There are two features that make the psycho-religious system of the “Secret” (Huna) outstanding and set it apart from modern systems of either religion or psychology.
First and foremost, IT WORKS. It worked for the kahunas and it should work for us.
Second, and but slightly less significant, it works for men no matter what their religious beliefs.
The finest example of a workable piece of magic which functions perfectly in the hands of any and all religionists, or in the hands of heathens and savages, is FIRE-WALKING, which has been practiced for centuries and which continues to be practiced today in many parts of the world.
Fire-walking has another thing to recommend it. It involves feet, and burning coals or other burning hot materials, such as stone, or even pure flame. Now, there is nothing mysterious about feet, or hot things. Both are subject to the most painstaking examination, and neither is subject to the manipulations of trickery.
In addition to feet and heat, there is a third element which cannot be seen, tested or examined. But it is just as real and just as free from danger of trickery. This third element is what I call “MAGIC” for want of a better word.
This third element is certainly present when feet contact heat, and burns do not result in the usual way.
War has been waged steadily on superstitions for at least two centuries. The growth of the sciences was dependent on the ability of scientists to fight up through superstitions and religious dogmatic taboos. Today, however, scientific denial of psychic and psychological phenomena has turned out to be a dogmatic taboo of science itself. Our schools and our press have done their best for years to discredit all things which could not be explained, setting up the cry of “Black superstition!” Because of this attitude the average person has been led to believe that all magic, and especially such things as fire-walking, are the beginning and end of trickery.
If my report is to get a hearing, I must prove that magic is a fact. I shall prove that it is. But, for the reader who has already decided that no such proof can be given to his personal satisfaction, I say this: Read my report anyway. It offers much new and exciting material for thought, and will be found entertaining, if nothing else. And when you finish it, see if you can give a better set of answers to its puzzling questions than did the kahunas.
For convenience sake in my report, I shall place major units of evidential material under case headings, with preliminary notes of introduction and with a comment at the end.
For the first case I draw from Dr. Brigham’s investigations and personal observations in the field.
Case 1: Dr. Brigham Fire-Walks on Red Hot Lava
The usual explanation for fire-walking is that the feet are so calloused that they cannot be burned, or that they have been toughened by alum or other chemicals. Also, the coals or hot rocks are said to be covered with a layer of ashes, or not to be hot enough to burn. Harry Price, in trying to explain the fire-walking of Kuda Bux (a Kashmiri Mohammedan) before the University of London Council for Psychical Investigations in 1936, wrote:
“It is hardly necessary to point out that, in rapid walking, the whole of the foot is not put into contact with, or withdrawn from, the ground at one instant, so that no portion of the skin was in contact with the hot embers for as long as half a second.”
In the case about to be presented, it will be noted that none of these explanations is adequate.
I give the account as I recorded it in my notes shortly after getting it at first hand from Dr. Brigham. To make it more visual I have tried to reproduce his own words and expressions.
“When the flow started,” related Dr. Brigham, “I was in South Kona, at Napoopoo. I waited a few days to see whether it promised to be a long one. When it continued steadily, I sent a message to my three kahuna friends, who had promised to let me do some fire-walking under their protection, asking them to meet me at Napoopoo so we could go to the flow and try fire-walking.
“It was a week before they arrived, as they had to come around from Kau by canoe. And even when they came, we couldn’t start at once. To them it was our reunion that counted and not so simple a matter as a bit of fire-walking. Nothing would do but that we get a pig and have a luau (native feast).
“It was a great luau. Half of Kona invited itself. When it was over I had to wait another day until one of the kahunas sobered up enough to travel.
“It was night when we finally got off after having to wait an entire afternoon to get rid of those who had heard what was up and wished to go along. I’d have taken them all had it not been that I was not too sure I would walk the hot lava when the time came. I had seen these three kahunas run barefooted over little overflows of lava at Kilauea, and the memory of the heat wasn’t any too encouraging.
“The going was hard that night as we climbed the gentle slope and worked our way across old lava flows towards the upper rain forests. The kahunas had on sandals, but the sharp cindery particles on some of the old flows got next their feet. We were always having to wait while one or another sat down and removed the adhesive cinders.
“When we got up among the trees and ferns it was dark as pitch. We fell over roots and into holes. We gave it up after a time and bedded down in an old lava tube for the rest of the night. In the morning we ate some of our poi and dried fish, then set out to find more water. This took us some time as there are no springs or streams in those parts and we had to watch for puddles of rain water gathered in hollow places in the rocks.
“Until noon we climbed upward under a smoky sky and with the smell of sulphur fumes growing stronger and stronger. Then came more poi and fish. At about three o’clock we arrived at the source of the flow.
“It was a grand sight. The side of the mountain had broken open just above the timber line and the lava was spouting out of several vents—shooting with a roar as high as two hundred feet, and falling to make a great bubbling pool.
“The pool drained off at the lower end into the flow. An hour before sunset we started following it down in search of a place where we could try our experiment.
“As usual, the flow had followed the ridges instead of the valleys and had built itself up enclosing walls of clinker. These walls were up to a thousand yards in width and the hot lava ran between them in a channel it had cut to bed rock.
“We climbed up these walls several times and crossed them to have a look at the flow. The clinkery surface was cool enough by then for us to walk on it, but here and there we could look down into cracks and see the red glow below. Now and again we had to dodge places where colorless flames were spouting up like gas jets in the red light filtering through the smoke.
“Coming down to the rain forest without finding a place where the flow blocked up and overflowed periodically, we bedded down again for the night. In the morning we went on, and in a few hours found what we wanted. The flow crossed a more level strip perhaps a half-mile wide. Here the enclosing walls ran in flat terraces, with sharp drops from one level to the next. Now and again a floating boulder or mass of clinker would plug the flow just where a drop commenced, and then the lava would back up and spread out into a large pool. Soon the plug would be forced out and the lava would drain away, leaving behind a fine flat surface to walk on when sufficiently hardened.
“Stopping beside the largest of three overflows, we watched it fill and empty. The heat was intense, of course, even up on the clinkery wall. Down below us the lava was red and flowing like water, the only difference being that water couldn’t get that hot and that the lava never made a sound even when going twenty miles an hour down a sharp grade. That silence always interests me when I see a flow. Where water has to run over rocky bottoms and rough projections, lava burns off everything and makes itself a channel as smooth as the inside of a crock.
“As we wanted to get back down to the coast that day, the kahunas wasted no time. They had brought ti leaves with them and were all ready for action as soon as the lava would bear our weight. (The leaves of the ti plant are universally used by fire-walkers where available in Polynesia. They are a foot or two long and fairly narrow, with cutting edges like saw-grass. They grow in a tuft on the top of a stalk resembling in size and shape a broomstick.)
“When the rocks we threw on the lava surface showed that it had hardened enough to bear our weight, the kahunas arose and clambered down the side of the wall. It was far worse than a bake oven when we got to the bottom. The lava was blackening on the surface, but all across it ran heat discolorations that came and went as they do on cooling iron before a blacksmith plunges it into his tub for tempering. I heartily wished that I had not been so curious. The very thought of running over that flat inferno to the other side made me tremble—and remember that I had seen all three of the kahunas scamper over hot lava at Kilauea.
“The kahunas took off their sandals and tied ti leaves around their feet, about three leaves to the foot. I sat down and began tying my ti leaves on outside my big hob-nailed boots. I wasn’t taking any chances. But that wouldn’t do at all—I must take off my boots and my two pairs of socks. The goddess Pele hadn’t agreed to keep boots from burning and it might be an insult to her if I wore them.
“I argued hotly—and I say ‘hotly’ because we were all but roasted. I knew that Pele wasn’t the one who made fire-magic possible, and I did my best to find out what or who was. As usual they grinned and said that of course the ‘white’ kahuna knew the trick of getting mana (power of some kind known to kahunas) out of air and water to use in kahuna work, and that we were wasting time talking about the thing no kahuna ever put into words—the secret handed down only from father to son.
“The upshot of the matter was that I sat tight and refused to take off my boots. In the back of my mind I figured that if the Hawaiians could walk over hot lava with bare calloused feet, I could do it with my heavy leather soles to protect me. Remember that this happened at a time when I still had an idea that there was some physical explanation for the thing.
“The kahunas got to considering my boots a great joke. If I wanted to offer them as a sacrifice to the gods, it might be a good idea. They grinned at each other and left me to tie on my leaves while they began their chants.
“The chants were in an archaic Hawaiian which I could not follow. It was the usual ‘god-talk’ handed down word for word for countless generations. All I could make of it was that it consisted of simple little mentions of legendary history and was peppered with praise of some god or gods.
“I almost roasted alive before the kahunas had finished their chanting, although it could not have taken more than a few minutes. Suddenly the time was at hand. One of the kahunas beat at the shimmering surface of the lava with a bunch of ti leaves and then offered me the honor of crossing first. Instantly I remembered my manners; I was all for age before beauty.
“The matter was settled at once by deciding that the oldest kahuna should go first, I second and the others side by side. Without a moment of hesitation the oldest man trotted out on that terrifically hot surface. I was watching him with my mouth open and he was nearly across—a distance of about a hundred and fifty feet—when someone gave me a shove that resulted in my having a choice of falling on my face on the lava or catching a running stride.
“I still do not know what madness seized me, but I ran. The heat was unbelievable. I held my breath and my mind seemed to stop functioning. I was young then and could do my hundred-yard dash with the best. Did I run! I flew! I would have broken all records, but with my first few steps the soles of my boots began to burn. They curled and shrank, clamping down on my feet like a vise. The seams gave way and I found myself with one sole gone and the other flapping behind me from the leather strap at the heel.
“That flapping sole was almost the death of me. It tripped me repeatedly and slowed me down. Finally, after what seemed minutes, but could not have been more than a few seconds, I leaped off to safety.
“I looked down at my feet and found my socks burning at the edges of the curled leather uppers of my boots. I beat out the smouldering fire in the cotton fabric and looked up to find my three kahunas rocking with laughter as they pointed to the heel and sole of my left boot which lay smoking and burned to a crisp on the lava.
“I laughed too. I was never so relieved in my life as I was to find that I was safe and that there was not a blister on my feet—not even where I had beaten out the fire in the socks.
“There is little more that I can tell of this experience. I had a sensation of intense heat on my face and body, but almost no sensation in my feet. When I touched them with my hands they were hot on the bottoms, but they did not feel so except to my hands. None of the kahunas had a blister, although the ti leaves which they had tied on their feet had burned away long since.
“My return trip to the coast was a nightmare. Trying to make it in improvised sandals whittled from green wood has left me with an impression almost more vivid than my fire-walking.”
There you have Dr. Brigham’s story. You will now doubtless be interested to know how this scientist tried to figure out the reason for his being able to do what he had done.
“It’s magic,” he assured me. “It’s a part of the bulk of magic done by the kahunas and by other primitive peoples. It took me years to come to that understanding, but it is my final decision after long study and observation.”
“But,” I asked, “didn’t you try to explain it some other way?”
The doctor smiled at me. “Certainly I did. It has been no easy task for me to come to believe magic possible. And even after I was dead-sure it was magic I still had a deep-seated doubt concerning my own conclusions. Even after doing the fire-walking I came back to the theory that lava might form a porous and insulating surface as it cooled. Twice I tested that theory at Kilauea when there were little overflows. I waited in one case until a small overflow had cooled quite black, then touched it with the tips of my fingers. But although the lava was much cooler than that I ran across, I burned my fingers badly—and I’d only just dabbed at the hot surface.”
“And the other time?” I asked.
He shook his head and smiled guiltily. “I should have known better after that first set of blisters, but the old ideas were hard to down. I knew I had walked over hot lava, but still I couldn’t always believe it possible that I could have done so. The second time I got excited about my insulating surface theory, I took up some hot lava on a stick as one would take up taffy. And I had to burn a finger again before I was satisfied. No, there is no mistake. The kahunas use magic in their fire-walking as well as in many other things. There is one set of natural laws for the physical world and another for the other world. And—try to believe this if you can: The laws of the other side are so much the stronger that they can be used to neutralize and reverse the laws of the physical.”
In this case we have an instance in which the magical control of heat was of such a nature that it did not protect the leather in Dr. Brigham’s heavy boots, but did protect his feet. There was no chemical solution to protect the feet of the fire-walkers from heat. There was no layer of ashes on the lava to insulate it. The lava was so hot that, even in running steps where contact was momentary between boots and lava, the leather burned to a crisp. The heat was far more than enough to burn feet under ordinary circumstances.
Case 2: A Stage Magician Who Used Genuine Magic
Startling as it may seem, there is real magic sometimes used on the stage instead of the supposed mechanical trickery which we universally believe to be in use.
In this case we have a man traveling with a carnival and saying nothing about the magic he uses, unless it be to those inclined and able to accept a statement of the true facts. This man and his wife performed in Honolulu and later were kind enough to try to explain their magic to me and try to tell how they had learned it. Just now we are interested only in what they did and not how they did it.
The so-called “fire-magic” usually seen on the stage or in circus and carnival is a very poor imitation of what I shall next describe. It consists mainly of such feats as holding a lighted cigarette on the tongue and inserting it into the mouth, with the coal held safely away from contact with the flesh, or of taking gasoline into the mouth and lighting its vapors as they are blown out—this being possible because the vapors burn only when well away from the lips and after mixing with air.
The fire magician of whom I speak gave his performance in a small tent. A railing separated him from his audience by a distance of from three to six feet. His apparatus consisted of a pine table on which lay the few things he used. The only part of his performance in which real magic was not used was the part in which his little dog leaped delightedly through a small hoop soaked with oil and set afire. Everything was done at close range and the watchers encouraged to test the heat of every article before it was brought into contact with flesh. Every move was made slowly and with no attempt to “juggle” or conceal.
The following things were done by the magician in each of the two performances which I witnessed: (1) He boiled water in a cup and drank it down rapidly while it was still bubbling and steaming. (2) Finger-thick pieces of soft pine wood were held in the blaze of a gas burner until they were turned at one end to glowing charcoal. He took up six of these, bit off the live ends, and chewed them. (3) He heated thick iron bars to a bright red heat in the middle and then passed his tongue along the red surface repeatedly—resulting in sizzling steam rising from his bare tongue. (4) He lighted an ordinary welding torch; drew the flame down to a cutting cone of blue-green; used the flame to cut through iron bars repeatedly; gave the bars and the torch to members of the audience for examination. Without adjusting the torch in any way, and seeming to have no protection or method of temporarily extinguishing the flame, he introduced it repeatedly into his mouth. His mouth remained open to its fullest extent and the flame could be seen playing from the end of the burner, even when it had been thrust in as far as his lips. (5) He heated an iron bar to redness and handled it with bare hands in a way which would have burned another severely indeed. He took a heavier flat bar and heated it to redness in the center. He took the heated part between his teeth and, holding the ends of the bar in his hands, bent it up and down twice from the center.
The bending of the bar held between the performer’s teeth caused me to examine his teeth carefully. They were strong teeth and not false. This point interested me greatly, as the red-hot iron remained for a period of nearly ten seconds in close contact with the upper and lower front teeth. Although this was one of his stock “tricks” done several times in an evening, the enamel was not cracked on the teeth nor did they seem injured. Before the second performance a dentist joined me. He stated that contact with such heat would kill nerves and destroy teeth under ordinary circumstances, as well as cause intolerable pain while the nerves were still alive. Ulceration would result and the teeth have to be pulled out. We scraped the biting edges of the teeth with a penknife just before the second performance—this to make sure no invisible insulating substance, no matter how thin and transparent, could be present.
The question of some solution to insulate from heat seemed most improbable as the mouth was itself wet. Also the edges of the teeth would hardly take such a coating—one too thin to be detected or scraped off. *
Case 3: A Professor of Biblical History Reports
On February 21, 1935, I attended a lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library. The speaker was Dr. John G. Hill, Professor of Biblical History at the University of Southern California. His subject was “Fire-Walking.” He had spent four seasons in the South Seas and illustrated his lecture with moving pictures he had taken.
He told of voyaging from Tahiti to a neighboring island, and of traveling fourteen miles overland to see a fire-walking performance. A great pit had been dug, filled with logs and stones, and a fire had been burning among them for many hours until the stones were red-hot. Invocations were recited to “Nahine (woman) of the Skies,” then the performers marched around the pit and made seven crossings back and forth. Ti leaves were used in the ceremony to carry and to “dust off” the rocks.
Dr. Hill exposed much film, taking close-up pictures of the feet and hot rocks, and pictures of the group walking in single file over the stones. He showed one native who had been forced to walk the hot stones as an “ordeal” to prove his guilt or innocence of a certain charge. As he was badly burned, the natives decided that he was guilty, despite his denials, and so had not merited the protection of “Nahine of the Skies.”
The ceremony over, Dr. Hill and his white companions tested the heat of the rocks, the following results being reported: Length of time possible to hold the hand at a distance of three feet from the rocks: eleven seconds. Time required for a bundle of wet, green branches to take fire when thrown on the rocks: thirteen minutes.
While the testing of the heat was going on, the head magician was inviting his guests to cross the rocks under the protection of his magic. One of the white men joined the natives who were accepting the invitation. He walked across the rocks. Dr. Hill stated that they were almost red-hot even at that time. The man’s shoes were not burned in any way, nor were his feet, but, oddly enough, the intense heat burned his face so badly that it peeled a few days later.
After the lecture I joined a group gathered to hear Dr. Hill answer questions. He was asked for any possible explanation of the feat. His answer was that he was totally at a loss for an explanation. He could only guess that there might be some superior form of mental activity used—some form which could keep heat from burning. He was very positive in his refusal to accept his own guess as a fact.
The usual questions were raised as to the possibility of some “undetectable solution” being used. This, the Doctor explained, was impossible for the simple reason that the white man’s shoes had not been so treated and would certainly have been ruined by the heat under ordinary circumstances.
In an endeavor to throw further light on the mystery, Dr. Hill told of another fire-walking performance which he had seen but not photographed. There a young white man, described as being “quite a mystic,” avowed that if the brown men’s magic would protect them, his God would also protect him. He questioned the friendly magician in charge and was laughingly told to go on across the stones without fear. Disregarding the protests of other white travelers, the young man took off shoes and socks. He approached the fire-walk with set face—evidently trying to concentrate on his task and hold his faith in readiness. He followed the magician on to the rocks and was getting on perfectly when a wild dog-fight broke out close beside the pit. For a moment he glanced aside. He lifted one foot suddenly, but his face again became set and he continued his crossing. The foot lifted was found later to have a large blister on its sole. Dr. Hill vouched for this data, but made no comment on its possible significance.
For those who may not have seen moving pictures of fire-walking shown in 1934 news reels at theatres, I mention the following sources of photographic or written information: The book, The Colony of Fiji, edited by A. A. Wright and published by the Government of Fiji, contains several good illustrations of fire-walking. As a commentary on the influence of the scientific attitude in so far as any official publication is concerned, we find in this book only one lone paragraph to describe the finest tourist attraction in Fiji. This paragraph gives a meager statement of the facts of fire-walking, but nothing more.
Another book more easily procured in libraries is the Seatracks of the Speejacks. In its log, which is written by Jeanne Gowen, will be found both pictures and full descriptions of the fire-magicians and their work.
In Herbert MacQuarrie’s book, Tahiti Days (George H. Doran Co., 1920), an entire chapter is given over to a report on fire-walking, and there are five pictures showing the fire-walkers, crowds and pit, as well as of the actual performance.
Case 4: Fire-Walking as a Religious Rite in Burma
In Hawaii I made my living for the greater part of my stay in the Islands by keeping a kodak and art store in Honolulu. Among my many customers there was, in the year 1929, an Englishman who had been making a trip around the world. He carried with him a 16 mm. moving picture camera and was especially anxious to photograph anything out of the ordinary.
I had known him several days when he came in one morning and asked me if there was anything in Hawaii which was very unusual and which he might “film.” I certainly knew of many very unusual things in Hawaii, but it was impossible to tell him where he might go to get a picture of a kahuna at work with his magic.
In the course of our conversation he mentioned the fact that he had bribed the priests of a certain temple in Burma to let him hide on a temple balcony and photograph the mysterious and far-famed fire-walking of the devotees of the fire god, Agni.
I begged for the story and the opportunity to see his pictures. He went at once to his hotel and brought back the films. Let me give in detail what I saw and what was told that day in my little projection-room.
“You see,” said my friend, with all the glow of one about to present a wonder of wonders, “I don’t just tell about the things I see, I photograph them. And it’s a good thing I do. Now take this film I’m about to show you. If I didn’t have the film I’d even think I hadn’t seen it myself! What I saw is impossible! It’s contrary to nature! Anyone will tell you it couldn’t happen. I’ll even tell you that-and I saw it with my own eyes not three months ago.” He paused and waited for me to look up from threading the projector. I did my best to show the proper surprise and mystification.
“Well,” he said grandly, “turn it on. See if you can believe what the camera got.”
I pulled out a couple of chairs and threw in the switch. On the screen at the end of the projection-room lifelike shadows began to flicker and move.
“That,” explained my new friend, “is the parade. It came before the service in the temple’s courtyard. That bunch going past now are the candidates who had been getting ready for years to take the fire initiation of the Agni cult. Odd beggars, those brown people. See the funny looks on their faces. They all seemed to be thinking hard about something as they marched along. Never seemed to notice the crowd which had gone crazy with excitement just to see them. Seems everyone hopes some day to get ready to walk through the fire—great honor. Walk through once and you are set for life. You become some sort of priest or holy man. All the priests in the temple have had to walk through fire to get their jobs.”
“How do they do it?” I asked as I watched the long parade move past with all its Oriental trappings.
“Wouldn’t you jolly well like to know! And wouldn’t I?”
“What do you think?” I urged.
“How should I know? I tried to get it out of the priests, but they spoofed me, I think. They said theirs was the one and only true religion and that the fire-walking proved it. Said no other faith could make it possible for the converts to walk through fire. What they wanted me to believe was that their god kept the feet of the pure and holy from being burned. Those who weren’t quite pure enough got burned.” He pointed suddenly to the screen. “See that chap? He’s the priest I managed to get off to one side to talk to, at about the time the parade was done marching all over the city. Good sort. Really rather sporting. He was smart, too.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Not like most of the other beggars—suspicious and hating white skins. And by ‘smart’ I mean he was smart enough to pretend to believe me when I told him I’d studied his religion and wanted to join up. I thought he was going to laugh in my face at first, but I jingled money in my pocket and he began to take me seriously.”
“Perhaps he did take you seriously,” I suggested as I watched the parade continue to pass on the screen.
“He was no fool, not that one. He’d heard money. And when I told him I would join up and pay well if I could be allowed to see the fire-walking with my own eyes, he got my drift. I insisted on giving him a good donation for his church right there. He thanked me for it and told me to meet him in a little while at a side-door of the temple. Of course, I didn’t say anything about bringing along my little movie camera.”
The scene changed suddenly on the screen and the inner courtyard of the temple appeared. It was a large court surrounded by high walls. Below us and at one end was a long, high pile of burning charcoal which shimmered with intense heat. It was perhaps fifty feet long and about five feet high. Men were beginning to rake it out into a long, narrow platform of living coals as I watched.
“That’s it!” cried my English friend. “I met my priest and got in with my camera case without his knowing what I was up to. He took me up to a balcony and hid me behind some bamboo screens. I paid some more church dues and he went off. In a minute I had a hole in the screen for the lens and one for the finder. My camera was all loaded and ready, so I had at it right away.
“I took the beginning and the end of the raking out of the coals,” he continued as the scene changed. “See? Now they are all done and are smoothing down the bed. About six inches deep. The charcoal had been burning for ten hours, the priest told me. Hot as Hades! Made it so hot, even off there behind the bamboo screen, that I could hardly stand it. And see how the rakers have to keep their heads turned away and have to keep turning their bodies from side to side so they won’t roast. Beastly hot!
“And now watch that gate in this scene. I began filming when I heard the noise outside. I knew the procession was about to come in. There they are! Priests in front and the candidates next. All men candidates—women are too sinful ever to get purified. Lots of the men are old. Forty-three I counted. And see their faces—look like they were going to afternoon tea—got on their most polite faces. Those big fellows in uniform are Sikh bobbies. Find them in all British possessions. They don’t belong to the temple, but the authorities send them along to keep order. You’ll see them keeping it right soon.”
As I watched, the procession moved into the courtyard. The candidates gathered in a silent group at one end of the long bed of shimmering coals. Behind them gathered a mixed crowd of men, women and children, all greatly excited. The Sikhs moved slowly through the crowd, their clubs in hand. The priests had gone around the fire and met another group of six priests who had come from the temple and were taking their places at the opposite end of the bed of coals. In the hands of each of the six was a short whip with many lashes. Between them and the fire was a shallow water-filled indentation in the paving. It was about six feet wide, four inches deep and ten feet long, extending all across the end of the glowing platform.
“What are the whips for?” I asked. “Are they to keep the fire-walkers out of the water?”
“You’ll see in a moment,” was the hurried answer. “Seems that when they step out of the fire into the water, the priests have to beat them to keep their minds off their hot feet for a second. I asked the priest but didn’t understand what he tried to tell me—something about an old custom.”
“Do neither the whips nor the fire hurt them?” I demanded.
“The whips do. Lay their backs open sometimes. But keep your eyes on the picture. See? They are all praying now. Making a lot of funny gibberish. Praying to Agni to protect the pure and burn the impure. Gave me the creeps.…”
The camera moved back to the silent group of candidates. They were taking no part in the prayers, but simply waiting. They wore only loin-cloths. Then a bent old man raised his hand, as in greeting, to someone in the crowd behind. He turned and walked slowly to the pathway, which danced and shimmered before him. Clasping his hands and lifting his face as if in appeal to Heaven, he walked calmly into the bed of fire. I caught my breath. With a firm, steady stride he went wading through the coals toward the priests who waited at the far end.
I scarcely breathed as I watched. His feet were leaving black tracks which closed over and were lost in a moment after he had passed. On and on he went, never changing his pace. Made slightly misty and unreal by the heat waves rising all about him, he seemed more an apparition than a man. As I stared, my amazement was tinged with doubt. What I was seeing was an impossibility. But the end of that dreadful pacing came at last. The old man stepped from the living fire into the water and was instantly taken by the arms on either side by two priests. Their cruel whips flashed three times, cutting into the bare brown back. The old man writhed with pain. Two more priests took him and hurried him off to a bench beside the wall. They examined a foot each, nodded, and hurried back to their places.
The camera flashed around and caught another candidate just as he stepped into the coals. He was a thin, middle-aged man. His face was turned to the waiting priests and his hands were clenched and swinging at his sides. With long rapid strides he began his ordeal. His pace quickened. His head went up and his face lifted as if away from the heat. He was half-way through and walking more and more rapidly. Suddenly his pace broke and he went on at a rapid trot. The trot increased to a run, and as he came to the end of the fiery bed he leaped frantically for the water. Hardly had he leaped before the whips fell. They fell in flashing blows that doubled the candidate as he strained in the strong grasp of the two priests.
The camera flashed back again to catch the next candidate.
“Was that second man burned?” I faltered.
“No. Only three got burned out of the whole bunch,” was the abstracted answer. “Watch this one,” he commanded.
A very bent and feeble old man had entered the fire. His hands were stretched imploringly upward. After the first few steps he began staggering. He hesitated, leaped into the air, plunged wildly forward and fell. Instantly attendants were at the side of the bed of coals, long drag-hooks in their hands. They labored frantically, rolling the smoking body over and over. They dragged it clear, coals sticking to the burned flesh. A jar of water was dashed over the still form and it was lifted and carried swiftly away.
“Dead before they got him out …” said a low voice at my elbow. I started slightly, having momentarily forgotten my friend. “But that didn’t stop them; they kept going right through.”
Again a splice ran through the projector and the camera swung back from a man being lashed. It picked up another man at the far end. He had just stepped into the fire and in his arms he carried a boy. The child was hardly more than six and dressed in loin-cloth only. I gasped in horror. Why should a child be endangered? What if the big lean man should fall? Again I held my breath. Would the man never start running? Was he insane?
“He’ll make it,” my friend encouraged me.
I sank back into my chair. On and on the man went, striding deliberately. The little boy became vague and clear by turns, as the heat shimmer was stirred or left stagnant by air currents. One small hand lay quietly and confidingly on the bare shoulder of the man. The boy gave no sign of fear or concern. Never quickening or slackening his pace, the man came at last to the end. He stepped into the water. The whips fell but once on his back. He lifted the boy high to keep him from being struck. In his gesture was something that hinted of a love great in its triumph. The camera followed as he set the child on his feet and led him away toward the wall.
Suddenly the film began to change rapidly from scene to scene. Men ran or walked a few feet through the fire before vanishing.
“I was running short of film,” explained the voice in my ear. “I just took grab shots. But now watch—I got another of those who got burned.… There he goes! Off at the side—howling—now he’s into the water. No use to beat him. The priest said he’d never walk again. Now keep an eye on this—see that Sikh? See what happened? The crowd went crazy—religious frenzy—they wanted to try it themselves. See those Sikhs with their clubs! What if they hadn’t been there to lay them out? The whole crowd would have rushed into the fire!”
Suddenly the film clicked in the projector and the screen flickered blank and white. The picture was ended.
“How do you feel?” asked the Englishman curiously.
“Rather upset,” I answered truthfully.
“And wasn’t I!” he exclaimed. “I’d seen it with my own eyes! For a penny I’d have joined the temple. It gets you. I was a week trying to forget it. It’s like seeing a ghost or something. Can’t get your mind straightened out. You go giddy. Can’t strike the old balance. Keep wondering if you have everything wrong.… Can’t get over the idea that there’s something in it besides a trick.”
“Then you really believe it is a trick?” I asked.
There was a long moment of hesitation. “What else can it be? … But how could the beggars put anything on their feet that wouldn’t wear off in a half-day of parading barefoot? … And how was it some of them got burned if they all had the same stuff on their feet to protect them?”
“Perhaps they know better than we do what’s behind it,” I suggested.
There was a slow nod. “I almost joined the temple … just to find out if there was.…”
In this case it would seem that the priests did not use magic in behalf of the fire-walkers, but let them use their own powers as best they might. It is evident that some were not yet good magicians, regardless of the religious significance of the matter.
As we shall eventually consider a very important point concerning the nature of “purification” from’ sin in its relation to the ability to perform fire-magic, I will now present a short case having to do with descendants of Igorot head-hunters.
Descendants Prove that Their Head-Hunting Ancestors Did Fire-Walking Safely
In the Philippines the Igorots have done fire-walking for centuries. They have also been head-hunters. To waylay the enemy and take his head is not a business which the Burma devotees would consider a help to “purification,” but the Igorots seem unaware of this. Here we see descendants of the little pink-brown people using fire-magic with the same success as did their forefathers.
Some Igorot fire-walkers came to Los Angles some years ago and gave several performances at the old Chutes Park on Washington Street. My friend, Mr. George Dromgold, saw them at work, and his description of their feats gives us the usual picture of hot rocks, green branches in hands, and bare feet treading on intensely hot stones with no resultant burns.
This case is mainly important to show that headhunters have done fire-walking and that the art has come down to the Igorots of our time.
Of secondary importance is the fact that magic can be practised in civilized countries and away from the favorite plant, ti, which is so largely used in the ceremonial throughout Polynesia.
Case 6: A Japanese Healer uses Fire-Magic
In the preceding cases we have had the two best known forms of fire-magic. For the third we must look to a less widespread, but more practical form: fire-magic used in healing certain types of disease.
In 1928-1929 there came to Honolulu a Japanese fire-healer. He advertised his powers and began his healing practice. His specialty was the treatment of arthritis. He would heat stones so hot that they would ordinarily burn flesh. By the use of magic—according to his later admission in court—the stones could be packed around an affected joint and the trouble cured. There were several cases which he had treated successfully, notably the case of a wealthy American who had been unable to walk for several months because of arthritis in the knees. After treatment with the hot stones by the Japanese healer he recovered the full use of his knees.
This case is of importance to our study and proofs, because the records of it are preserved in court documents. After practicing for some time in Honolulu, the Japanese was arrested at the instigation of the medical men. He was charged with practicing medicine without a license, but, as he had administered no medicine, the charge pressed against him was that of being a kahuna.*
The court that tried him was not interested in evidence given to prove that his treatment was effective, when that of local doctors was not. The Japanese offered as his defense the fact that he was using magic and not medicine. Magic is not admitted in evidence in any civilized court. He admitted that he had used burning-hot stones to cure others. That was enough. He was fined and imprisoned as a kahuna. Later he was deported.
Had there been any trickery on the part of the Japanese healer, would it not seem that he would have acknowledged it rather than go to jail for a longer term, because he insisted that he had used real magic? Of course, to deny his magic it would have been necessary for the healer to show how he did the “trick,” and this was something impossible for him to do as there was no trick.
Under the classification of “fire-immunity through magic,” there must be mentioned again the inconclusive tests of fire-walkers made before the World War II period by Harry Price and his associates in London. From the early printed reports on the tests made with Kuda Bux, it is to be seen that white men were severely burned on three attempts to duplicate, even in a small way, the fire-walk performed by the man from India. Later on, when the Price group tested another Indian who claimed to be a fire-walker, his feats were less spectacular and were safely duplicated by at least one white bystander. Price cautiously refuted his statements made after the Kuda Bux tests because of the later fiasco with Hassan.
Another excellent source of data on fire-immunity is to be found in the annals of Psychical Research. In these cases, dozens of which have been studied and reported, fire-immunity was supposedly given through the agency of “spirits.” The famous medium, D. D. Home, at seances, was accustomed to take live coals from fires in fireplaces and hold them in his bare hands while blowing them to a white heat. He wrapped these coals in fine linen handkerchiefs without scorching the cloth. He held his head of bushy hair in the flames of the fireplace, burning not a hair. He held fresh flowers in the flames without having them wither. A recent book written around his life and experiences tells of these and other magical matters.
Fire-immunity, whether gained through prayer to a superhuman being, or through the agency of a deceased human “spirit,” presumably making such a prayer, is the result of a supranormal action—is magic.
All supranormal actions are magic, whether they be instant healing, the production of psychic phenomena—telepathy, prevision, etc.—or the use of the “death prayer.”
* Appendix for the account of the stage magician’s training.
* The law of Hawaii concerning healing by the use of magic reads: “Section 1034. Sorcery—Penalty, Any person who shall attempt the cure of another by practice of sorcery, witchcraft, ananna, hoopiopio, hoounauna, or hoomanamana (terms describing the practice of Hawaiian kahunas), or other superstitious or deceitful methods, shall, upon conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not less than one hundred dollars or be imprisoned not to exceed six months at hard labor.” There is also another section of the law which classes the kahuna with bunco men and defines him as one posing as a kahuna, taking money under pretence of having magical power, or admitting that he is a kahuna. For this the fine goes up to a thousand dollars and a year in prison.