Mystic Isles of the South Seas



Frederick O'Brien 




This is a simple record of my days and nights, my thoughts and dreams, in the mystic isles of the South Seas, written without authority of science or exactitude of knowledge. These are merely the vivid impressions of my life in Tahiti and Moorea, the merriest, most fascinating world of all the cosmos; of the songs I sang, the dances I danced, the men and women, white and tawny, with whom I was joyous or melancholy; the adventures at sea or on the reef, upon the sapphire lagoon, and on the silver beaches of the most beautiful of tropics.

In this volume are no discoveries unless in the heart of the human. I went to the islands below the equator with one thought—to play. All that I have set down here is the profit of that spirit.

The soul of man is afflicted by the machine he has fashioned through the ages to achieve his triumph over matter.

In this light chronicle I would offer the reader an anodyne for a few hours, of transport to the other side of our sphere, where are the loveliest scenes the eyes may find upon the round of the globe, the gentlest climate of all the latitudes, the most whimsical whites, and the dearest savages I have known.

"Mystic Isles of the South Seas" precedes in experience my former book, "White Shadows in the South Seas," and will be followed by "Atolls of the Sun,"  which will be the account of a visit to, and a dwelling on, the blazing coral wreaths of the Dangerous Archipelago, where the strange is commonplace, and the marvel is the probability of the hour.

These three volumes will cover the period I spent during three journeys with the remnants of the most amazing of uncivilized races, whose discovery startled the old world, and whom another generation will cease to know.

Chapter XXV

I meet a sorcerer…Power over fire…The mystery of the fiery furnace…The scene in the forest…Walking on hot stones…Origin of the rite.

WALKING to the neighboring district of Pueu with Raiere to see the beauties of the shore, we met a cart coming toward Tautira, and one of the two natives in it attracted my interest. He was very tall and broad and proud of carriage, old, but still unbroken in form or feature, and with a look of unconformity that marked him for a rebel. Against what? I wondered. Walt Whitman had that look, and so had Lincoln; and Thomas Paine, who more than any Englishman aided the American Revolution. Mysticism was in this man's eyes, which did not gaze at the things about him, but were blinds to a secret soul.

Raiere exchanged a few words with the driver of the cart, and as they continued on toward Tautira, he said to me in a very serious voice:

"He is a tahua, a sorcerer, who will enact the Umuti, the firewalking. He is from Raiatea and very noted. Ten years ago, Papa Ita of Raiatea was here, but there has been no Umuti since."

"What brings him here now?" I asked. "Who pays him?"

Raiere answered quickly:

"Aue! he does not ask for money, but he must live, and we all will give a little. It is good to see the Umuti again."

But, Raiere, my friend," I protested, "you are a Christian, and only a day ago ate the breadfruit at the communion service. Firewalking is etene; it is a heathen rite."

"Aita!" replied the youth. "No, it is in the Bible, and was taught by Te Atua, the great God. The three boys in Babulonia were saved from death by Atua teaching them the way of the Umuti."

"Where will the Umuti be?" I inquired. "I must see it."
"By the old tii up the Aataroa valley, on Saturday night."

That was five days off, and it could not come soon enough for me. I was eager for this strangest, most inexplicable survival of ancient magic, the apparent only failure of the natural law that fire will burn human flesh. I had seen it in Hawaii and in other countries, and had not reached any satisfying explanation of its seeming reversal of all other experience. I knew that fire walking as a part of the racial or national worship of a god of fire, had existed and persisted in many far separated parts of the world.

Babylon, Egypt, India, Malaysia, North America, Japan, and scattered Maoris from Hawaii to New Zealand all had religious ceremonies in which the gaining and showing of power over fire was a miracle seen and believed in by priests and laity. Modern saints and quasi-scientists had claims to similar achievements. Dr. Dozous said he saw Bernadette, the seeress of Lourdes, hold her hands in a flame for fifteen minutes without pain or mark, he timing the incident exactly by his watch. Daniel Dunglas Home, the famous Scottish spiritist, was certified by Sir William Crookes and Andrew Lang to handle walk on red hot coals in his hands, and could convey to others the same immunity. Lang tells of a friend of his, a clergyman, whose hand was badly blistered by a coal Home put in his palm, Home attributing the accident to the churchman's unbelieving state of mind. Crookes, the distinguished physicist,  took into his laboratory handkerchiefs in which Home had wrapped live coals, and found them "unburned, unscorched, and not prepared to resist fire."

The scene of the Umuti was an hour's walk up the glen of Aataroa, which began at our swimming-place.

On Thursday Choti, T'yonni, and I accompanied Raiere to the place of the tii, where the preparations for the sorcery were beginning. We went through a continuous forest of many kinds of trees, a vast, climbing coppice, in which all the riches of the Tahitian earth were mingled with growths from abroad. Oranges and lemons, which had sprung decades before from seeds strewn carelessly, had become giant trees of their kinds; and the lianas and parasites, guava, lantana, and a hundred species of ferns and orchids, with myriad mosses, covered every foot of soil, or stretched upon the trunks and limbs, so that exquisite tapestries garlanded the trees and hung like green and gold draperies between them. Mope-trees prevailed, immense, weirdly shaped, often appalling in their curious buttresses, their limbs writhing as if in torture, suggestive of the old fetishism that had endowed them with spirits which suffered and spoke. Utterly uninhabited or forsaken, there was a bare trail through this wood, which, led by Raiere, we followed, wading the Aataroa River twice, and I arriving with my mind deeply impressed by the esoteric suggestiveness of the scene.

On a level spot, under five ponderous mape-trees, eight or ten men of Tautira and of Pueu and Afaahiti were completing the oven. They had dug a firewalking pit twenty-five feet long, eighteen wide, and five deep, with straight sides. It had been done with exactitude at the direction of the tahua, who was staying alone in a hut near by. The earth from the pit formed a rampart about it, but was leveled to not more than a foot's height. At the bottom of the umu had been laid fagots of purau- and guava-wood, and on them huge trunks of the tropical chestnut, the mape. On the trunks were laid basaltic rocks, or lumps of lava, boulders, and the stones about, as big as a man's head. The firewalking pit was completed for the lighting.

To the north stood a giant phallus of stone, buried in the earth, but protruding six feet, and inclined toward the north. It was a foot in diameter, and was carved au naturel as the Maori lingam and yoni throughout Polynesia, and in India, where doubtless the cult originated. Before the break-down of their culture, this stone had been sprinkled with water, or anointed with coconut-oil, and covered with a black cloth, as in Hawaii. The Greeks called their similar god, Priapus, the Black Cloaked.

A trench had been made on the west side of the firewalking pit from which to ignite the fuel, a torch lit by fire struck from wood by friction. I did not see the lighting, which occurred Friday morning, thirty-six hours before the ceremony. The ordinance was set for eight o'clock. I swam in the river at five on Saturday, and lay down in my bird cage to be thoroughly rested for the night. It was not easy to fall asleep. There was a thicket of pandanus near my house, the many legs of the curious trees set in the sand of the upper beach, and these trees were favorite resort of the mina birds, which were as familiar with me as children of a family, and in many cases impudent beyond belief. They were the size of crows, and had bronzed wings, lined with white; but their most conspicuous color was a flaring yellow, which dyed their feet and their beaks and encircled their bold eyes like canary-colored rims of spectacles. Their usual voice was a hoarse croak that a raven might disavow, but they also emitted a disturbing rattle and a whistle, according to their moods. They were thieves, as I have said, but one was more audacious than the others. He would come into my open house at daybreak, and perch on my body, and awaken me pecking at imaginary ticks. He picked up a small compass by its chain and flew away with it.

This particular wretch had learned to speak a little, and would say, "Ia ora na oe!" sharply, but with a decided grackle accent. Despite the irritating cacophony of the mina, I must have slept more than an hour; for when I was suddenly awakened, the sun was almost lost behind the hills. The talking mina was dancing on my bare stomach and calling out his human vocabulary.

I sprang up, my tormentor uttering a raucous screech as I tossed him away. While I hastily cooked my supper, the colors of the hiding sun spread over the sky in entrancing variety. I could not see the west, but to the northeast were rifts of blood-red clouds edged with gold over a lake of pearly hue, and to the right of it a bank of smoke. Against this was a single cocoa on the edge of the promontory, a banner my eye always sought as the day ended. Rising a hundred feet or more, the curving staff upheld a dozen dark fronds, which nodded in the evening breeze.

There was the slightest chill in the air, unusual there, so that I put on shirt and trousers of thin silk and tennis shoes for my walk, and with a lantern set out for the tii. Along the road were my neighbors, the whole village streaming toward the goblin wood. Mahine and Maraa, two girls of my acquaintance, unmarried and the merriest in Tautira, joined me. They adorned me with a wreath of ferns and luminous, flower-shaped fungus from the trees, living plants, the taria lore, or rat's-ear, which shone like haloes above our faces. The girls wore pink gowns, which they pulled to their waists as we forded the streams. Mahine had a mouth-organ on which she played. We sang and danced, and the tossing torches stirred the shadows of the black wold, and brought out in shifting glimpses the ominous shapes of the monstrous trees. With all our gaiety, I had only to utter a loud "Aue!" and the natives rushed together for protection against the unseen; not of the physical, but of the dark abode of Po. In this lonely wilderness they thought that tupapaus, the ghosts of the departed, must have their assembly, and deep in their hearts was a deadly fear of these revenants.

When we approached the umu, I felt the heat fifty feet away. The fire walking pit was a mass of glowing stones, and half a dozen men whom I knew were spreading them as evenly as possible, turning them with long poles. Each, as it was moved, disclosed its lower surface crimson red and turning white. The flames leaped up from the wood between the stones.

About the oven, forty feet away, the people of the villages who had gathered, stood or squatted, and solemnly awaited the ritual. The tahua, Tufetufetu, was still in a tiny hut that had been erected for him, and at prayer. A deacon of the church went to him, and informed him that the firewalking pit was ready, and he came slowly toward us. He wore a white pareu of the ancient tapa, and a white tiputa, a poncho of the same beaten-bark fabrics. His head was crowned with ti-leaves, and in his hand he had a wand of the same. He was in the dim light a vision of the necromancer of medieval books.

He halted three steps from the fiery furnace, and chanted in Tahitian:

O spirits who put fire in the oven, slack the fire!
O worm of black earth,
O worm of bright earth, fresh water, sea water, heat of the oven, red of the oven, support the feet of the fire walkers, and fan away the fire!
O Cold Beings, let us pass over the middle of the oven!
O Great Woman, who puts the fire in the heavens, hold still the leaf that fans the fire!
Let thy children go on the oven for a little while!
Mother of the first footstep!
Mother of the second footstep!
Mother of the third footstep!
Mother of the fourth footstep!
Mother of the fifth footstep!
Mother of the sixth footstep!
Mother of the seventh footstep!
Mother of the eighth footstep!
Mother of the ninth footstep!
Mother of the tenth footstep!
0 Great Woman, who puts the fire in the heavens, all is hidden!

Then, his body erect, his eyes toward the stars, augustly, and without hesitation or choice of footprints, the tahu walked upon the firewalking pit. His body was naked except for the tapa, which extended from his shoulders to his knees. The heat radiated from the stones, and sitting on the ground I saw the quivering of the beams just above the fire walking pit.

Tufetufetu traversed the entire length of the umu with no single flinching of his muscles or flutter of his eyelids to betray pain or fear. He raised his wand when he reached the end, and, turning slowly, retraced his steps.

The spectators, who had held their breaths, heaved deep sighs, but no word was spoken as the tahua signed all to follow him in another journey over the white-hot rocks. All but a few, their number obscured in the darkness, ranged themselves in a line behind him, and with masses of ft'-leaves in their hands, and some with girdles hastily made, barefooted they marched over the path he took again. When the cortege had passed once, the priest said, "Fariu! Return!" and, their eyes fixed on vacancy, six times the throng were led by him forward and back over the firewalking pit. A woman who looked down and stumbled, left the ranks, and cried out that her leg was burned. She had an injury that was weeks in curing.

At a sign from Tufetufetu, the people left the proximity of the firewalking pit, and while he retired to his hut, several men threw split trunks of banana-trees on the stones.  A dense column of white smoke arose, and its acrid odor closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, my friends of our village were placing the prepared carcasses of pigs on the banana-trunks, with yams, ti-roots and taro. All these were covered with hibiscus and breadfruit leaves and the earth of the rampart, which was heaped on to retain the heat, and steam the meat and vegetables.

I examined the feet and legs of Raiere and the two girls I had come with, and even the delicate hairs of their calves had not been singed by their fiery promenade.

Meanwhile all disposed themselves at ease. The solemnity of the Umuti fell from them. Accordions, mouth-organs, and jews'-harps began to play, and fragments of chants and himenes to sound. Laughter and banter filled the forest as they squatted or lay down to wait for the feast. I did not stay. The Umuti had put me out of humor for fun and food. I lit my flambeau and plodded through the mope-wood in a brown study, in my ears the fading strains of the arearea, and in my brain a feeling of oneness with the eerie presences of the1 silent wilderness. I was with Meshack, Shadrach, and Abednego in their glorious trial in Nebuchadnezzar's barbaric court. I was among the tepees of the Red Indians of North America when they leaped unscathed through the roaring blaze of the sacred fire, and trod the burning stones and embers in their dances before the Great Spirit.

The Umuti was not all new to me. Long ago, when I lived in Hawaii, Papa Ita had come there from Tahiti. His umu was in the devastated area of Chinatown, a district of Honolulu destroyed by a conflagration purposely begun to erase two blocks of houses in which bubonic plague recurred, and which, unchecked, caused a loss of millions of dollars.

The pit was elliptical, nine feet deep, and about twenty-four feet long. Wood was piled in it, and rocks from the dismantled Kaumakapili church. The fire burned until the stones became red and then white, and they, too, were turned with long poles to make the heat even. I inspected the heating process several times. At the hour advertised in the American and native papers, in an enclosure built for the occasion, with seats about the fire walking pit, the mystery was enacted. The setting was superb, the flaming furnace of heathenism in the shadow of the lonely ruin of the Christian edifice.  Papa Ita appeared garbed in white tapa, with a wonderful head-dress of the sacred ti-leaves and a belt of the same. The spectators were of all nations, including many Hawaiians. The deposed queen, Liliuokalani, was a most interested witness.

Papa Ita looked neither to the right nor left, but striking the ground thrice with a wand of ti, he raised his voice in invocation and walked upon the stones.' He reached the other end, paused and returned. Several times he did this and when photographers rushed to make a picture, he posed calmly in the center of the firewalking pit and then, with all the air of a priest who has celebrated a rite of approved merit, he retired with dignity. As he departed from the inclosure, the natives crowded about him, fearfully, as viewed the Israelites the safety of Daniel emerging from the lions' den. Did I not see the former queen lift the hem of his tapa and bow over it? It was night, the lights sputtered, and I was awed by the success of the incantation. A minute after Papa Ita had gone, I threw a newspaper upon the path he had trod, and it withered into ashes. The heat seared my face. The doctors, five or six of them, Americans and English, resident in Honolulu, shrugged their shoulders. They had examined Papa Ita's feet before the ceremony and afterward. The flesh was not burned, but, well— What ? I confess I do not know. A thermometer held over the umu of Papa Ita at a height of six feet registered 282 degrees Fahrenheit.

There could be no negation of the extreme heat of the oven of Tufetufetu. I had tested it for myself. No precaution was taken by the walkers. I knew most of them intimately. There was no fraud, no ointment or oil or other application to the feet, and all had not the same thickness of sole. At Raratonga, near Tahiti, the British resident, Colonel Gudgeon, and three other Englishmen had followed the tahua as my neighbors had here. The official said that though his feet were tender, his own sensations were of light electric shocks at the moment and afterward. Dr. William Craig, who disobeyed the tahua and looked behind, was badly burned, and was an invalid for a long time, though Dr. George Craig and Mr. Goodwin met with no harm. The resident half an hour after his passage tossed a branch on the stones, and it caught fire. In Fiji, Lady Thurston with a long stick laid her handkerchief on the shoulder of one of the fire walkers, and when withdrawn in a few seconds it was scorched through. A cloth thrown on the stones was burned before the last man had gone by.

What was the secret of the miracle I had witnessed? How was it that in all the Orient, and formerly in America, this power over fire was known and practised, and that it was interwoven with the strongest and oldest emotions of the races? That from the Chaldea of millenniums ago to the Tautira of to-day, the ceremonial was virtually the same? Our own boys and girls who in the fall leaped over the bonfire of burning leaves were unpremeditatedly imitating in a playful manner and with risk what their forefathers had done religiously.

In Raiatea, the chief Tetuanui informed me, the membership of the Protestant church of Uturoa walked on the firewalking pit, and embarrassed the missionaries, who had taught them, as the Tautirans were taught, that the Umuti was a pagan sacrament.

In some islands it was called vilavilairevo, and in Fiji the oven was lovu. According to legend, the people of Sawau, Fiji, were drawn together to hear their history chanted by the orero, when he demanded presents from all. Each, in the brave way of Viti, tried to outdo the other in generosity, and Tui N'Kualita promised an eel that he had seen at Na Moliwai. Dredre, the orero, said he was satisfied, and began his tale. It was midnight when he finished. He looked for his present at an early hour next morning.

Tui N'Kualita had gone to Na Moliwai to hunt for the eel, and there, as he sank his arms in the eel's hole, he found it a piece of tapa that he knew to be the dress of a child. Tui N'Kualita shouted: "

Ah! Ah! this must be the cave of children. But that does not matter to me. Child, god, or new kind of man, I'll make you my gift."

He kept on angling with his hand in the hole, and caught hold of a man's hand. The man leaped back and broke his grasp, and cried:

"Tui N'Kualita, spare my life and I will be your war god. My name is Tui Namoliwai."
Tui N'Kualita answered him:
"I am of a valiant people, and I vanquish all my enemies. I have no need of you."
The man in the eel's hole called out to him again:
"Let me be your god of property."

No," said Tui N'Kualita; "the tapa I got from the god Kadavu is good enough."
"Well, then, let me be your god of navigation."
"I 'm a farmer. Breadfruit is enough for me."
"Let me be your god of love, and you will enjoy all the women of Bega."
"No, I've got enough women. I 'm not a big chief. I'll tell you: you be my gift to the orero."
"Very well; and let me have another word. When you have a lot of ti at Sawau, we will go to cook it, and will appear safe and sound."

Next morning Tui N'Kualita built a big oven. Tui Namoliwai appeared and signed to him to follow.
Maybe you are fooling me, and will kill me," said Tui N'Kualita.
"What? Am I going to give you death in exchange for my life? Come!"
Tui N'Kualita obeyed, and walked on the lovu. The stones were cool under his feet. He told Tui Namoliwai then that he was free to go, and the latter promised him that he and his descendants should always march upon the lovu with impunity.

When I returned to my bird cage at Tautira, I sat down and considered at length all these facts and fancies. I believed in an all inclusive nature; that the Will or Rule of God which made a star hundreds of millions of times larger than the planet I had my body on, that took care of billions of suns, worlds, planets, comets, and the beings upon them, was not concerned in tricks of spiritism or materializations at the whim of mediums or tahuas. But I had in my travels in many countries seen inscrutable facts, and to me this was one. Nobody knew what was the cause of the inaction of the fire in the lovu or umu. It was not a secret held by anybody, or a deception.

One might believe that the stones arrive at a condition of heat which the experienced sorcerers know to be harmless. One might conceive that the emotion of the walkers produces a perspiration sufficient to prevent injury during the brief time of exposure; or that the sweat and oily secretions of the skin aided by dust picked up during the journey on the oven was a shield; or that the walkers were hypnotized by the tahua, or exalted by their daring experiment, so that they did not feel the heat. Even this theory might not account for the failure to find the faintest burn or scorch upon those who fulfilled the injunction of the sorcerers.

The people of Tautira, from Ori-a-Ori to Matatini, had the fullest confidence that Tufetufetu had shown them a miracle, and that it was not evil; but to the American and European missionaries the Umuti was deviltry, the magic of Simon Magus and his successors. This was shown clearly in the statement of Deacon Taumihau of Raiatea, which I give in English:

This is the word of the oven of Tupua.
This is the way he did that thing. He cut three fathoms of wood. The oven was three fathoms long and three wide. Heap up the wood the first day, and carry by sea the stones for the oven.
Do not take the stones of the marae, for the marae receives the evil spirits, the spirit of the god of the night.
The first night of the ceremony, the sorcerers of Raiatea, Tupua and his kind, march around the oven. They seek the spirits of the men of the night, and they go about the oven, but they do not light the fire.
That same night one goes to find the sacred leaves of the ti. He takes the leaves that float in the wind; those called raoere ti, and which are used as medicine. He gathers the leaves and carries them to the oven.
The fire is lighted at four of the morning. When the fire is burning brightly, and the oven is very hot, the sorcerer gives his assistants charge of the fire, and instructs them as to their duties.
When the flames are down, Tupua approached the oven, and before walking upon it, he pronounced the following prayer.
"0 men about the oven! Piraeuri and Piraetea! Let us join the army of the gods in the furnace!"
Then, said Tupua:
"0 water, go in the fire! 0 sea water, go in the fire!" Waving the ti leaves on the border of the oven, Tupua said:
"0 Woman who puts the fire in the heaven and in the clouds, permit us to go on foot over fire walking pit!"

Then those who wish to, pass onto the oven, one after another. If but one falls all will be burned. The last must watch the sorcerer, to return when he makes the sign.

 That is the way this deed, the deed of the devil, is done by Tupua.
The woman called Vahine tahura'i is an evil spirit
Concerning Piraeuri and Piritea, Tupua would better not have spoken, as it was a useless prayer.
Do not introduce the sorcery in the land of the whites!
Do not carry there this custom of lighting the oven! It is the work of an evil spirit of the night; this act of Tupua.
For that reason I have said little of him in my story. I have spoken.

—Taumihau, The Man.

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