers – Greeks
know them as anastenária, from the the Greek verb anastenázo ‘to sigh,’ for the utterances made by dancers. Only about 5 villages in Greek Macedonia enact this ritual, and all of them are inhabited by descendants of Greeks expelled from Strandja, the easternmost part of Bulgaria and European Turkey, during the early 1900’s (see Strandja, under CULTURE>Ethnicity). In one of these Greek villages ‘the rite is best preserved, but only practiced in a closed initiated society where outsiders aren’t admitted, and it was this protectionism that saved Greek anastenaria in its authentic form.’* Today, several Greek villages stage fire-walking ceremonies, where tourists are invited to watch shortened enactments of parts of the festivities, staged by performing troupes.
Fire-walkers – Bulgarians
A few villages in Bulgarian Strandja still practice fire-walking, and also stage ceremonies open to the public. The fire walkers here are called nestinarstvo (from the Greek word estia, meaning ‘hearth’.
The Greek and Bulgarian rituals are similar, coming from the same sources – claimed by some to extend back hundreds of years to Hesychast monks, and by others to go back thousands to the ancient Thracians. Ceremonies include at least three separate dances – each with their own melody – one for circling the fire (all may participate), one for entering the fire, and another for while you’re on the embers. The melodies are hypnotic, the footwork simple. The focus is on entering an ecstatic state, not on executing fancy choreography.
Though it has always been believed the ecstatic state is critical for walking over hot coals unscathed, scientists have alternate theories.
Lately I’ve started the habit of picking up live coals that have popped out of my fireplace with my bare hands and throwing them back in the fire. Maybe it’s not the same as walking on coals, but I haven’t been burned, either.
To me the importance of fire-walking is not diminished by the possibility that it’s “normal physics.” Our minds determine our own reasons for why we do things, and it’s clear we all need some ritual in our lives. *Among the best descriptions and explanations I’ve found for what it means to be a fire-walker comes from this recently-published book by Kapka Kassabova; Border, a Journey to the Edge of Europe, 2017, publishers Granta Books, London, & Graywolf Press, Minneapolis.
The following is the second half of an excerpt describing a private fire-walking event not staged for tourists. For the afternoon prelude to this evening activity, read The Sacred Springs of Strandja under CULTURE>Special Occasions.
The author is at an off-the-map fire-walking ceremony, or Nestinarstvo deep in the forest in Strandja, Bulgaria, on the Turkish border. She is talking to Marina, an ethnographer and native of the area. They have arrived in May, when the Big Agiasma, a sacred spring, resumes running after winter dormancy.
‘This is how the Big Agiasma opened,’ she concluded, ‘and because of that, it’s here that the fire worshippers of each generation first tune in with the fire. Opening, undressing, bathing, dressing, moving in a circle anticlockwise, these are the rites that have been with us a long time.’
But what was the connection with fire?
‘It’s obvious,’ Marina said “Today is the fire festival of Saints Constantine and Elena. They are just a variation of the double cult of the Earth Goddess and her son and lover the Sun God. Representations of the Dionysian-Apollonian duality at the heart of fire worship. The solar and the chthonic come together. Briefly. They can only come together briefly.’
Stags were hunters and hunted. Mothers and sons were lovers.
“That’s how the metaphorical mind works.’ Marina smiled with nicotine teeth. Of course what I really wanted to know was when we would see the fire-walkers.
‘Fire is a nocturnal mystery” Marina said.
‘Does that mean we have to wait all day?’ But suddenly Marina was gone. Like a tree spirit.
‘The embers of the kurban traditionally become the stomping ground.’ someone at my table said. It was an odd-looking young man who sat without drinking. He was pallid and bug-eyed. The overall impression was of someone with reptilian-cold skin. This was one of the local nestinari.
Then the band arrived – a man with a huge drum, the chubby bagpipe player, a Gypsy accordionist with melancholy Egyptian features, and a young singer with a face like a sunflower. His arrival brought something new, as if a door had opened and a stream of light rushed in. His whole body beamed. The bagpipe approached down the path with a single quavering note, the sound of time itself, archaic, not of the conscious mind. The primal beat of the tupan set the rhythm, then the accordionist set the sorrowful melody, and sunflower face opened his throat.
A fever gripped the crowd. As if the forest clearing became suspended with all of us in it, each figure captured with drink in hand, reclining on the grass, peering into the river as into a mirror.
‘A true nestinar always has another gift,’ Marina said. She was back at the root of her tree. ‘Either song or prophecy.’
At the time of World War 1, she said, in the nearby village of Urgari, there was a great nestinarka called Zlata. She prophesied, with cruel accuracy, which of the young men of her village wouldn’t return. Other nestinari could see the future in a lump of coal, and somehow, the future was always bad news here. The visiting Greek women here today were the grandchildren of those old anastenarides who, just before the Balkan Wars, went onto the fire and saw it all with their second sight: war, exile, the lost houses, animals and children, the long, plundered road to Greece.
‘Why,’ they covered themselves in ash, ‘why sow fields, bear babies, build houses? Vuh, vuh, vuh, blackest of blackness!’
The abandoned houses next to my rented house had belonged to them, and they knew they’d never see them again even before they lost them. In the mass exodus of people across the new border after the Balkan Wars, some families lost babies and children in the forest. Paramilitary bands of every stripe attacked refugees of every creed, and the young weren’t spared. it was a typical Balkan predicament: a war that was more terrible for the civilians than for the combatants, and whose aftermath hums in the background, still.
‘Fire and water,’ Marina said. ‘It’s collective therapy. ‘Without it, people would go mad.’ She went on: ‘Fire and water, purifying but destructive. Which is why those who go into the fire have to channel something.’
‘Suffering,’ Marina said and stubbed out her cigarette on a tree root. ‘We all know suffering. But to come through it, come through fire and water and allow the rest of us to do it too – that’s why the passion for fire isn’t passed down in the family. Because its knowledge from elsewhere.’
Since the beginning of the fire cult, which may have been as far back as antiquity – fire worshippers and their communities came to the Big Agiasma to attunew themselves to the new season with its fire-sun, water-life, and forest-home. The first-known anastenarides-nestinari came from the Greek- and Bulgarian-speaking villages of Strandja. In Ottoman times this was known as kyor-kaz, the blind district. Why here? No one knows, and the two heartland villages of fire worship – Madjura (population 0), and Pirgopulo (population 0) – no longer exist on any map, their houses burnt during an uprising against the Ottomans the early twentieth century, their names, like border ghosts, evoked only in memory. Today, they would have been in Turkey.
They were typically women of reproductive age or older, and come May or June, a kind of passionate fit would seize them, a rush of desire for fire. Nothing else would do. Field work, children, and small-town decency were forgotten. They would go stone-cold and shivery, their eyes would turn, they would let their hair down, tear their clothes, and rush to the fire with moans of lament and passion. Vuh vuh vuh.
The earliest written records of Strandja fire worship date only from the 1800s, but there is a school of research that traces it back to our old friends the Thracians. True, the Thracian elite with their king-priests and their queen-princesses practiced the solo rituals of Orphism, while their plebs practiced the chthonic ecstasies of Dionysian rites. But whether the Thracologists are right or being a little fanciful, one thing is clear: Christianity is a fig-leaf for a primal spiritual practice. Typically, the rapture of the fire began with one woman or man, and infected the community over the day and night of the festival. Local priests often took a discreet part in the fire festivities, though to this day, the Orthodox Church condemns it as witchcraft – not surprisingly, since the Orthodox Church has never been known for its liberalism. In fact, the Greek Orthodox Church put an anathema on the practice so fierce that Greek astenarides had to tweak their instruments, and swap the animal-skin gaida (bagpipe) for the less animalistic lyra (fiddle).
The oral stories of great fire-walkers echo the nature of the worship: it is about seeking a balance between the human world and the spirit world. Zlata would go stone-cold just before the festival. She’d hug the red-hot stove and hold embers in her fists to warm herself. Once, out of embarrassment, her husband prevented her from going on the fire. Instantly, she was felled by a stroke and was paralyzed. But then she heard the beat of the tupan like the beat of blood, threw her blanket away, and rose from her bed. Like a sleepwalker she walked to the fire and entered it. The following season, the husband found himself moaning Vuh vuh vuh and running to the fire. He too had been seized. The revenge of Saints Constantine and Elena perhaps? In any case, Zlata and her husband became a duo, and health and good fortune were restored. Briefly. Then he died, leaving her with six kids.
Another fire-walker, Kerka, went on to the fire while heavily pregnant with her sixth child. She fell into the embers in a fit of rapture, belly down. The girl-child survived, and Kerka even prophesied her future: you will marry twice and bear a child at forty-eight. Nobody believed it but it happened exactly so. The daughter Kostadinka is an old woman now, and lives alone in a coastal Strandja village, in such poverty that visitors know to bring a kilo of flour and a bottle of oil. Why? Because she likes to make a bread offering for the local konak or chapel. It’s the only konak with a bed in it, and not just any bed. Once Kostadinka fell and wounded her leg. It became infected and eventually gangrene set in, but she was so poor, she couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor. One night, in a fever, she saw her dead mother walk into the house, and Kostadinka cried: Mother, I’m dying. Of course you’re dying, Kerka said, you’re not taking care of yourself. Now here’s what to do. Bake a loaf of bread, take it to the chapel as an offering, and sleep there. Kostadinka followed the instructions. The morning after, her wound began to heal.
But there are no great nestinari any more in Strandja. It’s a dying art, I kept hearing. The chubby bagpipe player was the sone of one of the last ones. The repeated spells of persecution, first by the Church, and then by the Communist State, have stamped out the female communion with fire. The State had its own approved faux nestinari who performed for tourists in the kitschy seaside resorts of the red Riviera (sometimes with bears in chains), but the real thing was criminalized.
Marina sighed ‘They arrested the forest. Still, in the last four thousand years the cult of fire hasn’t died. There is hope yet.’
The forest was closing in with its bubbling agiasmas, its coils of music, the faces leaning in, the sap rising in our bodies. I felt trapped in a dream – good or bad, I didn’t know. Marina smiled enigmatically.
‘You’ve felt it,’ she said. ‘The energy is very concentrated here. You have to be ready to receive it. Otherwise it makes you ill. There are places like this in Strandja. If you stick around, they’ll find you.’
‘I am sticking around,’ I said. Marina looked at me without making eye contact, a disconcerting trick of hers.
‘Beware,’ she said. ‘Strandja isn’t for everyone. It’s a mountain that doesn’t let you in.’
Everybody looked stoned. The forest was like an opiate.
‘And doesn’t let you out,’ Marina added.
It suddenly struck me why it was important to come to this forest. It had nothing to do with Saints Constantine and Elena.
Behind the faces of the old women, their children and grandchildren far away in foreign countries, cold and hot wars raged, political regimes and armies swept away, only the human-faced icons still in their laps, I saw why. This was a story untold, but it was sung, danced, purged in water and fire every year. When the Ottoman Empire was slowly dismembered and the Balkan Wars ripped people from the land, they were forced to cross this border under pain of death. Then, for half a century, they were prohibited from crossing it under pain of death. That’s why it was important to come here, so close to the border in space yet so far away from it in time.
In the afternoon, the icon team piled into the Soviet van and headed back to the village, with the dressed icons in their laps.
‘They need to rest.’ the woman with the chewing gum said and winked at me as she left.
When night fell, a man raked the embers and the drum and bagpipe struck up their ritual fire-walking tunes. Three, one for each stage of the rite. The first was called ‘Departure’, and with it, the band and the fire-walkers circled the embers three times, anticlockwise. To this yearning, lustful beat, the kind of music that makes you feel as if you belong in the forest, the chthonic phase began. The second tune ‘Possession’, accompanied the nestinari into the fire. The two reptilian me and two Greek women stepped on the embers, each with an icon’s face pressed to their chest. The four trampled the embers and passed each other without eye contact or crossing each other’s way. It wasn’t about the people connecting with each other, it was about them connecting with the fire, helped along by the icon.
Several things distinguish the Strandja nestinari from other traditional fire-walkers, Marina whispered. The trampling of the embers until they are ash. The additional gifts they have. And most of all: in the old days, the physical communion with fire was the culmination of a year-round ritual calendar that featured different avatars of the two primal elements: fire-sun-God, and cave-night-Goddess.
It was like being inside the collective unconscious. The two Greek women came from a village where the rite is best preserved, but only practiced in a closed initiated society where outsiders aren’t admitted, and it was this protectionism that saved Greek anastenaria in its authentic form. The heat of the embers lapped at the onlookers. My hair was about to combust. I can’t remember tune three, the one called ‘In the Fire’.
Ecstasy: to be taken out of yourself. Ecstasy has been collectively experienced in these forests since the time of Dionysian revelries. But that’s only one kind of ecstasy. Some historians believe that ancient Thrace is too far to go in search of the first spark. A local researcher speculates that the Hesychast monks of Paroria could have been the original anastenarides. After all, there are similarities: the intense meditation, the change in body temperature, the dissolving of the ego and the communion with divine a energy. There are also the gestures: just as the Hesychast monks practiced rocking meditation, so there was a custom here (lost in the demographic chaos of the Balkan Wars) where the anastenarides rocked and banged their heads with icons of the Virgin Mary. Finally the material symbols: in old nestinar icons, Saint Maria walks on a fire-red ground as snakes come out of her skirts, and the Virgin Mary is dressed in red. Red like the ‘dress’ of the icons today, red like the mantles of Saints Constantine and Elena. The monks of Paroria were scattered by the soldiers of Islam in the 1350’s, but could they have left this secret legacy to the civilian population?
‘Ssss’, one of the Greek women on the embers hissed, snake-like.
Bewieldered, I looked at Marina, but her ember-lit face was turned up at the night sky. The hissing was in honour of Saint Marina, I was told later, the patron saint of snakes and fire.
‘Look out for the ball of fire,’ Marina said. ‘Sometimes it appears, around this time of year.’
The mysterious ball of fire sighted by Strandja people, which may be a flying dragon. I looked up at the spectral sky and saw galaxies moving in.
A few days later on an errand to the village of Crossing, which looked down its own precipitous river valley, I saw Iglika with one of the pale nestinari. They were at her grandmother’s house on a vine-shaded afternoon. Untouched by the sun, they looked like twins from some milky latitude, on a brief visit to earth.
The fire-walker greeted me with a formal smile. I asked him how he felt.
‘Charged,’ he said from a distance. ‘The fire charges me up.’
When I greeted Iglika, she didn’t remember our meeting by the Big Agiasma, perhaps not even the gathering itself. Her eyes were completely empty. And when I held her cold palm in a formal handshake, I too was seized by doubt.