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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fire Walking: Myth or Magic?

Last month, while I was at one of the Friday night dances, someone had requested a dance called the Nestinarsko Horo, which is played during the ritual of fire dancing in Southern Bulgaria. This ceremony is associated with the feast days of Saints Constantine and Helen on May 21st.

A lady from Bulgaria was with us that night and mentioned that she had danced on hot coals during a Nestinari ceremony, and another couple who had traveled to Bulgaria had seen a performance of fire dancers. I found this intriguing and asked the woman about her experience. There is a way to do it without burning your feet, and what she told me was similar to what I saw on a Myth Busters video.

The origin of fire dancing is uncertain, but it may have been connected with pagan rituals.

The ceremony is not officially sanctioned by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and during the Communist era it was discouraged by the government. The fire dancers practiced in secret for many years, and kept this tradition alive.

According to the Bulgarian National Radio web site “Part of the reason for the ceremony is to protect the crops from hail storms. The pre-Christian mythology of the day links to the cult to the sun and its earthly embodiment – fire."

Here’s a short description:

The fire dancers, called Nestinari, prepare themselves very carefully for this ritual with fasting, seclusion and meditation, and by bathing in a holy spring. They wash the icons representing Saints Constantine and Helen in holy water, dress them in new clothes, and adorn them with jewels.

The morning of the ceremony the villagers create a huge bonfire, so that by sunset, only the coals remain. The ritual starts with a procession towards the embers, led by the churchwarden, followed by the icon bearers, the Nestinari, the musicians, and finally, the villagers.

The Nestinari hold the icons facing heavenward as they move gracefully over the embers in their bare feet. It is believed that their faith in God is what keeps them from getting burned; it's possible that the music, with its hypnotic effect, puts the them into a trance. Here is a Nestinari performance complete with the preparations for the ceremony.



Nestinari performances have become exploited as a tourist attraction except in a few small villages.

A TV show on the Discovery Channel, Myth Busters, had also investigated the phenomenon of fire walking, to see if ordinary people could walk on hot coals without burning their feet. I watched the Myth Busters video, where Matt and David perform a fire walk over a bed of 1,000 degree wood embers. Here they are doing the Nestinari thing, sans music:



Neither man was burned. According to them, the ash over the coals acts as an insulator.

So it seems that fire walking can be done by everyone, provided they use this technique: Walk quickly, walk lightly, and keep your feet flat. If you curl your toes, you disturb the coals, which removes the insulating ash, and you will get burned.

By the way, the world record for fire walking is 328 feet.

Anyone game for a dance over hot coals?

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