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Firewalking over hot coals. Source: Tatyana / Adobe Stock

Hot Trot: The Fascinating Ancient Practice of Firewalking

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If you’ve ever seen firewalking in person or online, you may have been amazed by the control and skill of individuals performing such a risky act. Since ancient times, the ability to walk barefoot through fire without being injured has provoked fascination. After all, most of us typically wouldn’t volunteer to walk through hot flames. So why and how do they do it without bring burned to a crisp? Below, we’ll discuss the process of firewalking, its training, and its over 3,000-year history.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Understanding Firewalking

Typically, firewalking is performed as part of some religious or spiritual ritual, though this is not always true. Whether religious or not, firewalking is ceremoniously used to show one’s physical and spiritual strength and to display courage, inner peace, and faith. Often, it is used in other countries to commemorate miracles, take or fulfill vows, or honor the deceased, especially if they are saints or holy individuals.

In many cultural or religious ceremonies involving firewalking, the individual who will be firewalking will perform some sort of pre-walking ritual. Often, this ritual is used to cleanse the person walking or otherwise prepare them spiritually for firewalking. This ritual may involve fasting, refraining from communication with others, bathing multiple times, or dancing. These events can take anywhere from a few hours to several days. 

There are two different types of fire walks performed by walkers. One involves walking over fiery hot stones, while the other involves walking directly on hot coals. The latter is considered much more common, and those preparing the path will often use wood as fuel and wait until the fire is white-hot with many glowing red embers to prove its heat. Those preparing and maintaining the path will use giant fans to fan away any ash and debris in the path that may harm the walker’s feet. After all, they already have flaming coals to worry about!

The path itself is normally between 1-2 inches in height and anywhere between 7 and 15 feet in length. Depending on the needs of the ritual, they can also vary in width between 3 and 10 feet. When firewalking ceremonies occur, they are often accompanied by music played using that culture’s native instruments. Examples of these instruments include bagpipes, drums, and stringed instruments. 

Poster showing three figures firewalking. (National Library NZ / No known copyright restrictions)

Poster showing three figures firewalking. (National Library NZ / No known copyright restrictions )

The Practicalities of Fire Walk Preparation

Once it is time for the fire walk itself to begin, the walker may take one of two different strategies. In some regions, the firewalker is to walk across calmly and deliberately, taking their time reaching the end of the path. At times, they may even stop in the middle of the fiery path to perform a dance or get on their knees to pray. In other instances, the firewalker may make a mad dash through the path, rushing to reach the end. 

In many cases, physicians are present at the fire walk in the event that something goes horribly wrong. They are often allowed to examine the firewalkers before and after the walk to ensure they’re physically ready before the walk and that they haven’t accidentally hurt themselves afterwards. For those that believe in spiritual protection against the hot coals, religious leaders may be nearby as “spiritual physicians.” These individuals claim that the lack of burns comes from a healthy “state of mind.” Scientists disagree. 

Though initially puzzling, scientists say that there are several plausible causes behind the unburned feet of firewalkers. Some individuals believe that the speed at which the walker passes over the coals is related to their chances of being burned. This would mean that those who rush over the coals are less likely to be burned, because they spend less time on the coals than others. However, this is not necessarily true, as skilled firewalkers have been known to remain on the coals for upwards of thirty minutes without burns!

Others suggest that fire walkers have trained so much that the bottoms of their feet are calloused enough to avoid burns. However, this is not the case for tender-footed individuals, as not all cultures are accustomed to being barefoot frequently. However, this may be explained by any oils or herb-based salves slathered on the feet before the fire walk. 

The most plausible scientific reasoning behind how firewalking works is that the way trained firewalkers step on the hot coals temporarily puts the fire out under their feet. This would result in heat exposure, but your skin would not become burned or blistered. This would be similar to putting a candle out with your bare fingers without getting burned. Because the flame is snuffed out so quickly, you avoid sustaining any injuries. Plus, scientists say that your skin is actually a poor conductor of heat, which means direct fire (which is essentially air) wouldn’t burn you as easily as touching something like hot metal. 

Fire dancers in the Anestenaria firewalking ecstatic dance ritual in Balgari village, Bulgaria. (Apokalipto / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fire dancers in the Anestenaria firewalking ecstatic dance ritual in Balgari village, Bulgaria. (Apokalipto / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

To Honor and to Heal: A Brief History of Firewalking

The earliest records of firewalking can be traced back to India around 1200 BC. Records state that firewalking began as a competition between two priests who wanted to see who could walk farther on hot coals. The winner of this competition would be remembered for his faith, strength, and calm mind. 

The next time firewalking appears in archival evidence is in the 1st century AD. This record originated in Europe and was written by Pliny the Elder , a member of an ancient Roman family called the Hirpi. In his writings Pliny claimed that there was a yearly sacrifice to Apollo, in which those participating would walk over charred piles of logs without being burned. By accomplishing this feat at the sacrificial ceremony, participants received many blessings from their community including exemption from military service. Similar stories can be found written by Strabo and Virgil, famous European philosophers who lived just before the 1st century AD. 

From India and Europe, the practice of firewalking spread like wildfire. Soon, countries including Spain, Japan, Thailand, China, and Tibet began using firewalking in their religious, spiritual, and cultural ceremonies. Typically, this meant that firewalking occurred at least once per year during an annual ceremony. Over time more individuals got the opportunity to try their feet at firewalking. Some of these ceremonies are held annually even today. 

An example of this is the Anastenaria, a firewalking ritual that can be traced back to Thrace and Macedonia in the 13th century AD. Thrace is a region containing modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, making up the southeastern region of the Balkan Mountains. Kosti, a village in Thrace, had a church referred to as St. Constantine. One day, the church caught fire, which would have been a devastating loss to the village. While it burned, legend says that the people watching could hear their holy icons groaning for help within the flames. 

Those that were brave enough to enter the burning church to save the holy icons came out unharmed, and were labeled as spiritual heroes. It was decided they would keep the holy icons they had saved, passing them down from generation to generation. From then, annual rituals called the Anastenaria began, which required the people of that region to walk barefoot through fire to prove their faith and honor St. Constantine’s miracle. 

However, not all religions throughout history supported firewalking. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church banned its clergy from these ceremonies, leading fire walkers to have to contact priests of other denominations to officiate their ceremonies. 

Finally, firewalking reached North America some time before the 17th century, as this is when Father Le Jeune, a Jesuit priest, recorded his experience attending a healing fire walk being performed by Native Americans . He describes how a sick woman walked across fire without injury, fascinating him immensely. Decades later, firewalking became more mainstream in the Western world when an article published by Scientific American in the 1970s claimed to teach you “how to fire walk.” 

A Buddhist firewalking teacher walking over hot coals. (Cyberguru / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Buddhist firewalking teacher walking over hot coals. (Cyberguru / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

From Cultural to Corporate: Firewalking in Modern Times

Firewalking is still a regular part of many religious rituals throughout the world. One example is in San Pedro Manrique, Spain, where locals honor St. John in a religious ceremony. This ceremony is held annually on St. John’s Eve and only locals are permitted to engage in the firewalking portion of the ceremony. For the ritual, three young ladies dress as priestesses and are carried across the fire on the backs of three young men. After this, those that know any of the three young ladies or young men will take their turn on the embers next until everyone gets a turn. 

In some countries, firewalking is now used as a tourist attraction. By bringing in tourists to watch a firewalking ceremony, locals can bring money into their town as well as attracting global attention. This improves their community’s economy and therefore their quality of life over time. 

Though firewalking is still mostly used in religious and cultural ceremonies throughout the world, in the US these ceremonies are usually performed as a corporate teambuilding exercise. Since the 1990s, firewalking has been seen as a creative way to bring teams together and help workers find their inner strength. While this may sound extreme, many forward-thinking companies like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Google have used firewalking seminars with great success.

Top image: Firewalking over hot coals. Source: Tatyana / Adobe Stock

By Lex Leigh

References

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Brewster, P. G. 1977. “The Strange Practice of Firewalking” in Expedition Magazine , 19(3), pp. 43–47.

Firewalking International. 7 July 2018. “Corporate firewalking: Team events” in Firewalking International . Available at: https://firewalkhq.com/team-events/corporate-firewalking

Fifofuspain. 18 December 2019”. Firewalking Festival Manrique” in FIFOFUSPAIN. Available at: http://www.fifofuspain.com/firewalking-at-saint-johns-festival-san-pedro-manrique/

Hanes, T. A. 1 June 2018. “4 interesting facts I bet you never knew about fire walking and why it can benefit you” in Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@tallenhanes/4-interesting-facts-i-bet-you-never-knew-about-fire-walking-and-why-it-can-benefit-you-b07b507e6ac0

Hughes, T. 17 November 2019. “Who were the Thracians and where was Thrace?” in History Hit . Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/the-strongest-nation-on-earth-who-were-the-thracians/

Roach, J. 3 May 2021. “Why fire walking doesn't burn: Science or spirituality?” in National Geographic . Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/why-fire-walking-doesnt-burn-science-or-spirituality

Robins, T. 6 January 2017. “The history of the firewalking” in Tony Robbins Firewalker . Available at: https://tonyrobbinsfirewalk.com/the-history-of-firewalking/

White, J. 28 March 2022. “Corporate firewalk seminars are used to motivate employees” in The Home of Firewalk . Available at: https://firewalking.com/corporate-events/

Comments

"The most plausible scientific reasoning..................

Yes and in this case the scientists are wrong, again.

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