Hirpi Sorani and Modern Fire-Walkers: Rejoicing through Pain in Extreme Rituals

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


During a community festival celebrated on Mount Soracte (45 km north of Rome), Hirpi Sorani, “the wolves of Soranus”, walked barefoot on blazing embers, feeling no pain. Fire-walking is attested elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean and is a well-known phenomenon in the modern world. Since antiquity, these practices have been regarded as either enigmatic or based on trickery, and their tenacity and social impact have been underestimated.

A study of the experience of pain and the capacity to endure it in a cultic context has to take into account neurobiological aspects of the somatosensory system, in particular the impact of emotions and the social environment on the individuals participating in the cultic event. Examination of extreme rituals that consist of ordeals viewed by numerous spectators requires that we engage with problems concerning the somatosensory reactions and cognition of different categories of participants: those who experienced pain and those who witnessed it. Comparative research is also important for the appreciation of the religious and social aesthetics of such extreme rituals and the accompanying ceremonies, and of their impact on the “socio-political proprioception” of all the participants. Therefore, an attempt at understanding the rites of ancient fire-walkers will benefit from combining traditional historical analysis with the results of neurocognitive and anthropological research.

In this paper, I will first briefly survey the main sources on the Hirpi Sorani and other ancient fire-walkers. I will then go on to present some evidence concerning contemporary fire-walking and the neuropsychological investigation of pain, before finally attempting to construe ancient fire-walking in the light of modern research on extreme rituals.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSensorium: The Senses in Roman Polytheism
EditorsA. Alvar Nuño, J. Alvar Ezquerra, G. Woolf
Place of PublicationLeiden, The Netherlands
Pages71 - 89
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9789004459748
ISBN (Print)9789004459731
StatePublished - 3 Jun 2021

Publication series

NameReligions in the Graeco-Roman World


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