Firewalking is the least impressive spectacle I have ever seen.
I don’t mean to lessen the experience of those taking part. It wasn’t their fault that I was expecting, not unreasonably, a walk across fire. What I got was a step across embers. Right foot, left foot, right foot (if you took very small strides) and then off. By no stretch of the imagination can a pace and a half be called a walk.
Credit where it’s due, the build up to the walk was incredible. The lead walker and firestarter made the fire, blue peter style, some time earlier in the day and gave regular updates on how it looked – the colours, the glow, the movement of shadows and flames across the coals. The characteristics of the fire were reported as reflecting the characteristic of the group who were going to fire-walk later that evening.
So why did a group of middle-aged women feel the need to break arrows and walk over fire? Why did they need to take a challenge completely alien to them, and of absolutely no practical value in their everyday lives?
Sometimes there are invisible barriers in our lives, something stopping us from progressing. An unspoken fear, an unresolved conflict and by creating artificial challenges, such as fire-walking, the real obstacle is overcome as we overcome the hurdle we have constructed for ourselves.
Expectations were built as the time to walk approached. The event was managed splendidly and finally the group were led outside to face the challenge of the walk. But then, one step, two step, done. Not even long enough to chant “I’m doing this for my kids – or mum- or self” or whatever other reason the “challenge” was being taken.
The task that was to prepare the walkers for the fire-walk was far more impressive. This ritual was, apparently, a polynesian rite of passage. Participants chose an arrow from a quiver and held the metal point against their throats. The feathered end is pressed against a board held firmly by a colleague. After three deep breaths, and to the sound of the rest of the group chanting to provide the extra courage, the particpant lunged firmly forwards. Rather than the windpipe being pierced, as everyone feared, the arrow shaft snapped.
The fact that this apparently dangerous act could be performed on a Saturday night with little training and without a doctor waiting nearby, suggests that there is no real chance of injury but it looked very impressive, none the less. Those that took part where unsurprisingly apprehensive with an arrow at their throat and then elated as they collected shards of shattered arrow from the floor. The question of whether the ritual was actually really dangerous or not is not important. It looked impressive to observers and clearly delivered a huge sense of achievement to those that broke the arrow – and isn’t that what ritual is about, overcoming fears to pass from one state to another.
In the secular UK we don’t really have rites of passage, unless you count the first hangover, and I’m not sure that we ever did. We celebrate 18th and 21st birthdays but nothing much changes from day minus 1 to day plus 1. Not like some societies where young boys have to display their strength, agility, courage and cunning in rituals that, once passed, allows them to take their place in the world of men.
And they are usually male rites of passage – displays of strength and courage mainly. I guess there is some equivalence in Britain in gang culture where prospective members are dared/challenged to commit an act, often an illegal act, before they can be accepted into the group. This is a different type of ritual though, one undertaken to gain acceptance by a group while rites of passage mark movement from one stage of life to another.
So why did a group of middle-aged women feel the need to break arrows and walk over fire? Why did they need to take a challenge completely alien to them, and absolutely no practical value in their everyday lives?
Sometimes there are invisible barriers in our own lives, something stopping us from progressing. An unspoken fear, an unresolved conflict, perhaps. By successfully overcoming the artificial hurdle we have constructed for ourselves, such as fire walking, the real obstacle is overcome in the process. Conquering one fear gives us the courage, gives us freedom, to overcome the real challenges in our lives. This is the real value of fire-walking.
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