Collective hallucination provoked by a fakir or a hypnotist could have occurred sometimes. However, this explanation is absolutely insufficient in view of the thousands of witness reports and the hundreds of thousands of people who have been participants in these walks. Further, these experiments have been filmed and photographed while at the same time the temperature of the furnace was being measured by thermometres.
The English authorities proceeded to these sorts of measures during walks performed by Maori tribes in the Polynesian archipelagos. At one metre fifty above the paving of a red-hot oven, the temperature is 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The English doctors Hocken and Colquoun took these temperatures. Very briefly, it is true, for beyond a few seconds of exposure, the metal mounts of the thermometres melted.
It is onto an oven brought to this temperature that four Europeans, Colonel Gudgeon, Doctors W. and G. Craig and Mr Goodwin, will follow a few hundred Maoris, including young girls and children. Only one of these four people is very slightly burnt because, according to the high priest who was officiating at this ceremony, he looked backward during the walk, which is strictly forbidden.
This account also puts paid to a first naive argument which says that the indigenous people have feet which are more resistant to heat than European ones.
Several other completely irrefutable reports from European scholars, who endured the same ordeal, also confirm that the incumbustibility of the bodies is not limited to certain exotic populations.
Doctor Javal, from the Academie de medecine de Paris, has also walked on fire in Benares, and during a Shintoist ceremony in Japan, the Plenipotentiary Minister of the United States of America and his wife, along with two Marine officers, attempted the experiment without damage.
In 1909, the American Doctor Hyslop tried a “miracle” balm which he had found in a book destined to unveil the impostures of spiritists. This balm contains camphor in particular, but it is completely useless, for Doctor Hyslop, who tested it several times, was unable to avoid burns.
With water on the feet, it would be possible to resist the heat for a few fractions of a second. However, the witnesses mentioned indicate an exposure to sources of heat measuring several hundred degrees over a period of several tens of seconds…
The problem of pain could be explained by a psychological state: trance or hypnotism. Some forms of hysteria have a total anaesthetizing effect.
But these pathological states cannot account for the absence of burns which, in normal circumstances, would be severe, even irremediable in the situations described in the story.
As Doctor Hyslop indicates:
“Anaesthesia explains nothing except exemption from suffering. What we need to know is how the skin resists this ordeal.”
“In the case of paralysis or other organic anaesthesias, the skin is even more easily attacked by heat than in a normal state.”
The problem of the incumbustibility of the tissues still remains whatever explanation is put forward.
In “normal” or “usual” circumstances, the destructive action that all great heat produces on organic matter would always occur.
Therefore, in certain circumstances, there is a suspension, a mysterious cessation of this action, under the influence of factors which remain just as mysterious.
The best proof of this is that fire-walkers, in whatever latitude, cease to benefit from this immunity as soon as they leave the material limits of the place where the ceremony unfolds. Or, as soon as they contravene the very rigid ceremonial which rules these walks.
The role of the “priest” or “sorcerer” is absolutely capital. Whatever name that you give to him, there is always a master of ceremonies who determines when the walkers are immune and when they no longer are…
For the moment, there is no scientific explanation. The priests, sorcerers or Brahmans who are the initiators of these ceremonies say that their invocations and their conjurations considerably diminish the fire’s strength.
Francesco di Paola does not say anything very different when he assures that “God is always ready to perform prodigies for his friends”.
Some people also say that they have a personal, natural, hereditary immunity… that they “take upon themselves the fire’s burn”. In this case, we are removed from the transcendantal explanation, which lends to God or some divinity the power to suspend “the consuming virtue” of fire upon the priest’s or sorcerer’s request.
Whatever it is, it is absolutely certain that there is in the phenomenon a before, a during, and an after.
For example, the ovens which are used in Polynesia for cooking food are also used for walking on fire.
Before the ceremony and afterwards they serve exclusively for cooking meat, fish and roots and no-one would have the idea of placing himself on them unless he wanted to receive serious burns. The during begins when the sorcerer has struck the side of the oven three times with his stick. From this moment, the oven ceases to be an oven for all those to whom the sorcerer has delegated his mana, his mysterious power to transgress without damage, for a certain time and under certain conditions, the natural laws which are once more imposed on everyone, after.
The conditions are very variable. Ascetic conduct seems to play a role each time.
In the Reunion, the one who appears to be the Brahman of the fire-walkers is very discrete. We are in a French departement in 1977 and this man, who was married in church, who exercises an honorable profession, which puts him in contact all year round with people who know nothing about his “sorcery” talents, perhaps desires a certain discretion.
He explains to Louis Pauwels, not without slight reticence: that there is no sorcery involved… you have to pray a lot, fast a lot and avoid women.
And he concludes with these enigmatic words:
“If you do good, you are a true worker.”
It is rather difficult for scholars to study this, for the fire-walkers, who are nearly always animated by very strong mystical or religious sentiments, do not lend themselves willingly to chemical examinations, which appear sacrilegious to them. Further, all of the scientific measures and analyses (nature of the preparatory rites, materials which enter into the elaboration of the walk, temperatures, post-walk medical examinations) are not easy to do for the same reasons.
In 1973, a Professor at the University of Geneva, Annette Beaumanoir, registered by electro-encephalogramme the brain waves of a fire-walker. Her discovery is troubling. When the walkers engage on the burning embers, the brain is characterised by the appearance of alpha waves. As soon as the alpha rhythm ceases, the walkers become sensitive to fire again.
The appearance of these waves does not appear to be a certain guarantee of immunity, and we still know nothing about the deep phenomena of which these alpha waves are probably only the superficial expression.
So, it must be admitted that we are again in full mystery and that we shall doubtless remain there for a long time if we want to explain the phenomenon only in logical or rational terms.
Professor Robert Tocquet drew up an inventory of fakir demonstrations which are often only related to prestidigitation or sportive training. For example, in demonstrations of piercing or contact of the tongue with burning embers, the fakirs are masters in the manipulation of an artificial tongue, preferably that of a dog which, it seems, is the one which most resembles the human tongue…