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Got a Yearning for Something Burning?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ever go out for Thai food and love dousing your dish in spicy red Sriracha chili sauce? Well if you can’t get enough of that burning, numbing sensation, then you might want to consider a career as a fire-eater! Fire-eating is the very dangerous act of extinguishing flames by using the mouth. Although “eating” is the verb linkage used in its name, the act involves no actual ingesting of flames, rather simply a smothering of flames to deprive them of the oxygen they require.

Just as fire-breathing, fire-eating is a very old practice dating back to ancient times. Royal courts of antiquity employed fire-eaters for entertainment purposes, while in the Far East in places such as India, Hindu swami and Islamic fakir fire-eaters displayed their skills in order to show their invincibility as a result of spiritual empowerment. Post Roman empire, as with most circus arts, fire-eating was relegated to street performances, festivals, and fairs where eaters usually performed for tips.

Fire-eating did not attract interest in the upper classes until 1667, when an English fire-eater by the name of Richardson completed a fire-eating act worthy of being recorded in France’s Journal des Savants. On October 8th, 1672, noted English writer and diarist John Evelyn documented a performance by Richardson, claiming he “devoured brimstone on glowing coals,” “melted a beere-glass and eate it quite up,” and “melted pitch and wax with sulphur, which he drank down as it flamed.” Evelyn even wrote that Richardson held a burning coal under a raw oyster in his mouth, letting it steam “until the oyster gaped and was quite boil’d.” Although Richardson’s servant disclosed his secret methods ultimately ending his career, Richardson paved a path for future fire-eaters among the wealthy.

robert-powell-fire-eaterIn fact in the 18th century, another Englishman by the name of Robert Powell became one of the most famous fire-eaters of all time. In Harry Houdini’s Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Houdini writes Powell ate “red-hot coals out of the fire as natural as bread,” “broil[ed] a slice of beef or mutton upon his tongue,” and “lick[ed] with his naked tongue red-hot tobacco pipes, flaming with brimstone.” Powell was also said to hold burning matches in his mouth, as well as ingest melted resin, wax, tar, and brimstone in a sort of fire-eaters soup. Performing for 60 years, Powell even got to perform for the Royal Family, and was awarded a purse of gold and a silver medal in 1751. Powell’s fame is partially due to his presence in performing, noted by medical writer Jeremiah Whitaker Newman in his The Lounger’s Common-place Book: “Such is his passion for this terrible element, that if he were to come hungry into your kitchen, while a sirloin was roasting, he would eat up the fire and leave the beef.”

Following Richardson and Powell, fire-eating found a stable audience in the circuses of the 19th and 20th centuries. Commonly a sideshow act, fire-eating among the circus community was seen as a sort of freshman position, with fire artists that were capable of more dangerous manipulation tricks such as breathing and juggling, receiving higher billing.

Just as real as fire-breathing, fire-eating does not involve any sort of trickery or illusion. It is a very real act, with real flames going into real mouths. There is no such thing as the rumored “cold flame.” Additionally, fire-eaters do not flame-retard the inside of their mouths; the chemicals in retardants would pose an even bigger danger causing severe poisoning. Rather than any trickery, fire-eating relies on one very simple scientific principle: fire and heat rise!

zen-fire-eaters-myspaceIf you ever watch a fire-eater you’ll notice that they almost always stand with a wide stance, tilting their head backwards so their mouth and nose are pointing directly up. The stance ensures stability so they will not topple over, while the tilt is to keep the flames away from the face, because as we all know fire always burns upwards.

Once the tilt is perfected next comes the breathing, and in this department fire-eating rule number one is simple: don’t inhale. Inhaling when a flame is near or in your mouth can cause severe burns, fume poisoning, and tissue damage. Because of this risk, eaters must practice breath regulation constantly, holding deep breaths in and then slowly releasing air during exhalation. Controlled exhaling is the key to a successful fire-eater, so that the flames burn away from the face.

With tilt and breathing perfected, now its time to put the fire out. Making sure the mouth is as moist as possible, eaters stick their tongue out flat and wide, and place the burning wick upon it. At this point there are two basic methods to putting out a flame: closing the lips around the shaft of the torch to snuff out the flame, or a last quick puff of breathe when the flame is in the mouth. Often times the type of fuel, wicks, skewers, and length of burning can determine which method an eater will choose.

fire-eaterIn terms of fuel, fire-eating follows the same general guidelines as fire-breathing: low burning temperature, high flash point. And also as fire-breathing, the risks surrounding fuels are multi-fold, with inhalation or ingestion causing serious consequences like pneumonia, cancer, tissue damage, or even death. Although kerosene and paraffin are common fuels in fire-breathing, fire-eaters generally use isopropyl alcohol or naphtha (aka white gas). Naphtha has the highest vapor pressure of all petrols, meaning it will easily produce flammable vapors whenever contained in an unventilated area (e.g. the mouth, for the Human Candle trick). Its low burning temperature and higher water content makes it easier to manage, lighting easily, burning almost anywhere, and evaporating very quickly.

Like in fire-breathing, wicks should not be made of cotton because they will burn and deteriorate quickly. Wicks are commonly made of Kevlar binding, which is durable and cool to the touch, even when set ablaze. It’s important to remember that even though a flame is biggest at ignition, this is when the wick is coolest, heating up as the flame burns longer and longer. So even though a flame could be burning a long time and be smaller than before, its probably hotter than its ignition state, and thus harder to eat. This is a contributing factor to the method of extinguishing an eater will choose to use.

Additionally its crucial that wicks contain no exposed metal screws, wires, or other metal binding. Metal gets hotter than anything else burning, so hot metal on the tongue is the surest way to get burned. Even though wicks should contain no metal, the skewers which they sit upon usually are made of metal, so eaters must be wary of where they put their skewers and how long they let their torches burn. A flame that’s been burning for a long time can heat up the surrounding metal of the skewer, making it hard to place the lips on the rod to suffocate the flame. In this case, a half-closing of the lips combined with the puffing method may be a better option for extinguishing the flame. Most performers ensure their lips are wet prior to beginning, seeing as they are the first things to feel the heat of the flame.

fire-eater-head-tiltAs with all fire arts, there are many safety precautions that a performer must check-off before beginning a fire-eating demonstration. If performing indoors its necessary to be in a high-ceiling area, breeze-free, with no hanging flammable materials nearby. If outside, performers must make sure there is no wind to potentially cause a blowback. Floors should be fire-proofed as well and extinguishers and fire blankets readily available in case of an emergencies. And of course, it’s never a good idea to fire-eat alone.

Amateur fire-eaters first practice with unlit skewers, eventually progressing to the real thing. When starting out it’s important to make sure the mouth is nice and wet with spittle. The first step in fire-eating is simply placing the torch in the mouth and then removing it. Mastering the breathing technique is paramount, and amateur eaters should immediately remove the torch away from the face if they ever feel out of breath. Once breathing is perfected, fire-eaters then move up to extinguishing the flame by blowing it out. Finally they graduate to quenching the flame by suffocating it from any further oxygen, closing the lips around the torch shaft.

There are five parts to every fire-eating routine, with an endless bag of tricks eaters can perform. The first part is ignition, the basic lighting of the torch. This itself can be made into a very dramatic act, with eaters finding innovative ways to light their flames. One common way is with the teeth, striking a match against the top front row.

The second part is tasting, also known as licking. This is the part when the eater places the flame on their tongue without putting it out. Tasting can encompass licking the flames, licking hot metal rods, or licking anything else that is set ablaze or giving the appearance of heat.

After tasting comes holding, in which performers hold a burning flame in their mouth. Holding also is commonly known as vapors, since most of these tricks involve maintaining lit vapors inside the mouth. Since the fumes of the fuel are the things burning, a performer is able to hold them without burning the inside skin of their mouth. Ranging from the basic human candle trick, to the cigarette light (lighting a cigarette with burning vapors), to the volcano (shooting lit vapors straight up), vapor tricks can be the most complex part of fire-eating. Teething is also a popular hold trick, in which the performer holds the lit wick of a torch between their teeth.

Fourth is transfers, in which performers transfer flames using various parts of their body. Finger transfers, floor transfers, palm, spit, and tongue are all very common. Some performers will ignite another torch using the lit vapors held in their mouth, before killing the present torch in their hand.

Which brings us to the final stage of the eating process, killing. Aside from putting out the flame with a blow or snuff, some performers put it out on their tongue, in their palm, or by simply whipping the torch down to extinguish the fire. More advanced eaters will perform multiple swallows at the same time, doing double, triple, or even more torches into the mouth and extinguishing them all at once.

fire-eater-tilt-front-viewMany record-holders in the world of fire-eating have completed their achievements in recent years. On April 1, 2010, Swiss eater Pascal Ackermann extinguished the most torches in 1 minute on an Italian TV program, putting out a total of 89 flames using his mouth. In February of this year, German Hubertus Wawra did the most in 30 seconds on the set of Guinness World Records in Mumbai, India, totaling 39. And the credit for the longest torch held in the mouth goes to Manhattan’s Chris Reilly (under the performer name Flambeaux) for holding a flame for 55.53 seconds in his mouth.

Special note: those looking to become fire-eaters must possess a high threshold for pain. Many notable eaters have stated that blisters in the mouth, on the tongue, on the lips, and in the throat are common and necessary in order to toughen up and desensitize the area. Yet others state that eating should come with little tissue damage, and that blistered eaters are performing incorrectly. No matter which side is correct, there’s no doubt that eating fire is probably not the best feeling in the world. So as the old adage goes, “If you can’t handle the heat…then don’t put fire in your mouth!”

For more on fire-eating check out the DVD How To Eat Fire: The Essential Guide by Carisa Hendrix. Or to book a Zen fire-eater for your next event, call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email us at info@zenartsla.com.