image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The sayings of Black Elk, who walked on this earth between the years that we call 1863 and 1950, preserved in the book Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt, first published in 1932, have many profound messages of great importance to individuals and society today.
Black Elk's message and his words should be pondered deeply.
This particular essay will examine only one small aspect of his message. Many, many more things are there to return to on another day. Other aspects of his message have been explored in previous discussions (see especially here).
One very important thread running through the words of Black Elk as recorded by John Neihardt concerns the sacred numbers of his people, which often appear in his visions, and which he often explains at the appropriate point in his narrative. Related to this concept is the concept of the sacred shapes which he discusses, and their meanings, especially the shapes of the circle and the square.
As an example of the importance of sacred number, Black Elk often discusses the number six as it relates to all the directions of the world: the four directions in horizontal space (which we might say relate to an X-axis and a Y-axis, as well as to the four cardinal directions of East, South, West and North), plus the two vertical directions of above and below, or up and down (and which we might also describe as including the Z-axis, and thus providing all the necessary referents for any point in space).
In addition to the number six, he also describes the importance of the number four, and relates it to the four stations of the sacred hoop which sustains all life on earth, and which he associates at some points in his narrative with the earth. The concept of the sacred hoop of the Lakotas and other American Indian nations was often expressed as a circle containing the equal lines of a cross, and it can be seen to be closely related to the outline of the zodiac wheel with its horizontal and vertical cross-lines which is discussed in many previous posts, including here and here.
Here is a passage in which Black Elk explains these sacred numbers, which appear often in his great vision:
I sent a pipe to Running Elk, who was Standing Bear's uncle and a good and wise old man. He came and was willing to help me. We set up a sacred tepee at the center as before. I had to use six elks and four virgins. The elks are of the south, but the power that they represented in my vision is nourished by the four quarters and from the sky and the earth; so there were six of them. The four virgins represented the life of the nation's hoop, which has four quarters; so there were four virgins. Running Elk chose two of the elks, and I, who stood between the Power of the World and the nation's hoop, chose the four others, for my duty was to the life of the hoop on earth. The six elk men wore complete elk hides on their backs and over their heads. 209.
In another passage, a very poignant passage, Black Elk discusses the difference between the circle and the square, two sacred shapes which each played a very important role in his culture and in his visions. As he explains in this passage, even though the number four is related to the earth's four directions, and has an important role to play in the world, it is the circle which manifests the vitality and power of life. Note, for instance, that in the passage above, he actually associates the number four with the four quarters of the sacred hoop, preserved by the figures of the four virgins, who are connected with our life here on earth. In other words, he connects the number four to a quartered circle, rather than to a square, in the enactment of that particular vision.
The importance of the circle takes on added meaning as Black Elk explains how it is at the heart of everything in his culture, and how he feels that his people's connection to the circle has been taken away, to their terrible detriment:
After the heyoka ceremony, I came to live here where I am now between Wounded Knee Creek and Grass Creek. Others came too, and we made these little gray houses of logs that you see, and they are square. It is a bad way to live, for there can be no power in a square.
You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, and south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
But the Wasichus have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying, for the power is not in us any more. [. . .].
We are prisoners of war while we are waiting here. But there is another world. 195 - 196.
This passage is very profound: it is like a deep pool into which we could dive and go down for a long time without ever reaching the bottom of it. One thing it tells us is that the heavenly realms are associated with the circle, for the sky itself appears round, and the heavenly beings such as the sun and moon are round themselves and also follow cycles that make endless circles: "the sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round."
Black Elk explains that the round shape of the tepee, and the arrangement of the tepees in a circle, is connected to the power of the circle, to the cycles of life, and the connection to nature (expressed in the reference to the round nests of birds). But now his people have been forced to live in squares instead of in circles.
There is much here to consider. One connection which I believe might be of value to draw out is the insights expressed in a recent interview by Marty Leeds, who has thought long and deeply on the significance of numbers and shapes and who arrives at many of the same conclusions about the numbers and shapes expressed above that Black Elk and his people seem to have known.
published in August of 2014, Marty explains beginning at about 0:41:35 into the interview:
Heaven is known as a circle: it's a three; and earth is known as a four: it's a square. OK, let's break this down: the circle encapsulates the most amount of space. [. . .] So, really what you have there with the inherent or innate symbolism of the circle is you have the All or the Entirety or the Wholeness, that its you know encapsulating.
Now, what's important about the circle is that we can never truly find its area! Why? Because we have to use Pi. We have to use Pi. And Pi, at one point, we have to approximate, as we were talking about before. So we can never, ever truly find the area of a circle. Why this is important is: why is itrelated to heaven? Because we can never truly measure the heavens! It's the infinite! Right? That makes sense -- that makes sense that it would be attributed to a circle.
Because, you know, like I said, Pi is this infinite number, we can't see it's "tail," we look out into the heavens [. . .] where is the edge of the universe? I don't know! You know? But now, look at a square. A square is earth. Well we can measure the earth. [. . .] The square: we can always find the area of a square. Always! Because all we have to do is square something. So if the length of the side of a square is two, well two times two or two squared is four, so therefore we know the area of a square. So this is why heaven is known as a circle, and the infinite, and earth is known as a square.
Marty then goes on to relate the square and the circle to the stupa of Buddhism, which can be seen as bringing the sacred circle of the heavens down to earth, in much the same way that the tepee and the ring of tepees connected to the sacred circles of the sun and moon and cyclical motions in the passage spoken by Black Elk, above.
What I find very interesting in the Marty Leeds passage cited here is the symbolic association of the circle with the "unmeasurable," which Marty finds due to his focus on the transcendental number of Pi. He explains that Pi is a number which goes on forever, and can never be completely known, but only approximated by us, since we must at some point "cut off its tail" and thus use an approximation of Pi rather than Pi itself. Thus the circle in some sense moves beyond this material world and into the other world -- the realm which cannot be actually perceived by the five-senses, or measured with the tools used to measure things in the material realm. Pi becomes a symbol for the transcendental and the realm beyond the material.
And this connection to the realm of spirit -- and the Power that comes from that other world -- is exactly what Black Elk is lamenting when he sees that his people now live in square houses, and are cut off from their connection to the circle. The circle is a symbol of the unseen world, the spirit world: Black Elk often refers to it as the "outer world," as he does in the passage cited above.
Elsewhere he makes very clear that, although that outer world may be invisible to our normal senses, it is very real -- and it is the source of power for those in this world.
His message speaks to the critical importance of the spirit world, and of maintaining a connection to the spirit world. It can even be seen as a message of the importance of connecting to the other world in daily life, even in details which might at first seem mundane or unimportant (such as the shape of the dwelling in which we choose to live).
His message also speaks to the tragedy of being cut off from the power of the other world.
This is something to think about deeply.