West Malvern Social Club

The Origin of the Jig of Life Tune

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The Origin of the Jig of Life Tune

The Anastenaria is a traditional ritual of fire walking which dates back to pagan times. Barefoot villagers of Ayia Eleni near Serres, and of Langada near Thessaloniki, and other places, annually walk over hot coals. As there are variations in the ritual from place to place, the following description is largely based upon the performance of the festival as celebrated at Ayia Eleni, the most authoritative Anastenarian community.

Each village community of Anastenarides is headed by a 'group of twelve' of which the large majority are women. They gather in a special building, or in the room of a house set aside for the purpose, called a konaki. Here on an icon shelf are kept the special icons of SS Constantine and Helen which are the most precious possessions of the community. Each has a handle so that it can conveniently be carried in processions and dances, is hung with small bells, decorated with 'sacred knots' made from kerchiefs, and is covered with specially made cloth envelopes. Draped over the icons and the shelf are large red kerchiefs called simadia, which are believed to possess in themselves the power of the icons. On a table nearby offerings of oil, incense and lighted candles are kept.

On the eve of the feast of Saints Constantine and Helen the Anastenarides gather in the konaki, where the participants dance and sing to the music of the Thracian lyra, and a large drum. After some time, the dancing generates extreme emotional and ecstatic phenomena in the devotees, particularly in those dancing for the first time. This manifests itself in the form of violent trembling, repeated rocking backwards and forwards, and writhing. The archanastenaris hands out icons from the shelf to some of the dancers. The Anastenarides believe that during the dance they are 'seized' by the saint, and enter a state of trance.

On the morning of the saints' day the Anastenarides gather at the konaki before leaving together in procession, accompanied by musicians and candle bearers to a holy well, where they are blessed by the holy water. Next, they sacrifice one or several animals to the saints. In Ayia Eleni, the animal must be over one year old, and of an odd number of years of age, the most acceptable being seven. The beast must also be unmarked and it must not have been castrated. It is incensed, and then led up to a shallow pit excavated in a place previously indicated by the Archanastenaris in a trance, usually beside the roots of a tree or at the agiasma. At one side of the shallow pit candles are lighted, while, on the other stand pots of holy water and the sacrificial animal. The beast is turned upside down, with its head tilted upwards, at the edge of the pit. Its throat is cut in such a way as to allow its blood to soak into the earth. The carcass is hung and skinned to the sound of music, and the raw flesh and hide cut up into equal parts put into baskets and distributed, amongst the families of the village in a procession from house to house.

After lunch the Anastenarides gather again and resume their dancing. A candle is lit from one of the oil lamps in front of the icons, and given to a man who takes it to an open space in the village, where a cone-shaped pile of logs has been prepared. There a bonfire is lit. As the wood burns, men spread out the coals with long poles until they form a large oval bed. When the Anastenarides are informed that the fire is ready, they approach the place barefoot in procession, bearing their icons and simadia.

Initially, the Anastenarides dance barefoot around the hot ashes, but when the saint moves them, individuals run backwards and forwards across the burning coals, some bearing aloft the icons. Sometimes devotees kneel down beside the fire and pound the ashes with the palms of their hands in order to demonstrate their power over the fire. The Anastenarides continue dancing over the coals until the ashes are cool, then they return to the konaki and enjoy a common meal, with music and singing. During the next two days, they process around the village visiting each house, taking care to do so always by moving in a counter-clockwise direction. On May 23rd they conclude with a second dance over the fire, this time privately.

Kate Bush

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last updated on 7 March 2020
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