Reader Dr. Christos Geordiou of the Biology Department, University of Patras, Greece, wrote me:
I am writing an article about the so-called Holy Fire, and my intension is to be published in Skeptical Inquirer. It is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy, and happens in the Holy Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem every year with clockwork precision on Saturday noon preceding Easter Sunday. My position is that this “miracle” is a hoax.
There are many ways this “miracle” can be performed, but since the church won’t let anyone investigate, there’s no point in trying to solve it. Why are they so secretive about it? Because it’s a sham, a trick, a swindle designed to deceive the faithful. The church knows that any investigation will immediately reveal that they’ve been lying to their members.
The potassium permanganate + glycerin trick is accomplished by preparing two pharmacy-style gelatin capsules, one with the KMnO4 crystals, the other with glycerin (glycerol) (C3H8O3). They are taped together, then concealed within the cloth, paper, or other flammable material. When the material is crushed so as to fracture both capsules together, the mixed *******s produce a powerful exothermic chemical reaction that ignites the package. The permanganate, a powerful – poisonous – oxidizing chemical in the form of dark purple crystals, can be obtained at any store selling water-purifying supplies. The glycerin – a harmless, thick, clear, syrupy liquid, is found at any pharmacy.
Dr. Geordiou also asked me about the “setting oneself on fire” trick also performed at these religious ceremonies. I answered him:
The mixture of carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) and carbon bisulphide (disulphide) (CS2) – both clear liquids – is about 50% of each. It is not too highly inflammable, but can easily be ignited. The result is a pale blue flame, which can only be seen in subdued light. Neither liquid should be imbibed, and should be washed off the skin quickly.
These are both carnival stunts that have been used for decades by sideshow performers. And perhaps during religious services?