The history of firewalkingby Peggy Dylan
Many tribal people had, or have, rituals and ceremonies to honour the sacred aspect of fire, honouring its gifts and acknowledging its power. Many people fear fire beyond the Sunday afternoon barbecue, and for decades, we have attempted to control it systematically. This scientific manipulation of a powerful element is now backfiring as our wildlands, ripe with tinder from years of fire suppression in many countries and fueled by climate change, are yearly burning out of control.
Scientists today confirm the ancient wisdom that fire plays an essential part in our ecosystem and vital to the planet’s renewal. An article in National Geographic quotes Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University historian who has spent his life studying the subject as saying: “We are uniquely fire creatures on a unique fire planet.” Our planet, he says, is primed for ignition, “stuffed with organic fuels, its atmosphere saturated with oxygen, its surface pummeled by lightning.”
Many of the natural environments of our planet are dependent on the cleansing and purifying
aspects of fire. Fire produces nutrients quicker than decay; many pine cones require a fire’s heat to pop open to free their seeds, grasslands burn to get rid of the stubble which shades and crowds new life. Birds like the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker thrive only in areas regularly burned. The Native Americans used fire to herd deer and bison and kept grasslands green by burning young trees and dead grass. Many scientists believe it was the Indian’s firestick and lightning which shaped the American landscape as it emerged from the last Ice Age.
Just as the planet requires fire for renewal, so does the human spirit, as we are always intrinsically connected with this earth from which we grew. Fire worship is as old as the human race. According to one North American Indian legend, a fire was first sparked by buffalo hooves thundering across the plains. The Maoris of New Zealand believe it was a gift from a god’s blind grandmother, who drew it from her fingernails by magic. In the Huachipayri Indians’ legends of the Amazon basin in Peru, a woodpecker brought fire. They still call his name and imitate his call when making fire with firestick in their ceremonies. Recent evidence suggests that Australopithecus controlled fire nearly a million and a half years ago.
As the continuity of life becomes associated with fire continuity, the symbol of perpetual fire arose. In Rome, if the eternal flame in Vesta’s temple, Goddess of the hearth, went out, all activity in the temple had to stop. The connection between heaven and earth, represented by the fire, was restored at once. The Osage Indians maintained a sacred fire in their chief’s hut; its holy flames thought to bring life and health. Fire worship practised as a rite of purification, healing, initiation, devotion, and proof of faith or divine connection has been a thread in our planet’s cultural tapestry.
For many early Christians, fire immunity was considered a mark of grace and the annals of history spiced with accounts of monks and martyrs who blessed with this capacity. One of my favourites is Francis of Paolo who died in 1507 (not to be confused with St. Francis of Assisi, the saint so loved by animals). Francis of Paola was born to Italian peasants and seemed to have handled fire as easily as other people handle a shovel. He used his remarkable capacities with fire to help the local farming community’s tough lives. Francis walked into the red-hot kiln to shore it up when it was about to collapse, reaching into the forge to hand the blacksmith a piece of red hot iron, etc. The capacity he had with fire eventually came to the church’s attention and, in due course, they sent two church dignitaries to check him out.
“It is quite easy for you to do these things,” they told him, “because you are a peasant and used to hardship. But if you were of gentle blood, you would not be able to live in this way.”
“Quite true,” replied Francis smiling, “I am a peasant.” They were sitting near a big fire to ward off the winter cold.” And if I were not, I would not be able to do things like this.” With that, he reached into the nearby blaze and grabbed a handful of burning logs and embers. Holding the hot coals in his hands, he said to the canon: “You see, I could not do this if I were not a peasant.” The canon then prostrated himself on the ground and sought to kiss Francis’ hands and feet, but the saintly peasant would not allow it. Francis of Paola was canonized in 1519 with countless witnesses present to testify to his extraordinary abilities.
As the Christian dogma evolved, we see the myth of hell-fire and damnation take hold, and slowly fire becomes synonymous with Evil. In the early 1920s, British missionaries in South Africa realized they had a curious problem. The natives seemed decidedly unperturbed by the threats of hell-fire awaiting the unconverted. Africa has a long history of firewalking and firedancing. The African-born Hindus walk on fire regularly as part of important religious festivals and the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari desert have firewalked since their tribal beginnings. The !Kung use fire in their powerful healing ceremonies.
In 1977, anthropologist Laurens van der Post published an account of his travels to Africa to study the !Kung and was witness to one of their healing firedances:
The !Kung dancers seemed to pass into a dimension of reality far out of reach of my understanding. To a moment and place which belonged only technically to the desert in which we were all gathered. Indeed so obsessed did the men become searching for a fire that they drew nearer to the flames. Then, suddenly, they halved the circle and went dancing with their bare feet through the middle of the fire.
Richard Katz, a Harvard Psychologist, reports that the !Kung uses the fire to heat their energy, which they call n/um: Dancers will go in the fire, walk in it, put their heads in it, pick up the coals and rub them over their hands and body. When the n/um (for energy) in the body is boiling and as hot as fire, they will not burn. As the n/um intensifies in the healers, they experience an enhanced consciousness called !kia, during which they heal all those at the dance.
In Bali, the mystical South Sea island, young girls not the men who dance on the fire. The Balinese believe the gods to be “children of the people”. Thus most of the trance-dances are performed by children. People dance and walk, joyously, solemnly, and exuberantly, or devotionally across fire in India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and Argentina. In the Hindu fire ceremony Agni Hotra, fire is used to purify the physical and spiritual atmosphere. In Peru, it is used to uplift participants in the fire-ceremony spiritually. Around this little globe, people rely on their spiritual kinship with this dynamic element to bring them closer to their true nature and, through touching the fire of their spirit, feel renewed and healed.
But lest you put down this writing with a sense of “but what about North America?” I will give you a little of our fire heritage:
In a I7th century letter a Jesuit priest, Father Le Jeune, writes to his superior, telling of a healing firework he witnessed among the Indians. He reports of a sick woman walking through two or three hundred fires with bare legs and feet, not only without burning, but all the while complaining about the lack of heat she was feeling. Some 30 years later, Father Marquette reported similar fireworks among the Ottawa Indians and Jonathan Carver writes in his 1802 book Travels in North America that one of the most astounding sights he saw was the parade of warriors who would walk naked through a fire … with apparent immunity.”
Other North American Indians known to have shamanic traditions that included firehandling were the Fox, the Menomini, the Keres, the Blackfeet and particularly the Zuni, who had, and some claim still have a “great fire fraternity.” The following report will demonstrate the Kahunas, or native priests of the Hawaiian Islands had powerful practices.
In his youth, ethnologist William Tufts Brigham walked over semi-molten lava in Hawaii along with three Kahunas. Before stepping onto the lava, the priests tied ti leaves to their ankles and chanted archaic Hawaiian songs to the Goddess Pele. Barefoot one of them trotted onto the red-hot lava and, as Brigham watched open-mouthed, he was pushed onto the lava himself! Still wearing his boots and socks, he ran for the other side of the flow, which he reached safely despite the broiling heat. He burned the soles of his shoes and socks. His feet were untouched, as were the feet of the Kahunas, though their ti leaf anklets were also charred.
This very rational doctor had the following to say about his experience: “The Kahunas use magic in their firewalking as well as many other things. There is one set of natural laws for the physical world and another for the other world. Try to believe this if you can: The laws of the other side are so much the stronger. They can neutralize and reverse the laws of the physical.”
Despite the rational mental monoculture around the globe, often proliferated by our schooling systems and the media, I am quite happy to be able to say that fire worship, handling and walking have not died out in America or around the world. Today, some Christian churches use fire handling as a dynamic demonstration of their faith’s power as reported by Dr Kane in Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Kane spent sixteen months studying Christian fire handlers in six southern states. His subjects were active witnesses for Christ in the same Holiness churches that interpret snake handling and speaking in tongues as evidence of God’s presence.
Kane calls “the tumultuous portion” of the religious service, fire handlers direct flames from kerosene torches directly onto their bare feet, hands and faces. They attribute their immunity to the protection of the Holy Ghost. “Nothin’ can penetrate it, not even bullets,” one worshiper told Kane.
I am often called the mother or originator of the firewalking movement. Given the history I’ve just written about, it seems an unlikely title, quite like calling myself the human race mother because I have given birth to children. I will take credit for bringing firewalking into the public eye and allowing it to re-emerge in the western culture as a practice for people who are exploring consciousness and personal power. Compared with the intensity of other culture’s firewalking ceremonies, ours is a relatively mild affair. That statement is meant not to deny the transformative experiences people have firewalking in the western cultures, as the depth of healing, inspiration and life-altering change is truly remarkable. It is meant merely to point out that we are just beginning to explore the inner fire of spirit and that we have little to no history of ecstatic practices within our culture to draw on. We don’t gather with our families in town squares for communal hearings, wild, rollicking dances around fires, or exhilarating ceremonies of devotion and thanksgiving to the Infinite. Our puritan Christian past has all but eliminated our capacity to transcend the mundane and reach beyond our human experience into altered healing states.
I see the firework as the budding of these practices within our culture. It’s an affirmation of even our capacity to top that inner source of energy. Energy, N/um, chi, prana, ki, life- force, by any name, is that fire of spirit, the inner fire: fire which our accepted cultural behaviour and many established religions have attempted to snuff out. And we see the results of it; we live in a community of people who mirror the land we live on: where a community of people practised fire suppression too long, a society packed with ignitable tinder, people ready to explode at any moment, where violence is a way of life. Nature is teaching us that our wildlands need to burn for renewal and in the same way we human beings need to renew ourselves by allowing the inner fires, the fire of spirit, to burn passionately.
Fire handling or firewalking is seen often by witnesses or even taken by the practitioner to be an external and visible sign of inward spiritual grace. I see it differently. I see it as a practice to learn how to allow that inner fire to burn hot: inspiring, purifying, healing and guiding us as we wander down this path of life. I have great hopes that, as we begin to comprehend the true benevolence of life and we realize hell-fire is but a myth, we will once again allow this most passionate element its rightful place in the cycle of purification and renewal. We need the fire, now more than ever.
Now more than ever as we face not just out of control wildfires but all the various effects of climate change, we need the human race’s collective diversity. We need each other to creatively and passionately heal injustice, violence, disconnection, and hearts. In modern history firewalking in the west has consisted of many individuals sharing the fire within their small communities. Today firewalk instructors and schools from around the globe have joined together to form the Global Firewalking Association. Our mission is to unite firewalkers, instructors, and firewalking schools worldwide to share the healing of the fire as widely as possible. May we all be guided by the wisdom of this ancient element, reconnect to the fire and healing spark within our hearts.
This article was published originally as “Red, Hot, and Healing: A Short History of Fire Purification” by Peggy Dylan.
I want to thank the following sources for their excellent material which I used in my research listed in the order in which I incorporate them within the article:
- Michael Parfit,” The Essential Element of Fire,” National Geographic, Vol. 190, No. 3, September 1996, pp. II 7-139.
- Susan Weber, “Sacred Flames,” Science Digest, August 1982, p. 71.
- Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952.
- Stephen M. Kane, “Holiness Ritual Fire Handling: Ethnographic and Psychophysiological Considerations,” Ethos, 10 (I 982) pp. 369-384.
- Jim Doherty, “Hot Feat: Firewalkers of the Wodd,” Science Digest, August 1982, pp. 67-71.
- Jonathan Sternfield, Firewalk: The Psychology of Physical Immunity, Stockbridge: Berkshire House, 1992.
- Laurens van der Post, The Lost World of the Kalahari, New York: Harcourt Brace Joavanovich, 1977.
- Richard Katz, Boiling Energy. Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.