Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/Modern Miracles

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By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

IF, as it has often been stated, the age of miracles in the history of religions is past, it is certain that the age of marvels in the evolution of science is just beginning. The Orient, which from time immemorial has been the chief seat and source of theosophic systems and theurgic traditions, is still peculiarly prolific in all sorts of magical phenomena and other mysterious manifestations.

In illustration of this fact we may refer to the performances of the Arabian fakirs which excited so great astonishment at the Paris Exposition of 1889, and to the more recent but equally wonderful feats of the East Indian, Soliman, in the Panoptikum at Berlin. These fakirs are called 'Aïssavίdya from the name of the founder of the fraternity, Sid Mohammed Ben 'Aïssa, a saint of royal lineage born at Mekinez, in Morocco, about the end of the fifteenth century. 'Aïssa, or 'Yissa, is the Arabic for Jesus: 'Aïssavίdya is therefore etymologically synonymous with Jesuits, and both orders are really somewhat akin in scope and spirit, although to a superficial observer the Mohammedan society may seem to have little in common with that founded by Ignatius Loyola, except the name and the general principle of absolute obedience, which is thus forcibly inculcated in one of 'Aïssa's statutes: "Thou shalt be in the hands of thy sheik like a corpse in the hands of the embalmer; his commands are the commands of God himself." In this injunction the Jesuitical doctrine of the "sacrifice of the intellect" is pushed to its extreme consequences. It is also a curious coincidence that 'Aïssa should have established in northern Africa a religious order having for its general aim the revival and propagation of Islam, at the same time that Loyola established a religious order in Paris under the same name, having for its object the revival and propagation of Catholicism. Both orders are likewise exceedingly intolerant and fanatical, notwithstanding wide differences in their methods of procedure and the manner in which this zealotry manifests itself.

Besides the common purpose of propagandism as an association, each individual member of the order aspires by means of a severely ascetic life and long-continued physical and spiritual discipline to attain perfection through emancipation from the flesh with all its trammels and torments. In order to arrive at this state, called Tauhidi, and corresponding to the Jίuanmukti (release from the body before death) of the Hindu Yogi, the candidate passes through seven stages of penitential purification, each more rigorous than the preceding one, resulting not only in the complete subjection of the moral and mental faculties of the adept to the will of his superior, but also, as it would seem, in a change of the vital processes and a suspension of the ordinary conditions of bodily existence, which give him immunity from pain and enable him to inflict upon himself wounds that would be fatal to common mortals.

At Paris the performance took place every evening at nine o'clock in the upper story of the Moorish café, in the Rue du Caire, of the Oriental quarter. Four'Aïssavidya, with their sheik, squatted in Eastern fashion on a carpeted platform, in the center of which stood a brazier of burning coals. The exhibition began with a monotonous sing-song, the burden of which was the invocation of 'Aïssa and Allah, accompanied by a sort of tambourine or tom-tom edged with bells. The music was at first slow and rather low, but soon went faster and grew louder, until it rose to a fearful howl and furious din. At this juncture one of the fakirs sprang up and, throwing off his upper garment, began to dance with his hands on his hips, his head bent forward, and his eyes intently fixed on the sheik. This dance, called Ishdeb, became at every moment wilder and the swaying motion of the dancer's body more violent, until he fell down in a fit of exhaustion, foaming at the mouth and his eyes in a "fine frenzy rolling," In this state of ecstasy he is supposed to be possessed by the spirit of 'Aïssa and thereby rendered invulnerable to the sharpest weapons and proof against the deadliest poisons. We may add that Soliman at Berlin prepared himself for the ordeal of fire and sword, not by music and dancing, but by burning a powder and inhaling the smoke, which, however, did not produce any perceptibly stupefying or exhilarating effect upon him. He is a member of the order of Saadi, founded in 1335 by Saadeddin Jebari. Each order seems to have its own method of procedure in this respect, which forms a part of its secret science.

In a short time the fakir had sufiiciently recovered from his trance to stand up, and, when the sheik pointed to the brazier, he thrust his hand into it, seized some of the live coals, blew them till they emitted sparks, bit off pieces of them, as one would bite an apple, and eagerly ate them up. He then went to a large prickly cactus, which was standing on the platform, plucked a leaf armed with strong spines, bit off a piece, and swallowed it. With equal avidity he crunched and consumed thin sheets of glass. Fragments of the cactus and the glass were handed to the spectators, who examined them and convinced themselves that they were really the substances they were represented to be. An attendant brought in a shovel, the iron part of which was red-hot, so that a bit of paper thrown upon it flashed at once into flame. The fakir took the wooden handle of the shovel with his right hand, placed his left hand on the glowing iron plate, which he also licked with apparent relish, and then stood upon it with his bare feet until it became black. This last exploit filled the air with a faint odor of burned horn. A sword, so sharp that it cut a piece of paper in two when drawn across the edge, was handed to the fakir, who thrust it with all his force against his throat, his breast, and his sides. The sword was then held in a horizontal position about three feet from the ground with the edge upward, by the servant who took hold of the point, which was wrapped in several folds of cloth for the protection of his hand, and by another 'Aïssaui, who held it by the hilt. The fakir placed his hands on the shoulders of the two men and, leaping up barefoot on the edge of the sword, stood there for some seconds. He then stripped and, resting his naked abdomen on the edge of the sword, balanced himself in the air without touching the floor with his feet, the sheik meanwhile pressing down upon the fakir's back with the whole weight of his body. The fakir also thrust a dagger from the inside of his mouth through his cheek, so that the point projected more than an inch. Finally, he took a serpent out of a box, and, after irritating it into fierce anger, let it bite various parts of his person; at last he himself bit off the head of the venomous reptile and devoured nearly half of its body.

Having thus gorged his barbarous appetite, he resumed his dance in the same rapid measure, in which he had finished it, but the movement became gradually slower, and in due time, after kissing the yellow turban of the sheik, he sat down again, "clothed and in his right mind."

Another fakir danced himself into a trance and fed upon snakes and scorpions, apparently relishing this limited but piquant bill of fare. In conclusion, the sheik himself performed the most marvelous feat of all: with the point of a dagger he lifted his right eye out of its socket, so that one could see into the cavity, the cornea assuming a dull, glassy appearance so long as the eye rested on the point of the dagger, but no sooner was it replaced and gently rubbed than it became clear again and seemed to be as serviceable as ever. Several medical and scientific men examined the fakir thoroughly after the performance was over, and unanimously declared that none of these feats left the slightest trace of a wound on any part of his body, nor did they draw a single drop of blood. They furthermore affirmed that, so far as they could discover, no jugglery or sleight of hand was practiced.

That these things actually happened is as conclusively established as the occurrence of any event can be by human and even expert testimony. The literature of the subject is quite voluminous and rapidly increasing in extent, corresponding in this respect with the growth and development of anthropology and ethnopsychology. Missionaries, tourists, government ofiBcials, and the most eminent English, French, German, and Italian scientists, who have witnessed these exhibitions in India and other Oriental countries, all agree as to the genuineness of the phenomena, although no one has yet been able to give a satisfactory explanation of them. If we accept the argumentum ex consensu gentium as valid, the evidence is overwhelming and the proof complete.

Indeed, one need not go so far away in search of such manifestations. The so-called Choreutæ (dancers) of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Flagellants of a later period, and similar fanatical sects, are not to be considered in this connection, since their object was to inflict pain upon themselves, the physical suffering being regarded as a sacrament or efficient means of grace. There is, however, quite a remarkable resemblance between the marvelous feats of Arabian and Indian fakirs and those performed by Jansenist convulsionaries in the last century (17301762) at the grave of their ascetic saint, Francis of Paris, in the suburban church of St. Medardus, the genuineness of which is not denied by their bitter enemies, the Jesuits, and is even admitted by such scrutinizing skeptics as Hume and Diderot. These religious enthusiasts maltreated their bodies much in the same way as the fakirs and with like impunity, and regarded such actions as contributing to their spiritual growth and perfection. It was a sort of homœopathic treatment, the principle of similia similibus applied to the cure of souls, whose infirmities were indicated by bodily symptoms and required vigorous remedies. Thus, an oppression of the chest, which had a pathological significance in relation to the spirit, pointed to the therapeutic necessity of beating it with the greatest violence; if the convulsionary had a sense of burning heat, he exposed himself to the flames; an acute and boring pain in the mouth, neck, eye, or any other organ required a dagger to be thrust into the afflicted part, but, strangely enough, no force could make the sharpest instrument enter the flesh or inflict a wound. If we are to accept autoptic testimony, given by shrewd observers, who would have been glad to expose any imposture, these enthusiasts could eat the most injurious things, swallow poisons, and lie for hours in the fire, like salamanders, without singeing a hair or having any smell of burning on their persons.

Doubtless, as Charcot, Lombroso, Mendel, and other scientists suggest, hypnotism may furnish a partial solution of this physiological and psychological puzzle; but hypnotism, although recognized as a fact, still remains a mystery, and differs from a miracle only in being attributed to natural instead of supernatural causes. It is well known that, in obedience to hypnotic suggestion, persons will eat the most unpalatable and even disgusting substances as though they were the rarest delicacies; the hypnotic state is also attended by "analgesia" or freedom from pain, and serves as an effective anodyne in dental and surgical operations; but we can recall no well-authenticated case in which it has rendered the human body incombustible. The hypnotizer can prevent the subject of his experiment from feeling the surgeon's knife, or cause him to regard the cutting as an agreeable sensation, but we are not aware that he is able to make the flesh impenetrable to the scalpel, although it is possible for him, as Donato has shown, to thrust sharp instruments into the arm of a hypnotized person without drawing blood or leaving a visible wound. By hypnotic suggestion a man may believe himself to be a dog, a wolf, or any other animal, and act accordingly; and this imaginary metamorphosis may perhaps explain the supposed existence of werewolves. In like manner, pure water may produce an intoxicating effect, while, on the contrary, alcohol ceases to inebriate; and a simple piece of paper placed on the skin may raise a blister, although the strongest irritant fails to do so. Here we have to deal with enigmas of the physical and psychical organization, hitherto unsuspected, the study of which opens up a wide and fruitful field for research.