When we consider the symbolism and thought of the American Indians it is necessary to keep in mind that both the Indian and his philosophy or religion are relics of a former great Root-Race and of another cycle. Also we should not read into symbol or idea too much of our own Theosophy. We should not suppose that the Indian of the past century understood his ancient symbolism as we today may understand it. We should not suppose even that the Indian of the past century understood this ancient symbolism of his as it was originally understood. Nor must we expect to find the Indians of this generation retaining much of the knowledge of their grandfathers, or, if they do, speaking of it to strangers.
There is abundant evidence, however, of a former mystical religion or system of thought, tinged though it often is with traces of Atlantean magic and Atlantean ideas.
Throughout North America one finds a graphic symbolic idea or plan — very simple and sketchy here, very elaborate there, but recognisable in some form — in most Indian tribes. The customary greeting offered to the Sun at sunrise; the symbolic four puffs of smoke as the pipe is passed around the circle of the council fire; the four divisions of a pottery bowl design; these and hundreds of other customs indicate the living symbol of which they are a part.
Here also lies the explanation of the curious white, red, blue, yellow, black and spotted Indian corn of the Southwest, symbolic of the four cardinal points, the regions above and the regions below, and why such pains have been taken to keep each strain pure. (Botanists tell us that for many thousands of years Indian corn has been propagated only with the aid of man, as it cannot reproduce itself without aid.) This widely distributed symbolic scheme is that of the Four Winds or, one may say, of the Four Directions. It appears on aboriginal pottery, blankets, baskets, and sand paintings. Now one may hear it referred to as twofold, now fourfold, sixfold, or twelvefold, according to the degree in which this ancient idea is elaborated.
Among the native tribes of California, for instance, the belief is widespread that everything in the world — men, animals, and plants — belongs to either a water class or moiety, or a land class or moiety. The Miwok refer to these two classes as Frog People and Bluejay People. The Cupeno speak of them as the Coyote People and the Wildcat People. Other tribes have different names, but all signify a water or cold (lunar) division, and a land or warm (solar) division. One is reminded of the Yang and Yin of the Chinese philosophers, and the eight trigrams built up of various combinations of these two elements. In medieval Europe, Paracelsus said: "Two complexions of Nature should be noted: one is hot, the other cold." In old Greece, Ptolemy, in his Tetrabiblos divided the Zodiac into two parts, a solar half from Leo to Capricorn, and a lunar half from Cancer to Aquarius, the former dry, the latter watery. More recently, Baron Reichenbach found that his sensitives distinguished various substances as being either warm or cold, which qualities he designated as "plus od" or "minus od," and gave a long list of substances so classified.
The Aztec prayer to the Gods of the Showers began: "Ye who dwell at the four corners of the earth . . ." Both Algonquins and Dakotas traced their ancestry to four personages, identified with the four winds. The Creek Indians tell us of four brothers, who came from the four directions bringing fire from each of the cardinal points.
The Indians of the great plains, such as the Sioux and Omaha, emphasize the fourfold division, although they recognise each direction as threefold and also speak of the upper and lower regions. With them the North, represented by a buffalo, is the region of earth, agriculture, hunting, etc. The East, represented by the thunder-bird, is the region of fire. The South, the region of the wind-makers, is represented by an eagle. The West, the region of the beaver, is the home of the Water People.
Here we find water opposed to fire, and earth opposed to air, while Christian tradition and modern astrology transpose fire and water, placing earth opposite water, fire opposite air, and follow the order Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Certain western Masonic traditions, on the other hand, derived through the Talmud, follow the same order as the Indians.
Among the Osage tribe, each mystic hearth was consecrated by placing four sticks in the form of a cross and building the fire on these sticks. In doing this the Indian would, if he belonged to the fire gens, place the first stick towards the east; if of the water gens, he would point the first stick towards the west, and the others would be laid down in order.
Certain animals were symbolic of particular directions, and every Indian with an animal name was considered to belong to the element and direction associated with that animal. The class to which a man belonged was determined as he entered manhood, at which time he kept a prolonged fast on some isolated mountain until he dreamed or saw a vision which indicated to him his place and name in the tribal scheme. Just what the directions meant is difficult for us to understand. Certainly they symbolized much more than the points of the compass. Among the Plains Indians they seem to have signified directions of thought and consciousness as well. Among the Zuni of the Southwest they were sometimes referred to as "Inner Worlds." In general, the directions may be thought of as signifying the four elements, and the emotions and feelings associated with Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.
Those familiar with the visions described in the Book of Enoch may be surprised to learn that the Zuni tell of four great seas, one in each quarter of the Universe, in each of which rises a sacred mountain, each of a different color.
Among the Sioux, all adult members of the tribe belonged to one or other of the four directions and at the council fire the members sat in their appropriate quarter of the circle. In effect, the tribe was divided into four castes, each caste having definite occupations and ceremonies which they might attend and personal names which they might bear.
In the tribal organization, the Earth People assist the Fire People, the Fire People and Water People are hostile or inharmonious to one another. The Fire People and Wind-maker People are concerned in all kinds of suffering, and work together. The Water People are concerned in death and in the after-death states. They have charge of all funeral ceremonies. To still further complicate the picture, the guardian of each mystic direction has his servants assisting him in each of the other directions.
As with the two-fold classification of the California Indians, we here find everything classed according to a fourfold order.
When we use the expressions, "From the East comes light," or, "Look to the East," we are expressing the same sentiment the Indian does when he offers greetings to the Sun at daybreak, or when he refers to the four winds or four directions.