Black Elk was a famous medicine man from the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) and second cousin to the famed Native American warrior Crazy Horse who rebelled against the Federal Government for intruding on Native American territories.
Born on December 1st 1863 in Little Powder River Wyoming he was a medicine man of substance and his experiences, during which he becomes aware of the Seven Sacred Rights of the Lakota, reaffirms the outer body experience as propagated by Jung, which occur as a result of either natural sleep or induced sleep i.e. hypnosis. It confirms what parapsychologists like Jung have asserted for years in that the mind is a vast untapped resource and has never been fully explored.
When Black Elk was nine years old he was struck by a sudden illness that left him unconscious and unresponsive. During this time, he experienced visitations from cosmic entities who he described as thunder beings (Wakinyan) and who he perceived to be the forefathers or the ancestors of the Oglala Sioux. According to his accounts these spirits were kind and loving, and were very giving in their paternal affection.
His experiences further reaffirm the shamanic principle ardently advocated by well-known exponents of shamanism like Mircea Eliade in that, the shamanic gift is bestowed upon a person or an individual after a prolonged and sustained life threatening illness or experience. From all expert accounts, Black Elk’s narrative of his experiences are most likely true. He died on August 19th 1950 in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
According to Black Elk, it started with repeated visitations from an ancient man, whose head was filled with white hair and who was wise beyond reason. The man was always alert; his eyes were constantly looking in all directions and he was full of fatherly affection. The old man surprisingly enough bears a striking resemblance to the heavenly father. He then imparts the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota to Black Elk.
The first of the Seven Sacred Rites is Inikagapi or Inipi (the rite to renew life). A sweat lodge is held in a dome shaped structure made of saplings and covered with hide or tarps and it symbolizes the shape of the universe or the womb of a pregnant woman.
Heated stones are placed in a large crevice located in the center of the lodge and water is poured over the stones by an itancan (leader) to create steam. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of all sentient beings. The lodge utilizes all the powers of the universe: earth and the things which grow on the earth and powers derived from the other elements, water, fire, and air.
Before embarking on any type of spiritual journey the body has to be detoxified, and any remains of toxic residue in the body will be removed by sweating. The result of sitting or meditating in a dome shaped structure with heated stones placed in the middle is excessive sweating.
It is also important to realize that Black Elk specifically mentioned the shape of the structure. Dome shaped structures are symbolic to all religions and theologically the dome acts as a transmitter. Any vibrations resulting from chanting in this type of structure will be carried to the heavenly father.
The second rite is Hanbleceyapi (crying for vision). The vision quest is undertaken by an individual with the help and guidance of a holy man. A person elects to go on a vision quest to pray, communicate with the spirits, and to gain knowledge, strength, and understanding.
The person pledges to stay on an isolated hill for one to four days with a blanket and a pipe, but without food or water. Upon returning, the vision may be discussed with the Wicasa Wakan (holy man). Often the meaning of the vision is not readily apparent and the individual may be told to wait for knowledge and understanding.
The second rite is the seeking of visions or an attempt to bridge the gap between the conscious and subconscious mind, through the medium of sleep or deep meditation or dreamtime, whereupon, the subconscious mind will reveal the mysteries of the world to the dreamer in the form of vivid images.
Experts in the field have suggested that implanting the thought of bridging the gap between the conscious and the subconscious mind or seeking visions prior to falling asleep will help the subject achieve dream quest more easily.
The subject in short is instructing the conscious mind to abate or to stop resisting and thereby allows or permits the subconscious mind to take control.
The act of abstaining from food and water further weakens the body and the conscious mind and it debilitates the ability of the conscious mind to resist and allows the subconscious mind to assert itself.
The third rite is the keeping of the spirit (Wanagi Wicagluha). Death is a transition from one existence to another. The demise of the body does not mean death of the spirit or the soul and the spirit or the soul continues to exist long after the body has turned to dust or has been reduced to ashes.
The third rite of the Lakota is similar to the death rites of many other ancient cultures in that the spirits or the souls of the dead linger around their families or their prized possessions for a period of time before they crossover. It is a time that is used to coax the spirit into continuing with the journey.
The spirit especially in cases and circumstances of unnatural deaths has to be made to come to terms with death. Normally a special place is erected in honor of the spirit and it is done to commemorate the passing and to remember the deceased.
This special place may or may not correspond with an altar (what an altar is or isn’t is a question of perception) and friends and relatives are sometimes invited to join in during what is called a feeding ceremony or an occasion during which offerings of food are made and shared with the spirit.
The rite continues for a year and after a year the spirit is freed or released. During this rather testing time close family members of the deceased are forbidden or prohibited from taking part in any celebrations or festivities.
It has to be made clear that the mourning period is undertaken with love for the departed in mind. It is a grieving period that allows both the family members and the deceased to say their goodbyes. It is in essence a period of letting go and abstaining from celebrations and other festivities allows everyone to come to terms with the passing in the appropriate manner. It is also a time for silent reflection.
In 1890 there was a religious movement that consolidated numerous Native American believes. It was called the Ghost Dance and among other things it advocated that proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and would bring spirits to fight on their behalf. It is reflective of the importance that is attached to spirits in Native American culture and tradition.
Spirit keeping is also a common facet among many other shamanic cultures and features prominently in Tungus cultures and its variants. The Tungus people are of Siberian origin and the near-death phenomenon similar to the experience Black Elk went through when he was nine is a prerequisite to becoming a Tungus Shaman.
Now, if Black Elk had been born in Siberia he would not only have been a medicine man but he would also have been recognized as a capable shaman and would have been accorded a position befitting a shaman in the community.
In these ancient cultures that adhere to time honored traditions, the shaman is also a healer (it is possible that there were early Siberian migrants to the Americas. The distance between Siberia and Alaska is only 55 miles. The territories are separated by a body of water known as the Bering Strait).
According to the near-death principle, once a shaman prospect has gone through the near-death experience he or she would not only be able to see spirits but he or she would also be able to communicate with them.
Similar dynamics also apply to the Tamang shamans (hill shamans) of Nepal and they too acquire the ability to see and speak to spirits. Hence, the ability to see or commune with spirits is an ability that is accepted in certain communities and societies.
These spirits also require sustenance and it is the duty of the shaman to provide the spirit with the type of sustenance that is deemed suitable and that would differ from community to community or from society to society. Likewise, it is the duty of the deceased’s next of kin or the keeper of the spirit to provide the spirit with suitable food.
Therefore, the notion of relatives and friends sharing a meal with a spirit is not at all far-fetched and to the contrary it is, depending on the culture, something of a norm.
It is also an accepted principle that the spirit after death needs to be coaxed into undertaking the journey that follows and the mourning period or the “keeping of the spirit” is a time during which relatives of the departed help the spirit to cross over.
Let me cite the practices of another ancient culture as an example. Let us briefly go to Leh and Ladakh in Western Tibet. Here the mourning period is forty-four days i.e. it takes forty-four days for the spirit of the departed to cross-over and during that time a priest is close at hand and he or she reads verses from the Tibetan Book of the Dead or the Bardo Thodol to help the spirit to cross-over.
According to the death rites of many of these ancient cultures, the period following death and prior to the crossing over is a perilous time for the spirit and it is confronted with a series of images conjured by the mind that are a result of its fears and inhibitions and therefore it needs the assistance of its family members to help it along the way.
It is slightly different from the Ghost Dance which according to my understanding is more akin to the summoning of the spirit and this normally applies to spirits of some fortitude or spirits that have been around for some time and it is more or less like the induced trance state. It is practiced to this very day.
The mourning period differs from one culture to another and from people to people but the one year period is similar to that of the East Indian culture where relatives of the dead are required to mourn the dead for a period of one-year and during the mourning period they are prohibited from taking part in any festivities. Therefore, we won’t be wrong in stating that the mourning period among the Lakota is strikingly similar to that of the East Indians.
Another amazing similarity is the feeding of the spirit. In the East Indian culture offerings of food are made at periodical intervals at an altar over the duration of a year. It includes offerings of vegetarian dishes and the favorite sweets of the deceased and relatives and friends are invited to be a part of the somber occasion.
The fourth sacred rite of the Lakota is the sun dance and once again it is reminiscent of the Tungus Shaman. The dance is conducted around a tree or a pole that symbolizes the tree. In Lakota cosmology, the tree represents the center of the universe.
It is possible to draw parallels between the tree in the Lakota sun dance and the shaman tree of the Tungus shamans. It is difficult to speculate if Black Elk ascended a shaman tree during his life-threatening illness or otherwise but it is an accepted principle among Tungus shamans that a shaman acquires his or her abilities to see and communicate with spirits after he or she ascends the shaman tree. The top of the tree or its highest tier according to Siberian folklore is occupied by Gods of the highest level.
Among Yakutian (Siberian) shamans, each shaman is allotted his or her own tree and the well-being of the shaman is dependent on the tree. Chopping down the tree spells death for the shaman. In some instances, dead shamans are entombed in the hollow of a tree and this it is where the shaman’s spirit resides i.e. it becomes the shaman’s spirit tree.
In Altai shamanic circles the tree is symbolic of the world’s center and the tree is the dwelling place of many magical animals and each of these animals have a specific function. Like spirit guides, they have the ability to foretell the future, determine destinies and act as celestial guardians.
Sitting perched on the upper boughs of this tree are two birds who call out the days of the living and who have the ability to see where the spirits of the dead will go following their demise. In the middle branches sit two silver clawed eagles that act as guardians of the living. These eagles also call out to lost heroes directing them as to the proper cause of action.
At the base of this tree there are two black dogs, with flashing eyes that gaze constantly at the underworld. Altai folklore also suggests that all trees have spirits for example when a hero in an epic poem leaves his son in the care of the spirits of the birch trees.
Trees are also worshiped in Mongolian shamanic circles. These trees are like normal trees i.e. they are not the dwelling places of spirits but by virtue of worshipping these trees one is blessed with good fortune and therefore it is possible to say that it is the spirit of the tree as opposed to the spirits of the heavenly deities that reside on the tree that bring about a turn of good fortune.
It is also possible to equate the tree with the Hungarian Tree of life and draw inferences from the legend of the sky-high tree. Interestingly enough the legend also mentions a horned buffalo. According to the legend the tree is divided into many tiers and the highest tier is occupied by the legendary bird-hawk, Turul, and other celestial and heavenly beings.
As a matter of interest it is import to realize that shamans are divide into white shamans and black shamans i.e. those that commune with white spirits and those that commune with dark spirits and as a result most shamans draw their energies from one source or another.
It is also further possible to surmise that the strength of the spirit that guides the shaman depends on the tier it occupies i.e. the higher the spirit is on the tree, the stronger its abilities and these are the spirits that guide warriors through the valley of dreams during vision quest or the seeking of visions.
The sun dance reaffirms the connection between spirits and nature. The dance is held every summer on the day of the full moon and is blessed by the radiance of Celeste. The festivities are accompanied by music and dance and various plain bands gather to perform during the dance. It is from all accounts a lively and entertaining occasion.
Dancers, pledge to make offerings of their flesh to strengthen the nation and to fulfill personal vows. The choice to participate is always at the discretion of the dancer and it is usually the result of receiving a sacred dream. It is also sometimes undertaken to seek the assistance of spiritual entities in healing a sick loved one.
The fifth sacred rite of the Lakota is Hunkapi or the right to foster or forge new relationships and it solidifies existing bonds and paves the way for new alliances. It is reflective of the personal relationship that one shares with the center of the universe or the tree that symbolizes the center of the universe.
It can also be interpreted as the rite of procreation or a rite that facilitates the expansion of familial bonds which of course is essential to perpetuate the continuity of the people and to preserve the longevity of the nation.
The nation is strong for only as long as its people continue to foster and forge new relationships and persist with repairing any damage that may have resulted with the passage of time or from past indiscretions. It is also a means to address grievances and to set aside any past disputes and in certain cases to start anew.
The rite may also be a means to enhancing the bond one has with the totem pole (the totem pole may at times represent the sacred tree that is synonymous to the center of the universe).
A totem pole in short, is a sacred object that is relative or unique to a clan, a tribe or even a family and it is perceived to be a spirit-being that is sacred to a specific person or a group of people and it is in the interest of those that are connected to the totem pole to keep the spiritual relationship alive. In more contemporary terms the spirit-being that the totem pole represents is akin to a guardian angel.
The fifth rite may also equate to fostering better relations with one’s spirit guide. According to Native American legends and traditions there are many spirits that may act as guides for example animal spirits, elemental spirits and tree spirits. These spirits not only act as guides in the valley of dreams during vision quest but also as guardians and in certain cases healers.
Spirits in Native American culture and tradition are synonymous to deities in some other cultures and these spirits are the harbingers of good tidings and the bearers of good fortune.
These spirits are similar to deities in eastern cultures (many of these deities are peculiar to specific localities) and just as there are numerous deities, there are also numerous spirits, too many in fact to list down or compile.
It is a rite that is reflective and parabolic of cultures that are keen on fostering better relationships with all beings, regardless of whether these beings are spiritual or corporeal, and to some extent it is an admittance that we share this world with many other beings, some that may not be visible to the naked eye.
It would be a good idea to keep an open mind and to acknowledge the fact that spirits may not always equate to the lingering spirits of the dead and may equate or may be synonymous to the spiritual matter that forms the core of all things, both animate and inanimate.
The sixth rite of the Lakota is Isnati Awicalowanpi or the puberty ceremony. The ceremony takes place after a girl’s first menses, and it is held to ensure that the girl will grow up to have all the virtues of a Lakota woman and that she understand the meaning of her new role. It is also conducted to formally announce her eligibility as a potential wife and a mother.
There is an exact same ceremony that is held in the East Indian culture as soon as a young girl reaches puberty. It is viewed as an important event in the life of all young girls and celebrated accordingly.
The seventh rite is Tapa Wankayeyapi or throwing the ball. It is a game which represents the course of a man’s life. A young girl stands at the center and throws a ball upwards and to the four corners as others vie to catch it. The first person to catch the ball is considered to be more fortunate than the rest – the ball is symbolically equated to knowledge.
This rite acknowledges that all persons have a right to knowledge but they must be willing to work hard and compete to obtain it. Among other things, it instills a sense of fair competitiveness especially among young children.
Vision quest or the seeking of visions is undertaken to seek random visions. In most instances the seeker is searching for an event that will unravel or manifest itself in the future and the event at the time it appears to the seeker may or may not make sense to him and the seeker may require the help of an elder or a medicine man or a shaman to help him interpret his vision. He may or may not be part of the vision.
Let’s compare these visions to visions of clairvoyance or precognition and let us try and identify the common factors and determine the factors that differentiate vision quest visions from visions of clairvoyance or pre-cognition.
Clairvoyance and pre-cognition are abilities to see into the future and from that aspect they are sometimes comparable to visions that appear during meditation but the subject does not have the ability to control the visions that appear in the form of a dream. The visions often appear in sudden flashes or bursts of images and disappear as quickly as they’d come leaving behind a lingering memory and days, months or years later when the event does unfold the subject is left with a sense of déjà vu.
This in simplistic terms is what clairvoyance or pre-cognition really is. It happens to most of us at some time or other and we are often left searching for answers and we often put it down to the unexplainable or divine intervention.
Those who know what these visions really are, these visions more often than not occur when the body is asleep, are deemed to have the gift of clairvoyance and pre-cognition and they use it for their own benefit (which is the way it should be) and some use it to help others.
Vision quest or the seeking of visions however is slightly different in that, it not only reveals future events but it is also reveals past events, i.e. a vision from the past, and this becomes of use when we are trying to come to terms with the present. There is a valid reason for most things and the answer sometimes lies in the past.
The images appear, for those who have experienced them; in full Technicolor i.e. they are identical or synonymous to actual images, sometimes with sound and at other times without. These images are very real and sometimes the dreamer or the seeker experiences an outflow or an outpour of emotions and it may be love, anger, hate, or any of the other normal emotions that we are all subjected to.
This outflow or outpour of emotions can leave a person sagged, sapped or drained until he or she learns to appreciate them for what they are i.e. they are merely intimations for future events or a blast from the past, maybe from a previous existence (regressive hypnosis or past life regression therapy proves that we can remember or recollect instances from our past lives).
Someone may well ask the question, what is the significance or relevance of going over something that has happened in the past? Well the simple answer is if we knew what happened in the past then we can make amends in the future. Past life regression is also used to remedy lingering illnesses like joint pains which according to same sources may not be the result of an injury sustained in this life but a result of an injury sustained in a past life that makes itself evident in the present life.
Vision quest or the seeking of visions takes the innate ability that most of us have to another level in that it tries to stimulate or induce these images or visions i.e. they do not occur naturally during sleep or meditation but are the result of subjecting oneself to a rigorous process.
It can be done in the manner which the Lakota do it though I must admit that going without water does make me slightly apprehensive and therefore it should only be done with the help and guidance of a holy man or someone who is well versed with the process.
The seeker pledges to stay on an isolated hill for one to four days with a blanket and a pipe, but without food and water to experience these visions. During this time he may seek the guidance of spirits to help him with his quest and therefore it is somewhat possible to surmise that guidance from spirits helps us channel our innate abilities. The smoking of the pipe may also stimulate the process.
The bond between a shaman and his or her spirit tree has been a long-established principle of shamanism and many cultures of antiquity adhere to the principle that the abilities of the shaman are very much dependent on the shaman’s spirit tree, to the extent that the metaphoric tree has taken on a life of its own and has become a central feature or facet of shamanism.
The shaman tree can be divided into two types. The first type or category of shaman trees are trees where spirits or spiritual entities reside. These trees have their origins in the realm of folklore and are often divided into different tiers. The strength of the spirit is dependent on the tier that the spirit occupies. Spirits that reside on higher tiers are stronger than those that occupy lower tiers. It is therefore possible, in this manner, to distinguish between inferior spirits and spirits of a higher capacity.
The second type of shamanic trees are trees that have a spirit i.e. these trees have a soul and it is the soul or the spirit of these trees that help and assist shamans during shamanic rites and rituals. The tree that is most commonly associated to having a spirit of its own is the birch tree and the use of birch trees, milk, white colors and white ribbons are prevalent in Altai shamanism. The color white symbolizes purity and this aspect of Altai Shamanism is also known as the milk faith.
In addition to that there is also a tree that is called the world tree which without doubt has its origins in popular myth and it is more commonly referred to as the eternal poplar. According to Altai shamanic principles, the roads to the lower and higher levels of the world run along the trunk(s) of this tree and the tree unites the various levels of the world.
In ancient Turkic-Mongolian circles, these trees along with the sun, moon and the stars were venerated as deities and the bond between the shaman and the spirit tree is strengthened by repeatedly performing shamanic rituals in honor of these tress.
The worship of trees was also rampant among animistic cultures. It is a common precept among followers of the animistic faith that all things for example trees, mountains, rivers etc. have spirits. Tatar oral narratives handed down for generations give us an example of the spirit of the Alps. He is, according to legend, strong, swift, tall and proud.
It is usual among animistic cultures to characterize and attached tangible attributes to natural objects. In his book Religion in Primitive Cultures, Edward Taylor defines animism as the doctrine of Spiritual Beings.
In addition to birch trees, other trees like oak, cedar and ash were also worshiped in ancient Europe and it was widespread in pre-Christian Europe. This type of worship also extended to plants especially plants with healing properties and it’s not unheard off or uncommon to assign plants especially those with medicinal value some sort of divine status.
Animism, as a religion, gives all things, animate and inanimate, character, and that includes attributing salient or prominent features like gender, strength and height to name a few, to the object(s) of worship and the characteristics that are attributed to the object(s) are a general perception of what the object(s) represent and this representation becomes the soul or the spirit of the object.
The spirit of a tree for example may be described as strong and uncompromising if the tree remains and has remained stolid for years. The spirit of the tree may be described as tainted if the bark is covered with blight and it is beset with insect infestation. Similarly, a withering tree that has lost its leaf cover may be described as a dying tree and the spirit of the tree can be described as being on the verge of being set free to either become an acorn that will grow into a new tree or achieve salvation or liberation.
Likewise, a monolith that has stood the test of time may be ascribed with attributes of being strong and enduring and may even be worshiped in some circles as bestowing providence and good luck.
It is very similar to the ancient Persian belief that all things have at their core a soul. It is practically impossible of course to determine if a tree actually does have a soul or otherwise but according to most sources, the worship of trees can bring about a turn of good fortunate unless of course the spirit of the tree is tainted or polluted.
Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward