Te Umu-Ti, A Raiatean Ceremony of Firewalking

The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1893


Miss Teuira Henry, of Honolulu


[As no member of the Council has been privileged to witness the ceremony described herein, the Council cannot undertake to guarantee the truth of the story, but willingly publish it for the sake of the incantation.] 

The ti-plant (Dracana terminalis) is indigenous to a great many islands of the Pacific, and the leaves being long and broad, are widely used for wrapping purposes by the natives in their method of cooking food. 

The ti-leaf, in the Society Group, was supposed to possess great magical power, and was much used for wands, or as garlands, by warriors or priests, and was also said to have enabled fugitives–by waving the branches before them– to fly over precipices and ravines away from their pursuers in troublous times. The yellow leaves are very much used in decorations, and have a sweet smell. It is stated that the ti-plant has been held in high esteem also by the Hawaiians, and is still supposed to possess great virtue. 

The ti-root is frequently two feet long, and varies from six to ten inches in diameter. It has something of the texture of sugar-cane and its thick juice is very sweet and nourishing, but it requires to be well baked before eating. 

The ti-ovens(firewalking pit) are frequently thirty feet in diameter, and the large stones, heaped upon small logs of wood, take about twenty-four hours to get properly heated. Then they are flattened down, by means of long green poles, and the trunks of a few banana trees are stripped up and strewn over them to cause steam. The ti-roots are then thrown in whole, accompanied by short pieces of ape-root (Arum costatum) that are not quite so thick as the ti, but grow to the length of six feet and more. The oven is then covered over with large leaves and soil, and left so for about three days, when the ti and apeare taken out well cooked, and of a rich, light brown colour. The ape prevents the ti from getting too dry in the oven. 

There is a strange ceremony of firewalking connected with the Umu Ti (or ti-oven) that used to be practised by the heathen priests at Raiatea, but can now be performed by only two individuals (Tupua and Taero), both descendants of priests. This ceremony consisted in causing people to walk in procession through the hot oven when flattened down, before anything had been placed in it, and without any preparation whatever, bare-footed or shod, and on their emergence not even smelling of fire. The manner of doing this was told by Tupua, who heads the procession in the picture, to Monsieur Morne, Lieutenant de Vaisseau, who also took the photograph* of it, about two years ago, at Uturoa, Raiatea, which being on bad paper was copied off by Mr. Barnfield of Honolulu. All the white residents of the place, as well as the French officers, were present to see the ceremony, which is rarely performed now-a-days.

* The photograph of fire walking event referred to is evidently taken from a sketch by hand, and is not therefore a photograph from life. –EDITORS.

No one has yet been able to solve the mystery of this surprising feat, but it is to be hoped that scientists will endeavour to do so while those men who practise it still live. 




E tapea na te rima i te rau ti, a parau ai:"E te Nu'u-atua e ! a ara, a tia i nia te haere nei taua i te Umu-Ti ananahi." Mareva na, e atua ïa ; e mau na te avae i raro ; e taata ïa. A hiotia ra i te vairaa o te umu ra, e a ofati i te rau ti, – mai te nao e :"E te Nu'u-atua e ! E haere oe i teie " nei po, e ananahi tatou atoa ia."Aruru ra i te au ti ei tautoo tahutahu, moemoe i roto i te marae, mai te ota-ataa i roto i te rau fau, e ia vai i reira hoe ai rui, a naô ai te poroi atu :-"Ae! a ara, e te Nu'n-atua e! to " avae e haere i te Umu-Ti. Te pape e te miti, e haere atoa. Te to'e uri, ma te to'e tea, e haere i te umu. Te ura o te anahi e te ruirui o te auahi, e haere ana'e; na oe e haere, e haere oe i teie nei po e ananahi o oe ia e о vаu ; e haere tana i te Umu-Ti."   TRANSLATION. Hold the leaves of the tt-plant before picking them, and say"Oh hosts of gods! Awake. arise!. you and I are going to the ti-oven tomorrow."If they float in the air, they are gods, but if their feet touch the ground they are human beings. Then break theti leaves off and look towards the direction of the oven, and say :"O hosts of gods ! go to-night and to-morrow you and I shall go"Then wrap the ti-leaves up in hau (hibiscus) leaves and put them to sleep in the marae where they must remain until morning, and say in leaving :-Arise! awake! Oh hosts of gods! Let your feet take you to the ti-oven; fresh water, and salt water come also. Let the dark earth-worm, and the light earth-worm, go to the oven. Let the redness, and the shades of the fire all go. You will go, you will go tonight and tomorrow it will be you and I ; we shall go to the Umu Ti." (This is for the night.) 
la aahiata ra, a tii a rave mai i te rau ti, a amo e i te umu roa, a tatara i te ineineraa o te feia e haere i nia i taua umu ra; a faatia ai i mua a nao ai :—E na taata e tahutahu i te umu e ! a ta pohe nal E to'e uri! e to'e tea ! te pape, te miti, te aama o te umu, te ru'i- ru'i o te umu, a hii atu i te tapua'e avae o te feia e haere nei, a tahiri na i te ahu o te roi. A mau na, e te Vahine-nui-tahu-rai e ! i te tahiri, e haere na taua i te ropu o te umu !  When the ti-leaves are brought away, they must be tied up into a wand and carried straight to the oven, and opened when all are ready to pass through ; then hold the wand forward and say :—"Oh men (spirits) who heated the oven! let it die out! Oh dark earthworms! Oh light earth-worms ! fresh water, and salt water, heat of the oven, and redness of the oven, hold up the footsteps of the walkers, and fan the heat of the bed, Oh cold beings, let us lie in the midst of the oven, Oh Great-woman-who-set-fire-to-the-skies! hold the fan, and let us go into the oven for a little while!"(Then all are ready to walk in we say: 
" Te hii tapua'e tahi !
Te hii tapua'e rua !
Te hii tapua'e toru !
Te hii tapua'e ha !
Te hii tapna'e rima !
Te hii tapua'e ono !
Te hii tapua'e hitu !
Te hii tapua'e varu !
Te hii tapua'e iva !
Te hii tapna'e tini !
Te Vahine-nui-tahu-rai e !
poia!" Haere noa 'tura ia te taata, mai te ino ore na ropu, e na te hiti o taua imm-ti ra 
Holder of the first footstep !Holder of the second footstep !Holder of the third footstep !
Holder of the fourth footstep !
Holder of the fifth footstep !
Holder of the sixth footstep !
Holder of the seventh footstep !
Holder of the eighth footstep !
Holder of the ninth footstep !
Holder of the tenth footstep !
Oh Great-woman-who-set-fire-to-the- skies !
all is covered ! "Then everybody walks through without hurt, into the middle and around the oven, following the leader, with the wand beating from side to side. 

The Great-woman-who-set-fire-to-the-skies, was a high born woman in olden times, who made herself respected by the oppressive men, when they placed women under so many restrictions. She is said to have had the lightning at her command, and struck men with it when they encroached upon her rights. 

All the above is expressed in old Tahitian, and when spoken quickly is not easily understood by the modern listener. Many of the words, though found in the dictionary, are now obsolete, and the arrangement of others is changed. Oe and taua are never used now in place of the plural outou and tatou; but in old folk-lore it is the classical style of addressing the gods in the collective sense. Tahutahu, means sorcery, and also to kindle a fire.



"The natives of Raiatea have some performances so entirely out of the ordinary course of events, as to institute inquiry relative to a proper solution.

"On the 20th September, 1885, I witnessed the wonderful, and to me inexplicable, performance of passing through the ' Fiery Furnace.'

Firewalking Ground:

"The furnace that I saw was an fire walking pit of three or four feet in the ground, in a circular form (sloping upwards), and about thirty feet across. The excavation was filled with logs and wood, and then covered with large stones. A fire was built underneath, and kept burning for about a day. When I witnessed it, on the second day, the flames were pouring up through the interstices of the rocks, which were heated to a red and white heat. When everything was in readiness, and the furnace still pouring out its intense heat, the natives marched up, with bare feet, to the edge of the furnace, where they halted for a moment, and after a few passes of the wand made of the branches of the ti-plant by the leader, who repeated a few words in the native language, they stepped down on the rocks, and walked leisurely across to the other side, stepping from stone to stone. This was repeated five times, without any preparation whatever on their feet, and without injury or discomfort from the heated stones. There was not even the smell of fire on their garments."

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