Shamanism- Medicine Wheel

The four elements- earth, air, fire, water- are representations of life-force/ universal/ divine energy. The idea that everything, All That Is, breaks down to one or more of four elements comes from the belief that all things are connected.

When the four elements are imbued with the fifth element of spirit, we have life! Without the elements, life cannot exist. Without you, the you-niverse cannot exist—we each comprise an integral part of it.


Earth isn’t necessarily the planet we live on, but the part of it that’s stable, solid, and dependable. It symbolizes abundance, prosperity, sustenance, grounding, and physical manifestation. It is associated with Winter, the dark of the Moon (when there is no moon in the night sky just prior to first crescent), and the root chakra.


Air symbolizes the realm of thought, learning, knowledge, harmony, communication, all things mental, and breath. It is associated with Spring and the heart chakra.


Fire is the creative spark, it represents our passions, the fire within. It is the element of change and symbolizes will, heat, freedom, vision, love, and power. It is associated with Summer, the full Moon, and the solar plexus chakra.


Water is the emotional realm, it symbolizes healing, dreaming, flowing, the subconscious, all things internal, and cleansing. It is associated with Autumn and the belly chakra.


Why work with the elements?


We humans thrive on symbolism, and working with the elements is a way of working with energy. As these four “flavors” of energy represent different fascets of human life, this way of breaking down and categorizing energy helps us focus on specific areas in our life in a way that’s easier for us to comprehend and connect with.

As these elements come from the natural world, in connecting with them we become more aware of our connection to nature and All That Is, and more aware of our own humanity, our personal nature.


Alchemical traditions and Shamanic traditions around the world work with the four elements. They often use a framework of symbolism that incorporates circular or spiral energy. These are ways in which energy moves in the world, and the circle and spiral are symbols of eternity, connectedness, cycles, and the natural world. Sometimes the metaphor of a wheel is used, the medicine wheel or wheel of life, to really illustrate the point that all things are cyclical, ever-turning.

More layers of symbolism


In some traditions, the elements are represented by a spirit called an elemental. Elementals are normally invisible to the untrained eye, don’t belong to the mundane world, considered sentient, and are comprised entirely of the element they represent.


Sometimes elementals are recognized as totem animals. Just like an elemental, a totem is a symbol. The animal species represents an energy or fascet of human life, often somehow related to the qualities or behaviors of the species.


Some traditions associate all of the above with the cardinal directions, North, East, South, and West. Relating the elements to the directions is a way of connecting to the land where you live. Many times this involves forming associations with the nature that exists relative to where you are, for example, here in San Diego we have the Pacific ocean to our west, the direction we associate with the energy of water.


These associations are not set in stone around the world. They can change as your location and intention changes. Specific traditions often adhere to specific correspondences as related to the land where that tradition was founded.


Why call in the four directions when setting sacred space?


Sacred space can be created anytime, anywhere-all it takes is your intent to do so. Often it is done for ceremony, ritual, or daily spiritual practice as a way to shift your consciousness from the mundane to the sacred. It’s a way of creating a “zone” in which all things will be treated as sacred.


Calling forth the directions as part of creating sacred space is a method of drawing from the power (of the four elements) that resides in the land where you are or where you live. It brings this symbolism and its power into your sacred workings.


When we take the time to include this level of detail in creating sacred space, we more readily engage in raising energy to direct toward our intent, and we are drawn that much deeper into the altered states of consciousness required to work with energy in a direct way.


In my ceremonies I also call in two or more additional directions. Spirit is represented in it’s masculine and feminine forms as Above, Sky Father, and Below, Earth Mother … of course these are the makings for another article, another time….


Medicine wheels, or sacred hoops, were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center of stone(s), and surrounding that is an outer ring of stones with "spokes", or lines of rocks radiating from the centre. Some ancient types of sacred architecture were built by laying stones on the surface of the ground in particular patterns common to aboriginal peoples.


Originally, and still today, medicine wheels are stone structures constructed by certain indigenous peoples of North America for various astronomical, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes. Medicine wheels are still 'opened' or inaugurated in Native American spirituality where they are more often referred to as "sacred hoops", which is the favoured English rendering by some. There are various native words to describe the ancient forms and types of rock alignments. One teaching involves the description of the four directions.

More recently, syncretic, hybridized uses of medicine wheels, magic circles, and mandala sacred technology are employed in New Age, Wiccan, Pagan and other spiritual discourse throughout the World. The rite of the sacred hoop and medicine wheel differed and differs amongst indigenous traditions, as it now does between non-indigenous peoples, and between traditional and modernist variations. The essential nature of the rite common to these divergent traditions deserves further anthropological exploration as does an exegesis of their valence.

Medicine wheels look like a wagon wheel lying on its side. Some reach diameters of 75 feet. Although archaeologists aren't exactly sure what each one was used for, it is thought that they probably had ceremonial or astronomical significance.


How are they made?


Medicine wheels were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center cairn of stones, and surrounding that would be an outer ring of stones, then there would be "spokes", or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn.

Almost all medicine wheels would have at least two of the three elements mentioned above (the center cairn, the outer ring, and the spokes), but beyond that there were many variations on this basic design, and every wheel found has been unique and has had its own style and eccentricities.

The most common deviations between different wheels are the spokes. There is no set number of spokes for a medicine wheel to have. The spokes within each wheel are rarely evenly spaced out, or even all the same length. Some medicine wheels will have one particular spoke that's significantly longer than the rest, suggesting something important about the direction it points.

Another variation is whether the spokes start from the center cairn and go out only to the outer ring, or whether they go past the outer ring, or whether they start at the outer ring and go out from there.

An odd variation sometimes found in medicine wheels is the presence of a passageway, or a doorway, in the circles. The outer ring of stones will be broken, and there will be a stone path leading up to the center of the wheel.

Also many medicine wheels have various other circles around the outside of the wheel, sometimes attached to spokes or the outer ring, and sometimes just seemingly floating free of the main structure.


What do they mean?


Medicine wheels have been built and used for so long, and each one has enough unique characteristics, that archaeologists have found it nearly impossible to tell exactly what each one was for, and haven't had much success at making broad generalizations about their function and meaning.

One of the older wheels has been dated to over 4,500 years old; it had been built up by successive generations who would add new features to the circle. Due to the long existence of such a basic structure, archaeologists suspect that the function and meaning of the medicine wheel changed over time, and it is doubtful that we will ever know what the original purpose was.

It is not hard to imagine that medicine wheels, like most large stone structures, would probably have served a ceremonial or ritual purpose. There is evidence of dancing within some of the wheels. Other wheels were probably used as part of a ritual vision quest. 

Astronomer John Eddy put forth the theory that some of the wheels had astronomical significance, where the longest spoke on a wheel could be pointing to a certain star at a certain time of the year, suggesting that the wheels were a way to mark certain days of the year.

Other scientists have shown that some of the wheels mark the longest day of the year. (Note that an astronomical/calendar theory has been suggested for just about every unnatural stone structure on Earth.)

In the Hopi Medicine Wheel of the Hopi Prophecy of the four peoples of the Earth, the cardinal direction North represents the body, plants and animals, the colour white and 'white skinned peoples', and Childhood. (can also represent birth, and/or meeting a stranger and learning to trust as in infancy, explained in Erik Erikson's stages of Psychosocial development).

The East is held to represent the mind, air, the colour yellow and 'yellow skinned peoples', learning the groups to which people belong and Adolescence.

The South holds the heart, fire, the colour red and 'red skinned peoples', and Adulthood.

Finally West holds the spirit, water, the colour blue or black, and 'black-skinned peoples' and Elderhood. West also represents the final life stage in the wheel, being an elder and passing on knowledge to the next generation so that the wheel may start again just like the circle it takes after.

In many other tribes, however, the Northern direction corresponds to Adulthood (the White Buffalo), the South represents Childhood (the Serpent), the West represents Adolescence (the Bear) and the Eastern direction represents Death and Re-birth (Eagle). In terms of social dynamics, community building and the use of Circles in Restorative Justice Work, the four quadrants of the circle correspond to Introductions.

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