Firewalking From the Inside




Ordained and Initiate Firewalker

A report on four firewalking performances in Honolulu, and a critical study of them from the point of view of the initiate firewalker instead of that of the onlooker.

Logistics and Experiments

The tests took place in Honolulu, beginning in the month of January, 1949. Tu-nui Arii-peu, a high priest and high chief of the firewalk (Te Umu Ti cult) visited Honolulu from the island of Huahine in the Society Islands. He was accompanied by four young men and two young women. They staged four demonstrations in the amphitheater of the University of Hawaii in Manoa Valley, Honolulu, and one demonstration in Wailuku, Maui. More than, six hundred people attended each of the Honolulu demonstrations and, in all, some 567 people firewalked.

For the demonstrations, a rectangular pit six feet wide, fifteen feet long, and four and one-half feet deep in the center, was dug in such a way as to create a gentle slope on, all sides running towards the center. The pit was supplied with the following materials 

  1. Small pebbles were strewn on the bottom.
  2. Dried coconut leaves were piled on top to a height of over two feet.
  3. Four and one-half cords of green hau (native hibiscus) wood were then piled over this heap extending above the surface of the ground for three feet at the highest point.
  4. Two heavy truck loads of large basaltic stones obtained from a dried-up river bed (called imustones) were then piled over this heap, covering the hau wood. The stones weighed from 10 to 60 pounds each.

Long poles were placed at each corner and one on each side at the middle of the pit to provide sufficient draft, and to hold up the materials.

ti-leaf stalk was planted at each corner of the pit.

The fire was lighted at 10 a.m. as the ceremony was to start at 10 a.m. That gave five hours' time for the wood to burn and the stones to become very hot.

After all the wood had been burned, the stones were leveled and made firm with long poles to provide a good surface across which to fire walk. All stones were turned over so that the hottest side would be uppermost. Many split upon contact with the cooler air.

During the fourth Honolulu demonstration which took place February 19, 1949, the following tests were made: The temperature of the heated stones was measured accurately, as we had the co-operation of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association, in providing the use of a thermo-electric pyrometer equipped with two thermo-couples. Also the valued assistance of Mr. Henry Iwata of the Association staff.

Mr. Moses Ome of Honolulu kindly loaned his stop watch with which the time of each step of the controls could be secured, as well as the length of time it took to firewalk through the pit.

After the firewalking, four pieces of steak were broiled on the stones and their cooking timed. Pieces of newspaper were allowed to catch fire as well as small pieces of wood, and timed.

Mr. P. C. Hu, an expert photographer, took hundreds of pictures, some of which illustrate this report.

Cine-Pic Hawaii made a 16 mm. colored moving picture of the demonstration.

The temperature of the firewalking pit was taken shortly before the firewalking began, and was found to be 920 degrees Centigrade. The heat of the stones averaged 610 degrees Centigrade; however, the heat of the first stone on which every firewalker had to step was only 210 degrees Centigrade at the start of the firewalk. But it was more than twice as hot as boiling water, and the stones farther from the edge of the pit, and which made up the firewalk proper, averaged over six times the boiling temperature. It may be noted that cotton cloth scorches at about 120 degrees, and a comparison may be drawn between the familiar heat of an electric iron being used on clothing and the temperature of the stones in the pit. The ends of the thermo-couples were left on the first stone throughout the demonstration which took 17 minutes, and during which a total of 167 people firewalked. The stone lost 35 degrees of heat during that time, which shows fairly well that its porous nature did not prevent its sending out heat a supposedly non-conducting characteristic offered to explain away fire-immunity.

The chief firewalker was the first to step into the firewalking pit. He stood with both feet resting flatly upon the first stone for 1 1/2 seconds, slapping the stones ahead with his wand of ti-leaves, and at the same time invoking the deities of the fir ewalk. He then walked deliberately but slowly across the pit in 8 seconds and nine steps. He was closely followed by his assistant. Their feet were examined before they entered the pit and after they emerged from it. They were not blistered nor burned. The next two firewalkers took 5 1/2 seconds and eight steps, each foot coming in contact with the stones for 3/4second. They were young men 20-22 years old, both Caucasian. Neither had firewalked before. There was no sign of a blister or burn on the soles of their feet; as a matter of fact, their soles were cool to the touch.

At each crossing, those who were lined up waiting to fire walk closed in and followed the chief across. There was sufficient time between repetitions for about forty to cross. Some crossed more than once.

Tu-nui Arii-peu did not say that he would protect anyone. All were warned that they must walk at their own risk, but it was understood that it would be almost safe to cross. Immunity was provided for most, but failed for a few.

The chief and his assistant firewalked four times, after which their feet were again examined. Although the feet of neither were burned nor blistered, the soles of the chief firewalker appeared yellowish along the edge after his four trips. They were cool to the touch, and the Chief stated that they did not feel hot or even warm. He suffered no ill-effects. His assistant likewise escaped injury.

However, the next two firewalkers did not do so well, for by this time, both had tiny blisters along the insteps, and on each toe of both feet. They stated that they felt as if many tiny needles were being jabbed into their feet.

Among the amateur firewalkers, Mr. John F.G. Stokes, retired curator of the Bernice Pauahi Museum, reached about three-fourths of the walk, when he began to wobble and had to be helped out of the pit. The ball of his right foot was severely burned. The skin was peeled off in three long strips and the entire ball was left raw and exposed, but not bleeding. Mr. Stokes kept repeating to himself, "It didn't work with me, I wonder why?"1

1     A week later, Mr. and Mrs. Stokes called at my home. Although Mr. Stokes had his right foot bandaged with a white stocking over it, he was driving his car. And, he did not walk with crutches. He could not remember exactly what took place that day, and still wondered why it was that he was burned. He said that he believed that the prayers used by the chief firewalker would have a psychological effect on the minds of the people, and that the materials used in the pit could have the same effect, especially upon the minds of the natives (Hawaiians) . He stated that his feet felt the heat the moment he stepped into the pit. Mr. Stokes remembers interviewing Papa-Ita, a firewalker who visited Honolulu in 1901, and who would not allow any one to follow him.

Mrs. Stokes thought that her husband's age (he is seventy-three) could have had something to do with his being burned, as it tended to make him unsteady, and he was not accustomed to going barefooted even on the ground, to say nothing of over hot stones! As the tops of his toes were also burned, he must have slipped on the hot stones.

The element of a psychological hazard may have entered in, for Dr. Stokes had firewalked against the express wishes of his wife. He had decided to chance the walk, as it seemed comparatively safe and as he relied on his well-known love and sympathy for the Hawaiians. 

At the end of the ceremony, the test with steak broiling was made. The results:

  1. One side browned in 2 1/2 minutes.
  2. Two sides browned in 6 minutes.
  3. One side cooked in 3 minutes.
  4. Two sides cooked in 7 minutes.

One piece of newspaper burst into flames instantly when put in contact with a large stone that had just previously been walked upon.

Another piece of newspaper turned black in 2 minutes on a smaller stone, and caught fire in 3 1/2 minutes.

A small piece of wood turned black in 5 minutes. Another flamed in 7 minutes. 

Remember, these tests were made immediately after the firewalk

On interviewing the amateur firewalkers, I found the majority agreed that upon stepping down into the pit they felt no sensation of heat in the soles of their feet, but that on their faces and hands they felt the heat greatly. As reported in the Kuda Bux tests, soles felt cooler to the touch after the firewalk than before it a strange phenomenon allowed to pass as lacking significance by the London investigators, even though they based their denial of any magic on the fact that feet must become cumulatively, hotter with each additional step, and that four steps were, therefore, the limit-two for each foot. 

Another experience found to be fairly common was that of a prickling sensation in the soles of the feet during the walk. This sometimes amounted to a painful "needling" or increased to the sharp pain of a burn, if a burn resulted. The average sensation was close to that felt when the circulation is cut off and the foot "goes to sleep." This is a peculiar matter and remains unexplained. Tests with materials aside from the firewalk give no such sensations. The burning sensation alone is felt, and after some time of testing and near-burning, only soreness results.

After watching and testing three of the demonstrations, being fully convinced of the genuineness of the demonstration, I crossed the hot stones myself on the fourth firewalk. Here is my report as I wrote it down the day after the walk:

February 20, 1949

As I stepped down to the first stone in the walk, any misgivings I may have had, left me. My mind seemed to become strangely empty or blank. The very uneven surface before me suddenly seemed to become smooth almost like a pavement. I stepped slowly forward, planting my feet firmly on the stones, but found myself doing as most of the others had done, using my arms, to help keep my balance as I stepped from one rounded surface to the next.

I felt no sensation of heat on the bottoms of my feet as I entered the pit and began my crossing, but the heat on my face and hands was terrific.

I was nearing the end of the pit, with two steps to go, when a friend standing at the side called out, "Atta boy, Mr. Kenn!" My attention was momentarily distracted and I involuntarily glanced up at him. I did not falter in my deliberate pace, but at the instant he called out to me, there came a sharp stab of pain in the ball of my right foot and in the toes–this foot was just coming down. My pace automatically quickened and as the other foot made contact with a stone for the last step, a similar stab of pain was felt in it. I stepped out of the pit and found both of my feet continuing to pain me with a sharp tingling, but not with the familiar sensation of burns. I examined both feet and nothing was to be seen in the way of markings or blisters. Later, at home, I made another inspection and found what seemed to be hard lumps under each toe. The stinging sensations resembled the pricking of many needles, but the soles of my feet were not hot to the touch, or sore. This condition lasted for about five hours. In the morning my feet were back to normal in every way and the strange lumps had vanished completely.

The feeling of having the mind a blank was a common experience among the firewalkers I talked to. It is evident that a break in this peculiar mental state, or an interruption of the successful course of the walk, acted in some way to "break the spell," and that burns then occurred as if no protection had been offered. Rev. N. Vanora Wattson, a visitor from San Francisco, and a Huna Research Associate, had the misfortune to slip and fall when she stepped on a sharp fragment which the heat had caused to crack off the end of a rock which was being walked upon. She stated that she had felt no heat on her soles until the sharp point pierced her foot and she fell in her effort to leave the pit. As she fell she sensed a mental change, and burns were suffered on parts touching the stones before she could rise.

In an attempt to give her conclusions afterwards, she said, "It seems to me that the secret lies in not consciously keeping the mind centered on the protection of the leader, but in allowing a mental state of a rather definite sort, to withdraw the consciousness from the self, and that when something happens unexpectedly to bring this self-consciousness back into function, the fire-immunity momentarily or permanently fails."

The weight of the person doing the firewalk seems to count very little. In the London tests much was made of the fact that the successful English amateur who outdid Hussain in the firewalk, weighed many pounds more than Hussain or Kuda Bux who walked earlier. In the Honolulu tests the walk was repeatedly made without burns by individuals weighing up to two hundred fifty pounds. On the other hand, there is no apparent reason to conclude that a heavier pressure of foot on stone or coal is of some advantage. The "steadiness" of stride and the "confidence" given in London as the only necessities for successful firewalking had to do with the mental attitude rather than with the steady placing of feet, the weight or the usual mental condition of "confidence." One may be permitted to guess that the Englishman who bested Hussain at his own game made use of the special state of mind even though not familiar with it as such. One might even guess that he found favor in some way with the ancient gods whom Hussain had invoked with no great success, in so far as he was personally concerned that day.

The time limit of contact with a very hot surface was given by the London testers as about a half second and not more than three-quarters. The Chief, at the beginning of the walk stepped down on the first rock in the pit and remained with both feet flat on it for a timed period of one and a half seconds while he brushed the stone with his ti-leaf wand before making the crossing.

Out of the 567 people who firewalked in the four performances, about 50 suffered burns ranging from the slightest blisters to burns of a serious nature. At least three individuals required hospitalization, and a half dozen were treated by emergency stations and sent to their personal physicians.

The stones of the walk were hot enough to burn. They burned some who crossed at a running pace, but not the majority who crossed much more slowly. The conclusion that seems impossible to avoid is that some psychological element set in action some unidentified force which prevented the firewalkers from being burned except in certain circumstances.

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