The fire ordeal is of great antiquity and probably arose from the concept of the purifying influence of fire. Among the Hindus, from the earliest times until comparatively recently, those who were suspected of wrongdoing were required to prove their guilt or innocence by walking over red-hot iron. If they escaped unharmed their innocence was proved beyond a doubt. In the great Hindu religious epic the Ramayana, after Sita, wife of Rama, has been rescued from the demon Ravana, Sita proves her purity by the fire ordeal. The priestesses of Cappodocian goddess Diana Parasya walked barefoot on red-hot coals, attributing their invulnerability to the powers of the divinity.
In Europe, trial by fire was of two kinds—traversing the flames, or undergoing the ordeal of hot iron. The latter comprised carrying red-hot irons in the hand, walking over iron bars or glowing ploughshares, and thrusting the hand into a red-hot gauntlet. An early instance of the former trial method in European history was the case of Pierre Barthelémy, who in 1097 declared to the Crusaders that heaven had revealed to him the place where the spear that had pierced the Savior's body was concealed. To prove his assertion he offered to undergo the ordeal by fire and was duly required to walk a path about a foot in width and some fourteen feet in length, on either side of which were piled blazing olive branches. The judgment of the fire was unfavorable, and 12 days later the rash adventurer died in agony.
Books were also sometimes submitted to trial by fire. This method was adopted to decide the claims of the Roman and Mozaratian liturgies, the former emerging victorious from the flames. The fire ordeal was also widely known in New Zealand, India, Fiji, and Japan.
In may be suspected that the outcome of such ordeals was not always left to the gods. There is no doubt that the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with substances that rendered the body temporarily impervious to fire. Albertus Magnus gives a recipe for this purpose. The concoction was made up of powdered lime made into a paste with the white of an egg, radish juice, marshmallow juice, and fleabane seeds. A first coat of this mixture was applied to the body and allowed to dry, then a second coat was applied. If the feet were constantly oiled or moistened with sulphuric acid they could be rendered impervious. Possibly the ancients were not unaware of the fire-resistant properties of asbestos.
The fire ordeal persisted into relatively modern times as one of the phenomena of Spiritualism. The famous medium D. D. Home frequently handled live coals and laid them on a handkerchief without damaging the material in the least. On one occasion he enclosed a glowing coal in his hands and blew upon it until it became white-hot.
In an account given by a Mrs. Honeywood and the Master of Lindsay of a séance with the same medium, Home took a chimney from a lighted lamp and put it into the fire—making it so hot that a match applied to it ignited instantly—and then thrust it into his mouth, touching it with his tongue, without any apparent ill effects. Another account stated that Home placed his face right into the fire among the burning coals, "moving it about as though bathing it in water." Other mediums in England and America emulated this feat with some measure of success.
It has been suggested that the state of trance generally accompanying such exploits, and corresponding to the ecstasy of the shaman performing a similar feat, may produce an anesthesia like insensibility to the pain of burning. How skin remains unscorched and a handkerchief unmarked by burning coals, however, is not easy to say.
Contemporary Fire Walking
Fire walking is still practiced in many parts of the world, including India, Pakistan, Japan, Malaya, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti. Fire walkers believe that their faith protects them from injury and undergo the ordeal for purification, to fulfill vows, or to prove innocence. In 1935 Harry Price arranged a scientific investigation of fire walking in Surrey, England, with the cooperation of Kuda Bux, a Moslem from Kashmir. The tests were successful, but two volunteers who attempted the walk suffered blisters on the feet. Price concluded that the secret of fire walking involved three factors: the short contact time of each foot on the glowing embers (with a limit of two steps per foot); the low thermal conductivity of burning or burned wood embers; and confidence and steadiness in walking.
Interest in fire walking has been revived in the second half of the twentieth century. The 50-year-old film made by Harry Price of his investigation of Kuda Bux's fire walking was reproduced on the British television series Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers. A discussion of timely experiments and theories concerning scientific aspects of the subject followed the airing of the film. Various experiments were also detailed in the accompanying book to the series by John Fairley and Simon Welfare, Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers (1984). One notable citation was the work of Jearl Walker, professor of physics at Cleveland State University, Ohio. Walker had studied fire walking and was particularly intrigued by the research of Johann Gottlieb Leidenfrost, a German doctor who published a paper on the properties of water in 1756. Leidenfrost observed that if water was dropped onto a very hot surface, the drops danced about for a longer period than if the surface was cooler. Walker's own experiments showed that at 2100° centigrade the drops would last a minute or more on a hot surface, whereas they would evaporate in a few seconds at a lower temperature. Walker also discovered that the water drops were kept from contact with the hot surface by a thin vapor layer. He concluded that this "Leidenfrost effect" must be the secret of fire walking—that at a high temperature perspiration on the fire walker's feet forms a protective layer long enough to prevent injury.
Walker was courageous enough to put his theories to a personal test. He constructed a five-foot bed of hot coals in his back garden. He stated, "I suddenly found it remarkably easy to believe in physics when it is on paper, but remarkably hard to believe in it when the safety of one's own feet is at stake." Nevertheless, he later reported, "Clutching my faded copy of Halliday & Resnick's Physics in one hand, I strode over the five feet of hot coals. Apparently I am a true believer in physics. I have to report, however, that my feet did get a bit hot."
A German scientific team from Adubingen subsequently investigated the annual fire-walk ceremony at Langadhas, in northern Greece. The ceremony is held on May 21 each year at the festival of St. Constantine and St. Catherine to celebrate the traditional belief that Emperor Constantine successfully removed sacred relics from a burning church without injury to himself. In May 1980 the scientific team ensured that the fire was four yards long, with some two inches of hot coals with a surface temperature of 5000° Celsius. Three of the fire walkers agreed to have electrodes taped to their heads to secure an electroencephalogram (EEG), with thermocouples on their feet to give temperature readings. Both records were relayed from a backpack transmitter to the scientists with EEG recorder and tape recorder for temperature readings.
Two significant results were noted. First, although the surface of the fire was 5000°, the soles of the walkers' feet recorded only 1800°; second, increased theta activity was registered in the brain during the fire walk. Unfortunately a definitive physical explanation of the phenomenon of fire immunity proved elusive; when two of the scientific team ventured the fire walk, they suffered third-degree burns.
Evidence that immunity in fire walking is due solely to religious faith is also inconclusive. In 1982 a team of doctors and students from the medical faculty at Colombo University, Sri Lanka, took part in an extraordinary event designed to highlight the superiority of medical science to magic and superstition. As well as sponsoring vasectomies for family planning and medical treatment for snake-bite and venereal disease, the doctors staged demonstrations of fire walking. These deliberately flouted religious taboos as the doctors ate pork and imbibed alcohol (both forbidden by religion) while walking on red-hot coals without harm. The intention was to show that such fire immunity is a scientific phenomenon and not related to spiritual faith.
Another interesting case, quoted by Arthur C. Clarke and his co-authors, was that of Methodist minister Jon Munday from Katonan, New York, who took part in a fire walk in 1970 at the summer ashram retreat of Swami Vishnudevananda near Montreal, Canada. Munday described how he prepared himself by "chaotic meditation"—a combination of dancing, singing, and meditation—before joining others in a fire walk. Munday stated, "I didn't feel like I'd gone into a trance. Then, seconds before we stepped onto the coals I felt like something had happened and just walked right across, probably no more than six steps. I wasn't burned at all. I remember I fell on the ground face forward and held there kicking my feet. It was the exhilaration of having done something so incredible."
New Age Fire Walking
Fire walking has been revived in the United States and Britain as a kind of New Thought technique for raising human potential. It is claimed that by proving that the mind can control pain and physical reaction, individuals can liberate hidden potential for other achievements. In the United States, Eric Best, an industrial systems analyst, has been conducting seminars in which students are taught to overcome their fears through fire walking. Psychological techniques are used to prepare students by helping them face their longstanding fears before fire walking. Eventually the group surrounds a large bonfire that is later dismantled and used to feed a bed of glowing coals three feet wide and ten feet long.
The fire walkers are taught to internalize energy, to concentrate on it, then to assure themselves that the walk is on "cool moss." They shout, "Energy in!" then, "Strong focus!" "Eyes up!" and then, "Cool moss!" as they walk confidently over the glowing coals (a variant final chant used by some fire walkers is "Cool green moss!"). Walkers are instructed not to proceed with the ordeal unless they "feel right."
The technique was introduced to Britain by Hugh Bromiley, a karate black belt and member of the British Society of Hypnotherapists, after observing a fire-walking workshop in California. Participants are prepared by a "Power and Personal Research Training" course at which they are taught to confront their fears and successes before walking across burning embers. Local council authorities in London have banned fire walking, however, and medical authorities on burns have strongly discouraged the project.
In a valuable report on his own fire-walking experience, parapsychologist Charles T. Tart tells how he successfully maneuvered through the fire without injury. In his discussion of the various theories of immunity he concludes that a key factor is the belief of the fire walker that he or she can walk over the coals without being burned. This belief may be rationalized in many different ways, depending upon the disposition of the participant and whether he holds a religious or scientific philosophy. Tart questions the simplistic explanation of the Leidenfrost effect and points out discrepancies in the theory based on his own experience.
For a valuable collection of papers on fire walking, see Psi Research (vol. 4, no. 2, 1985). For a bibliography of articles on fire walking, see Bulletin II of the University of London, Council for Psychical Investigation (London, 1936).
Burkan, Tolly. Guiding Yourself into a Spiritual Reality. Twin Harte, Calif.: Reunion Press, 1983.
Danforth, Loring M. Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena: A Book of Wonders. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Unknown. London: Book Club Associates, 1980.
Sandwith, George, and Helen Sandwith. Research in Fiji, Tonga & Samoa. Surrey, England: Omega Press, 1954.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Tart, Charles T. "Firewalk." Parapsychology Review 18, no. 3 (May-June 1987).
Truzzi, Marcelo. "A Bibliography on Fire-Walking." Zetetic Scholar 11 (1983): 105-07.