Red Hot and Healing -
I've put off writing this article on the purifying aspects of fire because my eyes
itch and run, as does my nose. I'm coughing and sneezing, my chest hurts and my brain
seems to be so pre-
Many tribal people had, or have, rituals and ceremony to honour the sacred aspect of fire, honouring its gifts and acknowledging its power. Most Americans fear fire beyond the Sunday afternoon barbecue and for decades we have, in a systematic way, attempted to control it. This scientific manipulation of a powerful element is now backfiring as our wild lands, ripe with tinder from years of fire suppression are, on a yearly basis, burning out of control. Scientists today are confirming the ancient wisdom that fire plays an important part in our ecosystem and is vital to the renewal of the planet.
A recent article in National Geographic quotes Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University historian who has spent his life studying the subject as saying: "We are uniquely fire creatures on a uniquely fire planet." Our planet, he says, is primed for ignition, "stuffed with organic fuels, its atmosphere saturated with oxygen, its surface pummelled by lightning”. Many of the natural environments of our planet are dependent on the cleansing and purifying aspects of fire.
Fire produces nutrients more quickly than decay, many pine cones require the heat
of a fire to pop open to free their seeds, grasslands burn to get rid of the stubble
which shades and crowds new life, and birds like the endangered red-
The Native Americans used fire to herd deer and bison and kept grasslands green by
burning young trees and dead grass. Many scientists believe it was the Indian's fire
stick and lightening which shaped the American landscape as it emerged from the last
Ice Age. Just as the planet requires fire for renewal so does the human spirit, as
we are always intrinsically connected with this earth from which we grew.
Fire worship is as old as the human race. According to one North American Indian legend, fire was first sparked by buffalo hooves thundering across the plains. The Maoris of New Zealand believe it was a gift from a god's blind grandmother, who drew it from her fingernails by magic.
In the legends of the Huachipayri Indians of the Amazon basin in Peru, fire was brought by a woodpecker. They still call his name and imitate his call when making fire with fire sticks in their ceremonies. Recent evidence suggests that Australopithecus controlled fire nearly a million and half years ago.
As the continuity of life became associated with the continuity of fire, the symbol of perpetual fire arose. In Rome, if the eternal flame in the temple of Vesta, Goddess of the hearth, went out, all activity in the temple had to stop: the connection between heaven and earth represented by the fire had to be restored at once. The Osage Indians maintained a Sacred fire in their chief's hut: its holy flames were thought to bring life and health. Fire worship practiced as a rite of purification, healing, initiation, devotion and proof of faith or divine connection has been a thread in the cultural tapestry of our planet.
For many early Christians fire immunity was considered a mark of grace, and the annals
of history are well spiced with accounts of monks and martyrs who were blessed with
this capacity. One of my favourites is Francis of Paola who died in 1507 (not to
be confused with St. Francis of Assisi, the saint so loved by animals). Francis of
Paola was born to Italian peasants and seems to have handled fire as easily as other
people handle a shovel. He used his amazing capacities with fire to help the very
hard lives of the local farming community: walking into the red-
As the Christian dogma evolved we see the myth of hell-
In Bali, the mystical South Sea island, it is not the men who dance on the fire,
but young girls as the Balinese believe the gods to be "children of the people" and
thus most of the trance-
In the Hindu fire ceremony Agni Hotra, fire is used to purify the physical and spiritual atmosphere, and in Peru it is used to spiritually uplift participants in the fire-
Around this little globe people rely on their spiritual kinship with this dynamic element to bring them closer to their true nature and, through touching the fire of their spirit, feel renewed and healed.
Richard Katz, a Harvard Psychologist reports that the !Kung use the fire to heat up their energy, which they call n/um:
"It is quite easy for you to do these things, they told him," because you are a peasant and used to hardship. But if you were of gentle blood you would not be able to live in this way." "Quite true, replied Francis smiling, "I am a peasant." They were sitting near a big fire to ward off the winter cold. "And if I were not, I would not be able to do things like this." With that he reached into the nearby blaze and grabbed a handful of burning logs and embers. Holding them in his hands he said to the canon: "You see, I could not do this if I were not a peasant." The canon then prostrated himself on the ground and sought to kiss Francis' hands and feet, but the saintly peasant would not allow it. Francis of Paoloa was canonized in 1519 with countless witnesses present to testify to his amazing abilities".
But lest you put down this writing with a sense of "but what about North America?" I will give you a little of our fire heritage: In a 17th century letter a Jesuit priest, Father Le Jeune, writes to his superior, telling of a healing firewalk he witnessed among the Indians. He reports of a sick woman walking through two or three hundred fires with bare legs and feet, not only without burning, but all the while complaining about the lack of heat she was feeling.
Some 30 years later, Father Marquette reported similar firewalks among the Ottawa Indians and Jonathan Carver writes in his 1802 book "Travels in North America" that one of the most astounding sights he saw was the parade of warriors who would "walk naked through a fire... with apparent immunity”. Other North American Indians who were known to have shamanic traditions which included fire handling were the Fox, Menomini, Keres, Blackfeet and particularly the Zuni, who had, and some claim still have, a "great fire fraternity." The Kahunas, or native priests of the Hawaiian Islands, had powerful practices as the following report will demonstrate.
In his youth, ethnologist William Tufts Brigham walked over semi-
Barefoot, one of them trotted onto the red-
Despite the rational, mental, mono-
...they (the !Kung dancers) seemed to pass into a dimension of reality far out of reach of my understanding, and to a moment and place which belonged only technically to the desert in which we were all gathered. Indeed so obsessed did the men become with their search for fire that they were drawn nearer and nearer to the flames... Then, suddenly, they halved the circle and went dancing with their bare feet through the middle of the flames."
I am often called the mother or originator of the firewalking movement. Given the history I've just written about, that seems a rather unlikely title, quite like calling myself the mother of the human race because I have given birth to children.
What I will take credit for is bringing Firewalking into the public eye and allowing it to re-
Compared with the intensity of the other culture's firewalking ceremonies, ours is a rather mild affair. That statement is not meant to deny the transformative experiences people have firewalking in the western cultures, as the depth of
It is merely meant to point out that we are just beginning to explore the inner fire of spirit and that we have little to no history of ecstatic practices within our culture to draw on. We don't gather with our families in town squares for communal healings, wild, rollicking dances around fires, or exhilarating ceremonies of devotion and thanksgiving to the Infinite. Our Puritan Christian past has all but eliminated our capacity for transcending the mundane and reaching beyond our human experience into healing altered states.
I see the firewalk as the budding of these practices within our culture, an affirmation
of even our capacity to tap that inner source of energy. Energy, N/um, chi, prana,
Nature is teaching us that our wild lands need to burn for renewal and, in the same way, we human beings need to renew ourselves by allowing the inner fires, the fire of spirit, to burn passionately. Fire handling or firewalking is often seen by witnesses or even taken by the practitioner to be an external and visible sign of inward spiritual grace.
I see it differently. I see it as a practice to learn how to allow that inner fire to burn hot: inspiring, purifying, healing and guiding us as we wander down this path of life.
I have great hopes that, as we begin to comprehend the true benevolence of life and we realize hell-
I want to thank the following sources for their excellent material that I used in
They are listed in the order in which I incorporate them within the article:
Michael Parfit, "The Essential Element of Fire,"
National Geographic, Vol 190, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 117-
Susan Weber, "Sacred Flames," Science Digest, August 1982, p. 71
Herbert Thurston, "The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism", Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952.
Stephen M. Kane, "Holiness Ritual Fire Handling: Ethnographic and Psychophysiological
Considerations," Ethos, 10 (1982), pp. 369-
Jim Doherty, "Hot Feat: Firewalkers of the World," Science Digest, August 1982, pp.
Jonathan Sternfield, "Firewalk: The Psychology of Physical Immunity", Stockbridge: Berkshire House, 1992.
Laurens van der Post, "The Lost World of the Kalahari”. New York: Harcourt Brace Joanvanovich, 1977.
Richard Katz, "Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kalihari Kung", Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Peggy Dylan is often referred to as the driving force behind the contemporary firewalking movement. She is the founder/director of SUNDOOR, an international foundation devoted to exploring and teaching excellence in the field of human potential. This article may be reproduced in its entirety without permission of the author.