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The fiery souls of the Anastenari

Firewalker January 5, 1998
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EST (0440 GMT)

From Correspondent John Psaropoulos

MELIKI, Greece (CNN) -- Though they consider themselves Christians, the Greek Orthodox Church brands them as idolaters.

They are the Anastenari, a cult scattered in five villages in northern Greece.

Each year, on the feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen, they work themselves up to an ecstatic state to perform what is their test of faith -- dancing on burning coals.

The saints instruct them to enter the fire and protect them from being burned, say Anastenari, which means "those who sigh."

CNN's John Psaropoulos introduces us to a group of people for whom walking on fire is an act of faith
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Hot coals

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"It's not done in church. It's not blessed by a priest and the Anastenari are known not to go very often to church. Maybe once a year," said Professor Alkis Raftis of the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre.

The ritual has pagan elements. The day of the dance begins with a sacrifice. Many experts believe this derives from ancient Greek rituals of Dionysus, where people would enter an ecstatic state and tear an animal limb from limb.

By evening, the coals are spread for the dance and broken into small pieces. The fire is fed exclusively with oak so the temperature is even. The wood is checked for nails or wire.

the sacrifice
The Anastenari lead an animal to sacrifice  

Without warning, the initiated dance across the fire with their feet flat, distributing their weight evenly.

"Burning coal has a surface of ash on it. If you are afraid, you will dance with a heavy step and get burned. If you're not afraid, your step is light and you step on the coal only a fraction of a second.

"We have people who are curious enough to try it without really believing it and they get burned. There's always an ambulance nearby to take them away," Raftis said.

Within minutes, the rapturous dancing is over. As the Anastenari leave, many onlookers are still not convinced by what they've seen. They touch the coals, wondering whether it was all an illusion.

Many Anastenari believe they're in danger of dying out, but despite their secular occupations, people still continue the dance.

"That's why I'm not afraid the custom will die," Raftis said.

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