Volume 20 1911 > Volume 20, No. 1 > An umu-ti (fire-ceremony0 at Atiu Island, Cook group, by J. T. Large, p 1-3
AN UMU-TI (FIRE-CEREMONY) AT ATIU ISLAND, COOK GROUP.
IT may interest the New Zealand members of the Polynesian Society to know that the cult of the Umu-Ti, or fire-ceremony, of tropical Polynesia is exhibited every now and again in these eastern islands, the last performance of the kind in the Cook Group taking place a few months ago in Atiu, in the settlement of Te Enui. A huge umu (native oven), about twenty by ten feet and some four feet deep, was dug in the earth; this was filled with logs and smaller firewood, and on top large flat stones of the karā variety—a kind of black basalt—were heaped. When the fire kindled underneath had become a mass of glowing embers, these stones were heated sufficiently to cook an ox—an ordinary native oven on an enormous scale. The spot was enclosed with a tall corrugated iron fence, a charge being made to witness or take part in this fire-ceremony. The proceedings were conducted by a native named Pauro Moari, a taunga (priest or skilled man) from Ra'iatea of the Society Group, the ancient Havaiki of the Eastern Pacific, whence originated this cult, so it is said. He was assisted by two native acolytes. When the fire had burnt down, natives, with long forked poles, raked the embers and adjusted the stones at stepping distance in two rows the length of the pit. Pauro and his two assistants, clad in gay pareus (waist-cloths) and decorated with garlands and wreaths of flowers, then came forward to the edge of this fiery cavity bearing in their right hands branches of the ti (dracœna terminalis), a plant with long, narrow, flax-like leaves—the ceremony being named the Umu-Ti., i.e., Ti Oven. (Anciently, the large, sweet roots of the ti plant were cooked in huge ovens of this description, and in the preparation of these many a wretched victim was treacherously thrust in to perish miserably in the flames—one way of squaring accounts in the course of their endless vendettas.) The ceremony commenced on this occasion with the reading of the portion of the scriptures relating to Shadrach and his companions going through the fiery furnace unscathed; then followed a hymn; after which Pauro and his acolytes repeated thrice, each time striking the pit with their branches of ti, the - 2 following ancient incantation connected with the ceremony, laying great stress on the invocation at the end:—
E te Vaine nui 1 tauarai
E tia i te tua, pou ia!!
O the great woman (priestess or goddess) interposer,
Stand at our backs, quell it (the fire)!!
They then, barefooted as they were, crossed the pit, stepping deliberately from stone to stone, and re-crossed lengthwise without suffering any injury. After a short interval, Pauro and his lieutenants repeated the performance, being followed on this occasion by a band of barefooted men and women from amongst the spectators, including the writer—the only European present—the injunction impressed upon us was to keep carefully to the stones, and not to look back. We crossed and re-crossed unharmed. A third excursion was made through this burning oven of Tophet, with the same result, which ended the proceedings. How people escape having the soles of their feet scorched to a cinder while going through this fiery ordeal is a mystery that I cannot account for. There is no doubt about the heat of the stones in these ovens; they could not be otherwise than heated to a great degree, after being hours in a great fire such as the natives make for their umu ngaika (lime kilns). Whether the alleged fact that a finger immersed in molten lead, provided it is first dipped in water, offers any clue in explanation of this remarkable phenomenon, I leave for scientific minds to determine. Though the stones did not feel unduly hot to our unprotected feet, some of us felt the heat on our faces, arising from the glowing embers, so great as to make our eyes water. I am told that whole pigs, etc., have been baked in some of these Umu-Tis in order to show doubters the degree of heat engendered. Occasionally a person gets his (or her) feet burnt through stepping off the stones amongst the live embers. It was in this way, I believe, that Dr. Geo. Craig, at an Umu-Ti conducted some years ago at Rarotonga, had his feet badly scorched, as described by Colonel Gudgeon in an article published at the time. The Resident Commissioner jestingly ascribed the mishap to want of Maori mana on the Medico's part, as he himself passed through the ordeal unscathed. The Umu-Ti ceremony - 3 is conducted from time to time over a wide extent of the South Seas from Fiji to the Paumotus.
[References to the fire-walking ceremony will be found in this Journal, Vol. II., p. 105, by Miss Teuira Henry; Vol. VIII., p. 58, by Colonel Gudgeon; and p. 188 by the late Arthur Jackson of Fiji; in Maritius by Andrew Lang; In India and Japan, p. 190, same volume. The late Dr. Langley, secretary Smithsonian Institution, has satisfactorily explained the method and the reason why the heat does not affect the feet of the performers, but we cannot just now find the reference.—Editor.]
1 With the exception of Pele, priestess or goddess of Kilauēa, the stupendous volcano in Hawaii, the above is the only instance, I believe, of a female Polynesian divinity, all the ancient gods of the race having been of the male sex.
[Major Large is not quite right here. There are several female goddesses known to the Polynesians.—Editor.]