Visitors to Fiji are still being told that village people have the hereditary ability to walk on white-hot stones. This is quite untrue (see Hot Footing it in Fiji,Skeptic 26). A tourist promotion video for airline passengers features the ceremony. It is pretty obvious to the discerning viewer that the stones are not white-hot, but how many tourists give more than a cursory glance?
I had heard that another kind of fire-walking was practised in Fiji, but it was difficult to discover any hard facts about it. In 1994 it received some publicity, a very unusual event.
Nearly half the population of Fiji are described as ethnic Indians. However, this is a far from homogenous population. Although originally from that subcontinent, they do not all share a common religion, nor a common language.
Some of these people come from regions where fire plays an important part in religious life. These are sometimes described as “fire-worshippers”. This is misleading, but to them fire-walking is an important religious ritual.
Just before our last visit, some members of this religion had visited from the homeland. This caused a big celebration including a fire-walking ceremony, which a reporter described, and a photograph was included.
“Indian” fire-walking in Fiji is a private religious matter; it has not been commercialised into a tourist attraction.
As far as I can tell it is nearly identical with “Western style” firewalking as practised in New Zealand. Our tradition has reached us in a very roundabout way, but possibly India is the original source. I was not able to attend the ceremony, but, judging by the photograph and the reporter’s description, the ceremony was very similar to that practised by New Zealand skeptics, with extra prayers.
The Fiji indigenous style obviously has an independent origin. It probably was invented on the island of Beqa as the legend says. Originally it was also a religious act. Now the villagers are Christians (nominally at least). Their ceremony has lost its connotations and they wish to distance themselves from the Indian method. Walking on hot stones is less spectacular than walking on glowing embers, hence the insistence that the stones are “white hot”.
The Old Testament, still regarded as setting a code for human conduct by some Christians, anathematises fire-walking.
There are examples in Kings and Chronicles of children being “passed through the fire” (2 Kings 16.3 “he [King Ahaz] even passed his son through the fire”). This is described as a wicked practice of the surrounding nations. It is forbidden by Deut.18.10. “Let no one be found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through fire.”
Walking on hot stones avoids the biblical prohibition on fire-walking and thus is acceptable to these fundamentalist Christians. Walking on glowing embers is something done only by heathens.
The wave of interest in fire-walking that swept out from the US a few years ago started as New Age religion and evolved into commercial exploitation. But many religions are not averse to commercialism.
Indigenous Fijian fire-walking followed a similar path, but at least one religious version has resisted change.