by Anna Maria Turi (Rome, Italy). A paper presented at CESNUR 2000 International Conference, Riga, Latvia. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author.
The movement led by the Italian Center for Fire-walking of Cesare Magrini was born in the eighties and it has been placed in the framework of the emerging spirituality generally referred to as New Age. Now, at the turn of the millennium, the evolution of the basic idea of the movement outlines the difference and distance from other, apparently similar, phenomena.
The practitioners of a kind of religiosity without sacred texts and noble tradition do not receive the indoctrination typical of mass movements, but rather a teaching of a ``soft'' kind, occasional, extemporaneous, that a sort of road Master has tuned by gathering bits here and there, or extracting them from his own inner being, by ``intuition'' or ``inspiration''. And we would like to define ``road religion'' or ``religion of the road'' the ``light'' spirituality, ready to be used and assimilated, a low cost package. The clients are anyway seeking for strong emotions, and radical solutions to existential problems, so that the Master dispenses the fruit of his own reflections on his experiences, that have been and are undoubtedly strong. The charisma of Cesare Magrini stands in his sympathy which masks the drama, the familiar traits arising from hard experiences, in the ``easiness'' of the relationship with his disciples, while his own life has always been very difficult. Ambivalence and ambiguity of a sort of modern or post-modern charm, as someone has said, that cannot be eluded (University of Rome, Department of Sociology, Observation Group led by Maria Immacolata Macioti).
We report here how a follower and observer describes Cesare, in his physical appearance and personality:
`` He dresses as a gypsy, apparently casual but always with some eastern clothes; as a gypsy he dresses, not only with ear piercing but also with coral pearls heavily pending from his neck; as a gypsy he smiles, liar and sincere at the same time; as a gypsy he moves, in the tribal dances but also when preparing the mint tea; as a gypsy he plays violin....as a gypsy he asks to give him your hand on which he cannot read past and future at all; as a gypsy he wants to steal your soul and, in turn, he gives back a sand grain`` (from ``Participating observation of the Fire-walking group'', Diary by Enrica Tedeschi).
One cannot tell how many people have gone to Via Altare del Lupo, by the Bracciano Lake, north of Rome, a territory of volcanic origin, rich in Etruscan and Roman memories. But in this case it is not the number that is important, but the effect that fire-walking has had on people and which has further reverberated on others, by the echo of the experience, and effecting them as much as fire reflects on near and far surfaces by bouncing light and heat. Let us begin by saying that Cesare, although being a solitary wolf, has always been an actor, dancer, road musician, in the crowded streets of town; and today he adds to the fire-walking experience other previously, border-line experiences, for example, by putting together for therapeutic goals patients of a Roman psychiatric hospital.
Returning to Italian fire-walking, it is interesting to add that not far away stands the Soratte mount, where in Apollo's temple the priest used to practice fire-walking as a mean of divination, purification and approach to God (Plinius the elder, Naturalis Histories, book 34). Emperor Constantine seeked eventually refuge here, when he got pest and was subsequently healed by fire-walking: Dante reports of this miraculous healing in Canto twenty-seven of Hell of the Divine Commedy. Maybe these references and evocations have led, beyond the present speaker, to Via Altare del Lupo sociologists of the University La Sapienza of Rome, in particular Maria Immacolata Macioti, author of a relevant essay on Magrini, in the book ``Prophets without the Bible - Shamans of the year two thousand'' (Armando Editor, 1995).
The training of fire-walking lasts some months and takes place particularly inside an octagonal tent erected on a lawn. Finally, in a night of the full moon, there is the initiation : everybody exits the tent one by one, surrounded by percussive rythms that stimulate a swinging walk, prelude to trance. By swinging and shaking heads people form a circle while Cesare, who for hours has managed a bone fire as a mad red devil drunk by music, screams and shakes, running around the circle. The drum rhythmically sounds the time of the awakening of the powers of the soul and body energies. `` Feet do not exist!'' Cesare screams ``let's go beyond the burning coals! Let's go beyond! The first one goes !''.
One can swear that nobody will be hurt by passing through the flaming coals, a passage taking place two or three times; feet will be turned smoky black but untouched. Macioti comments: ``Walking on fire is like accessing the realm of magical potentialities, experiencing one's own divine dimension. Fire transforms man into ``spirit'' and domination over it is equivalent to an initiation''.
Fire-walking in Italy as in America (see Loris M.Danforth) has a unique meaning: the passage over burning coals is an action that shifts from the material level to the symbolic one, where it acquires a particular efficacy. On this level fire, or better, its own meaning, heals because it destroys the disease, and the idea of it. The inner flame comes back into manifesting itself on the physical body by eliminating the evils, especially psychosomatic ones. This is according to the belief of the fire-walkers.
But, as we have said, there is no obligation in all this, no imposition removes joy
and spontaneity from the group, that accepts also who is not able to partecipate to the final catharsis, by preserving the fear of fire and therefore, according to this permissive creed, all its fears. ``This freedom of presence, but also of absence'' reports Macioti ``this precarious structural state - specifically created by Magrini - corresponds not only to his selective conception of the initiated relationship (multi vocati, pauci vero electi), but also to the implicit demand of the beginners for using a de-structured structure, open to any possibility. The one who enters the group of fire-walkers of Bracciano is seeking for a non-total and non-exclusive experience. The beginner at fire-walking is not a beginner ``tout court''...After facing successfully the final experience, the baptism by fire, the fire-walker will begin lessening the relationship with the group or eventually stop it''.
Enrica Tedeschi reports: ``Many go through the hill by the lake, pass and go away. Almost escaping. But not everybody will experience the smoky black that every fire leaves behind: many can discover unsuspected regions of their inner landscape, can find themselves richer and wiser. In this case, the burnt land will give back to the soul its missing fecundity, as in primitive cultures the land is burnt for agriculture regularly''
Regarding all this, Cesare's personal story is significant, an anti-guru of this self-made religion, practiced in such a country as Italy which is fundamentally catholic. Where since two thousand years all cults and rites appear and go, leaving few traces behind.
Cesare Magrini is born in Bologna , May 1958. He is gifted with an extraordinary sensitivity, a familiar heritage, a nervous frailty, that makes his childhood difficult. In the following is what he told us: ``Since my birth I suffered for my mother's health conditions, who had deep depressions, and for my father's neurosis, unable to face the situation of the family with me and two other younger sons. In my childhood I had suffered close to psycho-pathology, due to strange perceptions, like the terrifying one of not being localized in my body and the one of feeling multiplied, up to being torn apart, into exploding pieces, and some numeric sequences that constituted my obsession. That was my disease that luckily I have overcome.''
Cesare finds a solution and comfort by learning the job of violin maker with a popular artisan. At the same time he begins his activity as a road actor. He marries a first time and has two daughters. He lives in an abandoned church on a hill close to Bologna. ``After seven years the church started burning mysteriously'' says Cesare ``the menace of fire was very frequent; but never before a given night, the spark had good the wrong way''. That night...``That night the ceiling and the roof of the church burned, once again mysteriously, so that I found myself by a strange fate on top of fire, tossing sand and buckets of water. I jumped from one ceiling wood to another, without any hesitation; below me the empty [navata] of the church, around me the flames of the roof of oak and canes. That night something very strange happened. The fire wasn't burning around me, that empty space did not attract me, the air was very dense, no doubt : I could certainly do what I thought was impossible...I opened by eyes that I kept nearly closed and breathed deeply...I had gone beyond fire, the flaming path was beyond me, in my memory I can still see it, red in the darkness. I didn't feel any pain. Nothing happened to me, as for what people usually think of walking on fire : my fears had suddenly burned away and I had magically gone through.''
Cesare reports that he felt being invaded by an unknown energy and at the same time by a sensation of joy and power. For years he was already interested in the investigation of interior energies and therefore in that very moment the doors of an unknown universe had suddenly opened ``Unwillingly, I had used specific techniques, that together with peculiar qualities, had made the extraordinary event come true``, Cesare adds again ``I had finally found a new charming, practical application of my long lasting exercises ; the silent nights had suddenly transformed into a Bahia carnival. The incredible sensation of feeling centered that I felt on the roof of the church, which repeated again during passages above flaming wood, was finally the transposition on the practical level, nearly physical and anyway accessible to others, of what was for me a result already achieved on an immaterial level''.
After the exciting and liberating trauma, Magrini moved from the bolognese hills to the ones surrounding Rome, gathering disciples with the aim of reproducing and continuing, for him and others, the same experience. He judged to be of extreme interest and particular efficacy on the level of maturation and empowerment of personal skills.
``The carpet of burning coals was a large space...Someone was utterly screaming, of the challenge, horror and joy....God, what incredible emotions, what feelings I have felt in front of all this....One cannot drop the sense of reality....one cannot drop the sense of shame....if the anguish is not monstrous, the rage you want to burn. One does not risk, not deep blisters, but madness if one does not have inside the horrifying monster or an unbearable need for absolute, for freedom, for holiness...All this had the people in their hearts, and we in the circle helped the passage (E. Tedeschi, op. cit.). Magrini ``chased as an animal'' any adept to achieve the passage, pushing and screaming and playing the drum, hugging the person once the passage had been done.
The sociologists of the University of Rome recognize in Cesare a shaman figure: ``His role, neither theoretical or formalized, but visibly assumed by Magrini, is one of a soul leader, as for the shaman sense of psychopompus. This is, at the same time, the clearest ``religious'' trait of Fire-walking in Bracciano''.
Macioti recognizes the personalism of this religion, when she adds:
``The new religions - that are also a new synthesis - pivot around the individual, who integrates in his own vision of the world heterogenous ideological contents, and who elaborates his autonomous systems of values, founded on the overcoming of the dichotomy of reason/non-reason.''.
Now, all this cannot happen without risks. Entering the dreams of an individual suddenly handling powers can have unpredictable effects. Generally, traditional religion has already cooled down the lava of the great emotions that raised it, and has created the proper fence such that the ``strong'' experience does not crash the unprepared individual. Tedeschi does not hesitate to write about Magrini : ``The contact with him is not risk-free. The danger is subtle and hidden, so that is is easily undervalued. He leads you hand in hand through the maze of his games, but you may face the abyss, a return-less path to madness. Mental or real, since he makes you lose the distinction between dream and reality, magic and fiction''.
Of the shaman of Bracciano the adepts dream about, by recalling cases of healing he produced, healing from physical disorders. Let us not forget that the anarchic style of the Fire-walking experience is provided with two propaedeutic moments of missing, loss of orientation, the circular dance before the ``passage'', something similar to the perpetual going into circles. But missing is not, by itself, a sufficient condition for rescue and transcendence...
We have presented the principles of Fire-walking as a new road religion. Before outlining other peculiarities, we have to remark the most recent developments of this modern cult of existential and philosophical wondering, where fire is symbol and metaphor.
``After a ten year long experience of preparation to groups of Fire-walking, I have realized the essential character of meditation in movements and dancing in trance, working on the body and rhythm, all connected to extra-sensory perceptions'' Cesare had told us. ''I have chosen the Argentinian tango as a development of Fire-walking since to me it allows a particular moving meditation, bound as it is to a non-verbal communication that is established in the couple and to the net of extra-sensorial perceptions that develops and starts from it.. This experience has a more anarchic, revolutionary, character, since tango is always danced in the very moment, with sudden modalities, improvised.''
Magrini explains his road religion that has now come to tango in the following way:
``In the beginning I had dropped all I had, at first I retired in my solitude, then I wanted to meet the outside, the road. I have played violin, I acted, I read in the coffee grains. The road is a meeting place, of unrepeatable meetings. It is the place of chance. This is magic, a particular alchemy : all people in the end cross with your destiny. You offer what you have brought to the road: a coal, a tango, a divination. And in that free place, in that point of possibilities that the road is, existence happens in ways and times that you wish. The road is wild, it has no rules and you can be expelled, kicked out, as much as you can have encounters that another situation could never provide.``
How many encounters does Cesare Magrini think he has had already, and on how many does he thinks he was effective ? He thinks that in the intimate opportunities of the
road he has given the right words in the right moment, obtaining results in actions, facts, and feelings even in remote times. It is his faith ,it is the utopia of this young shaman in the year two thousand. It is a naive faith, an innocent and safe form of release for those who meet him. It is a faith and release where God have no place, at least as many religions of the past millennia mean by God.
``I call God the reunion after separation. To this point walking on fire, the sound of violin, the Argentinian tango, the spasm of the flute that weeps and cries the separation from the cane that it was cut from. Many are the ways to this return. I point out some of them.''
In the invisible nothingness of a religiosity similar to a falling star, in this wavy star dust, certainly stands the echo of a great teaching, but reduced to infinitesimal and homeopathic dosage, for buyers in the marketplace. And Cesare Magrini, the metropolitan shaman, at last gives to the walkers and clients his best part, poetry, for his life is also poetry :
``A hug to you, new man, great soul,
brother of fire
so that you can
see the world in a grain of sand
the sky in a wild flower
keep infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour''
Maria Immacolata Macioti, "Profeti senza Bibbia, sciamani del Duemila", Armano editore, collana di antropologia culturale, Roma 1995.
Enrica Tedeschi, "Il fuoco. Culti e misteri", Ed. Pontecorboli, Firenze 1994.
Franco Ferrarotti, "La verità? E' altrove", Ed. Donzelli, Roma 2000.
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