image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The previous post examined some aspects of the power and spiritual significance of the circle, as related by the holy man Black Elk when he decided to let his vision be written down and published for all people to share.
This decision on Black Elk's part was very deliberate, of course, and one he obviously thought about very, very carefully: he explains at one point in the narrative that he "has lain awake at night worrying and wondering if I was doing right" by telling the full story of his vision and allowing it to be printed in a book. Then he says: "But I think I have done right to save the vision in this way, even though I may die sooner because I did it; for I know the meaning of the vision is wise and beautiful and good; and you can see that I am only a pitiful old man after all" (206).
Having explored a little of the sacred meaning of the circle, and its connection to the unending circle of life, to the sky, to the infinite and to the unseen world, we can now better understand one of the most significant aspects of Black Elk's great vision, which came to him in the summer when he was nine years old and which guided him throughout his life. That vision was extremely rich in detail and symbolism, all of which became important to him in the years ahead, but one image which he was shown in his vision which informs the entire book and to which he refers over and over again is the image of the two roads that he was shown crossing inside the sacred hoop: a black road running east and west, and a red road running north and south.
Black Elk first introduces the concept of the black road and the red road in his full description of his vision. It is shown to him and explained to him by one of the Six Grandfathers, whom he meets in the spirit world and who fill him with awe and cause him to shake with fear when he first meets them, because, as he says, "I knew that these were not old men, but the Powers of the World" (25). They are six in number because they each represent the power of a different direction: the first being the Power of the West, the second of the North, the third of the East, the fourth of the South, the fifth of the Sky, and the sixth of the Earth (25).
It is the fourth Grandfather, of the South, who shows Black Elk the vision of the sacred hoop of the people and the two roads which bisect it into four quarters:
Then when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again: "Behold the earth!" So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a hoop of peoples, and in the center bloomed a holy stick that was a tree, and where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black. "From where the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good," the Grandfather said, "and on it shall your nation walk. The black road goes from where the thunder beings live (the west) to where the sun continually shines (the east), a fearful road, a road of troubles and of war. On this also you shall walk, and from it you shall have the power to destroy a people's foes. In four ascents you shall walk the earth with power." 29.
Black Elk refers back to these two roads many times throughout his narrative: together these two road form one of the most important themes in his entire telling of his story.
Many years later, when Black Elk was twenty years old, he realizes that he must perform parts of his vision for the people to see, and he carries a pipe to "a wise and good old medicine man" named Fox Belly, and asks him to help him with this duty of performing the vision for the people (205). After explaining part of his vision to Fox Belly, the old medicine man tells Black Elk: "My boy, you had a great vision, and I can see that it is your duty to help the people walk the red road in a manner pleasing to the Powers" (206). Black Elk explains how the performance of the vision was prepared:
First we made a sacred place like a bison wallow at the center of the nation's hoop, and there we set up the sacred tepee. Inside this we made the circle of the four quarters. Across the circle from south to north we painted a red road, and Fox Belly made little bison tracks all along on both sides of it, meaning that the people should walk there with the power and endurance of the bison, facing the great white cleansing wind of the world. Also, he placed a the north end of the road the cup of water, which is the gift of the west, so that the people, while leaning against the great wind with the endurance of the bison, would be going toward the water of life.
I was painted red all over like the man of my vision before he turned into a bison. I wore bison horns, and on the left horn hung a piece of the daybreak-star herb, which bears the four-rayed flower of understanding. On the left side of my body I wore a single eagle feather, which was for my people, hanging on the side of the bison and feeding there. 207.
Throughout the book, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of Black Elk's story is the anguish he expresses over the fact that he sees his people walking the black road and the sacred hoop being destroyed, and his feeling that he has somehow not lived up to the vision he was given. At one point he says, in explaining his decision at the age of 23 to travel with Buffalo Bill's show to see the east coast and eventually even cross the water to England:
I looked back on the past and recalled my people's old ways, but they were not living that way any more. They were traveling the black road, everybody for himself and with little rules of his own, as in my vision. I was in despair, and I even thought that if the Wasichus had a better way, then maybe my people should live that way. I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair. 215.
Later still, when he hears of the beginnings of the Ghost Dance and the fact that the holy man, whose name was Wavoka and who had the original vision for the Ghost Dance, gave people sacred red paint as part of his vision to bring back the old ways, Black Elk says:
When I heard this about the red pain and the eagle feathers and about bringing the people back to the Great Spirit, it made me think hard. I had had a great vision that was to bring the people back into the nation's hoop, and maybe this sacred man had had the same vision and it was going to come true, so that the people would get back on the red road. 234.
And finally, when he was very old, Black Elk returns to Harney Peak which was the center of the hoop in his vision, to ask the Six Grandfathers, to help his people to "once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road" (274). In that final recorded prayer of Black Elk, he uses words to describe the cross inside of the sacred circle which are very significant, right at the beginning of his prayer:
Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you -- the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wings of the air and all green things that live. You have set the powers of the four quarters to cross each other. The good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross; and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things. 272.
The deep aspects of Black Elk's vision and of the hoop and the sacred cross of the red road and the black road can be very valuable to all of us to this day, to ponder and consider and reflect upon in our own lives and in our own time. We have already seen that he felt very strongly about sharing this vision with the world before allowing it to be written down, and that he felt so strongly that others should hear it that he decided to tell his vision, even if in doing so he might somehow "die sooner because of it." We should all be very grateful to Black Elk for sharing the great vision he was given, and try to do what we can in this life to fulfill the vision he desired so strongly, of going back into the sacred hoop and finding the good red road.
It also seems that an understanding of the similarities of this symbol of the two roads in the sacred hoop to that expressed in other versions of the ancient wisdom that was given to the people of the world might help us to do that. It seems very clear that the sacred hoop with the four quarters created by the crossing of the two roads has powerful points of connection with the crossing lines within the zodiac wheel, which has been shown in previous posts to relate to the "casting down of the Djed column" (horizontal line, drawn between the two equinoxes) and the "raising up of the Djed column" (vertical line, drawn between the two solstices). Below is a depiction of the sacred hoop:
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
And below is the image of the zodiac wheel with the cross created by the line of the equinoxes and the line of the solstices:
The similarity to the east-west black road and north-south red road described by Black Elk in his vision of the sacred hoop is obvious. We have seen in previous discussions that the cross above in the zodiac wheel goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt, in which the horizontal line was clearly associated with the death of Osiris and the "Djed column cast down," with incarnation in matter (which relates clearly to Black Elk's description of the black road as "a road of difficulties" and of struggle and hardship and war), and with the "animal" aspect of our existence (note that Black Elk says that when the people are on the black road it is "everybody for himself," or as we might say "dog-eat-dog").
Note, however, that Black Elk very clearly says in the words he uses to describe these two roads at the start of his final recorded prayer, that the place where "the good road and the road of difficulties have [been] made to cross" is a place that is holy: in fact, this crossing can be seen as this material life we are in now, in which we are figuratively "crucified" on the cross of matter, spirit plunged down into bodies of clay, or encased in "coats of skins." Both roads are somehow important to us on this journey; both roads support the sacred hoop. Our experience in this world of matter and struggles and difficulties is somehow importance to our spiritual elevation as well.
The vertical line was clearly associated with the raising up again of the cast-down Djed column, with the spiritual aspect of our dual human nature (in which we are both material and spiritual), and with seeing beyond the material aspects of our existence (the ones that cause us to act in a "dog-eat-dog" manner). For blog posts which explore this symbology as it appears in many sacred traditions around the world, including ancient Egypt and also the ancient Hindu Vedas of India, see here, here, here and here for example (there are many more).
The vertical line can also be shown to be related to the divine spark or fire hidden in our material forms of clay, and to the myth of Prometheus bringer of fire, as well as to the vertical "fire-stick" used to call forth fire out of another horizontal fire-stick, a symbol which is found in many ancient cultures but also a symbol which was used over and over by various prophets and visionaries among the American Indians, who often urged the people to go back to using fire-sticks to make fire as part of their message for bringing back the good life that was being stolen from them by the successive betrayals of the invading culture from western Europe which itself had lost touch with the same vision of this sacred cross in the hoop, long centuries before.
All of this can be shown to be related to the concept of "walking the good red road" that Black Elk so fervently desired. It is a message that involves the re-connection to the spiritual source of power and of life, of not being put into "boxes" or living in squares, and not acting in an "everybody for himself" fashion. It is a message that he desired to tell us to consider on both an individual level and a level of the greater whole, for each individual man and woman and also for all the people together.
And it is a message and a vision that is just as urgent today as it was in the terrible and turbulent times in which Black Elk lived.