- The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria by Dimitris Xygalatas
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...