(Investigator 139, 2011
according to Greek mythology, was the giver of the sacred flame to
mankind and is a common myth known to many peoples.
venerated variously as the seed of life, the agent for purification and
renewal, and as a sacred element.
essential function of
many practitioners of the paranormal is their demonstration of man's
mastery over the fire element by walking on burning embers or holding
red hot irons without apparent injury. In general, firewalking is
confined to walking over glowing embers, and ancient accounts by Virgil
and Pliny speak of these firewalks in Cappadocia over two thousand
years ago. As recently as fifty years ago firewalking was practiced in
China, Japan and Bulgaria and can still be seen today in Sri-Lanka,
Fiji, India, Malaysia and North Africa. It is awe inspiring to see
bare-footed humans pass over glowing embers or superheated stones
unscathed, particularly when, even as a spectator standing some
distance from the fire, the intense heat radiating from it can be felt.
motivators have been conducting seminars purporting to teach people how
to overcome their fear of being burned. By teaching them how to control
their minds they claim that they are able to overcome any limitation
they have created in their lives whether it be fear of failure,
rejection or heat.
motivator teaching mind-over-matter was Robert Young, who claimed that
he could lead people over fires with a temperature of two thousand
degrees centigrade and whose techniques are being applied to help
disadvantaged children. He further claimed that the US Army has adopted
his theories and that when you turn fear into power, you can do
anything. Demonstrations of firewalking by those who have undertaken
Young's courses of instruction would certainly seem to bear out his
over the mental state required of the participants, which included
confessing one's innermost fears both verbally and in writing, all
successfully negotiated the hot coals unharmed.
far from being
mind-over-matter, the ability to seemingly endure the unbearable has a
simple scientific explanation. At one time or another most of us have
picked up a hot cinder and dropped it back into the fire without
feeling any discomfort. It was done quickly and probably preceded by
licking the fingers. The principle involved in firewalking is the same,
the natural moisture on the soles of the feet and the short period of
time that they are in contact with the hot coals precludes the
possibility of being burned.
analogy is to
imagine a cake baking in an oven at 200°C. The temperature of the
cake, the tin and the air are all the same. Touch the tin and you'll be
burned, touch the cake and although it feels hot you'll be safe, hold
your hand in the air above the cake and there will be little
discomfort. The embers in the fire have low heat content and poor
thermal conductivity, so if you don't dally too long on each step you
won't get burned.
investigation carried out by Chas. R. Darling, and reported in Nature,
September 28, 1935, consisted of pressing a thermal junction on to the
fire intermittently so as to imitate the period of contact of each foot
and the interval between each step, a number of separate trials showed
a rise of 15-20°C in the junction — conclusive proof that the feet
of the performer would not be hot enough for blistering to occur.
should be noted that
in most firewalking demonstrations there is much hype going on prior to
the demonstration during which time the coals have cooled considerably.
More often than not, participants also step from a wet or damp patch of
ground on to the hot embers and off the other end on to another wet
patch. There are also chemical preparations which can be applied to the
soles of the feet to provide additional insulation. Likewise, red-hot
metal can be handled or held between the teeth without harm provided
the necessary precautions are taken.
up, there is
nothing mystical about firewalking, fire-eating or handling red-hot
metal, it requires only an elementary knowledge of physics.
Adams, P. 1985.
"Firewalking." the Skeptic. 5(2):3-4. Reprinted from The
Bennett, ME 1986.
"Firewalking and Physics." Skeptical Inquirer, 10:285-6.
Booth, J. 1986. Psychic
Paradoxes. Prometheus Books. NY. Cavendish, R. (Ed.) 1970. Man,
Myth and Magic. BCP Publishing. London.
Dennett, M.R. 1985.
"Reality or Illusion?" Skeptical Inquirer, 10:36¬40.
Edwards, Harry. 1994. A
Red-hot Passtime, The Skeptic, 14(3):7-8.
Gerrand, J. 1984.
"Firewalking in Geelong." the Skeptic, 4(4): 16.
Joseph, Adam. 1994.
Olympian Braves the Coals. the Skeptic, 14(1):6-8.
Leikind, B.J. &
McCarthy, W.J. 1985. "An Investigation of Firewalking." Skeptical
Plummer, M. 1985.
"Firewalkers Get Cold Feet." the Skeptic, 5(2):2.
Premanand, B. 1989. "The
Psychic Firewalker in India." Indian Skeptic, October. Indian
Smith, Susy. 1968.
Adventures in the Supernormal. A Pyramid Book. NY.
Williams, Barry. 1993.
Foot Feat Not So Hot. the Skeptic, 13(4): 10-11.
Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards
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