Moslem religious mendicants. The term literally means
‘‘poor man’’ in Arabic. As with Hindu wandering holy men,
many legends have grown up around alleged psychic miracles
of fakirs. Most of these claimed miracles prove to be rumors or
conjuring tricks, but there is an important element that suggests
talents similar to those of Western psychics. Fakirs are distinguished
by their disciplined attempt to obtain mastery over
the physical body and control over psychic forces, as opposed
to becoming passive instruments for the transmission of psychic
In 1870 a troup of fakirs from Algeria gave performances in
London, but the public reacted negatively to their act, which included
inflicting wounds upon their own bodies. Similar demonstrations
were given at a Paris exhibition in 1900 by a troup
of Aissauas—Algerian Moslems. A detailed description of their
self-mutilations was published in the German newspaper Übersinnliche
Welt in the following year by a Dr. Nagel, who, with two
other doctors, witnessed and photographed the performance.
Later, the visit of Tarah Bey, Rahman Bey, and Hamid Bey
attracted great attention in Europe and in the United States.
Their chief demonstrations were of insensibility to pain, control
over the physiological functions of the body, and survival
of burial while alive but in a cataleptic state. They could inflict
on their bodies deep wounds with long pins or daggers, stop
the flow of blood at will, and cause the wounds to heal in a short
time. They could desynchronize their pulse, making it different
in each wrist and different again in the heart. They could voluntarily
throw their bodies into a cataleptic state in which they
could withstand being buried alive—remaining without a coffin,
under the soil, without being the worse for the ordeal.
There was little doubt that these feats were genuine. They
were witnessed by committees of journalists and physicians,
who chose the ground for burial. The cataleptic states were
real—the pulse ceased to beat, respiration appeared to be suspended,
the ears and nose were stopped with cotton—yet the
individuals emerged in the same condition. The body was comFairlamb,
Annie Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
pletely dry and in five minutes the normal physiological functions
were fully restored.
Hereward Carrington compared the cataleptic state of the
fakirs to artificial hibernation. This similarity was first noticed
by the hypnotist James Braid. The fakir concentrates upon the
heart, slows its circulation by an effort of will, presses upon certain
nerve centers on the head and neck, throws back his head,
retracts his tongue, and, having cut the air supply off, falls into
a cataleptic sleep. The time of return to consciousness is either
impressed on his subconscious mind (which, as known from
hypnotic experiments, has a remarkable appreciation of time)
or the fakir relies upon his assistants to wake him.
Harry Houdini, who attempted to rival the live burial feat
of Rahman Bey by normal means, succeeded in remaining in
a large metal coffin under water for an hour and a half. He was
in constant telephonic communication with his assistant and
explained that his achievement was because of slow breathing.
Records of several well-attested earlier cases of living burials
were published in a brief book, Observations on Trance Or,
Human Hibernation, by James Braid, in 1850. Braid traces the
idea of these demonstrations to the following passage in the
Dabistan, a learned Persian work on the religious sects in India
‘‘It is an established custom amongst the Yogis that, when
malady overpowers them, they bury themselves. They are wont,
also, with open eyes, to force their looks towards the middle of
their eyebrows, until so looking they perceive the figure of a
man; if this should appear without hands, feet or any member,
for each they have determined that the boundaries of their existence
would be within so many years, months or days. When
they see the figure without a head, they know that there certainly
remains very little of their life; on that account, having see
the prognostic they bury themselves.’’
Braid comments,
‘‘Now it appears to me no very improbable supposition to
allege, that accident had revealed to them the fact, that some
of those who were thus buried might be restored to life after exhumation—the
action of the air restoring respiration and circulation,
on an accidental disinterment of the body of someone
thus interred, and the fact once observed would encourage others
to try how much they could accomplish in this way, as the
newest and most striking achievement which they would perform
in token of the divine origin and efficacy of their religion
over that of all others.’’
As interesting as these feats are, many Indian religious leaders
have observed that there is nothing inherently spiritual
about them and indeed they may become an obstacle to the realization
of spiritual progress. In the treatise The Yoga Sutras of
Patanjali (ca. 300 B.C.E.), various occult powers, such as levitation,
invisibility, and mastery over the senses, are said to result
from the practice of yoga. However, the author also warns that
such powers should be ignored lest they prove an obstacle to
spiritual progress.
Among the phenomenal feats attributed to fakirs, who operate
in India as entertainers, is levitation, the so-called Indian
rope trick. Reports of this phenomena emerged in England in
the 1880s, and in 1919 the British Magic Circle, a professional
association of stage magicians, offered a £500 reward to anyone
who could perform the trick. No one accepted the offer. The
Indian rope trick does exist but is rarely performed, as it is a
difficult illusion to accomplish. The secret lies in doing it late
in the day under poor lighting, using wires obscured by the
poor illumination. The major skills required (e.g., climbing the
rope with a boy hidden under a robe) account for the infrequent
There are some reports of levitation by fakirs, however, that
are not so easily explained. For example, Harry Kellar, himself
a magician, witnessed a performance in which an entranced
fakir of Calcutta was placed upon the upturned blades of several
swords. The swords were then removed, leaving the body
floating in the air. The feat was performed outdoors, with people
viewing it from all sides and angles.
Braid, James. Observations on Trance Or, Human Hibernation.
N.p., 1850.
Jacolliot, Louis. Occult Science in India and Among the Ancients.
London William Rider, 1919.
Ormand, Ron, and Gill Ormond. Into the Strange Unknown.
Hollywood, Calif. Esoteric Foundation, 1959. Reprinted as Religious
Mysteries of the Orient. New York A. S. Barnes, 1976.
Rawcliffe, D. N. Illusions and Delusions of the Supernatural and
Occult. Rev. ed. New York Dover Publications, 1959.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,