Like their Western and Chinese counterparts, Native Americans developed an astrological system for understanding the world and envisioning harmony in the universe. Based on animals and clans and including corresponding trees, stones, and colors, the medicine wheel is broken into 12 moons similar to the 12 signs in Western astrology. In fascinating detail and with illustrations throughout, this new entry in the Plain & Simple series explores an exciting and little-known aspect of Native American culture.
In addition to analyses of all the signs, symbols, and seasonal associations, there are illuminating charts, explanations of the medicine wheel, and practical ideas for using Native American astrology as an oracle. This is a book for the thousands fascinated by Native American legend and lore.
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An Introduction to Native American Astrology
The earliest inhabitants of the Americas most likely migrated from the continent of Asia across the Bering Strait to what is now known as Alaska, during the last Ice Age, when a land bridge connected the two continents. This migration may have begun as early as thirty thousand years ago, continuing until about ten thousand years ago. The migration of these "first people" spread southward through present-day Canada, the United States, Central America, down into South America as far Tierra del Fuego. These early inhabitants, called Paleo-Americans, settled and diversified as they migrated, forming the many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes that we know of today.
These days, we collectively refer to these First Nations as Native Americans. In Canada, the United States, and in Central and South America, the variation among the groups is immense, their development is varied, and each tribe has its own traditions, beliefs, religions, and attitudes. One of the shared symbols among many of the Native American cultures is the medicine wheel. It is a universal symbol, but its use and meaning vary based on religious beliefs and tribal culture. Common among the uses of the medicine wheel is that it represents time, life cycles, the power of the natural and supernatural worlds, and each individual's path of personal growth.
The Medicine Wheel as Astrology
Every culture on Earth has a link to the invention of some form of astrology and various forms of calendar. Babylonian astrology led to Egyptian astrology, which was later refined by the Greeks and Romans. This form of astrology gave us our familiar signs of the zodiac and the Western system as we know it today. Other cultures linked times of the year to the creatures that they hunted or to those that were known to be dangerous to the inhabitants of their lands.
Native peoples the world over observed animals and plants in ways that we have long since forgotten. For instance, we might consider the butterfly to be a strange astrological symbol, but the appearance of an abundance of butterflies probably heralds a good crop of something that humans can eat — perhaps some early vegetables or salad greens. Native Americans have historically been people of the land rather than city dwellers, so it is not surprising that the animals related to the seasons and areas in which they lived have become part of their astrology.
Over the millennia, there must have been many hundreds of forms of Native American calendars, millions of different religious beliefs, and just as many different astrological outlooks. Now, what is known as "medicine wheel astrology" has become associated with Native Americans, but even so, the system continues to evolve, and there are still variations on the basic theme.
In this book, we look at the medicine wheel concept and give you information that you can work with. We then look at totem animals and show you how to find your primary and important secondary totems. As the title suggests, you do not need to know about birth charts, Moon signs, and Sun signs, nor do you need any prior knowledge of astrology to be successful with this book. Simply read on and enjoy your journey into the world of Native American astrology.
The Medicine Wheel
The word "medicine" may be confusing to readers who associate the word with Western doctors and medicine. In many Native American tribes, the use of the word "medicine" is broad and can encompass physical remedies as well as spiritual. It actually refers more closely to the concept of "putting things into order and creating harmony" — in this case, incorporating a kind of yin and yang or I Ching concept of the natural order of everything. The confusion around the concepts of harmony, mending, and healing may have been created when white men tried to learn Native American languages. That said, the very term "medicine wheel" implies a concept that is unique to Native American thought and embodies lifestyle, cultural, and spiritual identity.
Wheel as Measuring Instrument
It is possible that the medicine wheel is based on some early Chinese system. As we saw in the introduction, the early Native Americans migrated from Asia during the last Ice Age, if not earlier, and we know that early forms of the I Ching and feng shui go back that far. The second possibility is that the similarities are just coincidental. After all, most early systems around the world used a circle, and all were concerned with the calendar and with compass directions. As with many other early forms of astrology, astronomy, and measurements of time and dates — Stonehenge included — the wheel is a very basic and ancient form of measuring instrument.
As with Chinese and other systems, the medicine wheel pinpoints the seasons and also refers to the stages of life.
The seasons of the Medicine Wheel, the Chinese Bagua, the Western astrological zodiacal wheel.
In Western astrology, the cardinal signs of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn mark the times of the year when each new season begins, while the fixed signs of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius mark the midpoint of each season. The fixed signs frequently appear in ancient astrology illustrations, often with the sign of Scorpio depicted by its old symbol, the eagle. Even the ceiling of the church in the Vatican shows these four seasonal symbols, as does the World card in the Rider-Waite tarot deck.
Native American astrology also uses the images of creatures to depict the seasons. These creatures exist in addition to the twelve "zodiac" signs of the medicine wheel. They mark the turning point of each season and also the turning points during each day (dawn, noon, dusk, midnight). The four "seasonal" creatures are the white buffalo, the golden eagle, the coyote, and the grizzly bear.
In Western astrology, each of the twelve astrological signs belongs to one of the four elements, which rotate through the signs.
In Native American astrology, each sign belongs to a clan, which rotates through the system in a similar manner.
These two charts are meant to show the structure of each of the astrological "wheels." Readers will no doubt want to create a one-to-one relationship between these two systems — that is, corresponding Aries with Snow Goose, Taurus with Otter, and so forth — but will find that the astrological dates in the two systems do not match up. Medicine Wheel astrology is not meant to be a translation of Western astrology; it is a system on its own, and you will have to suspend your expections that all astrology is the same.
Here is a typical Western astrological chart.
Here is the medicine wheel with all the signs in place, along with the clans and seasonal animal totems.
Some Native Americans still use the agricultural calendar invented by the Aztecs, while others use a lunar calendar. This has now been incorporated into the "calendar month" design of the medicine wheel. The twelve Moons correspond to the weather or activities that one would expect to occur during each season. Each Native American astrological sign also corresponds to a plant, a stone, and a color. Note that the animal names vary within Native American astrology systems. The sturgeon is oftentimes replaced by the salmon, the flicker by the woodpecker, the red- tailed hawk by the falcon, and so forth.
Native American culture is rich and widely varying across the world. Although Western mind-set tends to lump all tribes together into one name — Native American — there is much diversity tribe to tribe and region to region. The animals and plants that are included in the medicine wheel are therefore often dictated by geographic region and environment, and as you study this fascinating subject in more depth, you will find variations in both animal and plant names.
The chart on the following page provides the most common correspondences in use in Native American astrology.
Over the next several chapters we will explore the four seasons of the medicine wheel, as well as all of the signs and clans in depth.
The Four Seasons of the Medicine Wheel
North Quadrant of Medicine Wheel
The most commonly mentioned animal totem representing the north is the white buffalo, or waboose, which is connected to the element of earth. Other animals representing the north are the moose and bear. All these animals inhabit the north and are well adapted for life in a cold climate — or hibernating in one during the worst of the winter. They each develop layers of fat to see them through the winter; they move slowly, sleep a lot, and forage when times are good. They have adapted to their environment. The earth element also represents slow movement, steadfastness, reliability, and obstinacy. The earth can move with great force during an avalanche or earthquake or when a volcano erupts, but it is normally static and unchanging.
In the case of the buffalo and moose, they provided meat, skin, bone for tools, fat, and sustenance for the Stone Age natives of the Americas before the coming of the dubious benefits of civilization. In rural communities, the winter is a time for mending tools and equipment and for replacing worn-out items. It is also a time to spend with one's family or tribe. Most traditions light beacons and say prayers at the solstice in the hope that the Sun will not forget to come around again.
The winter is the most paradoxical time of the medicine wheel. It is a time when things appear to be dormant, and yet some of the deepest growth is occurring. It is the time when seeds lie frozen and take in all the Earth's energy to allow them to grow in the seasons that follow. The time of the waboose is a time for slowing down and taking things easy. It is a time for peace, forgiveness, and compassion for everyone around you.
One of the gifts the waboose can give us is an intuitive understanding. It gives us psychic abilities and meaningful dreams. The white buffalo is an animal that gave up everything for the Native peoples. It is the white buffalo woman who gave the pipe of peace to the people. During the times of the Spirit Keeper of the North, it is beneficial to contemplate your life and think about questions of life and the hereafter. It is a time of patience and peace, and you may feel more psychic at this time than at others.
Other winter pastimes are hunting and fishing. This is partly because the tribe still needs protein to see it through the cold winter, and the inhabitants of the tribe will spend time drying, salting, or otherwise preserving food to carry their group through the lean times. Even now that many human beings have lived in civilized societies for more than ten thousand years, it is still a fact that fewer babies are born at the start of winter. This goes for both hemispheres and every kind of society. The majority of babies come into the world during spring, summer, and autumn, when plenty of nourishment is available for the mother. Thus the quiet time is a great opportunity for couples to snuggle up, keep warm, and make love.
The mineral associated with the waboose is alabaster, which is commonly a white or yellow stone with brown hues. Soft alabaster has been carved for centuries into pipes that tribesmen have blown to call their herds. Images of such pipes have been found on early Egyptian tombs, where they represent the flower of youth. Egypt might seem to be a long way from the Native American culture, but Thor Heyerdahl's expeditions appear to indicate that it was possible for the ancient Egyptians to have made the journey across the Atlantic in papyrus boats. Considering the extensive trading networks that existed among the many tribes of the First People, it is reasonable to consider that ideas and customs might have been transmitted through the Americas over time.
Alabaster encourages us to understand that there is great strength in gentleness. If you were born between December 22 and March 20, you should carry a piece of alabaster with you to create a sense of peace and serenity around you.
The plant associated with the Spirit Keeper of the North is the sweetgrass. It is widely believed to be the plant from which all others have grown, so it is also known as "hair of the mother." Sweetgrass carries a deep wisdom of the Earth and draws positive energies when it is burned. Those who burn it for smudging purposes believe that it calls good spirits to the person using it.
Sweetgrass is a perennial that can be found near wet areas, and it grows in long, reedlike strands. It is often woven into thick braids for use in smudging. Native Americans would call on the Spirit Keeper of the North when smoking sweetgrass. Sometimes they would give it as gifts to their relatives.
The time associated with the north angle of the medicine wheel is after midnight, when the world rests and dreams. The season is winter and the age group is the elderly. Some modern astrologers ascribe the north to the element of earth.
East Quadrant of Medicine Wheel
The primary totem animal associated with the east is the golden eagle, or wabun. Other animals associated with the east are the hummingbird, owl, and hawk. These bird associations give us an image of something that is free of attachment to the Earth and able to fly above this side of the medicine wheel.
As far as timing is concerned, this area represents the rising of the Sun and early morning, and the time of year for the east is spring. The symbolism here is of birth, young animals, new beginnings, and the optimism that one displays when planting new crops. The time is also symbolic of youth.
When the Earth enters this time of the year, all life seems to be bursting forth with new energy. Many of the animals bear their young and begin to teach them to survive in the big, wide world. When humans are in the time of the wabun, they are also busy, like the rest of nature. This is a magical time for both animals and humans, when anything seems possible. It's an ideal time to experience life and to try out new ideas. Perhaps those things you've only dreamt about can become real possibilities during this time of the year, and this encourages you to do something new. If you were born during this time of the year, then you are in a better position than most for creating new opportunities for yourself.
Some of the most important lessons you can learn from the east are how to turn the knowledge of the spirit world into the knowledge of our everyday world. This side of the medicine wheel encourages you to be open to new ideas and to have the courage to go out and get what you want. It is a time for new growth and energy. The mineral associated with the eagle is catlinite, and the color associated with this magnificent eagle is gold. The eagle is seen as being all-powerful among birds, and it represents new beginnings, enthusiasm, and creativity.
Modern astrologers associate this area of the wheel with the element of air. All forms of astrology see air as an element of communication and movement. Air is rarely still for long; it moves the clouds around and brings rain or freshness to the land. A little rain is needed for crops to grow and if people and animals are to have clean water for drinking and washing. The birds that form the totem animals for this part of the medicine wheel rely upon the "solidity" of the air element to keep them flying — and thus able to feed themselves and their families.
If you were born between March 21 and June 20, then the wabun, Spirit Keeper of the East, is your spirit keeper. The wabun brings the eternal promise of spring and helps us to understand that there will always be new beginnings. The gifts from the wabun are those of spontaneity, playfulness, wonder, inquisitiveness, and the ability to explore new things.
The tobacco plant is the plant associated with the Spirit Keeper of the East, and although the use of tobacco is now frowned upon in Western society, many Native American people worship this plant. The tobacco herb is one of their most sacred plants; when smoked in sacred spirit, tobacco is offered to the spirit keeper and spirit guides. The tobacco plant that we refer to has leaves that are six to twelve inches long. Smoking this plant is not the same as buying a packet of chemical-filled cigarettes. Native Americans use this plant as a smudge to clear an area of bad air or bad influences, or smoke it in a pipe to promote peace and growth.
The time associated with this direction is sunrise and, unsurprisingly, the age group is youth.
South Quadrant of Medicine Wheel
The animal totem for the south is the coyote, or shawnodese; the lion and wolf are secondary totems. These animals are successful predators who can hunt alone, although they do often hunt in packs. The representative ideas linked to the south are sex and passion, early adulthood, and a time when one has the strength to fight an enemy, to hunt adulthood, and a time when one has the strength to fight an enemy, to hunt for food, or to give birth and look after a family. Naturally, at this time the crops are growing vigorously and some are ready to eat. There are plenty of animals around to hunt, and these provide immediate nourishment, skins, tools, and food that can be dried for future use. The concepts associated with this time are pride and plenty.
Excerpted from "Medicine Wheel"
Copyright © 2017 Deborah Durbin.
Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1 An Introduction to Native American Astrology 1
2 The Medicine Wheel 5
3 The Four Seasons of the Medicine Wheel 15
4 The Medicine Wheel as an Oracle 33
5 The Twelve Signs of the Medicine Wheel 37
The Snow Goose 40
The Otter 48
The Cougar 56
The Red-Tailed Hawk 64
The Beaver 74
The Deer 82
The Flicker 92
The Sturgeon 100
The Grizzly Bear 108
The Raven 116
The Snake, 124 The Elk 134
6 The Four Clans 143
7 Totem Animals 149