Fire-walking is one of mankind’s most ancient ceremonies. Throughout the world, from Southern India, Malaysia to Africa and the Americas this prestigious rite serves a variety of purposes. Firstly, it is an initiation act from one state of being to another higher level. From pre-puberty to manhood (or even womanhood in places like Sri Lanka) it is a public manifestation of one’s ability to face new challenges in life. It may be interpreted as a trial of one’s own integrity or as a demonstration of one’s faith.
There are many areas on this planet where one may observe this noble act of self-determination. I have observed it on Mount Girnar in Gujarat when Sadhus and Fakirs came out of their caves on Shivraatri and, completely naked, walk across glowing embers laid out before them.
In Bali there’s the Sanghyang Dedari festival where little girls become possessed by beneficent sprites (we would call them their guardian angels) and perform a fire-walk. If you find yourself in Fiji among the Sawau clan you’ll be able to observe the same kind of ceremony. In Cephalonia there’s a fire-walking variant called the Anastebaria festival.
Sometimes fire-walking serves a judicial purpose. To tread across the flaming embers without scorching the soles of one’s feet will prove further evidence of one’s innocence in a crime. Trial by ordeal, in fact.
In Europe, Spain and Italy are suitable places to observe or even take part in fire-walking rituals. Indeed, I didn’t have to go far to take part in a fire-walking ceremony in our area.
The Prato Fiorito is the haunt of spirits from time immemorial. There is a constant battle between good and evil, between white and black witches. Part of the fight against the destructive forces of malevolence and anomie is to perform a fire-walking ceremony in defiance of wicked forces on the slopes of this mountain which so majestically overlooks Bagni di Lucca.
The mayor of Lucca, transformed into a Shaman, presided over the ceremony. From the afternoon courses in being able to face the too-often destructive powers of the element of fire were held by Massimo Betti who is incredibly well-versed in ancient folklore and traditional medicinal knowledge.
Unfortunately, I was unaware of the course and traditional health and safety regulations prevented me from actually placing my bare soles on the glowing embers.
However, I was able to witness the propitiation of the Mother Goddess through the passing of young (preferably virgin) girls and boys across a ten by three foot channel of heated embers.
As each sacrificial acolyte stood before the element of fire a hypnotic cry of eiiio eiiio was chanted by those present. The longest day was arriving, made longer by the light of the flames of bonfires and the red-hot embers: a true manifestation of the Celtic festival of Litha. Balancing the shortest day of the Yule festival, Litha celebrates light and life itself. The sun god reaches his maximum strength reflected in the fire walk.
The setting of the ceremony was awesome. Although it had now become quite dark one could still trace the huge dinosaurian silhouettes of the Monte Prato Fiorito and the Monte Incoronata. A presence of something greater than we knew permeated the upland and the forest and we felt safe from the disintegrating influence of the covens of witches for which this area is so notoriously known.
Christianity, with its characteristic syncretisim has converted this pagan festival where the god Pan with horns and cloven feet becomes transformed into St John the Baptist, in his attire another sylvan figure living on wild honey and making way for someone greater than him.
Mussorgsky’s terrific opening of his piece ‘A Night on the Bare Mountain’ composed for the very occasion for the night of Saint John came to my mind’s ears. This truly fearsome piece of music (especially in the unadulterated non-Rimsky Korsakov tarted up version) seemed to me to be a faithful re-evocation of what I felt that night on the bare mountain of the Prato Fiorito.