Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter I
FIRE has always been and, seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of the elements. To the early tribes it must also have been the most mysterious; for, while earth and air and water were always in evidence, fire came and went in a manner which must have been quite unaccountable to them. Thus it naturally followed that the custom of deifying all things which the primitive mind was unable to grasp, led in direct line to the fire-worship of later days.
That fire could be produced through friction finally came into the knowledge of man, but the early methods entailed much labor. Consequently our ease-loving forebears cast about for a method to "keep the home fires burning" and hit upon the plan of appointing a person in each community who should at all times carry a burning brand. This arrangement had many faults, however, and after a while it was superseded by the expedient of a fire kept continually burning in a building erected for the purpose.
The Greeks worshiped at an altar of this kind which they called the Altar of Hestia and which the Romans called the Altar of Vesta. The sacred fire itself was known as Vesta, and its burning was considered a proof of the presence of the goddess. The Persians had such a building in each town and village; and the Egyptians, such a fire in every temple; while the Mexicans, Natches, Peruvians and Mayas kept their "national fires" burning upon great pyramids. Eventually the keeping of such fires became a sacred rite, and the "Eternal Lamps" kept burning in synagogues and in Byzantine and Catholic churches may be a survival of these customs.
There is a theory that all architecture, public and private, sacred and profane, began with the erection of sheds to protect the sacred fire. This naturally led men to build for their own protection as well, and thus the family hearth had its genesis.
Another theory holds that the keepers of the sacred fires were the first public servants, and that from this small beginning sprang the intricate public service of the present.
The worship of the fire itself had been a legacy from the earliest tribes; but it remained for the Rosicrucians and the fire philosophers of the Sixteenth Century under the lead of Paracelsus to establish a concrete religious belief on that basis, finding in the Scriptures what seemed to them ample proof that fire was the symbol of the actual presence of God, as in all cases where He is said to have visited this earth. He came either in a flame of fire, or surrounded with glory, which they conceived to mean the same thing.
For example: when God appeared on Mount Sinai (Exod. xix, 18) "The Lord descended upon it in fire." Moses, repeating this history, said: "The Lord spake unto you out of the midst of fire" (Deut. iv, 12). Again, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses out of the flaming bush, "the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed" (Exod. iii, 3). Fire from the Lord consumed the burnt offering of Aaron (Lev. ix, 24), the sacrifice of Gideon (Judg. vi, 21), the burnt offering of David (1 Chron. xxxi, 26), and that at the dedication of King Solomon's temple (Chron. vii, 1). And when Elijah made his sacrifice to prove that Baal was not God, "the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust and the water that was in the trench." (1 Kings, xviii, 38.)
Since sacrifice had from the earliest days been considered as food offered to the gods, it was quite logical to argue that when fire from Heaven fell upon the offering, God himself was present and consumed His own. Thus the Paracelsists and other fire believers sought, and as they believed found, high authority for continuing a part of the fire worship of the early tribes.
The Theosophists, according to Hargrave Jennings in "The Rosicrucians," called the fire taken from the eternal ocean of light, and in common with other Fire-Philosophers believed that all knowable things, both of the soul and the body, were evolved out of fire and finally resolvable into it; and that fire was the last and only-to-be-known God.
In passing I might call attention to the fact that the Devil is supposed to dwell in the same element.
Some of the secrets of heat resistance as practiced by the dime-museum and sideshow performers of our time, secrets grouped under the general title of "Fire-eating," must have been known in very early times. To quote from Chambers' "Book of Days": "In ancient history we find several examples of people who possessed the art of touching fire without being burned. The Priestesses of Diana, at Castabala, in Cappadocia, commanded public veneration by walking over red-hot iron. The Herpi, a people of Etruria, walked among glowing embers at an annual festival held on Mount Soracte, and thus proved their sacred character, receiving certain privileges, among others, exemption from military service, from the Roman Senate. One of the most astounding stories of antiquity is related in the 'Zenda-Vesta,' to the effect that Zoroaster, to confute his calumniators, allowed fluid lead to be poured over his body, without receiving any injury."
To me the "astounding" part of this story is not in the feat itself, for that is extremely easy to accomplish, but in the fact that the secret was known at such an early date, which the best authorities place at 500 to 1000 B.C.
It is said that the earliest recorded instance, in our era, of ordeal by fire was in the fourth century. Simplicius, Bishop of Autun, who had been married before his promotion, continued to live with his wife, and in order to demonstrate the Platonic purity of their intercourse placed burning coals upon their flesh without injury.
That the clergy of the Middle Ages, who caused accused persons to walk blindfold among red-hot plowshares, or hold heated irons in their hands, were in possession of the secret of the trick, is shown by the fact that after trial by ordeal had been abolished the secret of methods was published by Albert, Count of Bollstadt, usually called Albertus Magnus but sometimes Albertus Teutonicus, a man distinguished by the range of his inquiries and his efforts for the spread of knowledge.
These secrets will be fully explained in the section of this history devoted to the Arcana of the Fire-Eaters (Chapter Six).
I take the following from the New York Clipper-Annual of 1885:
The famous fire dance of the Navajo Indians, often described as though it involved some sort of genuine necromancy, is explained by a matter-of-fact spectator. It is true, he says, that the naked worshipers cavort round a big bonfire, with blazing faggots in their hands, and dash the flames over their own and their fellows' bodies, all in a most picturesque and maniacal fashion; but their skins are first so thickly coated with a clay paint that they cannot easily be burned.
An illustrated article entitled Rites of the Firewalking Fanatics of Japan, by W. C. Jameson Reid, in the Chicago Sunday Inter-Ocean of September 27th, 1903, reveals so splendid an example of the gullibility of the well-informed when the most ordinary trick is cleverly presented and surrounded with the atmosphere of the occult, that I am impelled to place before my readers a few illuminating excerpts from Mr. Reid's narrative. This man would, in all probability, scorn to spend a dime to witness the performance of a fire-eater in a circus sideshow; but after traveling half round the world he pays a dollar and spends an hour's time watching the fanatical incantations of the solemn little Japanese priests for the sake of seeing the "Hi-Wattarai"—which is merely the stunt of walking over hot coals—and he then writes it down as the "eighth wonder of the world," while if he had taken the trouble to give the matter even the most superficial investigation, he could have discovered that the secret of the trick had been made public centuries before.
Mr. Reid is authority for the statement that the Shintoist priests' fire-walking rites have "long been one of the puzzling mysteries of the scientific world," and adds "If you ever are in Tokio, and can find a few minutes to spare, by all means do not neglect witnessing at least one performance of 'Hi-Wattarai' (fire walking, and that is really what takes place), for, if you are of that incredulous nature which laughs with scorn at so-called Eastern mysticism, you will come away, as has many a visitor before you, with an impression sufficient to last through an ordinary lifetime." Further on he says "If you do not come away convinced that you have been witness of a spectacle which makes you disbelieve the evidence of your own eyes and your most matter-of-fact judgment, then you are a man of stone." All of which proves nothing more than that Mr. Reid was inclined to make positive statements about subjects in which he knew little or nothing.
He tells us further that formerly this rite was performed only in the spring and fall, when, beside the gratuities of the foreigners, the native worshipers brought "gifts of wine, large trays of fish, fruit, rice cakes, loaves, vegetables, and candies." Evidently the combination of box-office receipts with donation parties proved extremely tempting to the thrifty priests, for they now give what might be termed a "continuous performance."
Those who have read the foregoing pages will apply a liberal sprinkling of salt to the solemn assurance of Mr. Reid, advanced on the authority of Jinrikisha boys, that "for days beforehand the priests connected with the temple devote themselves to fasting and prayer to prepare for the ordeal. . . . The performance itself usually takes place in the late afternoon during twilight in the temple court, the preceding three hours being spent by the priests in final outbursts of prayer before the unveiled altar in the inner sanctuary of the little matted temple, and during these invocations no visitors are allowed to enter the sacred precincts."
Mr. Reid's description of the fire walking itself may not be out of place; it will show that the Japs had nothing new to offer aside from the ritualistic ceremonials with which they camouflaged the hocus-pocus of the performance, which is merely a survival of the ordeal by fire of earlier religions.
"Shortly before 5 o'clock the priests filed from before the altar into some interior apartments, where they were to change their beautiful robes for the coarser dress worn during the fire walking. In the meantime coolies had been set to work in the courtyard to ignite the great bed of charcoal, which had already been laid. The dimensions of this bed were about twelve feet by four, and, perhaps, a foot deep. On the top was a quantity of straw and kindling wood, which was lighted, and soon burst into a roaring blaze. The charcoal became more and more thoroughly ignited until the whole mass glowed in the uncertain gloom, like some gigantic and demoniacal eye of a modern Prometheus. As soon as the mass of charcoal was thoroughly ignited from top to bottom, a small gong in the temple gave notice that the wonderful spectacle of 'Hi-Wattarai' was about to begin.
"Soon two of the priests came out, said prayers of almost interminable length at a tiny shrine in the corner of the enclosure, and turned their attention to the fire. Taking long poles and fans from the coolies, they poked and encouraged the blaze till it could plainly be seen that the coal was ignited throughout. The whole bed was a glowing mass, and the heat which rose from it was so intense that we found it uncomfortable to sit fifteen feet away from it without screening our faces with fans. Then they began to pound it down more solidly along the middle; as far as possible inequalities in its surface were beaten down, and the coals which protruded were brushed aside."
There follows a long and detailed description of further ceremonies, the receiving of gifts, etc., which need not be repeated here. Now for the trick itself.
"One of the priests held a pile of white powder on a small wooden stand. This was said to be salt—which in Japan is credited with great cleansing properties—but as far as could be ascertained by superficial examination it was a mixture of alum and salt. He stood at one end of the fire-bed and poised the wooden tray over his head, and then sprinkled a handful of it on the ground before the glowing bed of coals. At the same time another priest who stood by him chanted a weird recitative of invocation and struck sparks from flint and steel which he held in his hands. This same process was repeated by both the priests at the other end, at the two sides, and at the corners.
"Ten minutes, more or less, was spent in various movements and incantations about the bed of coals. At the end of that time two small pieces of wet matting were brought out and placed at either end and a quantity of the white mixture was placed upon them. At a signal from the head priest, who acted as master of ceremonies during the curious succeeding function, the ascetics who were to perform the first exhibition of fire-walking gathered at one end of the bed of coals, which by this time was a fierce and glowing furnace.
"Having raised both his hands and prostrated himself to render thanks to the god who had taken out the 'soul' of the fire, the priest about to undergo the ordeal stood upon the wet matting, wiped his feet lightly in the white mixture, and while we held our breaths, and our eyes almost leaped from their sockets in awe-struck astonishment, he walked over the glowing mass as unconcernedly as if treading on a carpet in a drawing-room, his feet coming in contact with the white hot coals at every step. He did not hurry or take long steps, but sauntered along with almost incredible sang-froid, and before he reached the opposite side he turned around and sauntered as carelessly back to the mat from which he had started."
The story goes on to tell how the performance was repeated by the other priests, and then by many of the native audience; but none of the Europeans tried it, although invited to do so. Mr. Reid's closing statement is that "no solution of the mystery can be gleaned, even from high scientific authorities who have witnessed and closely studied the physical features of these remarkable Shinto fire-walking rites." Many who are confronted with something that they cannot explain take refuge in the claim that it puzzles the scientists too. As a matter of fact, at the time Mr. Reid wrote, such scientists as had given the subject serious study were pretty well posted on the methods involved.
An article under the title The Fiery Ordeal of Fiji, by Maurice Delcasse, appeared in the Wide World Magazine for May, 1898. From Mr. Delcasse's account it appears that the Fijian ordeal is practically the same as that of the Japanese, as described by Mr. Reid, except that there is very little ceremony surrounding it. The people of Fiji until a comparatively recent date were cannibals; but their islands are now British possessions, most of the natives are Christians, and most of their ancient customs have become obsolete, from which I deduce that the fire-walking rites described in this article must have been performed by natives who had retained their old religious beliefs.
The ordeal takes place on the Island of Benga, which is near Suva, the capital of Fiji, and which, Mr. Delcasse says, "was the supposed residence of some of the old gods of Fiji, and was, therefore, considered a sacred land." Instead of walking on the live coals, as the Japanese priests do, the Fijians walk on stones that have been brought to a white heat in a great fire of logs.
The familiar claim is made that the performance puzzles scientists, and that no satisfactory solution has yet been discovered. We are about to see that for two or three hundred years the same claims have been made by a long line of more or less clever public performers in Europe and America.