Dr Brigham firewalks
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Recovering the Ancient Magic – Max Freedom Long
"When the flow started," related Dr. Brigham, "I was in South Kona, at Napoopoo. I waited a few days to see whether it promised to be a long one. When it continued steadily, I sent a message to my three kahuna friends, who had promised to let me do some fire-walking under their protection, asking them to meet me at Napoopoo so we could go to the flow and try fire-walking.
"It was a week before they arrived, as they had to come around from Kau by canoe. And even when they came, we couldn't start at once. To them it was our reunion that counted and not so simple a matter as a bit of fire-walking. Nothing would do but that we get a pig and have a luau (native feast).
"It was a great luau. Half of Kona invited itself. When it was over I had to wait another day until one of the kahunas sobered up enough to travel.
"It was night when we finally got off after having to wait an entire afternoon to get rid of those who had heard what was up and wished to go along. I'd have taken them all had it not been that I was not too sure I would walk the hot lava when the time came. I had seen these three kahunas run barefooted over little overflows of lava at Kilauea, and the memory of the heat wasn't any too encouraging.
"The going was hard that night as we climbed the gentle slope and worked our way across old lava flows towards the upper rain forests. The kahunas had on sandals, but the sharp cindery particles on some of the old flows got next their feet. We were always having to wait while one or another sat down and removed the adhesive cinders.
"When we got up among the trees and ferns it was dark as pitch. We fell over roots and into holes. We gave it up after a time and bedded down in an old lava tube for the rest of the night. In the morning we ate some of our poi and dried fish, then set out to find more water. This took us some time as there are no springs or streams in those parts and we had to watch for puddles of rain water gathered in hollow places in the rocks.
"Until noon we climbed upward under a smoky sky and with the smell of sulphur fumes growing stronger and stronger. Then came more poi and fish. At about three o'clock we arrived at the source of the flow.
"It was a grand sight. The side of the mountain had broken open just above the timber line and the lava was spouting out of several vents—shooting with a roar as high as two hundred feet, and falling to make a great bubbling pool.
"The pool drained off at the lower end into the flow. An hour before sunset we started following it down in search of a place where we could try our experiment.
"As usual, the flow had followed the ridges instead of the valleys and had built itself up enclosing walls of clinker. These walls were up to a thousand yards in width and the hot lava ran between them in a channel it had cut to bed rock.
"We climbed up these walls several times and crossed them to have a look at the flow. The clinkery surface was cool enough by then for us to walk on it, but here and there we could look down into cracks and see the red glow below. Now and again we had to dodge places where colorless flames were spouting up like gas jets in the red light filtering through the smoke.
"Coming down to the rain forest without finding a place where the flow blocked up and overflowed periodically, we bedded down again for the night. In the morning we went on, and in a few hours found what we wanted. The flow crossed a more level strip perhaps a half-mile wide. Here the enclosing walls ran in flat terraces, with sharp drops from one level to the next. Now and again a floating boulder or mass of clinker would plug the flow just where a drop commenced, and then the lava would back up and spread out into a large pool. Soon the plug would be forced out and the lava would drain away, leaving behind a fine flat surface to walk on when sufficiently hardened.
"Stopping beside the largest of three overflows, we watched it fill and empty. The heat was intense, of course, even up on the clinkery wall. Down below us the lava was red and flowing like water, the only difference being that water couldn't get that hot and that the lava never made a sound even when going twenty miles an hour down a sharp grade. That silence always interests me when I see a flow. Where water has to run over rocky bottoms and rough projections, lava burns off everything and makes itself a channel as smooth as the inside of a crock.
"As we wanted to get back down to the coast that day, the kahunas wasted no time. They had brought ti leaves with them and were all ready for action as soon as the lava would bear our weight. (The leaves of the ti plant are universally used by fire-walkers where available in Polynesia. They are a foot or two long and fairly narrow, with cutting edges like saw-grass. They grow in a tuft on the top of a stalk resembling in size and shape a broomstick.)
"When the rocks we threw on the lava surface showed that it had hardened enough to bear our weight, the kahunas arose and clambered down the side of the wall. It was far worse than a bake oven when we got to the bottom. The lava was blackening on the surface, but all across it ran heat discolorations that came and went as they do on cooling iron before a blacksmith plunges it into his tub for tempering. I heartily wished that I had not been so curious. The very thought of running over that flat inferno to the other side made me tremble—and remember that I had seen all three of the kahunas scamper over hot lava at Kilauea.
"The kahunas took off their sandals and tied ti leaves around their feet, about three leaves to the foot. I sat down and began tying my ti leaves on outside my big hob-nailed boots. I wasn't taking any chances. But that wouldn't do at all—I must take off my boots and my two pairs of socks. The goddess Pele hadn't agreed to keep boots from burning and it might be an insult to her if I wore them.
"I argued hotly—and I say 'hotly' because we were all but roasted. I knew that Pele wasn't the one who made fire-magic possible, and I did my best to find out what or who was. As usual they grinned and said that of course the 'white' kahuna knew the trick of getting mana (power of some kind known to kahunas) out of air and water to use in kahuna work, and that we were wasting time talking about the thing no kahuna ever put into words—the secret handed down only from father to son.
"The upshot of the matter was that I sat tight and refused to take off my boots. In the back of my mind I figured that if the Hawaiians could walk over hot lava with bare calloused feet, I could do it with my heavy leather soles to protect me. Remember that this happened at a time when I still had an idea that there was some physical explanation for the thing.
"The kahunas got to considering my boots a great joke. If I wanted to offer them as a sacrifice to the gods, it might be a good idea. They grinned at each other and left me to tie on my leaves while they began their chants.
"The chants were in an archaic Hawaiian which I could not follow. It was the usual 'god-talk' handed down word for word for countless generations. All I could make of it was that it consisted of simple little mentions of legendary history and was peppered with praise of some god or gods.
"I almost roasted alive before the kahunas had finished their chanting, although it could not have taken more than a few minutes. Suddenly the time was at hand. One of the kahunas beat at the shimmering surface of the lava with a bunch of ti leaves and then offered me the honor of crossing first. Instantly I remembered my manners; I was all for age before beauty.
"The matter was settled at once by deciding that the oldest kahuna should go first, I second and the others side by side. Without a moment of hesitation the oldest man trotted out on that terrifically hot surface. I was watching him with my mouth open and he was nearly across—a distance of about a hundred and fifty feet—when someone gave me a shove that resulted in my having a choice of falling on my face on the lava or catching a running stride.
"I still do not know what madness seized me, but I ran. The heat was unbelievable. I held my breath and my mind seemed to stop functioning. I was young then and could do my hundred-yard dash with the best. Did I run! I flew! I would have broken all records, but with my first few steps the soles of my boots began to burn. They curled and shrank, clamping down on my feet like a vise. The seams gave way and I found myself with one sole gone and the other flapping behind me from the leather strap at the heel.
"That flapping sole was almost the death of me. It tripped me repeatedly and slowed me down. Finally, after what seemed minutes, but could not have been more than a few seconds, I leaped off to safety.
"I looked down at my feet and found my socks burning at the edges of the curled leather uppers of my boots. I beat out the smouldering fire in the cotton fabric and looked up to find my three kahunas rocking with laughter as they pointed to the heel and sole of my left boot which lay smoking and burned to a crisp on the lava.
"I laughed too. I was never so relieved in my life as I was to find that I was safe and that there was not a blister on my feet—not even where I had beaten out the fire in the socks.
"There is little more that I can tell of this experience. I had a sensation of intense heat on my face and body, but almost no sensation in my feet. When I touched them with my hands they were hot on the bottoms, but they did not feel so except to my hands. None of the kahunas had a blister, although the ti leaves which they had tied on their feet had burned away long since.
"My return trip to the coast was a nightmare. Trying to make it in improvised sandals whittled from green wood has left me with an impression almost more vivid than my fire-walking."
"It's magic," he assured me. "It's a part of the bulk of magic done by the kahunas and by other primitive peoples. It took me years to come to that understanding, but it is my final decision after long study and observation."
"But," I asked, "didn't you try to explain it some other way?"
The doctor smiled at me. "Certainly I did. It has been no easy task for me to come to believe magic possible. And even after I was dead-sure it was magic I still had a deep-seated doubt concerning my own conclusions. Even after doing the fire-walking I came back to the theory that lava might form a porous and insulating surface as it cooled. Twice I tested that theory at Kilauea when there were little overflows. I waited in one case until a small overflow had cooled quite black, then touched it with the tips of my fingers. But although the lava was much cooler than that I ran across, I burned my fingers badly—and I'd only just dabbed at the hot surface."
"And the other time?" I asked.
He shook his head and smiled guiltily. "I should have known better after that first set of blisters, but the old ideas were hard to down. I knew I had walked over hot lava, but still I couldn't always believe it possible that I could have done so. The second time I got excited about my insulating surface theory, I took up some hot lava on a stick as one would take up taffy. And I had to burn a finger again before I was satisfied.