Firewalking has been practiced by many people and cultures in all parts of the world, with the earliest known reference dating back to Iron Age India – c. 1200 BCE. It is often used as a rite of passage, as a test of an individual's strength and courage, or in religion as a test of one's faith. Firewalking became popular in the twentieth century when author Tolly Burkan began giving public classes throughout the United States and Europe in an effort to demonstrate that the practice was not paranormal.
Today, it is often used in corporate and team-building seminars and self-help workshops as a confidence-building exercise. Firewalking is frequently held to imply that the feat requires the aid of a supernatural force, strong faith, or on an individual's ability to focus on "mind over matter". Modern physics has explained the phenomenon, concluding that the amount of time the foot is in contact with the ground is not enough to induce a burn, combined with the fact that embers are not good conductors of heat.
Walking on fire has existed for several thousand years, with records dating back to 1200 B.C. Cultures across the globe, from Greece to China, used firewalking for rites of healing, initiation, and faith.
Firewalking is practiced by:
- The Sawau clan in the Fijian Islands
- Some followers of Shia sect in Islam on the 9th and 10th days of the Muharram (First Month in the Islamic Calendar), to mourn the death of Hussain, who was the son of Hazrat Ali and Sayyeda Fatimah (daughter of Muhammad).
- Eastern Orthodox Christians in parts of Greece (see Anastenaria) and Bulgaria (see nestinarstvo), during some popular religious feasts.
- fakirs and similar persons
- !Kung Bushmen of the African Kalahari desert have practiced firewalking since their tribal beginnings. (The !Kung use fire in their healing ceremonies.)
- (Mainly) Hindu Indians in South Asia and their diaspora in Mauritius, South Africa, Malaysia and Singapore who celebrate the Thimithi festival
- Little girls in Bali in a ceremony called Sanghyang dedari, in which the girls are said to be possessed by beneficent spirits.
- Japanese Taoists and Buddhists
- Some tribes in Pakistan as a "justice system", wherein the accused is asked to firewalk; if he does firewalk and is unharmed, he is deemed innocent; otherwise, guilty.
- Tribes throughout Polynesia and documented in scientific journals (with pictures and chants) between 1893 and 1953.
- People of San Pedro Manrique in the autonomous community of Castile and León, Spain, as part of Saint John's Eve celebrations. Walkers generally carry someone on their shoulders, since the extra weight helps avoid combustion.
Persistence and functions
Social theorists have long argued that the performance of intensely arousing collective events such as firewalking persists because it serves some basic socialising function, such as social cohesion, team building, and so on. Emile Durkheim attributed this effect to the theorized notion of collective effervescence, whereby collective arousal results in a feeling of togetherness and assimilation. A scientific study conducted during a fire-walking ritual at the village of San Pedro Manrique, Spain, showed synchronized heart rate rhythms between performers of the firewalk and non-performing spectators. Notably, levels of synchronicity also depended on social proximity. This research suggests that there is a physiological foundation for collective religious rituals, through the alignment of emotional states, which strengthens group dynamics and forges a common identity amongst participants.
When two bodies of different temperatures meet, the hotter body will cool off, and the cooler body will heat up, until they are separated or until they meet at a temperature in between. What that temperature is, and how quickly it is reached, depends on the thermodynamic properties of the two bodies. The important properties are temperature, density, specific heat capacity, and thermal conductivity.
The square root of the product of thermal conductivity, density, and specific heat capacity is called thermal effusivity, and tells how much heat energy the body absorbs or releases in a certain amount of time per unit area when its surface is at a certain temperature. Since the heat taken in by the cooler body must be the same as the heat given by the hotter one, the surface temperature must lie closer to the temperature of the body with the greater thermal effusivity. The bodies in question here are human feet (which mainly consist of water) and burning coals.
Due to these properties, David Willey, professor of physics with the University of Pittsburgh, says he believes firewalking is explainable in terms of basic physics and is not supernatural nor paranormal. Willey notes that most fire-walks occur on coals that measure about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (550 degrees Celsius), but he once recorded someone walking on 1,800-degree (1,000 °C) coals.
Additionally, Jearl Walker has postulated that walking over hot coals with wet feet may insulate the feet due to the Leidenfrost effect. Ash buildup on the coals can also provide an insulating layer.
Factors that prevent burning
- Water has a very high specific heat capacity (4.184 J g−1 K−1), whereas embers have a very low one. Therefore the foot's temperature tends to change less than the coal's.
- Water also has a high thermal conductivity, and on top of that, the rich blood flow in the foot will carry away the heat and spread it. On the other hand, embers have a poor thermal conductivity, so the hotter body consists only of the parts of the embers which are close to the foot.
- When the embers cool down, their temperature sinks below the flash point, so they stop burning, and no new heat is generated.
- Firewalkers do not spend very much time on the embers, and they keep moving.
Risks when firewalking
- People have burned their feet when they remained in the fire for too long, enabling the thermal conductivity of the embers to catch up.
- One is more likely to be burned when running through the embers since running pushes one's feet deeper into the embers, resulting in the top of the feet being burnt.
- Foreign objects in the embers may result in burns. Metal is especially dangerous since it has a high thermal conductivity.
- Embers which have not burned long enough can burn feet more quickly. Embers contain water, which increases their heat capacity as well as their thermal conductivity. The water must be evaporated already when the firewalk starts.
- Wet feet can cause embers to cling to them, increasing the exposure time.
Notably in 2002, twenty KFC managers in Australia received treatment for burns caused by firewalking.
- Willey, David. "Firewalking Myth vs Physics". University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved June 29, 2010.
- FYI; Web hits., Star-Tribune, April 28, 2001. "Meet Tolly Burkan, father of the global firewalking movement."
- DeMello, Margo (2009). Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Macmillan. pp. 30–32. ISBN 978-0-313-35714-5.
- Binns, Corey (2006-08-14). "World's Watch and Learn: Physics Professor Walks on Fire". Livescience.com. Retrieved 2007-04-13. (livescience.com)[unreliable source?]
- Pigliasco, Guido Carlo, 2007. The Custodians of the Gift: Intangible Cultural Property and Commodification of the Fijian Firewalking Ceremony. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Hawai‘i.
- Pigliasco, Guido Carlo, 2010. "We Branded Ourselves Long Ago: Intangible Cultural Property and Commodification of Fijian Firewalking", Oceania 80 (2): 237–257.
- Xygalatas, Dimitris, 2012. The Burning Saints. Cognition and Culture in the Fire-walking Rituals of the Anastenaria London: Equinox. ISBN 9781845539764.
- Xygalatas, Dimitris, 2011. "Ethnography, Historiography, and the Making of History in the Tradition of the Anastenaria", History and Anthropology 22 (1): 57–74
- Durkheim E. ‘’The elementary forms of religious life’’. New York: Free Press 1995.
- Konvalinka, I., Xygalatas, D., Bulbulia, J., Schjoedt, U., Jegindø, E-M., Wallot, S., Van Orden, G. & Roepstorff, A. 2011. “Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual”, ‘’Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108’’(20): 8514-8519
- Xygalatas, D., Konvalinka, I., Roepstorff, A., & Bulbulia, J. 2011 "Quantifying collective effervescence: Heart-rate dynamics at a fire-walking ritual",Communicative & Integrative Biology 4(6): 735-738
- "Can you walk on hot coals in bare feet and not get burned?". The Straight Dope. 14 June 1991. Retrieved 2007-04-13.
- Willey, David (2007). "Firewalking Myth vs Physics". University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 2007-04-13.
- Walker, Jearl, "Boiling and the Leidenfrost Effect", Cleveland State University
- "21 people treated for burns after firewalk at Tony Robbins appearance".
- Kennedy, Les (2002-02-28). "KFC bosses aren't chicken, but they sure are tender". The Age. Retrieved 2007-04-13.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fire walking.|
- The Power of Belief (Video includes explanation of firewalking) from ABC News
- Firewalking from Skeptic's Dictionary
- Can you walk on hot coals in bare feet and not get burned? from The Straight Dope
- The Physics and Fantasy of Firewalking - by Robert Novella
- Why Fire Walking Doesn't Burn: Science or Spirituality? from National Geographic
- A scientific study of a fire-walking ritual from Discovery Channel