The Four Directions

"See, I fill this sacred pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before we smoke it, you must see how it is made and what it means. These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow. But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One, which is like a father, and also it is for the thoughts of men that should rise high as eagles do."

Black Elk (1863-1950) Oglala Sioux holy man

Medicine Wheel

When a Native American prays to the four directions, it is a prayer to the spirits of the world, to life and the Great Spirit that encompasses the four directions and everything that is. The Medicine Wheel is a symbol that incorporates the four directions. Its spokes point east, south, west, and north. The four quarters are colored red, yellow, black, and white representing the races of man, the seasons, and the stages of life from childhood to old age. The circle is the earth, the moon and the planets. It is the circle of life and all creation.

The simplicity of the symbol is profound. It is four directions. One could divide the world into 8 points of a compass, 360 degrees, or an infinite number of directions, but four is perfect. We humans KNOW four directions. We see forward, but not back, and facing forward we have two sides. Four directions are part of our biology and our psychology. They are archetypes of the highest order. As such they are powerful carriers of  symbolic meaning.

Native American traditions may vary somewhat in the terms they use to describe the meaning of the four directions, but the sources of the meaning are the same.

East is where the sun rises. The eastern spirit of sun or fire brings warmth and light. It is the place of beginnings. Its light brings wisdom. It is the power of knowledge.

South is the sun at its highest point. It is the direction from where warm winds blow. South is the spirit of earth, the power of life. It represents peace and renewal.

West is the spirit of water. It is the direction from which darkness comes. It is the power of change, the place of dreams, introspection and the unknown. The west signifies purity and strength.

North is the spirit of wind. The cold wind blows from the north. It is the power of wisdom. Here we take time to reflect on what we began in the east, in the morning, in our youth.


Take time to make the world your sacred place. Stand in the middle of the circle of life and give thanks to the four directions. Take your time and attune to the spirit and power of each direction. Look at the gifts each direction gives you. Learn and appreciate the symbols for each direction, but then move out of the abstraction of the symbols and make it personal. Deepen your relationship with the four directions and with the whole of life they form together.

Face east and give thanks for the warmth of the sun and the coming new day. Pray for the power of knowledge.

Face south and give thanks for the gift of life on this moist earth. Pray for the power to grow.  Pray for peace in the world.

Face west and give thanks for the water of life. Pray for purity and strength. Pray for self understanding.

Face north and give thanks for the great white cleansing wind. Pray for the wisdom of experience.

Medicine Wheel

Links of interest:

An Introduction to the Navajo Culture

Native American Spirituality

The Medicine Wheel

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To the current Meditation of the Week


© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett