The International Writers
An Out-of-body Experience in Macedonia,
W Ruth Kozak
should have known that my plans were in the hands of Fate when
I got food poisoning two days before my departure from Athens
to attend a much anticipated performance of fire dancing at the
annual May 21st Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in northern
Greece. I was determined to go. The pharmacist assured me that
the box of capsules he prescribed would do the trick. Just to
make sure, I bought a second box to take during the overnight
train ride to Thessaloniki.
in Thessaloniki, I went straight to the bus depot. The fire dancing takes
place in the town of Langadas, a forty-kilometer journey. As I sat in
a nearby park while I waited for the bus, a strange sensation came over
me. I felt disoriented, dizzy and light-headed, strangely out-of-touch
with reality. My senses seemed numb as if my mind and spirit had completely
left my body. I began to panic. I felt as though I were dying. I imagined
the horrified reaction of my family in Canada when they learned that my
body was found on a park bench here in this foreign country. Alone and
anonymous, I scribbled down information about myself on a scrap of paper
and put it in my pocket just in case.
Three police officers appeared. I considered appealing to them for help.
Instead, I took a deep breath, sipped some water, and told myself it was
all in my imagination. Anyway, it would be better to die in a hotel bed
than on a park bench. So I got on the bus headed for Langadas.
Langadas is a quiet farming community with tidy houses, rose arbors and
vegetable gardens. I had no trouble finding my hotel, the Lido. Its
the only one in town. I bought a souvlaki to eat and went up to my room
to sleep off the light-headed and disoriented feeling I had. But even
after I woke, the euphoric out-of-body sensations persisted.
I went for a walk breathing in the fresh pungent air of the countryside.
Still I felt strange, disconnected from reality. I considered going to
the local hospital. First Id go back to the hotel, shower and change
my travel-soiled clothes. I wanted to die looking presentable.
While combing my hair, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed how
my eyes were glazed, the pupils small as pinpoints. The I realized that
the strange euphoria I had felt all morning must have been caused by drugs.
The diahorrea medicine! A local pharmacist confirmed it. You shouldnt
have taken more than the one box dosage, he scolded. I had overdosed
on opiates. I wasnt going to die. I was just stoned. The instruction
on the package had been all Greek to me!
That trauma taken care of, I set off to find the Anastenarides, the famous
mystics who dance barefooted on hot coals and somehow miraculously never
In Greece, the Orthodox Church considers Fire Dancing to be a pagan ritual,
even though the initiates claim that their unswerving faith in God protects
them from the fire. The Fire Dancing is performed every year on the Feast
of Saints Constantine and Eleni in the Greek Macedonian towns of Seres
and Langadas. Although the Church has ceased to heap fire and brimstone
on the Fire Dancers, the ceremony is still secretive.
I roamed around the town asking several locals where I could see the fire
dancing. My question was greeted with a stern look and stony silence.
Why such mystery? I wondered. Near the outskirts of town, I located the
small Church of the Saints, but there was only a wizened crone dressed
in black solemnly tending the graves. No sign of Fire Dancers. A small
midway had been set up on the roadside near the Church with carnival rides,
game booths and fast-food cars. Behind the midway the field was cordoned
off with a picket fence and rows of wooden chairs had been set up. A group
of gypsy women dressed in bright flowered skirts and colorful kerchiefs
surrounded me. They smiled at me, their gold teeth gleaming.
Pou einai oi Anastenarides? I asked. Where are the Fire
Dancers? Once again my question was greeted with the typical lift
of the shoulders, chin and eyebrows, which translates I dont
Back at the Hotel Lido, I struck up a conversation with Marc, a Belgian
photojournalist. He had also spent a fruitless day searching for the Fire
Dancers. He had learned that the fenced-off part of the midway was where
the Fire Dance would be performed.
Its held outside of town because of the Churchs edict,
he explained. The presence of the carnival and gypsies gives the
Fire Dancing more of a circus atmosphere, which is acceptable to the town
Marcs detective work proved more fruitful than mine did. The next
morning he located the konaki, the house of the Anastenarides where a
calf had been sacrificed as part of the mystic rites.
The house is not far from the church, he said. The ritual
dancing begins this afternoon followed by the Fire Dancing.
I set off toward the pastures at the edge of town. I could hear the distant
throbbing of drums, and followed the sound to a low-roofed house with
a long porch on which many people had gathered.
I approached the house cautiously, not sure if I would be permitted to
enter but I was welcomed into a large room where benches had been arranged
around the walls for spectators. The sharp aroma of incense and bees wax
permeated the air. At one end of the room was a table heaped with religious
relics, ornate silver icons and varnished paintings of the Saints. As
visitors entered, they lit slender bees wax candles and genuflected
before the icons. In front of the altar table, the barefooted Anastenarides,
both men and women, whirled and swayed as they danced to the throbbing
of a big single-sided drum, a wailing clarinet and the whining strings
of a lyra. They circled the room in front of the table of religious relics.
As they danced they clutched icons and waved red handkerchiefs decorated
with silver and gold talismans to ward off evil and made strange groaning
sounds, which give them their name. Anastenarides is derived from the
Greek word anastenagmos, meaning to groan.
The mood in the room was one of reverence. As the haunting cadence of
the music filled the room, a gray-haired elder carried around a clay smudge
pot and drenched the participants and spectators with fragrant sage-scented
smoke. I thought of the similarity to our North American aboriginal ceremonies.
The monotonous booming of the drum had a hypnotic effect. After several
hours, in a state of Fire Dance just as hundreds of years before, their
forefathers performed their perilous walk through fire.
These mysterious rituals began during the invasion of the Tartars who
swept through the Byzantine Empire burning and pillaging. In a Macedonian
town, a church named for Saint Constantine had been set ablaze. The parishioners
who went through the flames to rescue the priceless icons were miraculously
not burned. To the Anastenarides, the Fire Dance represents the triumph
of good over evil. They belief it is their absolute faith in God and their
ability to achieve a state of self-hypnosis, that allows them to dance
on hot coals and remain unburned. It is truly an out-of-body experience.
Several hours passed. The music and drumbeats grew more intense. I felt
mesmerized by the wailing minor chords of the music. Outside the konaki
a large crowd had gathered. Suddenly there was a commotion. A contingent
of local police had arrived. Where we to be arrested for participating
in a pagan ritual? No, the police had come to escort the Fire Dancers
to the carnival site.
A long processional formed. The spectators followed the Anastenarides
down the country lane, accompanied by the musicians. Suddenly, as we trooped
through the pastures toward the carnival site, ominous black clouds obscured
the sky. A violent eruption of thunder boomed and dangerous spikes of
forked lightening crackled earthward. A deluge of rain poured from the
black heavens. Within minutes, the road was churned to mud and flooded
with rivulets of water. As the drenching rain poured relentlessly down,
the Anastenarides clutching their precious icons, ran for cover back to
the konaki. I found shelter under the eaves of a farmhouse with Marc,
No fire dancing tonight, Marc laughed. The two of us were
soaked to the skin.
Tin oh kahnomay, I replied with a typical Greek shrug. What
are we to do?
It was the hand of Fate. I knew it!
There was still one more day left of the religious celebration. The next
morning dawned bright and sunny. No sign of storm clouds. Once again I
went to the house of the Fire Dancers and spent the afternoon watching
the initiates dance. Just as it had the day before, a crowd gathered,
the dancers performed their rituals, the musician played, and in the evening
a processional formed to parade down the country lane. Then, at exactly
the same moment, as the Anastenarides left their konaki, it began to storm.
Once again it seemed that the Fire Dancers mystic communion with
the Saints had been squelched by an Unseen Power.
Somebody up there definitely doesnt want this to happen,
I remarked to a bemused black-robed priest who watched from under the
shelter of his umbrella as the rain-soaked Anastenarides scrambled back
into their house.
He shrugged, lifting his chin and eyes heavenward. Ti krema!
he said. What a pity! There was a smug smile on his face.
Disappointed, I left the konaki and made my way through the downpour back
to my hotel. I had to leave Langadas the next morning. Id have to
wait for another time to see the Fire Dancers perform. The only out-of-body
experience that year was the one Id had on the park bench in Thessaloniki.
© W. Ruth
Kozak Feb 2007
ruthaki1 at telus.net
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