Firewalking is believed to have been practised for thousands of years and appears to have evolved independently in a number of cultures.
There is evidence that Vikings walked on red-hot coals in a ritualistic demonstration of courage and strength, and to this day some Fijians sit with their toes on burning rocks as a display of faith in their gods, while Hawaiian firewalkers stride across boiling lava flows fresh from local volcanoes. There is also a tradition of firewalking amongst some groups of Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Since the late 1970s, the practice has become established in the USA and Europe.
Although it has been dismissed by cynics as a passing ‘New-Age’ craze, it appears to be attracting a growing following from an ever-broadening cross-section of society.
American firewalk organisers claim that there are now hundreds of trained instructors, and that well over a million people have indulged in events which typically involve walking barefoot along a path of red hot embers burning at 1,200 degrees farenheit, some 12 feet (3.65 metres) long and 4 feet (1.2 metres) wide.
The attraction of firewalking has reached beyond thrill-seeking individuals to companies organising corporate events to promote staff bonding and to alternative medical practices which encourage Cancer patients to walk on fire as a means to regaining control over their lives.
What is so extraordinary is that, although there have been incidents where someone has been badly burnt, most participants apparently walk these burning paths with bare feet and do not get burned, the result of which is reported to be an ovewhelming sense of empowerment and liberation.
Clearly the practice of firewalking challenges the normally accepted perception that fire burns. Most of us have experienced domestic accidents (cooking, garden bonfires, etc) where even the briefest exposure to naked flame results in instant pain and some visible sign such as a scorch-mark or blister – so why doesn’t this happen to firewalkers?
Science does not yet seem to have produced a satisfactory answer.
Practitioners claim that the phenomenon is semi-mystical, and organised firewalks typically involve purification rituals and spirit invocations.
The job of ‘firekeeper’ is very important. The keeper ensures a smooth, flat, obstacle-free track and burns carefully selected woods which will not produce sharp embers or disintegrate to ash. While the fire is made ready, the instructor prepares the prospective walkers. Care is taken to emphasise that no one should feel pressured into walking the burning path, but is is claimed that typically less than 10% of new attendees opt out. Chanting and percussion instruments may be used to create the right atmosphere.
My attention was originally drawn to the phenomenon of firewalking by an article in the UK Independent newspaper in August 2000. Further information is available on the net at www.firewalking.com and www.firewalks.com
© Peter Ulrich 2005