It’s 1960 and David Attenborough has just returned from a small, remote island of Fiji called Beqa (pronounced Ben-ga). There, he and his film crew witnessed Fijian men walk across hot rocks that have been burning in a fire pit for hours. At the time of filming, David Attenborough and his crew were in pursuit of capturing rituals that were at risk of going extinct due to British colonization, which had wiped out many other aspects of Fijian culture, as well as increasing globalization. The show, “The People of Paradise” made Beqa’s fire walkers famous overnight.
It’s 2018 and Fijians are still walking across fire on Beqa Island. This tradition shows no sign of slowing down.
When a group of my friends heard that a village on Beqa Island would be performing a fire walking ritual at Lawaki Beach House, they made plans to sail over and see it for themselves. Of course, I had to invite myself as well. Though, I’d heard about fire walking before, I’d always assumed that it was a kitschy tourist trap event akin to a Venice Beach street performance. I had no idea that it was still practiced as an important cultural activity still deeply tied to the local culture.
Legend states that Fijian fire walkers are descendants of a Beqa warrior who ventured out to spearfish in the sea. While in the water, he reached under a ledge in the reef and grabbed an eel. Inside the eel lived a spirit god. The spirit god begged for his freedom and promised to give the warrior wealth, power, and strength. The warrior had no use for money and was already strong and powerful. The warrior lifted his weapon to kill the spirit god living within the eel.
The spirit god then told the warrior that he’d give the warrior the ability to walk on fire without being burned. He promised that this ability would be passed down to the warrior’s descendants.
The warrior returned to the village and created a pit of stones and fire. As he walked across the pit of burning stones, the spirit god protected him.
Today, Fijians from Beqa still practice this tradition and have retained this ability to walk over fire without feeling pain.
When we arrived by sailboat to Beqa Island, a fire with large rocks piled into its center was already ablaze.
The fire walkers stood together and donned stoic expressions. A group of tourists crowded around the fire. Little by little, the fire walkers removed the burning wood from the fire until only the stones remained. The moved the stones around the pit using long sticks, creating a flat platform for them to walk across.
The fire walkers then laid a long branch across the pit. The spirit gods jumped from the branch and onto the rocks. Then, the branch was removed — leaving the spiritual gods to create a barrier between fire and flesh.
One by one, the fire walkers stepped onto the stones. Their toes extended out so that the callused pad of their foot was the only point of contact between them and the rocks.
In the midst of the ceremony, one man asked if any tourists wanted to try walking across the red-hot rocks. One man — from Florida, of course — walked to the edge of the fire pit. A fire walker told the American man to follow his lead. The American walked behind the Fijian man and stood atop one of the burning rocks for more than a few seconds. The Fijian man raised both fists and said, “Bula!”
The American did the same.
In a way, I felt disappointed seeing an outsider walk across the pit just as easily as the Fijians had done.
A few minutes later, a fourteen year old boy also attempted to walk across the rocks. His mom told him not to, but being a teenager, he went anyways. He tapped the tip of his toes onto the rocks and flinched. The rocks were too hot for his skin to handle. The Fijians concluded that it was too hot for his feet because the boy’s mother had instilled doubt into his mind beforehand, making the boy too weak to walk across the rocks.
After leaving the burning pit, the bottom of the American man’s feet started to blister. He couldn’t walk properly and even felt feverish. For the rest of the evening, he felt too ill to eat dinner or consume anything that wasn’t a concoction of beer and pain killers.
“It’s because he didn’t ask for the chief’s permission to walk across the rocks. The chief feels very bad for him.” One Fijian told us.
Apparently, if a Fijian firewalker does suffer from a burn, there is someone in the village who has the ability to heal the burn using their hands. When I expressed skepticism, those who’d been living on Beqa as expats for years confirmed that this healing power was true.
When you watch the Fijian men walk across the rocks, it’s hard to fathom just how hot they are until you see a foot covered in blisters or watch as a teenage boy retreats in pain. If you walk near the fire pit, you can feel the heat radiating off of the white-hot stones, making your skin feel as though its been sunburned. Meanwhile, the descendants of the first fire walker can cross hot stones placed in a fire pit and leave the pit unscathed. It doesn’t seem physically possible. But if you go to Beqa Island and watch the fire walkers for yourself, you’ll soon be a believer in spirit gods, too.