Folklife: The Faith Healing Tradition of “Talking Out the Fire”
I’ve been told by the elder women in my family it’s a special gift from God. My grandma Viola “talked the fire out” of several burns I received as a child. When I was a teenager, I asked Grandma Viola if she could show me how to do it. She told me that the gift had to be handed down from a man.
At the time, I did not understand what she meant. After Grandma passed away, I went to visit her best friend Aunt Gaynelle. We began sharing funny stories about grandma and how she and Aunt Gaynelle first met.
When Grandma was 5 years old, a hot air balloon had fallen from the sky! The incident caused such a spectacle that it brought all the neighbors out to see the commotion. That was the first time they met each other. But that’s another future story.
I asked Aunt Gaynelle about the gift of “talking out the fire”. She explained to me that she also had the gift and ’round these parts it was taboo to talk about it.
Some people were afraid of it or thought it was the devil’s work. Aunt Gaynelle told me that she was sitting in the emergency room at the hospital one time waiting for a friend. She told me this person came in with a severe burn and she offered to help but was shunned away. So you can see why this healing tradition isn’t talked about too much.
This unbroken healing tradition has been shrouded in secrecy for many generations and the gift must be handed down from male to female or female to man. It’s a unique healing tradition found mostly throughout the southern United States and must be passed down cautiously.
Talking out the fire is where a faith healer has the ability to take a person’s pain away by reciting a prayer over a severe burn.
You may be skeptical, but this healing practice has been around for centuries. There’s no magic involved, the healer and the patient just have to believe and have faith that it will work. And from my experience and especially my sister, Paula, it does work.
My sister Paula remembers when she was a very small child Grandma Viola talking the fire out of a burn she got on her finger.
- I do remember one time that I burnt my finger. Don’t remember on what, but it was minor. I was at her house and she took my finger and blew her hot breath on it.
Not trying to be funny, but I remember that it was hot and my finger was burning so it didn’t feel good. And then she was whispering something that I could not understand. It worked as far as I can remember.” This healing practice has also been called “blowing out fire” or “breathing out fire” and the person with this gift is sometimes called the “fire doctor”. The fire doctor treats the patient by looking at the burn, recite a prayer, incantation or charm over the burn several times while blowing on it at intervals. The prayer is kept secret by the faith healer until they decide to “pass the gift on” to another person.
Some believe that once you pass this gift on, you lose your own power. Others believe that the gift may be given to three people, all who must be the opposite sex. When the third person is told, the original fire doctor loses the ability to administer the cure. Most of the people that receive this gift are within the family.
One variation of the method to draw out fire from a burn is to first slowly pass your hand over the exposed burn three times.
The hand must be open with palm face down. The burn must be facing the direction away from you and the patient.
At the same time, use your breath to gently blow over the burn in the direction away from the patient’s body. As you are doing these two techniques at the same time, you recite the prayer three times.
There are several variations of the prayer that have been found but all of them use the same generalized mechanical gesture:
- “There came two angels from the north; One brought fire, and one brought frost. In frost out fire. In the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
- “Water won’t burn; fire won’t quench; God’s Word won’t lie.”
- “The mother of God went over the fiery fields. She had in her hand a fiery brand. The fire did go out. It did not go in. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
- “(Person’s Full Name) has a wound. Please Lord, draw the fire out of that wound. Please Lord, heal that wound.”
While most people think that the prayer is from the Bible, I could not find any references or where these particular prayers originated. The faith healing practice has been handed down in the family for so long, most people don’t know how this custom began. However, I have found information from Ireland where the faith healing custom is still practiced today particularly in North Leinster, Ulster and parts of Connaught.
Peter McGuire, journalist for The Irish Times stated, “There are hundreds of people in every part of Ireland, with cures for problems that include shingles, colic, burns, eczema, warts and verrucas, heart conditions, epilepsy, ringworm, asthma and thrush, all passed down as part of an unbroken folk tradition which predates Christianity in Ireland.” In Ireland, McGire emphasized that it is taboo for healers to accept money or gifts, advertising is prohibited and the Irish approach cures from a wide variety of perspectives and beliefs.
The technique usually used in Ireland is to make the sign of the cross and say a few prayers after it. Whatever technique is passed down, the common link between this type of faith healing as McGuire states, “has Christian elements but in many cases have been adapted from pagan belief systems.” The gift is not restricted to any religious denomination and the practice seems to be in other cultures.
My Grandma Viola and Aunt Gaynell are Tuscarora descent and members of the Coharie Tribe of North Carolina. The Coharie Tribe along with The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina share the traditional practice of talking out the fire where the faith healer is referred to as the “fire blower”. Both tribes combine both their folk culture and Christianity to administer the faith healing practice.
The tradition of removing warts and healing whooping cough are other healing traditions they still use today. The Coharie and Lumbee Tribes believe that the healer poses a gift from God that allows them to blow or talk directly to the energy that is causing the burn, cough or wart. The faith healer blows or talks over the affected area by blowing in the person’s mouth, on the burn or wart.
The tribes believe that the fire blower must have faith in themselves and believe their prayer will be heard and answered by God. They believe that God is the healer and they are just an intermediary vessel for God to manifest Himself through them to administer the healing.
Skeptics believe that this “magical” cure could be the power of hypnotic suggestion. But I’m not so sure since this healing practice can be used on animals, babies and small children who are normally immune from hypnotic suggestion. Maybe it’s the power of positive thinking that triggers the body to heal itself or maybe it’s just simply the “power of prayer” that so many people of faith believe.
Despite the skepticism, the practice of talking out the fire has been around for centuries and still continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
Do you love all things Appalachia? Then you might enjoy Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs and Appalachian Folk Medicine, Cures & Remedies.