On May 21, the feast day of SS Constantine and Helen, villagers at LANGADHÁS, 20km north of Thessaloníki, perform a ritual barefoot dance across a bed of burning coals known as the anastenária. While it has been suggested that they are remnants of a Dionysiac cult, devotees fiercely assert a purely Christian tradition. This seems to relate to a fire, around 1250, in the Thracian village of Kostí (now in Bulgaria), from where many of the inhabitants of Langadhás originate. Holy icons were heard groaning from the flames and were rescued by villagers, who emerged miraculously unburnt from the blazing church. The icons, passed down by their families, are believed to ensure protection during the fire walking. Equally important is piety and purity of heart: it is said that no one with any harboured grudges or unconfessed sins can pass through the coals unscathed.

Whatever the origin, the rite is still performed most years – lately as something of a tourist attraction, with an admission charge and repeat performances over the next two days. It is nevertheless eerie and impressive, beginning around 7pm with the lighting of a cone of hardwood logs. A couple of hours later their embers are raked into a circle and, just before complete darkness, a traditional Macedonian daoúli drummer and two lyra players precede a group of about sixteen women and men into the arena. These anastenáridhes (literally “groaners”), in partial trance, then shuffle across the coals for about a quarter of an hour, somehow without requiring a trip to hospital at the end.

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