The Anastenaria ritual performance in relation to witnessing and elements of stage practice

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The question that this thesis engages with is under what circumstances and
through which lens(es) the Anastenaria in Langadas, Greece, can be considered as a ritual performance which survives despite signs of elimination. This question is examined through: 1) theatrical reflection and practice, in dialogue with an investigation of the ecstatic dimension of the Anastenaria – Part A – and 2) the
investigation of changing ritualistic practices in their relation to the forgotten and the dynamic method of a ‘co-performer witness’ – Part B.

This thesis draws upon the Anastenaria as observed in Langadas in May 2009,
2010 and 2011. It will contribute to the existing bibliography on the Anastenaria in the following ways. First, the Anastenaria, qualified as a ritual performance, is
understood as dynamic, including not only practices that are repeated, but also others that disappear and re-emerge.

Second, the ethnographic model of what Dwight Conquergood called ‘the coperformer/witness’ is deployed in order to reflect upon a ritual performance of return. My returns to the field involved entering into a dialogue with the community of the Anastenarides through participation. In following the particular strand of performance studies that focuses on ritual performance, a new way of engaging with the Anastenaria is suggested, through the provision of a flexible methodological tool for its understanding each time. Visiting Langadas more than once and interviewing the same people, enabled me not only to respond “in the moment” with the Anastenarides, but also to challenge my own observations on a phenomenon that is repetitive and changing.

Third, the Anastenaria is related to theatrical performance through an exploration of its ecstatic dimension. Such exploration is based upon certain observations that can offer a better understanding of the relation between inspiration, consciousness and technique. Such a stance enables the thinker/practitioner to shed new light on specific performative aspects of the ritual (such as the lyrics of the songs) and re-think the relationship between witnessing the ritual and performing for the stage.

This route to understanding shares something with a Performance Studies tradition of ethnographic interest, while reasserting the dialogue with stage practice. There are some understandable caveats one might bring to such an ambition but establishing the following principles serves as a framework for discussion. Theories emphasizing theatre’s ritualistic origin, and theatrical avant-garde claims that a ‘return’ to the ritual would reinvigorate the stage have received considerable criticism. However, the extensive amount of studies that have co-examined ritual and theatre, together with my field work, led me to the conclusion that the two are distinct yet kin forms. This particular ritual has a potential for reading across to stage work in which I am involved and academically engaged. It was through the above lenses that survival (of the participant, of the community, of the ritual performance itself) was sought.In the Introduction I present the aim of my research and discuss the basic concepts. I begin with a survey of recent approaches to the Anastenaria, containing three main points of disagreement. The first point of disagreement can be traced in the attempts to address the association of firewalking with the participants’ belief in saints and supernatural power. The second point of disagreement stems from the use of firsthand as opposed to secondhand information when witnessing. The third point of disagreement concerns the discourse which has been called the “search for continuities in Greek culture.”

Through them the three starting points of this thesis are triggered. The first
starting point consists in an investigation of the relation of the Anastenaria to an
ecstatic state and performance aspects for the stage. The second starting point
examines the co-performer witness of the Anastenaria. The third starting point
consists in understanding the Anastenaria as a ritual performance of return (meaning:
repetitions within the Anastenaria, in that sense returns from one year to the next, but
also from one day to the next as well as within the same day and within the same
practice; and the researcher’s return to the field, who is thus becoming part of a chain
of witnesses).

The first starting point will be developed in Part A: Chapters Two and Three. Chapter Two is based on observations made in Langadas in May 2009. It consists in an introductory description of the Anastenaria ritual performance. The reader is introduced for the first time to the location, the participants and the Anastenaria practices. The term ‘ecstasy’ is approached here on the basis of specific observations that were made in the field and have to do with the body of the participant and her/his actions in the frame of a more or less precise sequence of ritualistic practices. Through such observations I define a specific Anastenaria technique that leads to an ecstatic state.

Chapter Three makes use of the examples of a ritual practice to question some
stage assumptions. I maintain that what we may call an ecstatic state on stage does not
mean abandonment to the irrational but rather a reinforcement of consciousness and
control, through a methodology routed in ritualistic and theatrical theory and experience and through the introduction of the ‘fiery actor’ metaphor, therefore entering a dialogue with the realm of the ‘non-verifiable’.

The second and the third point will be investigated in Part B: Chapters Four, Five and Six. Part Two asks the question: in what ways the survival of this ritual can be detected with the help of the methodology of the co-performer witness of the Anastenaria, which, as argued, consists in a ritual performance of return. In these three chapters I deploy a critical framework based on Esposito, Benjamin and Stengers’s eliminated practices in order to enter a dialogue with three narratives. These narratives include the story of attending the Anastenaria as a first-time coperformer
witness in May 2009, then returning in May 2010 and taking part in a community of witnesses in May 2011.

Chapter Seven is the concluding chapter, which includes a synthetic summing up of what has been argued in the thesis and what the work’s broader implications and contributions to existing knowledge are.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAlan Read (Supervisor) & Kelina Gotman (Supervisor)

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