The Medicine Wheel

medicine wheel
Over the years I have heard the term  medicine wheel crop up over and over again. I know of course, that its origins are from the North American Indians. And that it is deeply meaningful to them. Other than that, I know very little else.
I decided it was time to fill that knowledge gap. There is a rich and deep spiritual significance attached to the medicine wheel.  Deeply complex, it can be depicted and used in many different ways in ritual, health and spiritual matters.
Each tribe has its own totems and different, specific symbols for phases of life. There may be a similarity to them but there is no universal symbol across all tribes. The four different directions – North, South, East and West – seems to be common to many. Each quadrant has a depth and complexity contained within the symbolism requiring many years of study and contemplation to grasp it.
The Navajo 
The Navajo Medicine Wheel, for example, designates the following attributes and philosophical phrases to  the developmental stages depicted by  each direction:
  • Child: South/Mouse/Red

“With the sway of south winds we flow from the blood of the Mother, small as mice and innocent yet with powerful potential in our tiny eyes.”

  • Death: West/Bear/Black

“Our newborn dew passes off from us like the sun setting west.  We explore our domains and form conclusions about the way of things.  In play we mount courage and find our way as the bear. “

  • Adult: North/Buffalo/White

“As high pines kiss north skies, we stand tall in our growth. We provide, we expand, we rule thunderously as the buffalo.”

  • Birth: East/Eagle/Yellow

“The sun rises upon our lives and judges it fit for sacrifice.  With supple eagle wings we now slip off the flesh and climb light’s highest rung.”

four arrows medicine wheel
The Sioux

Four Medicine Arrowsthe Sioux medicine wheel,  is a symbol of enlightenment. In this, it is the inward pointing arrows which represent the four directions, symbols of enlightenment :

  • North arrow: Wisdom
  • South arrow: Innocence
  • East arrow: Far Seeing (or seeing into the future)
  • West arrow: Inner Seeing (introspection)
The Lakota

East:  sunrise, birth of new things, season of spring,  fire of life, associated with matters of the soul. This is often represented by the color yellow.

South: youth, sweetness, the water element (most rivers tend to run south), emotions and the season of summer. This is often represented by the color red.

West: sunset, adulthood, reaping the harvest of hard work, earth and stones, and entering the dark “cave” of hibernation and creativity, physical body and the season of autumn. This is often represented by the color black.

North:  is the direction of the ancestors and the wisdom of our elders (both alive and deceased), realm of the great return to spirit,  inner healing and insight from those who have walked before us, mind and the season of winter. North is often represented by the color white.

Other cultures  too utilise the symbology of the four directions. For example  in Chinese Feng Shui, each direction correlates to the Chinese zodiac animals:

  • North =  Rat: Adaptability, charm, creativity, sociability, wit.
  • East = Rabbit: Trust, sincerity, love, compassion.
  • South = Horse: Physical strength, health, adventure, loyalty.
  • West = Rooster: Confidence, business, energy, persistence.

Celtic symbolism and tradition utilises the four directions in ceremonies and festivals:

  • East = air, communication, new beginnings, new growth
  • South = fire, energy, passion, creativity
  • West = water, emotion, psyche, movement
  • North = earth, home, security, fertility

sun dial

Astrology acknowledges the four directions and their symbology in the zodiac:

  • East = Earth corresponding with Taurus
  • South = Fire corresponding with Leo
  • West = Water corresponding with Scorpio
  • North = Air corresponding with Aquarius

Although each of the ancient traditions has its differences, there is a universality of recognition in the role,  importance and  symbology the four directions hold.

The following is a Lakota prayer to the four directions:


Indian rock art

Four Directions Prayer

Creator, it is I. Thank you for today’s sunrise, for the breath and life within me, and for all of your creations. Creator, hear my prayer, and honor my prayer.

As the day begins with the rising sun, I ask, spirit keeper of the east, Brother Eagle, be with me. Fly high as you carry my prayers to the creator. May I have eyes as sharp as yours, so I am able to see truth and hope on the path I have chosen. Guide my step and give me courage to walk the circle of my life with honesty and dignity.

Spirit keeper of the south, Wolf, be with me. Help me to remember to love and feel compassion for all mankind. Help me to walk my path with joy and love for myself, for others, for the four legged, the winged ones, the plants and all creation upon Mother Earth. Show me it is right for me to make decisions with my heart, even if at times, my heart becomes hurt. Help me to grow and nurture my self worth in all ways.

Spirit keeper of the west, Brown Bear, be with me. Bring healing to the people I love and to myself. Bring into balance the physical, mental and spiritual, so I am able to know my place on this earth, in life and in death. Heal my body, heal my mind and bring light, joy and awareness to my spirit.

Spirit keeper of the north, White Buffalo, be with me. As each day passes, help me to surrender, with grace, the things of my youth. Help me to listen to the quiet, and find serenity and comfort in the silences as they become longer. Give me wisdom so I am able to make wise choices in all things which are put in front of me, and when time for my change of worlds has come, let me go peacefully, without regrets, for the things I neglected to do as I walked along my path.

Mother Earth, thank you for your beauty, and for all you have given me. Remind me never to take from you more than I need, and remind me to always give back more than I take.

– Vera Dery

The Lakota Prayer is sourced from the Sacred Science website. 
Nick Polizzi has spent his career producing and directing feature length documentaries about holistic alternatives to conventional medicine.

Nick’s current role as founder of “The Sacred Science” stems from a calling to honor, preserve, and protect the ancient knowledge and rituals of the indigenous peoples of the world.

© Raili Tanska
 Steps for Peace
Lakota Instructions for Living

Friend do it this way – that is, whatever you do in life, do the very best you can with both your heart and mind.
And if you do it that way, the Power Of The Universe will come to your assistance, if your heart and mind are in Unity.
When one sits in the Hoop Of The People, one must be responsible because All of Creation is related.
And the hurt of one is the hurt of all. And the honor of one is the honor of all. And whatever we do effects everything in the universe.
If you do it that way – that is, if you truly join your heart and mind as One – whatever you ask for, that’s the Way It’s Going To Be.

passed down from White Buffalo Calf Woman


12 thoughts on “The Medicine Wheel

  1. I love the Lakota prayer you included here. All the explanations of the meanings within the directions are really neat to see, too. Last summer I visited the Bighorn Medicine Wheel – and there, each direction had a different meaning, still. One thing is for sure: I think all people and all cultures have a need to derive meaning in their every day lives according to their experiences. Wonderful post!

  2. VERY interesting, Raili – I knew little about medicine wheels before reading this post. The Lakota prayer is a keeper! Worth memorizing and repeating frequently – saved it.

    Thanks for the link to Nick’s site too – I will be investigating shortly.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  3. Raili, my Aussie friend, thanks for explaining the medicine wheel and sharing that very moving prayer. This is what I like best about blogging – learning.

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