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This is part of the background information by Sylvia Engdahl for her science fiction novel Stewards of the Flame. If you don't see a menu on the left, please click here and then on "Fire immunity."

Firewalking Is Common Today

Firewalking, an ancient tradition in many cultures, has become popular in America and Western Europe during the past thirty years, to the point where it is often considered a fad. Over a million people living today have walked on fire. Some firewalks are held by companies or other organizations as motivational seminars or fundaraisers, and others are open to the public. Most are offered for profit by their conductors, and there are many on the Web who advertise them. Naturally, they extol its benefits; but there is no doubt about its being an effective means of increasing self-confidence. Even the skeptics who claim there is nothing "supernatural" in the ability to walk on fire without burning don't deny that people gain from it.

Of course it is not "supernatural" -- nothing is supernatural; we simply do not yet understand the powers of the human mind. But neither, according to experiencers and qualified observers, does it have an adequate physical explanation apart from whatever physical changes in the body the mind produces. Also, I personally believe, as I said in the novel, that it depends on the instructor's telepathic charisma and on telepathy within the group, though at present this occurs largely, if not entirely, on an unconscious level; and that contrary to the assertions of some -- but not all -- advocates, it does involve an altered state of consciousness (not necessarily a mystical one, since there are many different states of consciousness that occur during normal experiences). Even experienced firewalkers do not go off by themselves to walk on hot coals (which, if the skeptics' explanations were true, could be done as easily alone as among others whose enthusiasm is aroused, and would not require a trained instructor).

Here are some videos and links about firewalking:

Video: Walking on hot coals in Estonia

Video: Firewalking for charity in Britain

Video: Firewalkers in Sri Lanka

Video: Peggy Dylan's firewalking school

What Is Firewalking? by Edward Siceloff. An excellent summary of the history of the firewalking movement.

The Neurological Side of Firewalking by Andy Mittleman. An unusually good explanation of how psychological state may explain firewalking and immunity to pain, more in accord with my own conception of it as presented in my novels than any other I have seen.

A Firewalking Theory that Can Benefit Everyone by Tolly Burkan, the "founding father" of the global firewalking movement. In this article at the website of F.I.R.E. (Firewalking Institute of Research and Education), originally maintained by him, he says, "Firewalking demonstrates how your thoughts impact everything else in your life. Thoughts change brain chemistry, and that results in an alteration of body chemistry as well.... Our minds are the new frontier and firewalking is just the beginning in the process of self-discovery."

A discussion of firewalking by Dr. Andrew Weil, author of several popular books on health. He says, "Over the years a number of skeptics have come up with various theories about why firewalkers don't get burned, but the fact is that some people do get burned while others don't.... My experience has convinced me that the only variable is the mind set of the firewalker, which is strongly influenced by the group energy."

Firewalking: A Contemporary Ritual and Transformation by Emily D. Edwards. A formal paper by a professor of media studies giving a detailed account of a firewalk and analysis of what firewalking means to contemporary participants.

Peggy Dylan's International Firewalking School. Dylan is another nationally-known leader of firewalking seminars, and has been training firewalking instructors for many years. Her site contains excellent articles.

Firewalk - Fear Into Power. A personal account of a firewalk conducted by Tony Robbins, one of the best-known commercial promoters of motivational firewalking seminars.

Blaze Firewalking Experts. The British organization that produced the above video.

Firewalking, a Trip Inward. By a certified firewalking instructor.
And here are some books:

Firewalk: The Psychology of Physical Immunity, Jonathon Sternfield, Berkshire House, 1992, 093639904X.

Firewalking: A New Look at an Old Enigma, Larissa Vilenskaya & J. Steffy, Bramble Books, 1991, 0962618438.

Firewalking and Religious Healing, Loring M. Danforth, Princeton University Press, 1989, 0691028532.

Fire Handling Is Rare, but It Does Occur

When I started Stewards of the Flame, I believed the handling of fire, as distinguished from walking on coals, to be a futuristic extension of present reality, symbolic of powers we cannot yet even imagine, just as I did when I included it in Enchantress from the Stars. I later learned that it does actually happen on some occasions, though not in the calm, deliberate way that my characters are able to do it. There are many reports of its occurence in ancient cultures.

Peggy Dylan has said in one of her articles about fire handling, "Fire worship, handling and walking has not died out in America. Some Christian churches today use fire handling as a dynamic demonstration of the power of their faith as reported by Dr. Kane in "Ethos", the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology.... His subjects were active witnesses for Christ in the same Holiness churches that interpret snake handling and speaking in tongues as evidence of God's presence. During what Kane calls 'the tumultuous portion' of the religious service, fire handlers direct flames from kerosene torches directly onto their bare feet, hands and faces." She cites Stephen M. Kane, "Holiness Ritual Fire Handling: Ethnographic and Psychophysiological Considerations," Ethos, 10 (1982), pp. 369-384; I have not personally seen this. (It is online but must be purchased.)

Here are some others:

Ordeal by Serpents, Fire and Strychnine, Psychiatric Quarterly, September 1960 (abstract only). "Several different worshippers, during ecstasy, handled fuel oil torches, acetylene flames, and flaming coal without having either thermal injury to their bodies or clothing."

Fire Immunity from Answers.com -- historical reports that may or may not be true.

July 2012: I just discovered these videos on YouTube. Seeing is believing! To be sure, this man is handling burning paper, not a torch--but it is open flame, and he does it calmly and repeatedly. (Don't try this at home, kids! YouTube made me sign in to confirm my age in order to play it, but I doubt if any children will be looking at this page.)

Last updated in July 2012