The fire knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. It was originally composed of a machete wrapped in towels on both ends with a portion of the blade exposed in the middle. Tribal performers of fire knife dancing (or Siva Afi or even “Ailao Afi” as it is called in Samoa) dance while twirling the knife and doing other acrobatic stunts. The towels are set afire during the dances, hence the name.
Polynesian historians and authorities on Samoan cultural history state that the training of Toa warriors in the art of hand to hand combat with the Nifo Oti, the serrated-edged Samoan war club, came into prominence between 900 – 1200 AD. It was the favorite weapon of the Tui Manu’a Empire in the time of King Maui Tagote of the Eastern Samoan Island groups. These war clubs were often edged with the teeth of sharks, saw fish, swordfish, and other sea creatures.
The Siva Afi was originally performed with the Nifo Oti, which was very dangerous. The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called ailao – the flashy demonstration of a Samoan warrior’s battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club. The ailao could be performed with any warclub, and some colonial accounts confirm that women also performed ailao at the head of ceremonial processions, especially daughters of high chiefs. It was conceived on the Island of Upolu between the years 1200 – 1250 AD, coming into cultural prominence during the reign of King Maui Tagote. Ancient legend speaks of 400 warriors who trained with their Nifo Oti.
During night dances, torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a warclub was the usual implement used for ailao in remembrance of the three brothers Tuna, Fata, and Savea and their defeat of the Tongan invaders. Before the introduction of metals, the most common clubs that were wielded and displayed in the ailao fashion were elaborately carved heirloom clubs called anava. These anava were frequently carved with serrated edges and jagged “teeth” which characterized the unique Samoan weapon called the “nifo’oti” – fire Pattern Tracker Knife