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.

Tradition and Initiation

Having stated the conclusions reached at the end of these tests, the next step is to move on to the far more important business of trying to learn something of the possible nature of the psychological or other factors which upset the usual "law of physics" and give fire-immunity. The rite of firewalking did not form a part of the older Polynesian culture. It was introduced about a hundred years ago from Fiji, and spread to many of the South Sea Islands.

It appeared in Huahine, the Chief's island, around 1850, and at about the same time began to be reported from Taha's and Raiatea, the Cook Islands, Fiji and New Zealand. The ritual in various forms was already known in Japan, Malay lands, China, Tibet, India and elsewhere. Fire-immunity was also known in the Americas.

While the firewalk was often made across burning coals in other lands, it was made across heated stones in the South Seas. This was natural because it was the native practice to cook food in underground ovens, the cooking heat being supplied by rocks heated in advance in pits. Such rocks furnished a simple firewalking surface at any time a feast was to be prepared, and could have been used for the rite before being placed in the ground oven or imu to cook the food.

In Hawaii, in the neighborhood of the active volcanoes, firewalking was done on lava overflows when they had hardened sufficiently to bear a man's weight. The records of this type of firewalk are scattered and it can only be supposed that the date of 1850 may apply to Hawaii's introduction to the rite as it does in a general way to other parts of Polynesia.

One thing is clearly seen, and that is that the native priests or na kahuna of Polynesia must have been so well grounded in matters of psychological magic that they accepted with ease the variations found in firewalking.

From such writings as are available touching the rituals in question, it is to be seen that their purpose was accepted along with the theory and practice. In the lands of origin the rite had been used to provide or to give proof of, "purity" or "purification" in the religious sense. It was supposed to bring clairvoyance and clairaudience so that the fate of lost voyagers might be learned, lost articles recovered etc. It was a thanksgiving ceremony. It called down a blessing on crops and people and animals. It brought rain. It replenished the fish in waters nearby. In India one firewalked to fulfill a vow when prayers had been answered. It was supposed to cure sterility. In Japan it was used as a healing ritual for various forms of sickness. In Polynesia it was used more or less for the same purposes, but as an additional rite and not to replace older rites already in use. The Polynesian was and is most adaptable. He accepted western civilization in a generation. Everything is grist in his mill, and his flexible mind quickly grasps and puts to use new ideas. Once a set of ideas has been accepted, it is fitted neatly in with other ideas already a part of the scheme of things, and soon takes on the aspect of having been a part of the older systems for centuries back.

In this process of adopting the new beliefs and practices, slight changes are made. Words are changed, invocations made over into the more familiar tongue, and the names of the foreign gods replaced by the Polynesian counterparts.

While some parts of the transition are missing, the picture as a whole is fairly clear, providing one understands the culture of the Polynesians which forms the background for the picture. 

It seems to have been a simple matter for the firewalking rite to become a part of the old Polynesian beliefs. The people of each locality were united in one set of beliefs. They were of the same blood, had the same cultural background, and were conditioned to the same general pattern of behavior. When those whose duty it was to act as priests saw fit to accept firewalking, all accepted it as a matter of course.

The priests (called na kahuna in Hawaii, but with variations in the pronunciation of the word in the other Polynesian dialects) all belonged to the priestly families, as the chiefs did to ruling families. It was natural, therefore, that the priests who took up the new rite should count it as more or less a family possession, and should guard its secrets with the other secrets of their religious beliefs. In a short time the new rite was being handed down from parent to child in the same way as other rites.

Firewalking was handed down to the eldest son, or lacking a son, to one consecrated as a blood son(hoolaa) for that purpose.

In the case of Tu-nui Arii-peu, he is a descendant of the original firewalker in his part of Polynesia, a priest whose name was Mae-haa, who passed on the prayers and secrets to his son, Ma-oa, and who in turn consecrated his son, Papa-Ita, from whom it was passed on to Afaitaata, then to Arii-peu, the present firewalker. There is now only one other Tahitian firewalker, Arii-pao who resides in Raiatea. Arii-peu is the fifth generation in his family, and is able to fire walk, offer immunity to those whom he permits to follow him, and to pass on the secret to his successor, who then becomes the sixth generation.

From this it will be seen, that it was no easy matter for me to approach Tu-nui Arii-peu with my questions. He had come to Honolulu on a business errand, not a social one. He wished to perform his self-appointed task of raising money by giving firewalking performances in order to send home stranded young Tahitians, and then to return home himself. He had no slightest desire to make converts to the contrary. In fact, although he had retained the ancient lore of his people to a large extent, he had more or less accepted Protestantism, and in deference to a real or fancied command derived from that religion, he no longer performed the firewalk at night–only by day. (Although night performances were urged by those who pointed out the fact that more people could come out in the evening, and that the fire pit would then show red, he steadfastly held to his refusal.)

The advertising of the firewalking, and of the native Tahitian dancing on the program, was poor. The attendance was also poor. This gave me an opportunity to press my offers of assistance, without remuneration, in such matters. I wrote articles for the papers and, helped in various ways with the publicity. The chief quickly lost his suspicion of me as a pressing stranger, and accepted me as a friend. But to be a friend, even a very close friend, was one thing. To be told the secrets surrounding the firewalking rites was something else again. My every effort to learn of the ritual and the prayers was met with polite but firm silence. My help and my friendship were most appreciated. I was warmly assured of that, but to let me into the secrets of

the firewalking cult was out of the question. In the first place I was not a son, not even a blood relative. In the second place, if I, a stranger, were to be given the secrets, there was no telling what disasters might be visited on the islands to the south as a consequence.

For a time it appeared that I would have to make the usual tests for temperature of the stones, write the usual impotent report, and content myself by standing on the pier and waving when the Chief sailed for home.

As luck would have it, however, in searching through a very considerable amount of accumulated and uncatalogued material on matters dealing with early beliefs and customs in Polynesia, I was able to unearth a rare article in an old copy of the JOURNAL OF THE POLYNESIAN SOCIETY, and in this article find a translation of the prayers used in the firewalking ritual. An early missionary who had lived in Tahitian parts had managed to get the material. He had set it down in the native tongue. It had later been translated by a Miss Teuira Henry, and her translation had been checked by J. L. Young. (All credit to all of them.)

The Hawaiian and the Tahitian dialects of the Polynesian tongue are much alike, and in a few hours I was able to memorize parts of the prayers so that I could recite them fairly well. I had also found some information as to the origin and nature of the rites, which I will sketch briefly.

The ancient gods of Polynesia, Tu and Hina the universal god-parents of all the Polynesians–have long since replaced foreign gods of the firewalk, and are appealed to through four invocations which have been handed down from Mae-haa, who, according to tradition, received them directly from the deities themselves. (Traditional history takes the place of written history in such matters, and in this case no mention is made of borrowing invocations or rites from non-Polynesian sources.)

In other lands greenery of different kinds plays a part very often in rituals of firewalking, but in Polynesia, where the ti-plant had been used for centuries in religious observances, it was very natural that it should be selected for use in the new ritual. This plant grows profusely throughout the South Seas and for use in rituals there are selected stalks having two crowns, one to represent Tu, and one Hina.

Whatever foreign names may have been given to the ritual, it became known in short order as the "Ceremony of the Ti Root Oven" (Te Umu Ti). The roots of the ti-plant were baked in ground ovens on occasion, especially when other food was scarce, and because the cooking took much time, many heated rocks had to be made ready to place in the pits. It is not difficult to understand the transition from hot coals to hot stones in the rite.

The ti-plant, the leaves of which are called la'i in Hawaii, is known botanically as Taetsia fruticosa,and is a member of the lily family, as the structure of its flowers would indicate. Certain varieties had a fragrant scent, and the leaves turn yellow or "ripen" after a while. The flower is made up of closely-set white buds tinged with pale purple. Because of this scent, Hina is said to make known her presence by exuding a fragrant odor, by which she is called Hina-nui-i-te-aara (Great-Hina-in-the-fragrance). The firewalker uses the "doubleheaded" branch of the ti-plant like a wand, or brush, and ties strips of the individual leaves around his head and neck, as well as around his waist like a belt. The leaves were used to expel or ward off evil spirits. The la'i is an important item in the firewalk.

The wood used is that of the hau (pariti tiliacium), and is a member of the mallow (hibiscus) family. Like the ti, the hau was an important commodity in ancient Polynesian life. The word hau means "breath of life, spirit of life'," and therefore, is most important in religious practices.

Niau, or coconut leaves, are also important in the ancient life, of the Polynesians. They were used as a medium through which the spirits of deities might be transmitted to certain objects, thus consecrating them. The husk was made into twine for various uses, some of them significantly religious.

In one of the invocations given, Hina is called upon to "lie upon the hot stones." Traditionally, she radiates "cold heat," especially at night (as she represents the moon), and, originally, this was a night ceremony in Polynesia for this reason. (Not generally so in other lands.)

Stones for the rite come from, dried river beds and rounded ones are selected. They need to be smooth and of good weight. As they are similar

to those used in the ground ovens, they are called umu stones. (In Hawaii hot lava was used, and worked equally well. The rough and clinkery lava which would have had the greatest porosity was not walked upon-only the lava which was of a close texture like glass.)

I have been able to piece together an account of the training taken by the beginner to become an initiate priest of the Ti Oven Cult a master of the firewalking ritual.

The selection of a candidate for the firewalking priesthood is a momentous matter. As explained before, the eldest son is the most appropriate person for that honor, as it is a Polynesian custom that he should continue the family line. However, lacking an elder son or sons, it was not uncommon to go outside the family. Originally, however, only nephews were chosen, but as time went on, total strangers to the family were consecrated. The Polynesians had a university of two colleges in which selected youths had to study. At an early age, a man child of the gentry, or priestly family, was either dedicated to Tu or to Romo. If to Tu, then he became a student under the Tu papa kahuna (class of experts), and entered the Auwae Runa College (pertaining to things celestial); if to Rono, he was passed into the Auwae Raro College (pertaining to things terrestrial). The literal meanings of these terms were "Upper Jaw" and "Lower Jaw." The student was known as the hau-mana ("occult-power-inspired"), or as the mana-ai ("occult-power-food") of the expert under whom he was placed.

The training was extremely strenuous. The student had to undergo hardships and suffer privations. He had to learn the invocations, the proper methods of caring for, installing, or empowering the deities. He learned through a process of "mental absorption" observation, close contact with the spiritual forces, and strict adherence to rules and regulations. The Hawaiians have a saying, "He ale iki ko ke kahuna, aole hiki ke hookolo ia." This embodies the Polynesian theory that through constant invocations, using the same words and tone of voice, eventually the deities become accustomed(hoomau) to the calls, and will respond readily, willingly, and promptly. But, to neglect them by not calling upon them frequently, will cause them to "die" (desert the kahuna).

Furthermore, it was the belief of the na kahuna that as the invocations were handed down, the laterna kahuna became more and more powerful. This was because they have a longer line of direct ancestors, all of whom have acquired mana (power) in great amounts, which is, in turn, passed on down the line.

Having accumulated such pertinent bits of information, and armed with the prayers I had memorized, I began a new attack on the wall of secrecy. I eventually found the opportunity to recite a little of the material to the Chief, and, having made myself a counterpart of the fabled camel who was allowed to get his head inside the Arab's tent, I was soon all the way in. If one is in, he cannot be kept out. Chief Tu-nui Arii-peu let down the bars and made the inevitable welcome. Being permitted by circumstances to let down the bars, he opened his heart as well, and with his customary generosity offered me everything.

Gratefully, and in all humility, may I state that he has adopted me as his blood son, has given me an honored place in his family line, and has made me the proud possessor of his distinguished ancestors. He has also given me a new name to use as a member of his family. I am, using that name in the author's signature of this report. I am Arii-peu Tama-iti as well as Charles W. Kenn. At this writing I plan to accept his warm invitation and go to spend most of the coming winter season with him on Huahine where I can continue searching for information of value. I shall also, in all probability, complete my initiation into the cult of the fir ewalk to the point of being able to use for myself what has been taught to me. If I succeed, I shall be one of the three remaining firewalkers in Polynesia.

As a candidate for initiation as a firewalking priest of the Ti Oven Cult, I was allowed to see every step leading up to the final crossing of the hot stones. Of necessity I was permitted to forego the long and arduous training of other days, but was given the assurance that once. I learned every step in the rite and all of the invocations, I would undoubtedly be able to perform the ritual. I would then have been consecrated to the work and would have been properly ordained, or introduced to the gods so that they would, thereafter, respond to my invocations.

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