The Native American Medicine Wheel: a sacred symbol of healing
From Stonehenge to the Indian mandala to the Christian covenant, the circle is a universal symbol found in a variety of cultures and historical periods. In the northern plains, this symbol is expressed in the form of stone structures known as medicine wheels.
The medicine wheel, or mandala, sometimes known as a sacred hoop, has been used by generations of various Native American tribes for health and healing. It embodies the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth and the Spiritual Tree, all of which symbolize the dimensions of health and the cycles of life.
The medicine wheel can take many different forms. It can be a work of art such as an artifact or painting, or a physical construction on the ground. Hundreds, if not thousands, of medicine wheels have been built on Aboriginal lands in North America over the past several centuries.
The movement in the medicine wheel and in Native American ceremonies is circular and usually clockwise or sunwise. This helps to align with the forces of nature, such as gravity and the rising and setting of the sun.
Medicine Wheel: meaning
The original medicine wheels were stone artifacts built by the native peoples who lived in what is now the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. They were first called "medicine wheels" in the 1800s. In Native American usage, medicine refers to anything that promotes harmony, and illness is considered to be a lack of harmony within a person or between a person and their loved ones.
Medicine wheels took many forms, but most had a central stone cairn, one or more concentric stone circles, and several stone lines radiating outward from the center
The Ellis Medicine Wheel, built by the Blackfoot Aborigines, has been radiocarbon dated to about 1400 AD. The central ring covered a burial pavilion where skeletal remains were found
Many medicine wheels had small stone circles (teepee rings) in the wheel area. Because Native Americans left no written records, little is known about the original purpose or meaning of medicine wheels
The most common speculation is that they were used to commemorate sacred places, but they probably had multiple uses and meant different things to different people over the centuries. Some may have been used for ceremonies such as the sun dance. The medicine wheels at Bighorn and Moose Mountain had 28 spokes, the number of days in a lunar month, suggesting that they may have been used as a calendar or solar observatory. In each wheel, two of the stone cairns are positioned to align with the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. As I mentioned in the introduction, similar alignments can be found in the stone rings at Stonehenge.
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel
Probably the best known structure on the northern plains is the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming.
It is located on a flat shoulder of a bald mountain in the Big Horn Mountains at an elevation of about 2939 meters.
The wheel is roughly circular in shape and has a diameter of about 23 meters. At its center is an oval stone-walled cairn that has an outside diameter of 3.65 meters and an inside diameter of about 2 meters. The central cairn is about 2 meters high and opens on the north side. From the cairn radiate twenty-eight rays outward to the outer circle of the Wheel.
Around the outer circle are six other cairns much like the central one
The Native American Medicine Wheel
Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux said:
"You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in a circle, and everything tries to be round.
In the old days, all our power came from the sacred hoop of the nation and as long as the hoop was not broken, the people prospered. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and powerful wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outside world with our religion.
Everything that the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, swirls. The birds make their nests in circles, because they have the same religion as we do. The sun appears and descends in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their change and always return to where they were.
A man's life is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like birds' nests, and these were always arranged in a circle, the hoop of the nation, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit wanted us to hatch our children."
Thus, the medicine wheel can be seen as a model of Native American aboriginal cosmology. For many Native Americans, the medicine wheel is an ancient symbol that can help people understand how to live a healthy life and see that they are connected to all of creation.
Native American concept of "medicine"
To understand why some wheel-shaped stone structures are called Medicine Wheels, it is necessary to analyze the term "medicine" as it is understood in all Native American societies.
For the most part, "medicine" in industrial societies is associated with health and disease in the clinical sense. The definitions of "medicine," "health," and "disease" do not, for the most part, include aspects remote from immediate concern. For example, "illness" is associated only with the immediate cause, e.g., a virus, it is not associated with the broader physical and psychological context in which the patient lives, e.g., job satisfaction or positive/negative attitude. Only very recently has this begun to change.
Among Native Americans, the term "medicine" is more encompassing. Objects such as stones and amulets are described as "medicine". The term also includes ritual acts such as dancing and pipe smoking as well as sacred places. The Native American conception of health is associated with places, religion/philosophy, specific actions, objects and animals. The individual is placed in relationship to all of these things and wellness is determined based on this relationship. If stable, the person will be healthy and under the influence of "good medicine."
Remembering that the Medicine Wheels and the ceremonies that may have been performed there were centered on the fertility and continuity of a people, one can understand why these stone structures are called Medicine Wheels. Only a healthy people will prosper.
Basic Circle Symbolism
Because medicine wheels are circular in shape and part of the symbolic aspect of Native American societies, it seems useful to examine the basic symbolic meanings of the circle in general.
The circle generally represents perfection, eternity, unity, a cyclical process, the ultimate state of unity, endless existence and protection. These interpretations seem closely related and seem to describe a state of existence as well as a process that perpetuates that state
Many things in nature are round, e.g. trees, birds' nests and grass stems, and therefore the circular shape would be an appropriate choice for a symbol associated with life itself.
The "modern" medicine wheel
Because of their remoteness, few white people knew about medicine wheels until the 1970s. Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972) noticed the similarity of the medicine wheel stone circles to the wheel symbols used in sun dance ceremonies (which had four sections based on the cardinal points) and combined them to create a modern version of the wheel
Storm used his version of the medicine wheel as an organizing framework for his book Seven Arrows, which described the medicine wheel as "the way of life of the people" and as "an understanding of the universe." Storm, a self-described "mixed-blood", used the wheel as the basis for a vast mythology, and the contemporary vision of the medicine wheel as a philosophical framework originates in Seven Arrows.
Storm advised readers to think of the medicine wheel as a mirror in which everything is reflected. The stones of the wheel can represent people, animals, nations or ideas, and the wheel as a whole is the universe, containing all things
The lesson of the wheel is harmony with all the elements of the universe. Indians and non-Indians alike have adopted the idea of the medicine wheel as a symbol and have given it their own elaborations and interpretations
Storm used the wheel as a symbol of spiritual and psychological development, linking the cardinal points to colors, animals and personality traits.
Imitating this approach, Brooke Medicine Eagle and Jamie Sams developed their own versions of the wheel, mixed with occultism and psychotherapeutic ideas. Sun Bear used the wheel as a symbol for his system of earth astrology. New Age writers like Lynn Andrews and Wolf Moondance encouraged their readers to build their own medicine wheels outdoors and use them for meditation and personal development
Medicine wheel construction has become a popular pseudo-native religious practice, and medicine wheel tours are offered by tour operators in New Age enclaves such as Sedona, Arizona. The division of the medicine wheel circle into four quadrants with three subunits in each quarter has made the wheel usable as a divination and personality analysis device.
Enthusiasts label the four points of the wheel with a wide variety of labels, usually based on nothing more than their personal preferences. They connect the points of the wheel to seasons, colors, zodiac signs, personality types, totem animals and even moral principles.
In his books, Kenneth Meadows says that readers can identify their personality style and determine their life destiny using the wheel. The design of the medicine wheel can be interpreted to represent just about anything, and many modern versions of the wheel contain little that is truly Native American.
While it is safe to assume that most modern interpretations of the medicine wheel are far removed from the original meaning of the wheel as used by Native Americans, these new interpretations may still have a useful function
Almost all contemporary versions of the medicine wheel emphasize the need for harmony and balance, both within oneself and with all creatures and groups on earth. The wheel also provides a graphic reminder that change is inevitable, that life is a process of development and that the search for wholeness is a worthy goal
Mannion (2006) described the medicine wheel as a philosophical tradition or belief system; the wheel represents the cycle of life and the four spokes of the wheel represent different aspects of nature and human nature
For example, in Storm's interpretation, the eastern point of the wheel represents sunrise, beginning and seeing the world without illusion, while the west represents sunset, introspection and the unconscious. The south represents curiosity and exploration, and the north represents intelligence and insight. The center of the wheel represents the center of one's life and the perfect balance of all surrounding elements
According to Johnson (2006), the four main quadrants of the wheel can represent the four directions, the four elements, and the four elements of the self (physical, mental, spiritual, and social), which must be balanced within the person. Storm said that people begin life from the perspective of one of the cardinal points and can only grow by seeking to understand the other three parts of the wheel. For example, he said that a person who starts from the north will be wise but cold and insensitive, and must seek balance by developing empathy.
How to use the medicine wheel to heal yourself?
There are seven common teachings associated with the medicine wheel in many First Nations cultures. These teachings vary according to tribal customs and elders telling their own heritage and stories in slight variations of their own lineage and traditions, their own concepts
However, there are many common themes that can be taught and discussed in lessons that are highly relevant to modern life and can be taught as evidence of high-level knowledge of cosmic things, related to seasonal changes, respect for animals, plants and the elements.
There is no right or wrong way to use the medicine wheel as an educational tool
It is both a universal symbol and a personal mnemonic for various cultures and individual stories. Inviting Elders to share their learning associated with the Medicine Wheel is an important way to preserve and pass on culturally important knowledge. The knowledge gained by elders should be honored and respected.
The wheel works on cycles and rhythm. We enter it as if we were dancing a dance of life, but also as if we were beginning a journey of initiation that would lead us to the center of ourselves. An intimate exploration in the heart of the Being, where the wounds are hidden, the secrets of our history but also the power to heal by finding harmony and our own inner center, our deep nature.
Let's look at the different components of this wheel.
The circle of life is separated into four equal parts, 4 quadrants, each representing a different direction. A color is associated with each of these parts. At the center of this circle is the Earth, also called the Whole or the Great Mystery.
Each direction is also associated with an aspect of the human and a season. The north, the upper quarter, represents the spirit, winter and is accompanied by the color white. The right quarter, the east, is yellow and symbolizes reason and spring. The south, the lower quarter, has the color red and represents the body and the summer. The west, on the other hand, has the color black and is represented by the heart and autumn
Color Yellow Red Black White
1. Direction East South West North
2. Season Spring Summer Fall Winter
3. Elements Fire Earth Water Air
4. Animals Eagle Buffalo Wolf Bear
5. Plants Tobacco Sage Sweetgrass Cedar
6. Celestial body Sun Earth Moon Stars
7. Life stages Birth/Infancy Youth/Adolescence Adult/Parent Death/Elders and Grandparents
How to make a medicine wheel?
The easiest way is to find a therapist who uses this tool.
Activating your medicine wheel is, step by step, starting a healing mechanism of your own. Question the meaning of your life, in the direction and meaning you wish to give it
It is an interesting tool that can be reassuring if you need guidance and direction.
But know that all the symbols of sacred geometry, like our vibratory mandalas, the Flower of Life and many other sacred symbols, have this faculty to make you find your own center, your true being, if you know how to approach them with honesty and simplicity.
Be like a tireless traveler who revisits the world, taking the path of the shamanic wheel as a sacred spiral that dances endlessly. For the medicine wheel, like its symbol the circle, is a perpetual restart in search of inner peace.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you are looking for tools to work on yourself but also to harmonize your interior (literally and figuratively) you are at the right place!
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“The Medicine Wheel as a Symbol of Native American Psychology” de Timothy Thomason