People living in the Americas have probably heard of the medicine wheel. (Although not the only term, I refer to it as a “medicine wheel” since this is the most widely used and accepted term.) The term, “medicine wheel,” was created by European settlers in the late 1800s, when they stumbled onto the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is located near Sheridan, Wyoming.
The Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, USA (Public Domain)
This stone structure is used not only for physical healing, but also to guide one through life cycles, spiritual growth, and mental health. Some Native America tribes call it the Sacred Hoop. It symbolizes connectivity and the flow of life-energy in the Universe. The four quadrants represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four stages of life, the four great animals (in North America tribes most common animals are Bear, Buffalo, Eagle and Wolf. In South America Jaguar, Condor, Turtle and Hummingbird.), and more.
“The flowering tree was the living center of the hop, and the circle of four quoters nourished it. The East gave peace and light, the South gave warmth, the West gave rain, and the North with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance.” Black Elk, Oglala Sioux
The Sacred Hoop teaches us that we are an organic part of the Universe; that our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies need to be in balance with each other and in harmony with the world around us. It teaches us of the non-duality of the Universe.
The Native Americans saw nature as a living entity. Every plant, animal, or even a rock possesses a spirit. Each spirit is unique and special, and each deserves honor and appreciation. Each one is touched by the Great Spirit. These spiritual and physical dimensions overlap, coexist in harmony and share time and space.
Every culture on every continent has similar representations, that they use in sacred ceremonies. We can find a version of the medicine wheel almost anywhere around the globe. From regions in the far north like Iceland or Siberia, to South America and Africa. Our ancestors used this symbol as a guide to healing to have a balanced life, and to understand the world and our place within it. As organized religion spread around the world, many of the teachings have become forbidden and mostly forgotten. I won’t go into detail on energy and the practical use of the medicine wheel. Instead, I would like to show the universality of this symbol across human history.
Siberian Shaman Drum
We can find medicine wheel representation on shamanic drums from Siberia to Northern Europe or the African cosmogram. Even the Celtic cross has this origin: it’s believed that the Celtic cross was adapted by St. Patrick to link it with his Christian teachings, providing a sense of familiarity to the community. In the earliest carvings of the Celtic cross, the arms and stem of the cross were contained within the circle. We can find this symbol across Europe, often under the name of the “Sun Cross.” Circular stone constructions can also be found in Europe and Asia. The stone circle at Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, is formed in a rough circle, with an even-armed cross within it. This is believed to be a sun symbol created by the Pagans, which became a sacred shape to the Celts.
If we disconnect arms at the end of the cross, we have a symbol very familiar in Hinduism tradition. The swastika is a symbol representing the purity of soul, truth, and stability. It represents the sun, and many ideas and teachings, but primarily describes the four Vedas and their harmonious whole. Its use in Hinduism dates back to ancient times. It gives the illusion of spinning, which is also found in depictions of the Chakras. The Mandala, also, greatly reflects the ideas of the Medicine wheel, expanding in four directions inside the circle.
The most common element in the earliest Mandalas is the four T-shaped gates inside the circle.
We can also see four directions imbedded in a circle, and the image of the swastika, in the Sumerian seal. Mesopotamia, the oldest known civilization, also used the same imagery and ideas.
Representations of the medicine wheel can also be seen in the halo, sometimes with four directions inside, above the heads in Christianity or Buddhism. We can also find circles (disks) above the heads of royalties and Gods in ancient Egypt. The disks signified that these people had obtained the power to heal, a wisdom to see future, and knowledge of the past. Or, in my understanding, they were in sync with the Universe, on the same frequency of the Universe’s vibration.
Ancient shamans used musical instruments, chanting, singing, stones, crystals, and different vegetations to create a vibration and to promote healing. All these things now fall under umbrella of Energy Medicine or Biofield Therapy. Shamans or Medicine men/women believe that root of all illnesses is disharmony in the body; that the underlying spiritual or energy disbalance could manifest as a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual illness. This holistic healing approach is a basic of Energy Medicine.
It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that we began to rediscover and study the principles of the traditional approach to healing. We recognized that we couldn’t heal physical illness without understanding the mental state; or mental illnesses without looking into emotions; or emotions without addressing the spiritual aspect of the person. We realize that harmony and balance inside an individual is equally important as harmony with nature, and our intimate relation with the world around us. We’ve learned to embrace this universal energy, the wisdom of universal consciousness. We understand that only the harmony inside us can create an environment for healing. That everything in the Universe, including ourselves, obeys the medicine wheel principles. Ancient healing traditions emphasize a holistic approach. The four quadrants of the medicine wheel represent the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects, which are all intimately connected and need to be in balance. They cannot be compartmentalized and treated separately. Mental distress or illness has physical manifestations; physical distress or illness affects our emotional state; our emotions affect our spiritual life; and our spiritual life affects our mental processes.
The medicine wheel teaches us to show reverence and gratitude to the nature around us, to embrace our inner peace, and appreciate every moment.