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Volume 35, 1902
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Art. XIII.—An Account of the Fiji Fire-walking Ceremony, or Vilavilairevo, with a Probable Explanation of the Mystery.

[Read before the Otago Institute, 23rd September, 1902.]

Plates XVI.-XXI.

During the Coronation excursion to the Fiji Islands I had the rare opportunity of witnessing the ceremony of vilavilairevo, or fire-walking. To begin with, the term “fire-walking” is to my mind a misnomer, there not being any appearance in Fiji of walking upon fire. It would be more accurate to call it “heat-walking.”

In the Christchurch Weekly Press of the 16th July, 1902, there appeared from the pen of Mr. W. Burke, Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, an excellent account of the preparation of the oven and of the various stages of the heating of it, and with this account were some beautiful pictures of the fire-walkers from photographs taken on the spot by Mr. Burke (a). Some excellent photographs also appeared in the New Zealand Graphic(b) and in the Auckland Weekly News(c). Mr. Bourne, the artist who represented the last-named journal, very courteously sent me some fine copies, which I show herewith.

On the 30th June, 1902, we steamed down from Suva to Mbenga (Bega) in the Union Company's “Kia Ora,” and when at some distance from the island descried smoke rising from a cocoanut grove, where we were told the “walking” would take place. On landing we could easily hear the crackling of the fire, and “all hands” at once proceeded to a spot where the natives could be seen collecting. When we approached the place the fire was glowing fiercely, and I could not without discomfort get to within 10 ft. of it, and even then had to step back at once. We were told that it had been burning for forty-eight hours, and that we had still about two hours to wait before the stones would be hot enough. We spent the time gathering ferns and inspecting huts, and on returning to the oven, or lovo, as it is called, found that the natives were preparing to open it up. This they did in the manner so graphically described by Mr. Burke, and also by Dr. Hocken in his paper (Trans. N.Z. Inst.)(d). We were fortunate in being able to view the whole proceedings from as little a distance as 20 ft. This was owing to the small

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number of spectators, the day's outing having been arranged by the Union Steamship Company, through their courteous agent Mr. Duncan, for the “Waikare” passengers alone. The ship's company thus had the great advantage of standing round the fire at the above-mentioned distance, each person having, so to speak, a “front seat.”

Mr. Burke thus describes the scene: “Now we make our way to the place prepared for the ceremony. A space about a chain in width had been cleared in a cocoanut grove. In the centre of this was an enormous fire made in a circular pit about 20 ft. across and 2 ft. in depth, the earth from the centre being piled up round the edges. When the hole is dug poles are placed radiating from the centre to the edges. Dry palm-fronds are placed under and upon these, then fire-wood of various sizes is stacked above. Finally the large stones are heaped on the top till the whole pile is several feet in height. The fire is lighted about forty-eight hours before the ceremony is timed to take place, and is kept fed with fresh supplies of wood. Eventually the whole mass glows with a white heat, and it is not comfortable to stand within a few feet of it; also, it is dangerous, as large splinters of stone fly far and wide. As the hour for the exhibition approaches groups of natives collect, some laden with green saplings about 20 ft. in length, others with supplejack-like vines. The fire is now sinking, and occasionally a large stone drops through. There is little smoke, and the stones fairly glow. Now the workers close in. The smaller vines are fastened in loops at the ends of the long poles or saplings. A loop is dropped over the end of a log not yet burnt out, several men man the sapling, and, with loud cries, the log is hauled away. This is repeated over and over again till no logs are left. The ends of the green saplings continually burst into flame, showing the intense heat in the oven. At last there seems to be nothing left in the pit but stones, some of which are shivered to pieces by the great heat; but the men are not yet satisfied. A large hawser-like vine now comes into use. This is thrown across the pit to one side, and round the ends of the saplings, which are forced into the glowing stones. Now willing hands pull on the vine, and the sticks are forced through the stones, turning them over and over and levelling them. Again and again this is done till the stones present a fairly even surface; but critical men, still unsatisfied, probe amongst the stones with the saplings and turn the smoothest side uppermost” (a).

There was no mistake about the heat. The stones were at first white hot. The logs and smoking chips were with-drawn in the clever manner so ably described above, the stones were levelled, and, what was not generally noticed,

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owing to the distraction of attention by the “staging effects,” had undoubtedly cooled. They had changed from white to red, and then to grey, and finally to black. This stirring-up process, yelling, heaving, hauling, & c., took over an hour, possibly nearer two, and was continued till every little piece of smoking wood was removed. Before the levelling I had rushed forward to within 5 ft. of the fire, and again after the levelling I tried the heat and found it diminishing; however, at the centre of the oven it must still have been very great.

At last, everything being ready, we were requested to keep perfect silence, as the fire-walkers were coming. There was no chanting or singing, or anything to suggest that it was in any way a religious ceremony. One of the performers first appeared alone, and, coming into the circle, Dr. Smith, of Dunedin, and myself were given an opportunity of making a scientific examination of him before the actual “walk” took place. He was a fine big fellow, about 5 ft. 9 in. in height, and was quite willing to be examined and overhauled. His pulse was a little over 90, his hands were cool, and his feet cold, most perceptibly colder than the rest of the body. There was no preparation to be detected on the feet, and they were perfectly clean and odourless. I did not test them by the sense of taste as I had the assurance of Dr. Hocken that there was nothing to be noticed in that somewhat heroic method of examination. The soles of the feet were yellowish-white, and perfectly smooth and pliable, like soft kid. The man wore a sulu of dry Hibiscus bark and Ganna leaves, and small anklets of dry bracken, exactly the same as our Pteris aquilina. There were innumerable little black hairs on the legs, and these we closely examined. Having notified the director of ceremonies, Mr. Duncan, that we had finished our examination, he made a sign and the “walker” disappeared. Breathless with excitement, and in expectation of we knew not what, we awaited the arrival of the descendants of Tui Ngalita (Tui Qalita).

Now in dead silence on our part, but amid exclamations of astonishment from the onlooking natives, the mystic band of about a dozen men appeared from the depths of the cocoanut grove, and, passing through a little gap in our circle, walked deliberately across and twice around the heated stones. Looking back on it now it seems like a strange dream. Above and around us are the beautiful feathery fronds of the cocoanut and palm trees meeting overhead and almost shutting out the blue sky. Here a huge ivi-tree, with its lovely dark-green leaves and curiously buttressed stem, serves as a vantage from which half a score of black faces and frizzled heads peer down. From a tree on this side a great spider, with its 2 in. long tortoise-shell-coloured legs

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and pure white marble-like body, sways in an almost imperceptible breeze; on the other side a kinematograph, busily clicking out its films, lays by a store of pictures for reproduction in far-distant lands; there on the heated stones that band of fantastically dressed magicians move across the kaleidoscope and are gone.

Quicker than I can write it the men had completed their “walk” and had passed into the gloom of the forest once more. To me they appeared to walk around the pit—that is, near the periphery; but I was assured by others that they really crossed the centre. However, there were so many things to watch that one was bound to miss something. Each man, as he walked, kept his eyes fixed upon the stones. One of the fire-walkers, as he came off the stones, was detained by Mr. Duncan, in order that we should again try and find out what we could in the interests of science. To begin with, the statement made by Dr. Hocken (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxxi.) as to the “scorching of the handkerchief,” which, however, he had got second-hand, and did not himself confirm, must be taken “with a grain of salt.”

It is possible that the earlier “fire- walkers” had different methods of procedure, but it is difficult to understand the “handkerchief story” of Lady Thurstonh) in the face of the following: The man came off the heated stones; there is no doubt of that. That he was the man we first examined we could not swear; they were all exactly alike to us, and came on and off so quickly that it would be perfectly easy for one man to be substituted for another, dressed as they were in the same kind of necklaces, sulus, anklets, &c. Now, whatever power the native may have to prevent his feet from scorching, there is nothing that I know of which will abolish the inflammability of dry bracken or dry fine wisps of ribbon-wood bark; nor can one conceive of any reason why the short, black, crisp hairs on the legs should not show the least sign of scorching or burning if subjected to great heat, or to heat sufficient to scorch a handkerchief on the shoulder.

The man we examined after the “walk” had a pulse of 120; but this observation is not worth much, for the reason that we could not be sure that he was the man we had previously examined. I noticed the anxious, almost frightened, appearance on the countenances of some of the “walkers”— this fact was mentioned by Dr. Colquhoun, of Dunedin, on the occasion of Dr. Hocken's visit. If this was a second examination of the same man, the rise in pulse rate may be accounted for by the mental excitement and the intense surrounding heat. There was a distinct smell of cocoanut-oil on the bodies, but not on the hands, feet, or legs of the men. On feeling the soles of the feet of the man who came off they

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seemed cool, if not cold, and on running the hand up the leg it was like putting it upon a person in high fever. The difference in temperature between sole and calf of leg was most marked, and must have been several degrees, Unfortunately, my thermometers were lost on the voyage from Dunedin to Auckland, and I could not make any accurate observation.

Immediately after the “walk” was over great bundles of loose Dracœna leaves were thrown on to the hot stones, and the performers, coming back, sat upon them for a few seconds in what was practically a fine steam-bath. The performance being finished, I went at once to the edge of the stones. The heat was not now unbearable, even on the outer rim of the oven. Here I moved some of the stones with my foot, and stood for a few seconds on one or two, which I found did not brown my boots, but which I had felt were too hot to handle. I asked one of the natives—or, rather, made signs to him—to get me a piece, and to my astonishment he coolly walked to the edge of the heap and started to move some of the hot stones with his bare feet for me. He was one of several men who had come down in the steamer from Suva with us, and was not one of the dressed-up “walkers” at all. This rather shook my faith in the “one tribe” theory, and made me form an idea, not yet removed from my mind, that any of the natives, on this or any other of the islands, can perform the feat if they choose; but they prefer, from a “theatrical point of view,” that it remain the monopoly of the Nga Qalita Tribe.

I got a fine large piece of stone, about 10 in, by 5 in. by 2 in., raked out of the fire by this native. He had to drop it several times, as it was too hot to hold in the hand; but by means of sticks and cocoanut-leaf mid-rib he succeeded, and, wrapping it in a palm-leaf, I carried it to the sea-shore. Here it fizzled and steamed in the water for several minutes, and even then was too hot to carry in the naked hand. This specimen had been taken from near the centre of the oven, had been at the time of removal very hot, had been partially cooled by myself, and I was anxious to bring it back with me, but after carrying it all the way to the steamer “Waikare,” many miles distant, I lost it going up the gangway ladder. I found it was slipping out of its palm-leaf basket, and, trying to catch it, felt it still unpleasantly hot, and had to drop it, unfortunately overboard.

Now as to an explanation of this so-called “mystery”: It seems a pity in any way to detract from the interest of the Fiji excursions, or to do anything to lessen the popularity and enterprise of those responsible for these splendid exhibitions, but it is only right to dispel the idea that science can

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offer no explanation of these “feats of magic.” First, you will observe that the arrangement for the heating of the stones is peculiar. They are piled up on top of a heap of wood, and in this position subjected to an enormous heat poured into them from below and all around. If what is required be merely a surface of red-hot stones for walking upon, a much easier method would be to lay flat stones on the floor of the pit and then to light and maintain a huge fire on the top of them. That this is not what is wanted is most significant, and will be better understood later on. That the stones are still piled high on the burning logs and only “an occasional stone drops through” after forty-eight hours' burning, points to a possibility of some of the lower logs being absolutely green, otherwise it is hard to understand why the said logs have not been burnt up and the heap of stones collapsed long before forty-eight hours have passed.

As to the period of time occupied by the “walk,” a great many observers—nearly sixty out of our two hundred spectators—had cameras, kinematographs, or kodaks, & c., and these people are quite accustomed to minute measurements of time, such as seconds and fractions of seconds. From several of the most expert of these I received the assurance that the time occupied by the “walk” was from fourteen to sixteen seconds, some said even less. In that space of time the performers took from twenty-five to thirty steps, consequently the sole of the foot was at no time in contact with hot stone for more than half a second.

The idea that the “walk” is made possible from long-continued use of the bare native foot to ground contact may be put on one side, as it was reported by Colonel Gudgeon that he on his own “bare and sensitive feet” walked over the hot stones and felt no burning, but only a sort of electric pricking (i). To this may be added the observations of Dr. Smith, Dr. Hocken, and myself, that the feet were soft and pliable, and not at all leathery or horny, though very possibly less sensitive than those of Europeans. That it is in the stones that we should look for an explanation is suggested by the fact that my boots were not browned by contact with them, although I stood on several for above a second each.

Another point not previously observed was the coolness of the sole of the foot. This was very well marked both before and after the “walk,” and may have been due to the placing of the feet in cold water for a short time before the performance. It is possible that in the interior of the island very cold water may be obtainable. The islands all through the group are known to contain large caves, some of them with water at a comparatively low temperature (e). I mention this as it is difficult to account for the temperature of the feet,

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which was particularly noticed by Dr. Smith and myself independently of one another, and then remarked upon, and confirmed by several trials with the hands on feet and legs.

It is a well-known fact that one can, with cold feet, bear for a long time—up to a minute in some instances—heat from a fire which for five seconds at ordinary foot-temperature would be insupportable. Provided that the heat is not enough to scorch the skin, there is every reason why in such a ceremony as the vilavilairevo a cold foot should have a great advantage over a foot at ordinary body-temperature. Cold seems to me the most likely adjuvant to the slow-conducting and slow-radiating nature of the stone, which is the main factor in this “jugglery.” Of any local application like cocaine or alum there is no evidence whatever, and from Dr. Hocken's observations such seems impossible.

Next, as to the stones which are heated and walked upon when hot. They appear to be of a dense black basalt, many of them round in shape, and before heating have somewhat of the look of Moeraki boulders. During the heating process they explode, probably from water expansion, and small fragments fly about. “All rocks that have once been in a fluid or semi-pasty condition contain water within their component crystals. This is not water that has been subsequently introduced, but is contained in minute cells. In the solid crystals of lava, which were erupted recently or in early geological periods, the presence of water in minute cavities may be readily detected. It is a fact that all rocks contain ‘interstitial’ water, which is not combined with their mineral constituents, but merely retained in their pores”(m).

We were told that the natives would not allow us to “get a hold” of the real stone at all, but would “palm off” on us another sort altogether. This statement was incorrect. We were allowed to take any or as many of the stones as we liked, and there was no attempt on the part of the “walkers” or the “supernumeraries” to prevent our making the most minute investigation into all points likely to throw light on the subject. There did not seem to be any of the stones lying about; in fact, I made careful search for the same kind of stone on the shore and beach at Mbenga (Bega), and, finding none, concluded that they had been brought from inland, probably from near some extinct volcanic crater. This seems likely, as many observers consider the stone of the nature of basalt, some term it “volcanic,” some” hard conglomerate.” Not being able to give any opinion on this point myself, I submitted a small fragment I had to Dr. Marshall, of the Otago School of Mines, and received the following report:—

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University of Otago, School of Mines, 14th August, 1902.
Rock for Determination.

Dr. Marshall has examined this rock microscopically, and finds it is an augite andesite of the ordinary type, compact and splintery in fracture. It consists of an aggregate of plagioclase augite and a little hornblende set in a fine-grained groundmass of feldspar microlites. Augite andesite is a common rock in the Auckland Goldfields and in the central volcanic region of the North Island, while many kinds of andesite are found around Dunedin.

James Park

, Director.

It is acknowledged that the stones are of one particular kind, and that the Mbenga (Bega) performers carry them from island to island, and will not walk on any other kind. That is a fact, and points away from the idea held by most people that the mystery is in the “walkers” and not in the “walked upon.” I have no doubt that near some of the old craters of Viti Levu, or the other islands of the group, the same stone can be found in abundance.

What struck me at once on handling the stone, or rather trying to do so, was its extraordinary tenacity of heat, or, in other words, the extremely slow throwing-off of its heat by cooling or radiation. Even after frequent, and often continuous, dippings in cold sea-water, and water from a fresh stream that ran out at that spot, the stone seemed little or no cooler. That stones were carried for more than two hours after these dippings and still remained uncomfortably warm gives one a clue to the mystery.

This stone takes two days to get to its proper condition, for the natives keep the furnace going and refuse to walk unless that time has elapsed; and when the ceremony is over it takes a corresponding time to cool, for yams, taro, & c., wrapped in leaves take, they say, two days' cooking before being in a fit state for eating. Now, Darwin describes the Tahitian method of cooking as follows: “They made a small fire of sticks and placed a score of stones of about the size of cricket-balls on the burning wood. In about ten minutes the sticks were consumed and the stones hot. They had previously folded up in small parcels of leaves pieces of beef, fish, ripe and unripe bananas, and the tops of the wild arum. These green parcels were laid in a layer between two layers of the hot stones, and the whole then covered up with earth so that no smoke or steam could escape. In about a quarter of an hour the whole was most deliciously cooked “(I). The articles of food which we saw placed in the lovo after the “fire-walk” were almost precisely the same as those here mentioned, yet owing to the slow giving-off of heat from this particular stone the cooking was greatly prolonged.

That vegetables which can be cooked in an ordinary house-oven in three or four hours should remain in the lovo for forty-eight and not be burnt to cinders or steamed

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to pulp again points to but one conclusion. It seems to me evident that such a stone does not throw off or radiate its heat to anything like the extent that an ordinary stone does, and that, given a foot in contact with it for one second, the heat penetrating into that foot is not more than a fraction of what would come from a stone of different composition in the same space of time. I draw the conclusion that this volcanic stone does not burn matter coming momentarily in contact with it to the extent that many other heated bodies would. Further, it is a remarkable fact, which seems to have hitherto escaped notice, that fresh stones are used for each performance. Fresh boulders in heaps certainly appear in all pictures of preparation for “fire-walking,” and the description of the heating is in all cases almost identical. So far as I could gather that is so, the natives never using split or already burnt stones, but having fresh ones for each” walk.”

Now, it was noticed by Mr. Burke and others (j), including myself, that the assistants, or “supers,” as one may call them, were most particular in turning and re-turning the stones until in most cases the smooth side—that is to say, the flattened side—was uppermost. To me the significance of that arrangement was evident. The stones, originally rounded, were split by the action of the heat into segments, in many cases preserving on one side a convex surface, which I think received more of the heat, being part of the original outside of the stone; the flattened or fractured surface, on the other hand, being from the inside, received, owing to poor conduction, a less amount of heat. It would be possible for the “walkers” to avoid any stone which did not show a flattened or fractured surface, and that choice, I think, would lessen the amount of heat absorbed into the foot. This seems to me a point for future observers to look into.

Fresh round stones are used every time, and the “walking” does not take place till all or nearly all of them are split up. The fire is then removed, and much time and trouble is spent in getting the flattish surface of the stone upwards. It must be borne in mind that while the stones are lying in the oven the upper surface of each is practically the only part that is cooling, and that to a very slight extent, as the lower and greatly heated surfaces are then all in contact with one another. This it is that makes the “mean” heat of the stone seem so great on removal from the fire, and the comparative coolness of one surface is unsuspected. So long as the stone remains in the highly heated lovo radiation is infinitesimal, first from the peculiar character of the stone, of which you shall presently hear, but also from the fact that

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the general atmosphere in and around the pit is so high in temperature. The moment the stone is removed from the oven to a cooler surrounding atmosphere radiation begins to take place more rapidly—that is, the stone burns more easily a hand or foot in contact with it.

It is a well-known fact that all these volcanic rocks are bad conductors of heat, and numerous observers have commented upon this. Those who have visited volcanic regions tell us “that the hardened crust of a lava-stream is a bad conductor of heat, consequently when the surface of the mass has become cool enough to be walked upon the red-hot mass may be observed through the rents to lie only a few inches below. Many years, therefore, may elapse before the temperature of the whole mass has fallen to that of the surrounding soil. Eleven months after the eruption of Etna, Spallanzani could see that the lava was red hot at the bottom of the fissures, and a stick thrust into one of them instantly took fire. The Vesuvian lava of 1785 was found by Breislak, seven years afterwards, to be still hot and steaming internally, though lichens had already taken root on its surface. The ropy lava erupted by Vesuvius in 1858, and spread over the surrounding country, was observed in 1870 to be still so hot even near its termination that steam issued abundantly from its rents, many of which were too hot to allow the hand to be held in them. Hoffmann records that the lava that flowed from Etna in 1787 was still steaming in 1830. But still more remarkable is the case of Jorullo, in Mexico, which poured out its lava in 1759. Twenty-one years later a cigar could still be lighted at its fissures; after forty-four years it was still visibly steaming; and even in 1846—that is, after eighty-seven years of cooling—two vapour columns were still rising from it “(n). These stones, therefore, being of igneous origin, are almost certainly very slow in conductivity and also in radiation or cooling, but for actual proof of this one must go further.

In order to prove, if possible, my theory that this stone does not throw out as much heat, or, in other words, does not burn so severely, as an ordinary stone of different composition, I have had some experiments conducted at the Otago School of Mines by the Director, Professor Park. I asked him to compare in some way the heat-throwing-off property of this stone with that of others of very different composition, by subjecting them for the same space of time to the same amount of heat and then measuring the respective amounts of heat radiated. I suggested various rough experiments, such as heating the stones from below and having on the upper, surface evaporating glasses of water or highly inflammable liquids, & c., in order to prove which

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stone takes the greatest length of time to conduct from the under to the upper surface enough heat to cause evaporation or ignition, & c. Professor Park says,—

I have made a series of experiments to determine conductivity and rate of radiation, as requested by you, and the results are appended here with. To make comparative tests with skin or feathers would be difficult.

Augite Andesite for Determination of Conductivity and Rate of Radiation of Heat.

Conductivity.—To determine the relative thermal conductivity of the andesite a pencil of it was tested simultaneously with pencils of copper, slate, and rhyolite, each pencil being 8 cm. long and 0–5 cm. in diameter. Taking the thermal conductivity of copper as equal to 1,000, the relative conductivity of the others was found to be as follows: Slate, 7 63; andesite, 6·67; rhyolite, 2·35. From these figures it will be seen that the highly acidic rhyolite is practically a non-conductor of heat, while the conductivity of the others is very feeble.

Radiation of Heat —A series of experiments was made to determine the relative rate of radiation of marble, rhyolite, andesite, basalt, and cast iron. For this purpose a portion of each weighing 10 gm. (150 gr.), was heated in a muffle furnace to a temperature of about 850° G. (about 1,562° F.) and then plunged for one second of time into a glass beaker containing 100 c.c. of water. The portions of material were shaped so as to give approximately an equal surface of radiation in each. The number of degrees of temperature through which the water was raised was carefully noted. In most cases the experiments were repeated three times, and in all cases twice. The “means” of the different readings were taken, and, expressing the radiation of iron as 100, it was found that the relative rate of radiation of the others was as follows: Marble, 52; rhyolite, 50; andesite, 48; basalt, 45.

The experiments took many hours and the making of apparatus for the tests. They seem to bear out your contention re feeble radiation of the andesite—that is, the temperature might be very high, but, the rate of radiation being so low, the heat given off in one second of time would not be sufficient to burn the feet.

From what I have said, and from Professor Park's experiments, the results of which I have given, with his remarks thereon, it seems to me that the fractured or inside surface of this stone does not, owing to slow conductivity, receive nearly the amount of heat one would expect. Secondly, owing to the slow radiation of heat, also proved by these experiments, the foot is not burnt when coming into contact with the stone for a second or less It would be interesting to have some of the unsplit stones brought from Mbenga (Bega) to Otago and heated to a temperature that would cause splitting and then have the radiation from the two surfaces tested in some way. This testing is hardly possible of application on the site of the performance at Fiji. but would have to be carried out in a properly equipped laboratory, as at the Otago School of Mines.

My thanks are due to Dr. Marshall for his report on the character of the stone, and I am much indebted to Professor Park for the interest and trouble he took in the matter, and for his kindness in devising and performing the tests, which

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have brought out the points I emphasized, and of which I required scientific proof. It is another instance of the advantage of having in our midst an institution such as the Otago School of Mines, where one can have scientific investigations accurately carried out at a few hours' notice.

Since writing the above I have read an article in Nature on the Tahiti “Fire-walk,” by Professor S. P. Langley, of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. In his account the shape of the lovo is more oblong than circular, and makes it possible for a straight march from the one end to the other and back again. Professor Langley states that before the ceremony he had been told that he could, without fear of burning, “walk” in leather boots or shoes, and he was a witness of this performance, one of his companions, walking, and even standing still, on the hot stones for eight or ten seconds “before he felt the heat through his thin shoes.” Many others also walked over the stones in their boots without any sign of scorching (f).

In the Tahitian account the fire only took four hours to prepare, whereas we were assured that it always takes two days in Fiji. There was in our case none of the flame darting up during the “walking,” as described by Professor Langley, and there was practically no smoke. The flames and white-hot stones, the during poles, the yelling and shouting while the stones were being levelled, were all part of the “staging of the piece,” and were strung out to draw away the attention from the fact that time was passing and the stones slowly cooling.

Professor Langley went to great pains to form a scientific-estimate of the actual heat of the stone, and, though he had many difficulties in the way, made it clear that the mean heat of a large piece which he had seen walked upon, and which he had himself cooled, was at the “time of removal from the fire about 1,200° F., but that the walked - upon surface was almost certainly indefinitely lower.”

In Professor Park's letter to me enclosing the report he says, “The radiation tests show that marble parts with its heat more rapidly than either andesite or basalt, hence would burn when andesite would not.” This is very interesting, as Professor Langley reported that the head performer who took part on that occasion had failed when he tried on a neighbouring island with “stones of a marble-like quality.” He was also asked to put his foot between the hot stones into the flames below, or on to the lower red-hot stones, but he very cleverly declined in a most dignified manner with the words, “My fathers did not tell me to do it that way.” He also promised to hold a piece of the hot stone in his hand, but, as Professor Langley says, “he did not do so.”

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A portion of the stone was examined at Washington, and was described by Professor Langley as follows: “It was a volcanic stone, and on minute examination proved to be a vesicular basalt, the most distinctive feature of which was its extreme porosity and non-conductibility, for it was subsequently found that it could have been heated red hot at one end while remaining comparatively cool at the top. Its conductibility was so extremely small that one end of a fragment could be held in the hand while the other end was heated indefinitely in the flame of a blow-pipe.”

Mr. R. M. Laing, M.A., B Sc., in an article in the Christchurch Weekly Press of the 16th July, gives a brief account of the “fire-walk” as witnessed by various persons in different countries, and criticizes Professor Langley's report adversely. He describes the Professor's experiment to determine the heat of the stone, and then goes on to draw conclusions, which Professor Langley was most particular to refrain from doing. All that Professor Langley said was that the mean heat of the stone which he had seen walked upon was, “at the time of removal from the oven, about 1,200° F., but that the walked-upon surface was almost certainly in-definitely lower.” He stated that the stone was a very poor conductor of heat, and gave its specific heat and its specific gravity. He advanced no theory, but confined him-self to facts as seen in the laboratory. He made no endeavour to show how one surface might be colder than another in the lovo. Mr. Laing, however, proceeds thus: “Professor Langley's argument is this: It is quite true that the under-surface of the stone was at a very high temperature, but, being a piece of vesicular basalt, it was a very bad conductor of heat, and consequently its upper surface must have been indefinitely lower in temperature, and therefore low enough to enable the native sole to rest momentarily in contact with it and not be burnt. Now, there is a specious appearance of scientific exactitude about this ‘argument’ very apt to mislead the unwary…. It at once enables the reader to point out the defects of his ‘argument’ It depends entirely upon the assumption that the upper surface of the stone is comparatively cold, and that the contact with it is only instantaneous.” Mr. Laing then says, “It is quite true that in this case, as in so many others, appearances may be deceptive, and that the upper surface of the stones may not always be at a red heat, and may, indeed, in some cases be comparatively cool”(k). That is exactly what Professor Langley did his best to find out, and what in this paper I have endeavoured to prove, and Mr. Laing's use of that paragraph destroys, to my mind, the whole of his criticism. Professor Langley made use of no such terms as “upper

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surface” and “under-surface,” but used the words “walked-upon surface,” and mentioned no part of the stone as having been specially heated in the oven. He merely referred to the physical characters of the stone, and left any conclusions to be drawn by others.

Mr. Laing says that Professor Langley's argument “will not explain the case in which men walk on burning embers, and not on red-hot stones,” such as the performance in Mauritius, where Hindu coolies walk on red-hot coals. From a description of the “fire-walk” in Tahiti, where Professor Langley made a careful examination of the main factor, a heated stone, to argue that he did not show how in Mauritius, 8,000 miles away, men can walk upon red-hot embers, seems to me peculiar. Professor Langley reported on the Tahiti “walk” on heated stones, which he had himself witnessed; not on the Mauritius “walk” on red-hot coals, which he had never seen. Until one of the performances in Mauritius, Japan, or elsewhere, has been witnessed and reported upon in a strictly judicial manner by a scientist of authority, one cannot accept the statement that the men walk upon red-hot coals. The performance, as seen in Fiji, is so different from the conception previously formed from newspaper accounts, that it is more than likely that much exaggeration will be found in the descriptions of the “walking” in other parts of the world.

The thanks of the scientific world are certainly due to Professor Langley for calling attention to the peculiar character of the Tahiti stone, and for estimating the mean heat of a piece which he had seen walked upon; but he did not show in what way the poor conductivity might be utilised, nor did he allude to the more important fact of slow radiation.

In conclusion, I repeat that the main factors in this strange apparent immunity from burning at Mbenga (Bega) are as follows:—

  • 1

    The slow radiation of heat from these basaltic stones.

  • 2

    The stones are gradually heated until split by the expansion of the water therein, the fire is then put out, and the stones are carefully arranged fractured surface upwards.

  • 3

    Owing to poor conduction, the inside of the stone, or fractured surface, is not nearly so hot as the spectators imagine.

  • 4

    The general heat of the lovo is so great that radiation from each individual piece of stone is infinitesimal, and much less than it is when the stone is removed from the oven to a cooler surrounding atmosphere.

  • 5

    The foot is only momentarily in contact with the heated stone.

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  • 6

    The foot is naturally cold or artificially cooled.

These are, I think, the reasons for the facility with which the magicians perform their “fire-walk,” and I must say that it is a smart piece of jugglery or “savage magic,” and not by any means an inexplicable mystery.


a Christchurch Press, 16th July, 1902.

b New Zealand Graphic, 10th July, 1902.

c Auckland Weekly News, 17th July, 1902.

d Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxxi., p. 667.

e “Camping among Cannibals,” by Alfred St. Hill Johnston. Macmillans; 1886.

f Nature, 22nd August, 1901.

g New Zealand Graphic, 10th July, 1902, p. 106.

h “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. ii. and iii.

i “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. ii.

j Christchurch Press, 16th July, 1902, p. 6.

k Ibid., p. 55.

l “Naturalists’ Voyage round the World,” Darwin, p. 491.

m Encycl. Britt., vol. x., pp. 260 and 262.

n Ibid., p. 248.