A dozen archers line up with flaming arrows held high at a 45-degree angle. The flames dance and illuminate the archers as they gaze at their target. A dramatic instrumental score plays. In unison, the archers lower their bows, draw back, and fire a volley of flaming arrows at a straw Phoenix, which erupts into flames. As the pyre burns down, the entire audience encircles the structure and gazes at the undulating colors of yellow, orange and black.
This archery ritual uses flaming arrows and a burning pyre to weave a connection among those in attendance; it speaks to their heart and spirit. Those moments are rare now — lost in hurried days and television and computer screens that keep people introverted — even in the presence of others. But the power of this ritual is something that cannot be ignored or extinguished. It is the glory of the Phoenix that brings out the desire of all of its participants to wish, wonder, and hope.
The Phoenix is a mythical creature, so there’s no real-life depiction of it. One may recall that Fawkes is Dumbledore’s Phoenix in the Harry Potter series.
For this purpose, it is essentially a bird-like structure built of straw and tree branches. Baling twine is used to connect the branches to make the frame, and bales of straw make up the core body. Flakes of straw are used to make the wings, stuff the tail, and create the head.
There’s plenty of artistic license here, so don’t be afraid to let the creation take on varied incarnations. Note that the Phoenix is quite heavy, so build it on location — one in which flames and embers are not going to create a hazard or damage.
Each person in a cabin takes two sticks and places them in the fire spirit (usually done before dinner). The sticks are imbued with a wish (see below). Poke them in the straw fairly deeply.
Stick 1: The wish can’t be personal or selfish — it must be for the greater good, obtainable and that each camper can personally influence.
Stick 2: This wish is for something each camper wants to release personally. Maybe there’s something that has changed a person at camp or something he or she desires to change. When it burns in the fire spirit, it will be released.
The Phoenix is chosen as a symbol for the fire spirit because in its fiery transformation, there is a release and a rebirth. With that rebirth also comes the energy and power to create something positive from within, as well as in the outside world. The Phoenix is reborn only when everyone who watches it burn is sleeping.
Speaking Of Archers
Archery isn’t easy, and that’s part of what makes it cool. When attempting to look into the dark distance while a bright light shines in your eyes (the flames of the arrow), it is difficult to see much, especially clearly.
That can be a problem when firing a flaming arrow! So, it helps to have archers who are decent shots. Generally, archers who can consistently get over 50 points on a 48-inch target at 30 meters are capable. It is also helpful to have archers practice “instinct” shooting — place targets of varied sizes all over the range at random distances, and have the archers hit a small area (about the size of a basketball) consistently with one arrow per target. After every attempt at a group of targets, move all the targets around to make aiming more difficult.
Even with set criteria, some people likely are going to miss. Although raising the bar is an option, such skill levels often will not be found at camp. An alternative with benefits is to use multiple archers — six is a good number, 12 is even better, and 25 is an impressive sight since a volley of flaming arrows simply isn’t something witnessed all that often in real life.
The distance from the Phoenix should be about 30 meters — long enough to appreciate the arc of flaming arrows, and short enough to increase the likelihood of the archers hitting it. At that distance, a 30-pound bow is the borderline of what is useful, with 35-pound to 45-pound bows useful in the bow-draw weight range. Higher draw weights can be used, but the arrow’s flight time is more rapid, and the effect of watching the flight is diminished. Also, disparities of 15-pound bows will be noted in the flight of arrows not being in unison.
Building Flaming Arrows
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth nearly a million here. Find out how to make a flaming arrow at www.greatcampprograms.com/crp_fire.html.
In essence, it involves trick birthday candles, cheese cloth, twist ties and some kerosene. Other methods are too heavy for lighter bow-draw weights, or they don’t produce a visible flame. The trick candles re-light the arrows when they go out in flight, and maintain a small flame throughout the arrows’ arc. Aluminum arrows that are 32 inches long work well–an archer with a 28-inch draw will have some arrow left to be on fire without burning an archer’s hand, and aluminum arrows hold the flame well.
The archers start out of sight with bows and arrows in hand (dressing in black is a nice touch). On a cue, the music sounds, and the archers walk around the campers, then among them, and then encircle the burning campfire, facing out towards the campers. At this point, ushers move the campers to a safe and advantageous viewing location.
Once the campers are settled, the archers turn and simultaneously dip their arrows into the fire, which erupts in flames. The arrows resume the 45-degree angle held high, and the archers walk to their firing positions, preferably walking closely in front of the campers along the way so everyone can have a good look at the burning arrows and archers.
The time the arrows are lit and then released is about two minutes — maximum. They will stay lit in flight after about a minute, but prolonging the flame heightens the experience. After about two minutes, the arrows lose their ability to stay lit in flight, and compromise the arrow’s integrity.
The effect of having all of the archers in their positions for a few moments so everyone can appreciate the sight also is a lovely touch.
If the Phoenix is difficult to see (very dark), then a laser pointer can do wonders for an archer’s initial aim.
The lead archer calls out commands. After “Extend,” the cadence is quick — about a half-second per step. It is helpful to have the archers practice the movements and timing before the actual event. Having them all practice the cadence and clapping on “Shoot” works well, too.
Take sight — The last time you’ll see the target; hold the arrow UP!
Extend — Take what aim you can; don’t extend before this!
Draw — Pull back to your anchor.
3 If you shoot here, you’ll mess up the effect.
Shoot (Not on 3! On “Shoot” only!)
Other Important Details
Music options: Last of the Mohicans movie soundtrack. I also had great success with real drums, as well as other musical instruments.
Prelude: Transitioning into the experience is helpful, rather than moving from, for example, a soccer match to watching a Phoenix burn. A campfire with stories — especially centered on themes of transformation, service, creation, change and/or adventure — can help set the mood.
As the pyre burns down, the entire audience encircles the structure to watch the undulating colors of yellow, orange and black. The campers will be excited, but staff can help establish the tone, from celebratory to meditative, depending on the effect/experience desired. If the camp has a goodnight ritual or song, that can be an enjoyable transition.
Once the campers return to their cabins, counselors can lead discussions around thoughts from the stories presented, the experience itself, or what it meant in terms of campers’ individual wishes, if campers are willing to share.
Videographer: If so desired, to capture the moments.
Fire-safety crew: A fire hose under pressure is helpful, just in case, as well as fire extinguishers — separate supplies for the archers, the fuel crew and the Phoenix.
Ushers: To move the campers from their initial location to the viewing location.
Music crew: Start playing the music, whether live or recorded. Start and stop on cue as desired.
Fuel technician: If using gasoline or diesel fuel on the Phoenix, pour it on less than five minutes before the pyre goes up in flames, with a finishing douse a minute beforehand. Protective gear for handing fuel is recommended.
Disclaimer: There are scores of safety and logistical issues that cannot be conveyed well — if at all — in a brief article. This piece and related media are intended to give a sense of this ritual and its mechanics. You must conduct your own safety audits and training to be satisfied and responsible.
What can be gained from an experience such as this?
It’s captivating. It’s real. It’s personal and experienced in the flesh, as opposed to on a screen.
The whoosh of flames from igniting the pyre washes over the audience; the rapidly created flames makes for a rarely heard sound — all of this occurs among friends and a community while creating a powerful memory.
Camp provides many experiences unavailable anywhere else, and this can be another one to include in your program.
Dr. Randall Grayson has more than 20 years in camping, including directing three camps, currently Camp Augusta in Nevada City, Calif. He also maintains a growing repository of knowledge applied specifically to camping at www.visionrealization.com. In addition to founding and maintaining several other websites and consulting, he has established www.greatcampprograms.com, where camps and outdoor education centers can obtain information on unusual and powerful programs and activities. For more information, visit www.campaugusta.org.