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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A story is told of the miracle-working Saint Francis of Paola’s (1415–1507) encounter with a papal representative sent to investigate him. The Monsignor critiqued his extreme lifestyle. In response, Francis walked over a bed of red-hot coals and then scooped up a few and presented them to his accuser, who retreated in his perplexity. The story illustrates the manner in which people of a wide variety of cultures discovered how to walk on fire apparently without being harmed, an event that would normally lead to extreme burns, if not death. Through the twentieth century, ethnologists have reported firewalking activity from such diverse places as Hawaii and Africa.

Saint Francis notwithstanding, firewalking was an extremely rare phenomenon in the West, and it became an object of fascination when found as a practice among the fakirs of India. It ranked with the Indian rope trick as the most intriguing feat of the fakirs, perhaps all the more interesting as the rope trick was rarely witnessed. Many Westerners got their first chance to actually see firewalking when magician Kuda Bux (1906–1981) performed the trick in 1935 before an admiring audience from the University of London Council for Psychical Research and a host of news reporters. The council actually issued the first report pointing out that the ability to walk on fire was not due to any supernatural or paranormal ability, but a matter of simple physics: namely, the low thermal conductivity of burning wood and brevity of the contact between the burning coals and the walker’s foot. In 1998 physics teacher David Willey organized a record-setting fire walk. He and fourteen others at the University of Pittsburgh walked a 165-foot coal bed, just for the fun of it.

Prior to the twentieth century, firewalking was most frequently integrated into a supernatural religious worldview, often a demonstration of some attribute of a deity. However, in the late twentieth century, it has been adapted by the Esoteric or New Age community as one of a spectrum of transformational tools. This new wave of firewalking appears to be traced to a 1977 article in Scientific American that explained firewalking in enough detail that many found it possible to duplicate the feat.

Among the people influenced by the article was Tolly Burkan, a teacher and author in the human potentials movement. In 1979 he began to teach his idea that firewalking could be used as a tool for personal growth, and by 1982 he was widely advertising his notion. The following year, he taught the technique to human potentials celebrity Tony Robbins, who put his organization behind the effort to spread firewalking internationally. Robbins agreed with Burkan that the practice was an excellent tool for expanding awareness, overcoming fears, and abandoning beliefs about one’s personal limitations. Burkan took the practice to Europe and began to train other teacher/facilitators. Teachers were trained through the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education, which he founded, and then additionally through the Sundoor Foundation, founded by his former wife, Peg Burkan. The first book on firewalking appeared in 1989, Michael Sky’s Dancing with the Fire.

While not as widespread as other New Age techniques such as, for example, the Tarot or crystals, firewalking has spread exponentially through the 1990s to the present and is no longer a magical secret held by a few professional firewalkers.


Burkan, Tolly. Extreme Spirituality: Radical Journeys for the Inward Bound. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 2001.
Danforth, Loring M. Firewalking and Religious Healing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Nisbet, Matt. “The Physics Instructor Who Walks on Fire,” October 25, 2000. Posted at http://www.csi Accessed April 1, 2007.
Sky, Michael. Dancing with the Fire: Transforming Limitation through Firewalking. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1989.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The coals still transmit heat through a process called conduction, which happens when more energetic molecules 6 in this case, inside hot coals 6 collide with less excited molecules 6 the ones in the soles of the firewalker's foot 6 and transfer energy.What makes firewalking possible is that the charcoal's thermal conductivity, or ability to transfer heat, is very low, Willey explains.
Vilavilairevo, literally 'jumping into the earth oven,' a dramatic firewalking ceremony performed by the Naivilaqata bete (priestly) mataqali (clan) of the Sawau yavusa (tribe) of Beqa Island, Fiji, is a prime example of a traditional ritual that has become a commodified tourist spectacle.
Indeed Jane Gaines' comments on Lonely Boy certainly call to mind the ethnographer Rouch: "There is something in Lonely Boy that is reminiscent of the incredulity of the traditional anthropologist studying the other-cultural phenomenon of scarification rituals or firewalking, with the difference here the subject is nothing more than scream ing, love-struck teenagers, ordinary girls-next-door." See Jane Gaines, "Lonely Boy and the Verite of Sexuality," Canadian journal of Film Studies 8.1 (1999): 104.
We then went to the Temple of the Tooth Relic (of Buddha), which has an amazing history, and also witnessed a lovely cultural dance performance which ended brilliantly with an awesome demonstration of firewalking.
The group at the center of "Three Miles North of Molkom"--where lies Angsbacka, described by the filmmakers as a "playground for adults"--are seven of the roughly 1,000 international guests who arrive each year for shamanistic experiences, firewalking and regular "sharing" in a tribal circle.
Firewalking versus hypnosis: A preliminary study concerning consciousness, attention, and fire immunity.
"Inedible" to "edible": Firewalking and the ti plant [Cordyline fruticosa (L.) A.
A MAN suffered burns to his feet when a drunken party prank ended with revellers giving firewalking a try.
Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement.
The author has also given readers a chronology and list of further reading, a most useful historical gazetteer and five appendices on various aspects of the region's history, such as the Treaty of Waitangi or 'firewalking' in Fiji, and a list of monarchs and heads of government.
Fijians are famous for their firewalking and intricate tattoos.
It's not that we sat around saying this is going to be a bit Wicker Man but as the story moves towards the firewalking sequence the idea was to get the audience saying 'oh my god, there's going to be a sacrifice'.