To understand the fullness of the medicine wheel, it must be perceived as a three dimensional sphere.
From this perspective, there are Seven Sacred Directions:
The Four Cardinal Directions (East, South, West, and North) represented by the two-dimensional medicine wheel.
Above or Sky World (Up)
Below or Deep Earth or Underworld (Down)
The Sacred Center, the point at which everything in the universe coincides. The center is everywhere and nowhere.
The medicine wheel has now changed from a two-dimensional representation of the four quarters into a three-dimensional dynamic model of the universe, which has three levels: the Underworld, the Earth and the Skyworld.
We are now able to perceive one of the most sacred symbols in Native American cosmology, the Sacred Tree, which like a world axis unites the three levels of the universe. The roots of the tree dwell deep in the earth, in the underworld; its trunk dwells on the earth among the two legged and four legged ones; while its branches reach high into the sky world, the domain of the winged ones. The sacred tree, uniting all levels of creation, is therefore an expression of sacredness and the unity of all creation.
Furthermore, when we perceive the changing cycles, the seasonal changes or the changes in the phases of the moon, or the growth of our children from infants to adults, we are perceiving time and are therefore seeing the medicine wheel in four dimensions. Perceived in four dimensions, the Sacred Center is not only everywhere and nowhere, but also every-when and no-when simultaneously! The center thus exists both within and outside of time. This timelessness is present in all Anishinabe Ojibway ceremonies: the sacred pipe is turned to the four cardinal directions following the clockwise direction of the sun (which rises in the east, travels across the southern sky and sets in the west) and is then offered to the Mother Earth and the spirits below, to the spirits inhabiting the sky world above and finally, at the sacred center, to Gitchi Manito, the Great Mystery. When the pipe is turned and passed, each person accepting the pipe becomes that sacred center. Likewise, the purification lodge (or “sweat lodge”), the vision quest, sun dance, etc. all draw on the worldview presented by the dynamic Medicine Wheel.
In addition to the seven sacred directions, there are many medicine teachings that embrace the number seven. Among the most sacred is the teaching of the Seven Gifts given to the Little Boy by the Grandfathers. These seven gifts teach us a way of life that will lead to harmony and balance:
- LOVE, represented by the Eagle, the messenger of the Creator, teaches us that we should walk in peace and carry compassion for all beings, recognizing that all beings suffer and all beings seek happiness. Love is the ultimate power in the universe, capable of uniting and healing where others would separate and destroy.
- HONESTY, represented by Bigfoot, a sacred spirit that protects nature and understands many mysteries of existence, teaches us to honor our word and speak always from the heart. We must be true in word and deed.
- HUMILITY, represented by the Wolf, the brother of humanity whose path runs parallel to our own, teaches us to remember that all are sacred in the eyes of the Creator. Each of us is unique in all creation and sacred. We must remember that the sun shines on all and our purpose is to use our uniqueness to benefit all.
- COURAGE, represented by the Bear, the defender of the people, teaches us to do what is right, to act according to the voice of our conscience, even when doing right may result in our own injury. Bear teaches us that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather doing what is necessary and right even though we are afraid.
- WISDOM, represented by the Beaver, the industrious builder who creates whole ecosystems, teaches us to understand our gifts and use those gifts to benefit the greater world. Wisdom is to know how to use our talents to serve life and to be mindful of our effect on the lives of others.
- RESPECT, represented by the Buffalo, who supports the sky on her back and who feeds, clothes and instructs the people, teaches us to recognize and honor the sacredness in others and to live in harmony and balance with all creation. This is a simple instruction, to live in harmony and balance, but requires the combined use of all of the Seven Sacred Gifts to achieve.
- TRUTH, represented by the Turtle, upon whose back we live. The turtle is the animal representation of the dynamic medicine wheel. Its four legs are the cardinal directions; its dead points upward toward the sky; its tail points downward toward the earth; its shell is a symbol of the sacred center and is a calendar of the year, having 13 large plates and 28 small plates (13 times 28 equals 364 days with the whole shell being the 365th day completing the year. The Turtle teaches us to honor the sacred teachings and live according to the Seven Sacred Gifts.
Other Anishinabe Ojibway medicine teachings of the sacred number seven include:
- Seven Fires (or Ages) through which the Anishinabe Ojibway people have passed, prophesied by the Seven Prophets – We are now living in the Age of the Seventh Fire. We will explore the Seven Fires Prophecy in the next series of blog entries.
- Seventh Generation Teachings – We are instructed to make every decision in consideration of that decisions effect upon our children seven generations hence. In this way, we will not exploit our resources and future generations will still enjoy the gifts of the Creator.
- There are seven stars in the Pleiades and Big Dipper Constellations (both regarded as sacred in star knowledge teachings).
Check out these interesting appearances of the number seven:
- Seven Classifications of Life in Biology (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species)
- Seven Colors in the Visible Spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet)
- In the Biblical Creation Account, God created the universe in Seven Days (The traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all honor the sacred number seven)
- The United States Constitution, in part based on the teachings of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy, contains Seven Articles
And the interesting interplays between the sacred numbers seven and four:
- There are Seven Continents and Four Oceans
- There are Seven Days in each Week and Four Weeks in each Month
- Seven times Four equals Twenty-Eight, the Number of Days in a Lunar Cycle (also the Number of Days in a Woman’s Menstrual Cycle…hence it is called a woman’s “Moon Time”)
- The Declaration of Independence was signed on the Fourth Day of the Seventh Month in the year 1776.
There are hundreds of teachings of the medicine wheel and many different interpretations across cultures but the basic structure of the encircled equilateral cross is always the same as are the essential teachings. For example, the colors of the Four Directions may be different among different cultures, such as placing red in the east and yellow in the south, or substituting blue for black in the west, but the meaning of the Medicine Wheel remains constant. As a universal archetype, the Medicine Wheel illustrates the natural patterns that all life follow and teaches a spiritual way that fosters unity, balance, and harmony.