Did you know that the practice of firewalking – walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals – dates back many thousands of years? Cultures all over the world have incorporated firewalking into rituals that relate to proving one’s valour and strength.
My new book, Aphrodite’s Tears, is set on the Greek island of Helios, whose people live a simple life and find deep significance in the traditions of their ancestors. I write: “It was a place that breathed the continuity of generations, each family living out their lives in the cradle of tradition.”
One such tradition is firewalking, which forms part of the island’s annual Epiklisi festival in which the people placate the volcano Typhoeus in order to be saved from an eruption. My heroine Oriel is a little alarmed by the idea of the leaders of the procession – those dressed as gods – walking on hot coals; it seems to her a ritual that could easily go wrong. Yet this is a sacred ritual to the people of Helios, a fiercely guarded imperative if they are to keep their volcano appeased.
The fire pit is lit in the early afternoon, and the male gods dance around it until the coals are spread into a path to be walked. Then the islander representing Hephaestus, the god of fire, blacksmiths and volcanoes, comes forward and blows into the salpigga, a long copper horn used from the time of the Ancients to signal the start of the athletic games.
One after the other, the firewalkers cross the scorching coals, until finally it is the turn of Damian, the owner of the island and the people’s leader. I write:
“His tall, athletic frame, now clothed in the traditional white Grecian tunic, strode with a lithe energy towards the glowing apron of scorching coals. With outstretched arms, he stepped on to the incandescent embers. As striking as a timber wolf, he took light strides, calmly tackling the red-hot oval stretch… There was a softness in his eyes, a gentleness in his smile, as he advanced with confidence – a leader for his people who were gathered there to bear witness, while above them glowered the mighty, sacred bulk of Typhoeus.”
This scene was inspired by a firewalking ritual I saw years ago in a village in northern Greece. There it is known as the Anastenaria, and it is part of an annual religious festival in honour of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen. The firewalkers dance for hours to the rhythm of the drum and the music of the lyre, until their saints move them to dance over the hot coals. At which point, as a spectator, my heart was in my throat – but the firewalkers were entirely unharmed; as is Damian in Aphrodite’s Tears.
The calm confidence of those dancers of the Anastenaria has always stayed with me and inspired me. It is as Charles Bukowski put it in his poem ‘How Is Your Heart?’:
what matters most is
how well you
walk through the