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Dimitris Xygalatas, The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria. Durham: Acumen. 2012. Pp. xii + 253. 17 illustrations, 1 map. Cloth $99.95.

This “cognitive study” (120) of the Anastenaria, a ritual involving fire-walking and spirit possession performed in several villages and towns in Northern Greece, attempts to accomplish two very different goals. The first half of the book presents a detailed historical and ethnographic account of the Anastenaria, focused on the ritual’s performance in the village of Ayia Eleni during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The second half of the book presents an equally well-researched discussion of the “cognitive science of religion” (119), a theoretical approach drawing on recent work in the fields of biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology.

While the author accomplishes each of these worthwhile goals quite successfully, the first and second parts of the book have little to do with each other. There is a tenuous relationship at best between the ethnographic and the theoretical portions of the book. The first half of the book is about Saints Constantine and Helen, community, suffering, and religious healing. It is, in other words, about meaning and culture. The second half of the book is about pharmatheology, entheogens, cortical activity, endorphins, dopamine, and enkephalin levels in the brains of rats. It is about biology and neurology. The ethnographic material presented in the first half of the book does not provide the kind of data that is necessary for the scientific analysis discussed in the second—and the author fails to do an adequate job relating the latter to the former. As a result, the book as a whole is seriously flawed; it simply falls in half.

The author’s ethnographic account of the Anastenaria, while generally well done, contains some inaccuracies. Burning Saints is an ambiguous and misleading title. Saints Constantine and Helen are not burned, nor do they burn the Anastenarides (the participants in the ritual). In fact, the Anastenarides believe that Saints Constantine and Helen protect them from being burned. The author writes that “exegetical insight on the meaning and purpose of the ritual is mostly a process of individual reflection and not so much the product of cultural transmission” (158). On the contrary, young Anastenarides often seek out the knowledge of older, more experienced Anastenarides, who share with them at length stories from the past. The author finds it difficult to explain why if the Anastenaria is a healing ritual, the Anastenarides join it for life. The Anastenarides themselves, however, as the author points out, have a clear explanation for their continued participation: if they stop, some “terrible misfortune” might befall them (53).

In addition, the author makes several troublingly insensitive and ethnocentric comments about the Anastenaria and other religious beliefs and practices more generally. He refers to “empty metaphysical notions such as ‘the soul’” (186). Are Saint Constantine, Christ, and God also “empty metaphysical notions?” The author describes Greek Orthodox rituals as “particularly and invariably repetitious and unexciting” (137) and the Catholic Mass as a “humdrum” activity (129). I suggest that Orthodox monks, Catholic priests, and many devout Christians would disagree. From their perspective, the liturgy involves the Eucharistic miracle of transubstantiation in which wine and bread are transformed into the blood and body of Christ. There is no cross [End Page 217] culturally valid or universal definition of precisely which activities are “humdrum” and which are miraculous.

According to the author, rituals like the Anastenaria involve “powerful self-deception” about their utility, and they represent “an excessive waste of valuable resources” (125, 132). It is presumptuous in the extreme for the author to place negative value judgments on what other people believe and how they choose to allocate their resources. Believing in Saint Constantine does not constitute self-deception; for many Anastenarides, this belief has great utility as part of a powerful system of religious healing. Tithing may seem like a waste of money to some people, but to others, it is a very meaningful act. The author also describes rituals like the Anastenaria as “non-rational” and “ineffective” (125–126). Anthropologists should know that what is considered rational and therefore effective in one culture may not be considered rational or effective in another. As Clifford Geertz has effectively argued, after all, common sense is a cultural system (1983). Finally, the author’s bald claim that “visions and hallucinations violate our intuitive and empirical expectations regarding reality” (178; emphasis mine) represents ethnocentrism at its worst. The author’s use of the first person plural clearly does not include the Anastenarides or the many other people around the world who regularly interact on an intense, personal level with a variety of deities and spirits.

The author’s use of cognitive science to “explain” the Anastenaria clearly raises important and controversial issues associated with what has come to be known as the nature-nurture debate, a long-running dispute over the relative importance of biological as opposed to cultural factors in shaping human behavior. When this debate grows heated, interpretive approaches are dismissed as cultural determinism, while scientific approaches are dismissed as biological reductionism. The author, for example, accuses “post-modern” cultural anthropologists of being so eager to defend the “autonomy of culture” that they are guilty of “rejecting the usefulness of science for the explanation and interpretation of religious action” (108), “demonizing science and biological theory” (108–109), and “denying the causal role of biology in human behavior” (187).

I must emphasize here that my critique of this book does not emerge from a position of cultural determinism. I agree wholeheartedly with the author that “the seemingly boundless variability of symbolic-cultural forms and expressions is subject to certain biological constraints” and that these constraints are a product of “the common evolutionary history of the human brain and are therefore universal to our species” (119). I also agree with the author that aspects of human religious behavior that are found in all cultures must have been shaped by “universal mental capacities of the human brain” (119).

I do not agree, however, with the author that the performances of the Anastenaria—any more than performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet both unique symbolic forms produced by individual human beings in specific cultures at particular historical moments—can be “explained” or even “understood” in terms of “pan-human cognitive mechanisms” (119). While biology and neurology are obviously necessary to understand how the species homo sapiens is different from other species and to explain cross-culturally universal features of human behavior, these scientific approaches cannot contribute to an understanding of culturally specific, cross-culturally variable forms of behavior. The biology of the human brain and the human vocal tract are clearly relevant to understanding human speech (as opposed to communication among [End Page 218] dolphins or bees), but they are not relevant to understanding the grammar of Chinese (as opposed to the grammar of English). Similarly, universal aspects of human religious behavior such as altered states of consciousness are perfectly appropriate subjects for scientific study, but culturally specific, cross-culturally variable concepts such as spirit possession beliefs or ideas about divine healing are not.

The author could have integrated the ethnographic and the theoretical parts of his book in two different ways. He could have conducted a cross-cultural survey of rituals like the Anastenaria in order to identify the universal features that characterize them all. The results would have provided appropriate data for a cognitive science approach to the study of such rituals. Alternatively, the author could have collected biological and neurological data from the Anastenarides by measuring the temperature of the fire, examining the skin of their feet, studying their brain functioning with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), or measuring the levels of neurochemicals in their brains. But he did none of these.

Toward the end of the book, the author places the Anastenaria in the same category as raves, bungee jumping, skydiving, flying fighter aircrafts, and other “high arousal activities” (178). From the perspective of a cognitive scientist interested in universal human cognitive processes, this may make sense. From the perspective of an interpretive cultural anthropologist, however, it does not. It makes much more sense to study the Anastenaria as a unique and powerful religious ritual that takes place in the context of Orthodox Christianity and Modern Greek culture.

Loring M. Danforth
Bates College
Loring M. Danforth

Loring M. Danforth is Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology at Bates College. He is the co-author (with Riki Van Boeschoten) of Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia (University of California Press, 2016).


Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books. [End Page 219]