Firewalking in Agia Eleni village

The famous religious custom of walking on burning coal barefoot. Believers perform a ritual Dionysian dance to get to a state of nirvana before walking on burning coals.
Photography / Text: Michael Pappas

The whole trip started by train from Athens to Serres in order to see the famous Anastenarides custom.

At the Serres train station many people were waiting for the arrival of their beloved ones. I asked a lady where is the village of Agia Eleni. I reached the National Road and walked for about a kilometer. I was travelling with a heavy backpack and it had already started making my walking difficult.

Exiting the National Road and entering the road to Agia Eleni I run into a man who was also walking his way. I asked him how far is the village I was heading to. He looked at me with a strange look. "12 km" he said.

I explained to him that I am going to see the Anastenarides and he asked me if I was fulfilling some kind of oblation and that is why I was walking to Agia Eleni carrying my heavy bags. I told him that I just did not have another way to go there and that I could not afford to pay a taxi!

My answer surprised him, "Why don't you take the bus then?" he asked. I asked him back "where is the bus station?". "Well, you just have to wave to the driver when you see the bus coming!" After almost half an hour, an old bus passed by and I got to the village paying only 2 euros.

The bus stopped at the village's petrol station. A lot of people were drinking coffee there, in plastic cups, and I thought that there must have been some kind of gathering for a funeral. Well, the fact was that it was just the only place that looked like a coffee shop in that area. I asked them about where to go to see the custom and I realized I had arrived one day earlier.

Finally, I found the place where the custom would take place. On one side there was the spot where the people would stand and on the other side the open space where the fire-walking would be performed. I found a shelter and I thought "this is a good place to sleep for the night!" since there were some long benches, perfect for taking a rest during the night! While I was sitting there, some technicians came to install the lights for the next day's custom.

We started talking, we got to know each other and one of them suggested to go with them for lunch hosted in a tavern by the person in charge of the community of the village. I went with them and after chatting with various people, I was offered to sleep in a public building where the people of the village used to organize various cultural events. 

In the afternoon of the same day, I watched the litany of the icon of St. Constantine & Santa Helen, around the streets of the village.

Next day people cooked lamb for lunch and they gathered in the place where the custom would take place.  The music that was played helped firewalkers come to the condition that is required. This took some time while some of the villagers were burning the fire from which the coal would be used for the fire walking. 

When the coal was ready it was layed carefully. Large number of people had already found their place to stand in order to watch the Anastenarides. French, Canadians, Chinese and dozens of pupils from Thessaloniki!

Everybody was waiting for the firewalkers to come to the state of mind that was required. After a while, musicians rushed in the place and behind them the firewalkes started taking their places on both sides of the fire. Music kept playing and the first courageous people started dancing on the burning coal.

It was not easy to take photos while they were dancing on fire. Also, we were not allowed to approach the fire so that made my photographic job even more difficult.

After the custom was over, many spectators headed towards the coals in order to check if they were real coal and also  to take a piece with them and keep it as lucky charm. I remember that the temperature was so high that it was hard to approach the coals!

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Firewalking in Agia Eleni village

220 Epar.Od. Ano Mitrousiou-Psichikou
Ag Eleni, Central Macedonia, Greece