1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fire-walking

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FIRE-WALKING, a religious ceremony common to many races. The origin and meaning of the custom is very obscure, but it is shown to have been widespread in all ages. It still survives in Bulgaria, Trinidad, Fiji Islands, Tahiti, India, the Straits Settlements, Mauritius, and it is said Japan. The details of its ritual and its objects vary in different lands, but the essential feature of the rite, the passing of priests, fakirs, and devotees barefoot over heated stones or smouldering ashes is always the same. Fire-walking was usually associated with the spring festivals and was believed to ensure a bountiful harvest. Such was the Chinese vernal festival of fire. In the time of Kublai Khan the Taoist Buddhists held great festivals to the “High Emperor of the Sombre Heavens” and walked through a great fire barefoot, preceded by their priests bearing images of their gods in their arms. Though they were severely burned, these devotees held that they would pass unscathed if they had faith. J. G. Frazer (Golden Bough, vol. iii. p. 307) describes the ceremony in the Chinese province of Fo-kien. The chief performers are labourers who must fast for three days and observe chastity for a week. During this time they are taught in the temple how they are to perform their task. On the eve of the festival a huge brazier of charcoal, often twenty feet wide, is prepared in front of the temple of the great god. At sunrise the next morning the brazier is lighted. A Taoist priest throws a mixture of salt and rice into the flames. The two exorcists, barefooted and followed by two peasants, traverse the fire again and again till it is somewhat beaten down. The trained performers then pass through with the image of the god. Frazer suggests that, as the essential feature of the rite is the carrying of the deity through the flames, the whole thing is sympathetic magic designed to give to the coming spring sunshine (the supposed divine emanation), that degree of heat which the image experiences. Frazer quotes Indian fire-walks, notably that of the Dosadhs, a low Indian caste in Behar and Chota Nagpur. On the fifth, tenth, and full moon days of three months in the year, the priest walks over a narrow trench filled with smouldering wood ashes. The Bhuiyas, a Dravidian tribe of Mirzapur, worship their tribal hero Bir by a like performance, and they declare that the walker who is really “possessed” by the hero feels no pain. For fire-walking as observed in the Madras presidency see Indian Antiquary, vii. (1878) p. 126; iii. (1874) pp. 6-8; ii. (1873) p. 190 seq. In Fiji the ceremony is called vilavilarevo, and according to an eyewitness a number of natives walk unharmed across and among white-hot stones which form the pavement of a huge native oven. In Tahiti priests perform the rite. In April 1899 an Englishman saw a fire-walk in Tokio (see The Field, May 20th, 1899). The fire was six yards long by six wide. The rite was in honour of a mountain god. The fire-walkers in Bulgaria are called Nistinares and the faculty is regarded as hereditary. They dance in the fire on the 21st of May, the feast of SS. Helena and Constantine. Huge fires of faggots are made, and when these burn down the Nistinares (who turn blue in the face) dance on the red-hot embers and utter prophecies, afterwards placing their feet in the muddy ground where libations of water have been poured.

The interesting part of fire-walking is the alleged immunity of the performers from burns. On this point authorities and eyewitnesses differ greatly. In a case in Fiji a handkerchief was thrown on to the stones when the first man leapt into the oven, and what remained of it snatched up as the last left the stones. Every fold that touched the stone was charred! In some countries a thick ointment is rubbed on the feet, but this is not usual, and the bulk of the reports certainly leave an impression that there is something still to be explained in the escape of the performers from shocking injuries. S. P. Langley, who witnessed a fire-walk in Tahiti, declares, however, that the whole rite as there practised is a mere symbolic farce (Nature for August 22nd, 1901).

For a full discussion of the subject with many eyewitnesses’ reports in extenso, see A. Lang, Magic and Religion (1901). See also Dr Gustav Oppert, Original Inhabitants of India, p. 480; W. Crooke, Introd. to Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, p. 10 (1896); Folklore Journal for September 1895 and for 1903, vol. xiv. p. 87.