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 BC. 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.
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 BC. Cultures across the globe, from Greece to China, used firewalking for rites of healing, initiation, and faith.
Firewalking is also practiced by:
- The Sawau clan on the island of Beqa, 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) to the south of Viti Levu in the Fijian Islands. The phenomena was examined in 1902 when it was already a tourist attraction, with a "Probable Explanation of the Mystery" arrived at.
- Eastern Orthodox Christians in parts of Greece (see Anastenaria) and Bulgaria (see nestinarstvo), during some popular religious feasts.
- Tribes throughout Polynesia and documented in scientific journals (with pictures and chants) between 1893 and 1953.
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 at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, says he believes firewalking is explainable in terms of basic physics and is neither supernatural nor paranormal. Willey notes that most fire-walks occur on coals that measure about 1,000 °F (538 °C), but he once recorded someone walking on 1,800 °F (980 °C) coals.
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.
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- Pigliasco, Guido Carlo (2007). "The Custodians of the Gift: Intangible Cultural Property and Commodification of the Fijian Firewalking Ceremony. Ph.D. Dissertation,". Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i. Sponsor: Institute of Fijian Language and Culture, Ministry of Institute of Fijian Language and Culture, Ministry of Fijian Affairs, Culture and Heritage. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
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- Burns, Georgette Leah (1994). "Tourism Impact in Beqa". In R. J. Morrison, Paul A. Geraghty, Linda Crowl. Science of Pacific Island Peoples: Education, language, patterns & policy. Institute of Pacific Studies. p. 29. ISBN 9820201071.
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- Xygalatas, Dimitris, 2012. The Burning Saints. Cognition and Culture in the Fire-walking Rituals of the Anastenaria Archived 2012-09-02 at the Wayback Machine. 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
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- 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
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- Walker, Jearl. "Boiling and the Leidenfrost Effect" (PDF). Cleveland State University. Retrieved 2015-05-19.
- DeMello, Margo (2009). Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Macmillan. pp. 30–32. ISBN 978-0-313-35714-5.
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- Kendrick Frazier, The Hundredth Monkey: And Other Paradigms of the Paranormal — The author describes his participation in a firewalking exercise, his observations, and possible explanations of the phenomenon
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