August 22nd, 2009 at 6:13 pm by Julian Bergquist

Firewalkers of the South Seas

May 1953


Wilmon Menard


The huge rocks of the firepit glowed bright-red in the faint light of the South Pacific dawn. Now and then between me and the oven the coconut- oil smeared bodies of the fire-tenders passed briefly as they raked out the last of the log cinders and levelled the hot rocks. It was a tableau not unlike a scene in Dante’s Inferno. Little did I know then that I was to be one of the persons to cross that fiery expanse.

Word had reached me in Tahiti that an Umuti (Umu Ki or firewalk) was to be held on the Island of Raiatea, 135 miles distant, so I lost no time in boarding an interisland trading schooner to be on hand for the ceremony. I had arrived in time to observe every phase of the imminent firewalk. I had watched the digging of the pit, 30 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 4 feet deep; the gathering of the fagots and logs for the fuel; the rolling of the stones into a high mound, and the day-long heating. Now the actual fire ritual in this sacred coconut grove behind the village of Tevaitoa was about to start.

My interest in man’s strange experiments in fiery tortures was aroused several years ago when the late Robert Ripley, of “Believe it or not” fame, sponsored a fire-walking Hindu-mystic, Kuda Bux by name, who strolled barefooted across two separate firepits in a parking lot in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. It is a matter of official record that three cords of oak and 500 pounds of charcoal burned for eight hours before Kuda Bux made the walk across the two separate ovens that a pyrometer registered at 1,220 F. Attending physicians peered and smelled at the soles of the firewalker’s feet, but found only one small burn, where a coal had stuck to his instep. Their nostrils detected no odor of burned flesh. I was one of the astounded spectators, and I was deeply impressed by the feat.

Now as I stood in the greying dawn in this sacred grove of Raiatea I thought of man’s superstitious dread and awe of fire, coupled with his instinctive, practical usages, that have resulted in so many fantastic fire ordeals. The American Indians during certain rites danced in the live coals of their campfires; devotees of the Sinsyn Shinto sect of Japan walk barefooted over glowing coals. In Hawaii in the early days the priests and priestesses of the Fire Goddess Pele strode across the molten lava on the broad bosom of Kilauea volcano. In darkest Africa, newborn children are held briefly over a flame. In India, cremation of the corpse is supposed to be the soul’s only passport to their particular heaven.

The Chief Leads

Now the firewalk of Polynesia was to be performed before my eyes. Chief Terii-Pao, the young and hereditary firewalker of Raiatea, had suddenly called an Umuti, primarily, of course, to pay sacred homage to the two great goddesses of ancient days—Hina-nui-te’a’ara (Great-Grey-Of-The-Scented-

Herbs), who was the Goddess of the Moon, and Te-Vahine-Nui-Tahu-ra’i e(The Great Woman-Who-Set-Fire-To-The-Sky)—but also to earn a few francs with which to buy a bottle of rum and a few yards of calico cloth for his woman.

Terii-Pao suddenly stepped from his nearby coconut palm marae (temple), and his attendants, similarly garbed in native pareu and sacred Ti-leaves, followed. I could feel the crackling excitement that swept the clearing upon his appearance. The laughter, singing, and loud talking ceased instantly. All eyes were fixed upon the handsome chief—a splendid figure standing at the head of his assistants. He turned, caught my eye and smiled. Once we had sailed aboard a trading schooner to the pearl-diving atoll of Anaa in the Dangerous Archipelago; I had gifted him with a case of foodstuffs, so we were friends.

The many tourists who had voyaged on the interisland schooner from Papeete, Tahiti, surrounded Terii-Pao, and began a careful inspection of his feet. He submitted indulgently, grinning broadly at their thorough examination. I saw one of the tourists turn suddenly, walk to the edge of the fiery pit, and look full into the center of the oven for a few seconds. With a groan he clapped his hands over his face and backed away. I could see that his neck and face were badly seared; his glazed eyes were streaming tears. Another tourist, with the aid of a long stick, dropped a handkerchief upon the rocks and it turned almost instantly to a grey powder. The oven was certainly hot! The tourists withdrew from Teril with baffled expressions.

Chief Terii, with head held high and with eyes uplifted to the opalescent sky, walked toward the end of the oven, a branch of Ti-leaves held in his hand. There he stopped, striking the rocks three times with the Ti-wand. He began to chant in Tahitian the ancient fire-walking prayer. I, knowing the language, listened closely.

These were the words:

“O Being (Spirit) who enchants the oven, let it die out for a while! O dark earthworms! O light earthworms! Fresh water and salt water, heat of the oven, darkening of the oven, hold up the footsteps of the walkers and fan the heat of the bed. O cold host, let us linger in the midst of the oven. O Vahine-nui-tahu-ra’i, hold the fan and let us go into the oven for a little while!”

Then followed a measured cant of the ten first steps to be made upon the fiery oven. Finally, Terii’s loud exultant shout of: “O Vahine-nui-tahu-ra’i-e! All is covered!”

I shall never forget the great sigh and then the hush that followed the Chief’s first step upon the pit. He hesitated a moment as if to be sure that the stones would not shift under his weight, and then with head held high he walked onto the glowing bed of rocks. The tourists gave a gasp of dismay; the natives sat stiffly, unmoving, as if hypnotized. I watched incredulously. This was no sham. A human being was walking onto an oven of rocks sufficient to roast one! Terii crossed the pit and then turned and retraced his steps. Upon his return, his assistants fanned in a straight line behind him. Again Terii struck the edge of the glowing rocks with his Ti-wand; then he and his followers marched with firm steps across the Umu (oven). I could see the heat waves rippling above their heads, but there was no odor of seared flesh, as one might expect. I stared fixedly until they had traversed the oven, expecting every second for one of them to leap with a scream of agony from the line. But each one passed across safely. The last firewalker stepped from the oven, and Terii raised his Ti-leaves, took his place at the head of the column and led them back across the fiery expanse. This was repeated three times.

With the third crossing, Terii raised his Ti-leaves and cried “Aura! Enough!” Then, unexpectedly, he turned quickly and proceeded to crawl across the 30- foot oven of rocks on his stomach!

At the far side he stood up, grinned and beckoned to the tourists to make their inspection. His body, as one of the tourists loudly verified, was not even warmed. I moved forward to examine his feet. They were not even marked by the crossing of the fiery furnace. The examination over, we withdrew with amazed faces.

I Try It

Terii then turned to the assembled natives and exhorted those who were afflicted with any physical or mental taints, in need of spiritual purification, or who wished to test their courage with fire, to walk behind him over the hot rocks. Passing close to me, he caught my eye again, grinned, and stopped. “Perhaps you would like to walk behind me across the Umu. You have lived long in our islands and understand our customs and ceremonies. But if you are afraid, it would be dangerous to attempt the firewalk.”

It was his last remark that compelled me to kick off my sneekers, remove my socks and cry: “Haere outou! Let’s go!”

A loud chorus of “Maitai! Good!” rose from the native onlookers. A comic among the tourists yelled: “You’re going to be sorry, chum!”

I stepped into the column of fire walkers forming behind the Chief. Now my bravado was on the ebb. I was experiencing the first symptoms of fright, and I cursed the impulse that had made me accept Terii’s invitation to walk behind him over the Umu. There was the customary taut feeling in my throat, and my stomach felt as if it had suddenly been invaded with crazed butterflies. My heart started to pound violently; my head ached, and I wanted very much to step out of line. I have always had an uncommon fear of fire, since the day in my childhood when I fell into a burning bonfire, and now that memory was intensified. The stalwart Tahua (priest) behind me gave me a light push. Terii had started toward the firepit!

I clamped my teeth hard, inhaled deeply, and gave a belly-depth groan. Mechanically I started to walk, and I felt not unlike a somnambulist proceeding toward a portentous fate. My legs felt numb and leaden; my heart was now thudding with jarring impacts against my ribs. Then my bare feet touched something uneven and elevated. This is it, I told myself; you’d better step out of line before it s too late! Another firm shove on my shoulders, and in the next instant countless tiny electric shocks pricked the bottom of my feet. It was not unlike the sudden jabbing of the skin with sharp needles. Smothering heat waves shimmered before my steadfast gaze, compelling me at last to half-close my eyes. It was not unlike the sudden blast of heat that explodes from the widely flung doors of a huge blast-furnace. The heat of the oven all but suffocated me. My lungs became filled with superheated air, and I felt I would collapse if I did not breathe pure cool air quickly. As if from a great distance, through a long windswept tunnel, I heard the murmuring of the spectators. And as I walked I felt that I must surely present an abject figure treading behind Terii, if my physical aspect matched my mental unrest.

Then, suddenly, the tingling sensation on the bottom of my feet ceased, and I knew that I had crossed the oven. I glanced down at my feet. They were untouched! I had half-expected to see burn-blisters erupting between the toes and the flesh bursting under intense roasting. Every pore of my body filtered rivulets of sweat, and I could see that Chief Terli’s broad back was glistening with globules of body moisture. Terii abruptly lifted his wand of Ti leaves, a recognized signal that the last in line had passed over the Umu, and now everyone was to right-about-face for the return transit. I knew that I could not undergo another walk upon the hot stones, so I stepped quickly out of line. Terii grinned and gave me an understanding slap on my shoulders. Then he led his followers back across the oven.

Quickly I was surrounded by the tourists, who lifted my feet and wiped away the dirt to search for burn marks. There were none! The natives shook my hand, and gave complimentary shouts of “Maitai-roa! Very good!”

White Man Looks to Science

Several white men have walked barefooted across the fiery ovens of Polynesia, among them Dr. William Craig and his brother, former British resident agents of the Cook Islands; they made a safe crossing. Some, voicing flippant or skeptical remarks, were horribly burned during an Umuti, necessitating hospitalization; others, believing in the strange ceremonies of the islands, have made the walk unscathed. The reasons for the different experiences I cannot explain.

Some assayers of human immunity to fire-burn have made interesting observations. A writer-traveler in Japan, John Hyde, noticed that the priests, before walking over their herb-strewn firepits, rubbed the soles of their feet with salt. He experimented similarly, and after a walk across an oven, he remarked: “My confidence was not misplaced. In my feet I felt only a sensation of gentle warmth, but my ankles, to which no salt was applied, were scorched.”

Wemyss Reid, in his Memoirs and Correspondence of Lyon Playfair, tells how Playfair induced the Victorian Prince of Wales, in a faith-test in science, to stir a pot of molten metal with his bare hand (after he had cleansed the hand with ammonia to rid it of any grease), and to ladle out a measure. The Prince dipped out some boiling lead without sustaining any burns. Playfair then concluded his observations on the royal person’s act by saying: “It is a well-known scientific fact that the human hand, if perfectly cleansed, may be placed uninjured in lead boiling at white heat, the moisture of the skin protecting it under these conditions from any injury.”

Some years ago, the astute magician and escape-artist, Harry Houdini, an avid debunker of performances of the so-called supernatural, blasted demonstrations of fire-eaters and firewalkers in his book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (E. P. Dutton, 1920). He took particular exception to a “roasting alive” act performed by a young man inside a heated glass enclosure garbed only in bathing trunks, with a steak dangling from his arm. The idea was for the exhibitionist to remain inside the booth, exposed to a high register of heat until the steak was thoroughly cooked. Houdini pointed out that the young man protected his hair with a bathing cap and had smeared clay over his eyebrows, so that the hair would not retain the heat longer than skin cells. Houdini maintained that this, with the tempering effect of excreting perspiration, was the solution to this heat-torture act. However, the magician explained, if the man had stayed in the overheated enclosure beyond a certain period of time, his body would have become dehydrated and serious heat prostration would have resulted. Precise timing was the explanation of this trick, according to Houdini.

U. S. Air Force Makes Tests

A more recent experiment in heat and its effects on the human body was conducted a short time ago at the University of California in Los Angeles, and was supervised by Dr. Craig Taylor, physiologist and engineer, at the request of the U. S. Army Air Force Command.

The Air Corps wanted to know one very important thing: what were the potentialities concerning a jet-plane pilot’s being roasted alive in a friction-heated cockpit? These supersonic crafts, powered by jet propulsion, need refrigeration systems to keep the cockpits comfortable and bearable. What would happen to the pilot or pilots, if the cooling equipment failed while the jet planes were in flight? Would the pilot collapse at the controls? Would he succumb to heat prostration? Would he have to bail out in the stratosphere, or would he be literally baked alive in the cockpit? Could he stay at the controls, enduring the terrific heat, until he was able to slow down the plane?

This was a big order, but Professor Taylor was determined to find out what would happen to a human in a jet plane in flight if the cooling system conked out. He made with the help of his assistants a testing furnace out of a huge steel cylinder, and provided a strong fan to suck in dry air across an outside battery of white-hot electric grids. The first human guinea-pigs remained in the hot-box until the heat passed the boiling-point of water (212° F.). These student volunteers in the heat experiment came out a little groggy and florid faced, but quite “uncooked.”

Professor Taylor reserved the final and decisive tests for himself. His hands, feet, and neck were protected before being wheeled into the cylinder, the temperature of which in this supreme experiment upon entrance read 230° F. He remained in this overheated atmosphere for 15¼ minutes, until the heat climbed to 262° F. While he was in there, an egg fried on a metal frying-pan in front of him. The only uncomfortable effects he suffered were that his face became fiery red when the hot blasts of air hit it, and his nasal membranes contracted, but apart from these discomforts he experienced no dire physical or mental agonies.

His answer was simple and to the point: the human body’s resistance to heat is its own cooling system which nature has so advantageously provided — perspiration and mucous secretions. He proved that the moisture evaporating from the skin provides part of the body with a layer of cool air. A “desert waterbag” hanging on the outside of a car in traveling keeps the water cool from its own evaporation of moisture through the porous canvas.

While inside the hot-box, Professor Taylor learned that at one time when the register of heat was at 236° F, the air three quarters of an inch from his nose was 226° F. The skin of the nose itself registered a safe 119.5° F. Air drawn into the nostrils was cooled down to 100° F., which certainly could not injure the lungs. The general temperature of his body rose only a couple of degrees.

But what the Professor did emphasize as a danger to jet pilots in overheated cockpits was the raised temperature of the blood being conveyed to the brain cells. This would give pilots of jet planes the surest indication of approaching heat prostration should the cooling equipment break down. He also pointed out that man’s fear of heat is chiefly a mental torture. Humans, no matter if they are pilots in friction heated cockpits of jet planes or unfortunate victims trapped in burning buildings or ships, can overcome high registers of heat by rational, well-organized attitudes of self-preservation. Fright or overexcitement can raise the temperature of the blood many degrees.

The firewalkers of Raiatea, Japan, Fiji, India, and Africa have had no indoctrination as to the scientific principles of heat, and, therefore, it is quite understandable that they would look to a psychic or supernatural source to explain their safe walks across firepits. Certainly, the Umuti of Raiatea is a remarkable feat. One must bear in mind that hot rocks and not hot air come into contact with the flesh of the participants. I think Professor Taylor would have to admit that Chief Terii’s ceremony is quite different from the one he conducted.

And I have to remind myself that no scientist has completely explained to my entire satisfaction how I crossed the fiery pit at Raiatea without so much as a blistered toe.

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