If you have ever suffered the indignity of "hot feet", then you may enjoy this segment. The ceremonial "Fire walk" has its history rooted in antiquity and was certainly known in Biblical times. From available records the ceremony was practiced in the Society Islands, the Tonga (or Friendly Islands), New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii. There are also records of the same practice in Africa, South India, China, Japan, Italy, South America, Spain and Bulgaria. Fire walking appears to have been imported by seafarers into different areas and incorporated into different faiths.
The act of fire walking is generally thought to increase religious merit or power (manna) and is intimately connected to the seasonal expulsion of evil influences. Different cultures use different types of fire beds, for example Polynesians use heated stones whilst others use glowing charcoal.
In Southern India it is an act of faith undertaken by farmers to safeguard cattle and crops from evil doings. Also when a believer suffers an illness they can take a vow in the name of the goddess (Draupadi) and if they are cured they will walk over the fire in gratitude. In Africa it is a test of chastity for priests and priestesses.
In most religious fire walking, the walker will fast on the day and pray or meditate with others. Before the walk they bathe their feet in a tank to secure perfect cleanliness. The fire bed is made first from burning a ton of jungle wood to make charcoal, then when it is glowing hot a thin layer is spread to form a walking platform.
The great marvel of fire walking is those who walk on red hot embers do not seem to sustain any burns or suffer obvious pain. The whole issue remains a mystery with even firewalkers themselves firmly unaware of why their feet do not burn. Many believe this is an act of faith and the absence of pain and damage is because of divine aid.
In truth many fire walkers do experience flesh burns. Devotees believe when these occur the walker is not in tune with the deity. Many scientists and sceptics have tried to disprove the theory including trying to explain the phenomenon. The feet of the firewalkers have thicker skin than normal and many go unshod. As part of the ceremony leading up to fire walking the participants soak their feet in water. This means many are cold damp and dirty from walking barefoot. In the physical world the heat of a fire bed depends on its length, breadth and depth as well as the materials which are alight. The higher the surface the temperature the greater the heat transferred to the feet when they are applied to the fire. According to scientists the reason why fire walkers do not get burns on their feet is because their feet are not in contact with the burning umbers long enough to damage the skin. This is helped by having cold feet which are wet and finally the dirt on the sole of the feet further reduces the conduction of heat. When scientists conducted experiments they showed ordinary people could walk across burning coals without being burnt. Much was dependent on the time of foot contact and the same researchers were able to show severe burning of the skin could occur if the feet were in contact for too long. They believe firewalkers know exactly how long they can make contact. What was interesting about the described experiments was it was possible to cross a charcoal bed, without abstinence from meat, alcohol and sex which kind of debunks the myth of many devotees. However, in truth, self-denial may strengthen resolve to overcome any adversity.
If meantime, you still suffer "hot feet" then, for your own satisfaction, have a check-up at the podiatrist and/ or general physician. And remember fire walking is not something you should try at home as severe burns are likely to follow.
Fonseka C. 1971 Fire-walking: a scientific investigation Ceylon Medical Journal 16:2 104-109.
Mackenzie DA 1996 South seas: Myths and legends London: Senate