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21st Century Witchcraft

Bumper sticker on a beat up Honda: Question Reality

Four men work on muddy ground in front of a pyramid-shaped home. They lay firewood in alternating directions over a five-meter stretch of ground. They fill gaps with newspaper and begin a second tier. When complete, it will be near a meter wide and a meter high. It will burn several hours until nothing remains but coals at temperatures over 500 degrees Celsius. Then they will rake them flat and walk barefoot on them.

            What bystanders are wondering: Why?

            "When you walk on coals, you come to understand you are more than just your body," says our host, Margus Aru. "You understand that you are connected to what's around you. That like the fire, your body is energy."

            Margus cautions people against making a decision to walk now. "Wait and see how you feel. People usually decide at the very last moment." Like Margus' four year-old child, Kristjan. "Last fall he took off his shoes and walked across the coals," says Margus. "Afterwards, I asked him if it was hot. The child answered: 'Was it supposed to be?'"


While many may associate coal walking with tropical climates or dark-skinned, painted warriors in National Geographic television specials, it is nothing remarkable in Estonia. That is not to say coal walking is the national pastime, but the mention of practices connected to shamanism will generally not draw a strange glance in a country where nõiad, literally "witches," appear occasionally in newspapers to comment on everything from politics to their fellow witches.

            Several years ago, Estonian witches jockeyed for position in the local press, some suggesting others might be charlatans, one even taking a potshot at Estonia's only raja yogi—Gunnar Aarma, now deceased—saying Aarma slept inside a faulty pyramid. Usually, though, Estonian witches keep a low profile and, at least publicly, do not argue.

            Many witches—there is no count as to how many Estonians claim to be witches—work as healers or psychologists and offer health remedies and advice only when approached. Some require a fee for their services, others accept money only if offered, and others, such as Aarma, categorically refuse compensation.

            Aarma, in addition to being Estonia's most famous "witch," was Estonia's most unusual. Aarma was born into a wealthy Estonian family in 1916. His university education carried him throughout Europe, from Tartu University to Oxford to the Sorbonne to Jena, where his PhD remained uncompleted when he found himself on the wrong side of the German-Polish border on the first of September, 1939. A year earlier, Aarma completed his raja yogi exam in Paris. Aarma worked as a journalist, knew Eva Braun, interviewed Hitler, and counseled Hemingway. He married in early 1941, and in June of the same year the entire family was arrested by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. In interviews, Aarma said Russians generally sent all family heads to death camps, and he survived only because he and his family were living under the same roof with his father on Tallinn's Müürivahe Street. Aarma and his family spent the next 17 years in Siberian labor camps. Eventually, Aarma and his family were allowed to return to Estonia, though he was considered a significant enough threat to the state that he was sent to Pärnu, not Tallinn. In Pärnu, Aarma taught piano. In the 1990s, after Estonian independence, Aarma finally reclaimed his father's house in Tallinn. He died in 2001, and was possibly Estonia's favorite "witch." He had led a quiet, modest life, open to interviews, authoring a few books, though often suggesting that those curious about the subject of shamanism read Carlos Castaneda.

            Estonia's most famous living witch may be a man known as Vormsi Enn, who lives in a compound on the island of Vormsi. Enn's appearance is intimidating. When I met him several years ago, he resembled my idea of a cult leader—he stood above me on a porch, barefoot and bald, dressed head-to-toe in black, and wore mirrored sunglasses. Missing teeth gave his smile a sinister appearance. But he was kind and welcoming to me and my group who camped in his compound. He asked us to obey a few simple rules: do not enter his house uninvited, do no harm to trees, and never to enter his labyrinth—there was a small one in his garden—when another was inside (you risked mixing your fates). Enn was generous and kind and enjoyed eating shish-kabob and drinking beer in the sunshine with the rest of us. I entered the labyrinth alone, sat in the center and stared at the North Star, and contemplated my fate. I wanted to ask many questions, but I was with a large group and knew so little about shamanism I was afraid of offending with naive questions.

            Since then, I regret never having met Gunnar Aarma. And I regret not posing questions to Vormsi Enn. But I have kept up a casual interest in Estonian witchcraft, having gone so far as to build a pyramid for my living room (it was poorly constructed and did not work) and to read anything available on the dozen or so witches—a term some would certainly eschew—who seem to occupy the vanguard of Estonian shamanism.

            This casual interest, combined with a curious scouting crew from the BBC, led me to meet the coal walker, Margus Aru.


Margus Aru is more than a coal walker—he is certainly not a performer of parlor tricks. He is also the organizer of a pyramid community—the real-estate term, "development," seems somehow inappropriate—near Keila, about 30 kilometers from Tallinn. Six pyramid homes have been built on an area zoned for an additional 15.

Of course the question: who would live in a pyramid and why? It would probably be fair to categorize the pyramids' occupants as forward thinkers, though Margus seems at a loss to label them. He points at the pyramid nearest his. "That man is an alchemist. Okay, he's a chemist, too, but he's really trying to turn lead into gold."

But why live in a pyramid? Spiritual growth and energy, Margus says. Though there are physical byproducts which skeptics may appreciate. There is plenty of information which claims that pyramids—properly built with an angle of inclination of 51 degrees, 51 minutes, 14 seconds, like the pyramids of Egypt—are ideal for growing fruit and vegetables. Many are convinced—including Gunnar Aarma who slept in one—that pyramids possess energy which may be useful to us. Some claim knives may be sharpened by placing them inside pyramids—I have read that Gillette introduced a pyramid-shaped razor-blade sharpener in the 1960s. Some say pyramids cure toothaches, headaches, infections, broken bones, and can regulate blood pressure. And most witches will tell you that the space above the tip of the pyramid is dangerous—harmful energy is released there.

Margus Aru believes in the benefit of pyramids. He believes it so much he lives in one. I ask if there are any noticeable differences since he moved in four years ago. "I get sick like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "But I get well just as fast."

To some, like Margus, coal walking is only a first step on a spiritual journey. "Next year," he laughs, "I'll walk off a cliff into thin air like the Indian holy men." I can't decide if he's serious. But for the present, Margus tells me, "One negative thought contains far more power when it's inside the pyramid. I've learned how much my mind can control."

            Coal walking, if it holds any practical application for laymen, might be the same: To conquer one's fears by learning how much power the mind truly has.


The fire has diminished, and Margus shifts the coals to allow larger logs to burn down. He's asked us not to take photographs. "A camera activates the ego," he says, which can be dangerous when coal walking. Once, a crew from Hollywood came to Estonia and filmed coal walking. "The walkers became arrogant," says Margus. "They were showing off. 'Look, we're coal walking.' Three people were burned so badly they were taken to the hospital."

            Part of the preparation process for coal walking is gathering around the fire in a group. Most quietly stare into the fire. Margus' son jumps on a trampoline nearby, screaming with joy. I ask Margus if he finds it unusual that adults require two hours to prepare, but his child will just wander over here and walk across the coals.

            "It's because he's there," Margus says. "When he's on the trampoline, he's only on the trampoline. He's not thinking about the past or planning for the future. And when he comes here, he'll only be here." Little Kristjan hasn't yet been taught to analyze the past and plan for the future, something adults are conditioned to do. He lives entirely in the present. Only when thought stops, Margus says, are you in touch with your divine nature.

Everything is quiet now. Margus rakes down the coals and takes up a drum. After a few minutes, another drum answers. Soon, five men walk up the path to his pyramid, two with drums and one with a Jew's harp. Margus puts down his drum, rakes the coals one more time. He removes his shoes and rolls up his pant legs. He breathes. He stretches. He steps on the coals and walks the five meters briskly. He turns around and comes back over the coals. He goes again, this time with smaller steps. He seems to dance a bit.

            Another man is on the coals. He's weighs close to 100 kilos. He takes large, natural steps.

            Next, Margus' wife is on the coals. At the far end, off the coals, she places her hands together in the eastern way.

            Margus is back again, this time carrying his two-year old child.

            Others follow. Over and back. And then again.

            The coals flicker like a city seen through the window of an airliner. We all stare into them. The coal walkers have finished.

            When the fire dies completely, quiet conversation returns. Margus hugs everyone, those who walked and those who did not. He thanks them for coming. In the quiet manner that is Estonian, guests disappear, silently returning home, returning to what we call reality.

By Scott Diel