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Volume 31, 1898
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Art. LXVIII.—An Account of the Fiji Fire Ceremony.

[Read before the Otago Institute, 10th May, 1898.]

Amongst the many incidents witnessed during a recent visit to the tropical islands of Fiji probably none exceeded in wonder and interest that of which I propose to give some account this evening, and to which may be applied the designation of “fire ceremony.” It is called by the natives “vilavilairevo.” In this remarkable ceremony a number of almost nude Fijians walk quickly and unharmed across and among white-hot stones, which form the pavement of a huge native oven—termed “lovo”—in which shortly afterwards are cooked the succulent sugary roots and pith of the Cordyline terminalis, one of the cabbage-trees, known to the Maoris as the “ti,” and to the Fijians as the “masawe.” This wonderful power of fire-walking is now not only very rarely exercised, but, at least as regards Fiji, is confined to a small clan or family—the Na Ivilankata—resident on Bega (=Mbenga), an island of the group, lying somewhat south of Suva, and twenty miles from that capital.

A small remnant of the priestly order at Raiatea, one of the Society Islands, is yet able to utter the preparatory incantation, and afterwards to walk through the fire.

It exists also in other parts of the world, as in parts of India, the Straits Settlements, “West India Islands, and elsewhere. Very interesting accounts of the ceremony as seen at Raiatea and at Mbenga are to be found in the second and third volumes of the “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” and in Basil Thomson's charming “South Sea Yarns.” These descriptions filled our small party of three—my wife, Dr. Colquhoun, and myself—with the desire to witness it for ourselves, and, if possible, to give some explanation of what was apparently an inexplicable mystery. Our desires were perfectly realised.

The Hon. Mr. A. M. Duncan, a member of the Legislative Council of Fiji, and agent at Suva of the Union Steamship Company, to whom I carried a letter of introduction from Mr. James Mills, the managing director of that company, was most courteous and obliging, and promised his best efforts in the matter. His energy and ready response succeeded, with the result that a large party from Suva enjoyed such a day as each one must have marked with a red letter.

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It was necessary to give the natives three days in which to make their preparations—constructing the oven and paving it with stones, which then required heating for thirty-six or forty-eight hours at least with fierce fires fed with logs and branches. They had also to gather their stores of food to form the foundation of the huge feast whose prepararation was to succeed the mystic ceremony. During these three days we lost no opportunity of collecting from former witnesses of the ceremony whatever information or explanation they could afford, but with no very satisfactory result: the facts were undisputed, but the explanations quite insufficient. Some thought that the chief actors rubbed their bodies with a secret preparation which rendered them fireproof; others that life-long friction on the hard hot rocks coral-reefs, and sands had so thickened and indurated the foot-sole that it could defy fire; but all agreed as to the bona fides of the exhibition. The incident recounted in the “Polynesian Journal” was also confirmed—where Lady Thurston threw her handkerchief upon the shoulder of one of the actors, and, though it remained there but a few seconds before being picked off by means of a long stick, it was greatly scorched.

The story or legend attached to this weird gift of fire-walking was told us, with some variation, by two or three different people, and it is mainly as follows: A far distant ancestor of the present inheritors of this power was walking one day when he espied an eel, which he caught, and was about to kill. The eel squeaked out, and said, “Oh! Tui Na Galita (=Eng-Galita), do not kill me; spare me. I am a god, and I will make you so strong in war that none shall withstand you.” “Oh, but,” replied Na Galita, “I am already stronger in war than any one else, and I fear no one.” “Well, then,” said the eel, “I will make your canoe the fastest to sail on these seas, and none shall come up with it.” “But,” replied Na Galita, “as it is none can pass my canoe.” “Well, then,” rejoined the eel, “I will make you a great favourite among women, so that all will fall in love with you.” “Not so,” said Na Galita, “I have one wife, of whom I am very fond, and I desire no other.” The poor eel then made other offers, which were also rejected, and his chances of life were fading fast when he made a final efforts “Oh, Na Galita, if yon will spare me I will so cause it that you and your descendants shall henceforth walk through the masazve oven unharmed.” “Good,” said Na Galita, “now I will let you go.” This story varies somewhat from that told in the “Polynesian Journal.”

The eventful morning was blazingly hot and brilliant, and the vivie-blue sky was without a cloud as we steamed down

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towards Mbenga in the s.s. “Hauroto.” Mr. Vaughan, an eminent inhabitant of Suva, who has charge of the Meteorological Department there, was of our party, and carried the thermometer. This was the most suitable for our purpose procurable; it was in a strong japanned-tin casing, and registered 400° Fahr. We had also three amateur photographers.

Owing to the numerous coral-reefs and shallows, we finally transhipped into the “Maori,” a steamer of much less draught. Approaching the silent verdure-clad islet, with its narrow beach of white-coral sand, we saw a thin blue haze of smoke curling above the lofty cocoanut-trees at a little distance in the interior, which sufficiently localised the mysterious spot. We now took the ship's boat, and soon, stepping ashore, made our way through a narrow pathway in the dense bush until we came to an open space cleared from the forest, in the midst of which was the great lovo, or oven.

A remarkable and never-to-be-forgotten scene now presented itself. There were hundreds of Fijians, dressed according to the rules of nature and their own art—that is, they were lightly garlanded here and there with their fantastic likulikus of grass, ornamented with brilliant scarlet and yellow hibiscus-flowers and streamers of the delicate ribbonwood. These hung in airy profusion from their necks-and around their waists, showing off to advantage their lovely brown glossy skins. In addition, many wore clean white-cotton sulus, or pendant loin-cloths. All were excited, moving hither and thither in wild confusion, and making the forest ring again with their noisy hilarity. Some climbed the lofty cocoa-palms, hand over hand, foot over foot, with all the dexterity of monkeys. The top reached, and shrouded amongst the feathery leaves, they poured down a shower of nuts for the refreshment of their guests.

The celerity with which they opened the nuts was something astonishing, and afforded an example, too, as to the mode of using stone implements. A stout, strong stick, 3ft. long, and sharpened at both ends, was driven into the ground, and a few smart strokes upon it soon tore from the nut its outer thick covering. The upper part of the shell was then broken off by means of a long sharp-edged stone as cleanly and regularly as the lid of an egg is removed with a knife, and then was disclosed a pint of delicious milk, a most welcome beverage on that overpoweringly hot day.

The great oven lay before us, pouring forth its torrents of heat from huge embers which were still burning fiercely on the underlying stones. These were indeed melting moments for the spectators. The pitiless noontide sun, and the no less pitiless oven-heat, both pent up in the deep well-like forest

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clearing, reduced us to a state of solution from which there was no escape. Despite this the photographers took lip their stations, and others of us proceeded to make our observations. The lovo, or oven, was circular, with a diameter of 25 ft. or 30 ft.; its greatest depth was perhaps 8ft., its general shape that of a saucer, with sloping sides and a flattish bottom, the latter being filled with the white-hot stones. Near the margin of the oven, and on its windward side, the thermometer marked 114°.

Suddenly, and as if Pandemonium had been let loose, the air was filled with savage yells; a throng of natives surrounded the oven, and in a most ingenious and effective way proceeded to drag out the smouldering unburnt logs and cast them some distance away. Large loops of incombustible lianas attached to long poles were dexterously thrown over the burning trunks, much after the manner of the head-hunters of New Guinea when securing their human prey. A twist or two round of the loop securely entangled the logs, which were then dragged out by the united efforts of scores of natives, who all the while were shouting out some wild rhythmical song. This accomplished, the stones at the bottom of the oven were disclosed, with here and there flame flickering and forking up through the interstices. The diameter of the area occupied by those stones was about 10 ft., but this was speedily increased to a spread of 15 ft. or more by a second ingenious method. The natives thrust their long poles, which were of the unconsumable wi-tree (Spondias dulcis), between the stones at intervals of perhaps 1 ft. A long rope-like liana—wa—previously placed underneath the poles, and 1 ft. or 2 ft. from their extremities, was now dragged by scores of lusty savages, with the effect of spreading and levelling the stones. This done, our thermometer was suspended by a simple device over the centre of the stones, and about 5 ft. or 6 ft. above them; but it had to be withdrawn almost immediately, as the solder began to melt and drop, and the instrument to be destroyed. It, however, registered 282° Fahr., and it is certain that had not this accident occurred the range of 400° would have been exceeded, and the thermometer burst.

During all these wild scenes we had seen nothing of the main actors—of the descendants of Na Galita. Doubtless to give more impressive effect they had been hiding in the forest depths until the signal should be given and their own supreme moment arrive. And now they came on, seven or eight in number, amidst the vociferous yells of those around. The margin reached, they steadily descended the oven-slope in single file, and walked, as I think, leisurely, but, as others of our party think, quickly, across and around the stones,

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leaving the oven at the point of entrance. The leader, who was longest in the oven, was a second or two under half a minute therein. Almost immediately heaps of the soft and succulent leaves of the hibiscus, which had been gathered for the purpose, were thrown into the oven, which was thus immediately filled with clouds of hissing steam. Upon the leaves and within the steam the natives, who had returned, sat or stood pressing them down in preparation for cooking the various viands which were to afford them a sumptuous feast that evening or on the morrow.

But for us the most interesting part of the drama was over, and it only remained to review observations and draw conclusions. Just before the great event of the day I gained permission to examine one or two of the fire-walkers prior to their descent into the oven. This was granted without the least hesitation by the principal native Magistrate of the Rewa district, N'Dabea by name, but generally known as Jonathan. This native is of great intelligence and influence, is a member of the Na Galita Clan, and has himself at various times walked through the fire. On this occasion he took no other part in the ceremony than that of watching or superintending it. The two men thus sent forward for examination disclosed no peculiar feature whatever. As to dress, they were slightly garlanded round the neck and the waist; the pulse was unaffected, and the skin, legs, and feet were free from any apparent application. I assured myself of this by touch, smell, and taste, not hesitating to apply my tongue as a corroborative. The foot-soles were comparatively soft and flexible—by no means leathery and insensible. Thus the two Suvan theories were disposed of. This careful examination was repeated immediately after egress from the oven, and with the same result. To use the language of Scripture, “No smell of fire had passed upon, them.” No incantations or other religious ceremonial were observed. Though these were formerly practised, they have gradually fallen into disuse since the introduction of Christianity. I did not succeed in procuring the old incantation formula; doubtless it was similar to that of the old Raiatean ceremony, which is given in the second volume of the Polynesian Society's Journal, p. 106.

Whilst walking through the fire Dr. Colquhoun thought the countenances of the fire-walkers betrayed some anxiety. I saw none of this; nor was it apparent to me at either examination. The stones, which were basaltic, must have been white-hot, but due to the brilliance of the day this was not visible.

Various natives, being interrogated for an explanation, replied, with a shrug, “They can do this wonderful thing; we cannot. You have seen it; we have seen it.” Whilst thus

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unable to suggest any explanation or theory, I am absolutely certain as to the truth of the facts and the bona fides of the actors. A feature is that, wherever this power is found, it is possessed by but a limited few. I was assured too that any person holding the hand of one of the fire-walkers could himself pass through the oven unharmed. This the natives positively assert.

My friend Mr. Walter Garew, for thirty years a Resident Commissioner and Stipendiary Magistrate in Fiji, has frequently conversed with Jonathan (referred to above), who, whilst withholding no explanation, can give none. He says, “I can do it, but I do not know how it is done”; and, further, that at the time he does not experience any heat or other sensation.

Does any psychical condition explain these facts, as suggested in Lang's “Modern Mythology”? I certainly did not observe any appearance of trance or other mental condition. In connection with this Mr. Carew thinks that intense faith is the explanation, and that if this were upset the descendants of Na Galita would be no longer charmed. But it is difficult to see how any mental state can prevent the action of physical law. Hypnotism and anæsthetics may produce insensibility to pain, but do not interfere with the cautery.

Many of the so-called fire miracles are remarkable indeed, but are readily explained, and by no means come within the present category. Such, for instance, as plunging the hand, which is protected by the interposed film of perspiration assuming the globular state of water, into boiling lead. Similarly, many conjuring feats. At the beginning of this century an Italian—Lionetti—performed remarkable experiments—rubbed a bar of red-hot iron over his arms, legs, and hair, and held it between his teeth; he also drank boilings oil. Dr. Sementini, of Naples, carefully examined these experiments, and experimented himself until he surpassed the fire-proof qualities of his suggestor. He found that frequent friction with sulphurous acid rendered him insensible to red-hot iron; a solution of alum did the same. A layer of powdered sugar covered with soap made his tongue insensible to heat. In these and similar instances however, an explanation, though probably not a very sufficient one, has been given, but in that forming the subject of this paper no solution has been offered. Lang's chapter on the “Fire-walk” should be consulted; his account of the Bulgarian Nistinares is as wonderful and inexplicable as anything here recited. The whole subject requires thorough scientific examination.