Mystery of the Medicine Wheel

Dotted across the Great Plains of North America are found these ancient stone structures that have come to be called “Medicine Wheels”, and they remain something of a mystery. Usually, students of the Medicine Wheel (which is also sometimes called “Sacred Hoop”) have tried to find some astronomical significance in their construction and orientation — as being “observatories” of a sort.

This is probably erroneous, and as erroneous as if some future archaeologist, puzzling over the cathedrals of Europe with their spires and steeples, was to conclude that these structures served as astronomical observatories.

I was reflecting on one of these few remaining intact structures this morning — the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, as illustrated here.

Big Horn Medicine Wheel

Big Horn Medicine Wheel

I’m sure someone must have noticed that it is actually a turtle effigy, which becomes somewhat obvious once it is pointed out. Turtle, in fact, plays a most important role in aboriginal origin or cosmological stories, and even well beyond North America too. The North American continent is often referred to as “Turtle Island” although this is probably also an erroneous identification. Turtle Island could only mean “Earth” as it was understood at the time, and in broader terms even physical reality itself. In those terms, today, Turtle Island would translated better as “Spaceship Earth”.

Many First Nations’ narratives of origin begin much as the Book of Gensis does — water, water everywhere. Depending upon the legend, it was Turtle who dove deep into the waters to bring up the first land or, alternatively, Turtle himself — Turtle’s back — served as the fist habitation for humans and animals. This legend of origin is sometimes depicted in aboriginal art, as below. And as you can surely see, the shape of Turtle is pretty much identical with the shape of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel.

Turtle Island

Turtle Island

As you can see from the illustration, around Turtle are depicted the creatures of air and water, while on the back of Turtle are a Tipi, a Forest, and some creatures of the land as well as the Sacred Hoop, with its four directions or quadrants, which serves as the vital centre of Turtle Island. The human world is not at all central to the narrative of origin. And in some representations, the Sacred Hoop and Turtle are practically identical,

Turtle Island as Sacred Hoop

Turtle Island as Sacred Hoop

Turtle Island

So, I would suggest that just as the cathedrals of Europe were described as “the Bible in Stone”, the Medicine Wheel also serves the same function — a story in stone. And that story is the story of origin. The large pile of rock in the centre of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel (and in some cases in other hoops it is just a circle of stone) can be said to correspond to Jean Gebser’s “ever-present origin”, which is represented as the Sacred Hoop in the centre of Turtle’s back. From this ever-present origin radiate lines or spokes, which we might take to signify one of two things — the different paths of the nations or peoples (and “nations or peoples” also includes the animals in aboriginal legend — Beaver People, Crow Nation, etc, etc) or the spokes may signify, as in the European Compass Rose, the winds, who are essentially spirits.

Compass Rose

Compass Rose

I would suggest, then, that archaeologists are barking up the wrong tree in attempting to find some astronomical meaning in the Medicine Wheel. Cosmological, yes, but not astronomical. They aren’t observatories anymore than the European cathedrals were observatories. They are an honouring of origin.

And so, too, neither is “Turtle Island” the North American continent. Today it can mean nothing but “Spaceship Earth”, too. And in broader terms, physical reality itself.



6 responses to “Mystery of the Medicine Wheel”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    One can’t help but love the turtle and the turtle stays very close to the ground and moves slowly and lives a very very long time. And the turtle chews as slowly as it walks 🙂 Given those qualities, using a turtle (or the Earth) as a symbol for the Medicine Wheel makes a lot of sense.

    Just a lovely and always very grateful creature, really. I always absolutely HATED to see them in their small glass enclosure at the museum of natural history. But, of course, turtles are a superstar to kids. To me, turtles embody love and gratitude.

    If they could talk, I’m sure, they could tell us many secrets. I don’t know if this HULU animated movie clip is accessible from your location, but it’s a worthwhile animated picture to watch and it’s a sea turtle that saves the day. Here’s “Reef 2: The High Tide.”

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Well, it looks like that the link to the HULU movie did not go through. Or at least, from my location, all I see is a blank screen. Apparently, the World Wide Web isn’t as global as it once was……

      • Scott Preston says :

        Apparently, the World Wide Web isn’t as global as it once was

        No, it’s not. Walls and fences being thrown up everywhere, including the Web.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          And on the other hand, it is becoming increasingly very difficult to live without access to the internet. It seems to me that, eventually, there will be virtual toll booths raised for every section of it (Youtube, Twitter, etc., even Wikipedia). Just another way to impoverish the masses, since not everyone is (and won’t be) capable of owning and operating a connection to the internet.

          I googled “turtle medicine” and a very interesting site came up. Here it is:

        • Steve Lavendusky says :

          Scott – The best book on American Indian philosophy and spirituality I have ever read is a book called “Honoring the Medicine” by Kenneth Cohen. Also, a fine essay by Nicolas Berdyaev on the web called Boheme: The Ungrund and Freedom.

          • Scott Preston says :

            Thanks, Steve. An interesting essay by Berdyaev, but full of ironies. I’m familiar with the name, as it is often brought into association with Rosenstock-Huessy.

            The language could have been made simpler, I think. He could have gone into more detail about Boehme’s influence on Nietzsche — the Ungrund and the free spirit, or the will to power. He concludes that Nietzsche nonetheless grew remote from “religious” themes, but that’s not the case at all, as I’ve pointed out in many earlier posts. Nietzsche grappled with religion, and his “revaluation of values” basically took religious (mainly Christian) themes and recast them in secular garb. What otherwise is a “revaluation”?

            No mention of William Blake, either, who was certainly one of the main transmitters of Boehme’s vision. But then, in 1930 Blake had been almost entirely forgotten. So Berdyaev might be forgiven for that.

            “Boehme was the first to have conceived of the world, of life as a passionate struggle, as movement, process, an eternal genesis”

            No, that was Heraclitus, and Berdyaev properly points that out when he compares Boehme to Heraclitus. But the irony here is that Rosenstock-Huessy referred to Heraclitus as “The Greek Buddha”. so was Boehme really rediscovering an authentic Christianity — or Buddhism?

            I like Berdyaev’s recognition of Boehme’s “mythological consciousness” and symbolic mode of thinking. But then he kind of distorts it a bit in the process of explicating it. Still, there are some gems in it. And many things that Berdyaev left unsaid, too, (or got wrong) about the “Ungrund”, or the meaning of the tragic and the darkness, about the meaning of good and evil, etc. He approaches it, but then draws up short of the goal.

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