MAVROLEFKI (Greece), May 30 — At a small shrine in northern Greece, locals clutching icons of Greek Orthodox saints dance to lyres and drums in preparation for a ceremony in which they will walk on fire barefoot.

“Anastenaria”, celebrated at the end of spring in the village of Mavrolefki, commemorates the day, centuries ago, when believers say a church burned down in the village of Kosti, in modern-day Bulgaria.

Devotees dance around a bonfire on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day, which marks the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic
Devotees dance around a bonfire on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day, which marks the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic

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Hearing the calls of Saints Constantine and Helen, villagers rushed into the fire and, unharmed, rescued their icons — paintings of holy figures that are held sacred in Eastern Orthodox religion.

As night falls in Mavrolefki, a fire built of long sticks is flattened into a circle of white-hot embers. Hundreds of spectators stand behind a fence to watch the few who dare to run across.

“You definitely sense something at the core of your existence that makes you feel more redeemed, more freed,” said Haris Porfyridis, 48, before taking part.

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Men use wooden sticks to prepare the burning embers for the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day marking the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic
Men use wooden sticks to prepare the burning embers for the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day marking the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic

Emerging unharmed requires faith, he said.

“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.”

A blend of ancient ecstatic dancing and Orthodox Christianity, the ritual was brought to communities in Mavrolefki and four other villages by ancestors who moved from Turkey in 1922.

Physicists have offered scientific explanations for the phenomenon of firewalking, which requires careful technique to avoid injury.

Fifty-year-old Maria Hriti, who does the fire-walk every year, says it is all about overcoming fear.

Devotees walk on burning coal on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day, marking the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic
Devotees walk on burning coal on Saint Constantine and Saint Helen's Day, marking the beginning of the fire-walking ritual known as Anastenaria, in Mavrolefki, Greece May 21, 2024. — Reuters pic

“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.”

Her father Kyriakos Hritis, 81, regrets that he 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 said.

“But something holds me back, saying ‘No, don’t set foot, don’t step in, you’re not ready’.” — Reuters