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.
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.
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,
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.
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.