Nestinarstvo / Anastenaria Date in the current year: May 21, 2024

Nestinarstvo / Anastenaria In some Bulgarian and Greek villages, people still perform an old fire-walking ritual. This originally pagan tradition is now associated with the feast day of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen. It is called the nestinarstvo in Bulgaria and the anastenaria in Greece.

According to most ethnographers, the roots of the tradition can be traced back to ancient practices of cults of Dionysus. After the Christianization of Thrace (a historical region Southeast Europe, now split between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria), it was integrated into the new religion and became associated with Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.

In Bulgaria, the fire-walking ritual is called the nestinarstvo. It is followed in several villages in the Strandzha Mountains. The feast of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, which lasts for three days between May 21 and 23, is celebrated by all villagers, but only a few people perform the ritual. They are called nestinari. Traditionally, the title is hereditary and the head nestinar is succeeded by their child only when they are too ill or old to continue dancing on smoldering embers.

On the day of the feast, the villagers participate in a solemn procession to the stolnina (a small chapel with icons of several saints, which is usually located at the head nestinar’s house). At the chapel, the priest thurifies the icons and blesses the nestinari. After that, the people head to a holy spring to bathe and then eat a symbolic offering of mutton.

After sunset, the villagers dance around a large fire until it dies. When only embers remain, the famous ritual begins. The nestinari dance barefoot on smoldering embers to the beat of the drum, bringing the festive night to its climax. It is thought that at least some of the dancers fall into a kind of religious trance and don’t feel pain caused by the embers.

A similar ritual is performed in several villages in northern Greece, where it is known as the anastenaria. Before the First World War, these villages were part of Bulgaria; they were taken by Greece after the war but retained their pre-war festivals and traditions. In general, the anastenaria custom is very similar to the nestinarstvo; it involves solemn processions with icons, sacrificing a lamb, dancing around a fire to the sound of folk instruments, and the fire-walking ritual.

The nestinari ritual has become largely commercialized recently. Today, foreign tourists can see people dance on embers at numerous resorts of the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. These performances, however, have almost nothing to do with the original custom. The authentic ritual can only be witnessed in six villages of Strandzha (Balgari, Brodilovo, Gramatikovo, Kondolovo, Kosti and Silvarovo).

In 2009, UNESCO added “Nestinarstvo, messages from the past: the Panagyr of Saints Constantine and Helena in the village of Bulgari” to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In Greece, the ritual of the anastenaria is also performed during the festival of Saint Athanasius in January.

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