Dimitris Xygalatas suggests here, in the final section of his book, The Burning Saints, that rituals can be deeply transformative. In this case, a person suffering from a mood disorder is cured by virtue of her participation in a traditional fire-walking ritual in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. Agia Eleni is one of five villages that celebrate the tradition of the Anastenaria, a group of Orthodox Christians who practice a fire-walking ritual. These rituals are performed at a konaki, a place where icons and other religious objects are stored and venerated. This passage is evocative of an important excerpt from Durkheim’s classic, The Elementary Forms of Religious Ideas, where he wrote: “the real function of religion is not to make us think, to enrich our knowledge…but rather, it is to make us act, to aid us to live. The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them.”
Originally published in:
(2013) Xygalatas, Dimitris,
The Burning Saints:
Cognition and Culture in the Fire-walking Rituals of the Anastenaria
According to the view defended in this book, human behaviour and experience is simultaneously enabled by our cognition, constrained by our biology and shaped by our culture. I have argued that this holds true for the Anastenaria as well. If we wish to understand the mindset of those participating in the Greek fire-walking rituals, whether we are primarily interested in identifying causal mechanisms or providing interpretative models, an integrative and synthetic approach will give us much more mileage than an isolationist and autonomist one.
For example, let’s take Stella, the old woman who was suffering from depression whose words were cited in chapter 9. According to her own account but also those of other villagers, when she was a young woman Stella suffered from depression, isolated in her room and avoiding contact with other people for two years. However, when I met her she was a perfectly normal and particularly engaging and talkative albeit timid person who showed no signs of any mental problem. As claimed by those who knew her, this change in behavior occurred after she fire-walked for the first time. Now, based on the long and vivid descriptions that I obtained from this woman as well as from her fellow villagers, allow me to offer a plausible reconstruction of how such a change might have come about, weaving the plot of her experience as a tightly knit web of interconnected strings operating at various levels.
This woman was a devout Orthodox Christian and firmly believed in the powers of the saints and their icons. Since her school years, she had been taught about various miracles performed by Christian saints and the heroic acts of Saint Constantine. Growing up in Agia Eleni, she attended the firewalking rituals and listened to stories about cases of miraculous healing. She also knew about the wisdom of the old Anastenaria and how they often helped people overcome their problems. When her treatment by professional doctors did not yield any results, and upon the insistence of her family, she decided to turn to the Anastenaria for a new diagnosis. After all, the saints had healed several people in the village before; perhaps they could provide a treatment for her as well. Indeed, the Anastenaria confirmed her suspicion, or perhaps her hope: she was suffering from “those things”, which meant that the saints might be willing to provide the cure. All she had to do was dance on the fire with the sacred icons. After a long period of despair, there was now suddenly a ray of optimism.
From that moment on and for several months, Stella kept reflecting on the words of the Anastenaria, thinking that fire-walking might well be her last hope. When the time of the festival finally arrived, she was reluctant to visit the konaki despite all the encouragement from her daughter and son-in-law. She rarely left home any more, and knowing that it was going to be particularly crowded on that day made her even more uncomfortable. But when the archianastenaris himself came to her house and told her to get ready, she offered no more resistance. He led her to the konaki where the Anastenaria had already started dancing. At first she felt very uneasy, but once she got over her initial fears and reservations, things became progressively easier. The surroundings were well-known and the people familiar. They knew about her condition and they didn’t bother her with any questions or small talk. Besides, they had their own worries now. The music had started playing and some of the women were singing songs about the lost homelands. Everyone’s faces were painted with grief and agony as they started swinging to the rhythm of the music.
One of the eldest Anastenaria approached her and gave her her hand. She joined the dance and simply followed the crowd. Soon, all her senses were stimulated: she could smell the incense, see the crowd and feel the icons; and then there were the drums and the lyres that made her mind blank and gave her a hypnotic sensation. She closed her eyes and moaned like the others did, “Ah, ah, ah!” Her heart was beating fast, and she felt so alive! This went on for many hours, and she was completely worn out when the music finally stopped. For the first time after two years, she had felt excited and active. She cried and thanked the saints.
The next morning, she was among the first people to go to the konaki and one of the first to join the dance. The same process was repeated, and she felt the same sensations. Finally, the last day of the festival something amazing happened. Like the previous two days, she was dancing for many hours. She felt tired and overwhelmed by all this, and being in a crowded place after all this time made her nervous. She had not eaten or slept much, and she had even fainted a couple of times during the festival. But just when she was feeling that she could not go on any longer, it was time for the icing on the cake. The pace increased and the dancers left the konaki and went towards the fire. She was terrified, but it was too late to quit now. She would have to walk on the glowing embers.
Stella was dancing around the fire while the others started crossing it, not daring to follow them. Then the archianastenaris took her by the hand and guided her through the fire. She felt more confident by his side and let him direct her. Just like she had heard so many people describe before, she walked on the fire unharmed without feeling any pain. She was exhausted and thirsty, but she kept crossing the fire, following the others. Everything seemed like a dream now. And then, a miracle happened. She saw the dim figure of a man’s face emerging from the smoke, just for a single moment. And before he disappeared, the man looked at her and told her, “All will be well!” No doubt, it was Saint Constantine. She was going to be cured! She was overcome with joy and confidence. She didn’t feel tired anymore. She didn’t feel pain, sadness or fear. She was suddenly alert and felt a surge of energy. She looked at the fire. It was glowing in a way she had never experienced before, brighter than ever. And the music was different. She wasn’t sure what it was about it that was different, but it didn’t matter. It sounded like heaven. She noticed the other fire-walkers. They also seemed different; they looked calm, liberated, almost floating over the fire. She heard the crowd cheer and she focused on specific words. Each word now seemed to have a new meaning, and it seemed so important. Each new stimulus now meant so much, no matter where it came from. But she couldn’t stay focused on it for more than a split second, and a new stimulus caught her attention. Everything was so full of meaning!
The next thing she remembered was sitting in the konaki with the other firewalkers with a plate full of food in her hand. She didn’t feel very hungry, but she ate it. She was smiling, and for the first time after the festival had started she exchanged a few words with other people. She went to bed exhausted, and fell asleep right away.
The following morning, Stella got up and took her usual place in her armchair in the living room, facing the window – the window she had been staring at for the past two years. She started thinking about what had happened the previous day. She couldn’t even begin to describe the experience. It was simply ineffable. But she knew that it had to be a miracle. Or was she going crazy? Impossible! She was absolutely certain that it was real; there was no doubt about that in her head. Nothing had felt as real before. During the course of the next days she couldn’t stop thinking about those extraordinary events. And every day that went by she was more convinced about the truth of the apocalypse she had experienced. She had seen the Saint face-to-face. He had even talked to her. He told her she would be cured! The knowledge that the Saint had decided to reveal himself to her made her feel important. She was filled with optimism. She started eating more. She even started taking her medication again. She felt an urge to get out, to meet some of the other fire-walkers. For years she had been fascinated by the stories she heard about them, about their rituals, their experiences; but now she had had the same experience herself. She could understand them now; and they could understand her.
It took her several days to take the decision to visit her cousin, who was also a fire-walker, but she finally did it. It was the first time she visited anybody’s house in two years. The woman who opened the door was not surprised to see her. She knew she would come, she told her. They chatted for hours, and they talked about many things; but they never mentioned the Anastenaria. They didn’t have to. They both understood. The next week, her cousin reciprocated the visit. After that, they began to see each other regularly, like they did before she got sick. Gradually, Stella started seeing more of her friends and relatives. She started going to the grocery store and the butcher, she occasionally attended church services, and she even went to Thessaloniki to visit her sister. She too was a fire-walker. After her own experience, she felt closer to her, as she did to the other fire-walkers.
Over time, Stella’s memories of her first fire-walk grew more colourful and more detailed. She could now remember all those little things that she couldn’t recall right after her performance; and even the smallest details were now manifestly meaningful. She felt that this event had been a real turning point in her life. She was grateful for fire-walking and considered it the most important thing she had ever done. She never missed a festival since. She paid her dues to the Saint twice-yearly, every January and May, but she also helped with the preparations throughout the year. Furthermore, she had seen visions of the Saint two or three more times. At first she was confused and scared, but finally it all made perfect sense. The Saint’s will had been fulfilled. It was her destiny. Thousands of small events had confrmed it, time and again. Events that to others might look perfectly random or irrelevant; but in her mind they were utterly meaningful, and proved the truth that was revealed to her. She had been saved by the Saint!