The Sweat Lodge
By Shaman Elder Maggie Wahls
Healing and inner vision was and still is a strong source of power for the Native Americans. But there needed to be sufficient preparation and purification to receive the constant guidance and help of God and the spirit guides.
The sweat bath is a means of purification. It cleans the body and soul so one can communicate with Spirit. The sweat lodge played an important role in many Native American tribes. The Crow believe that it was the first medicine given to man. It was higher in importance for these people than even fasts and important ceremonies. It healed and cleansed bodies and souls.
Every part of the sweat lodge had meaning. To the Crow people, the lodge itself represented the First Workers body. The steam from the heated stones and the smoke rising from burning sage and bear grass were His image.
The Sioux felt that the sweat lodge called all four elements into this lodge: earth and water, fire and rocks and also the sky and its dwellers. Water reminds us of Spirit’s life giving power. The willow branches which formed the outer shell of the lodge showed us the seasons, death and rebirth. A taste of this true life beyond the physical could be felt here in this purification of body and mind to bring one closer to the Great Spirit. The lodge was built in line with the four directions and became a microcosm of the whole universe as everything was contained within it: water, earth, air and fire. The door of the sweat lodge faced east towards the direction of the rising sun.
Rocks were heated in a small pit a few yards from the lodge and brought in by the tenders of the sweat lodge called water carriers. The rocks represented Mother Earth from whence we all are born. The fire to heat the rocks represent the sun, the great power of Spirit which illuminates all things and brings growth.
A sacred hole was dug in the center of the lodge to receive the hot stones. It was symbolic of the center of the universe where the Great Spirit dwells. It was aligned again with the four directions and prayers were offered in the construction of this holy center that the participants would reach that final resurrection of the soul and live with Him in the heavenly realms when their days here were over.
The earth removed from the sacred hole was used to create a path leading from the lodge off to the east with a small mound of dirt at the end of the path. This was called the sacred path of life and again prayers were offered so that as they walked this path they would be protected and blessed throughout their lives.
All those who wished to participate in the rite now entered the lodge and walked clockwise around the lodge and sat around the perimeter on a bed of sacred sage. The leader’s pipe was passed silently around the group for all to share a puff of tobacco as a communion with Spirit. Then the door was closed which represented man’s ignorance and the water chief would pour four cups of water onto the hot stones in the middle of the lodge. Hot steam filled the darkness and participants would raise their prayers silently to the Great One hoping to be acceptably purified so as to receive guidance and protection.
During the sweat the door would be opened four times to allow more hot rocks to be passed into the lodge. Each time the door opened it symbolized the light of wisdom being let in from outside and representing the four great ages of man’s evolution and to sweep away ignorance. The first four cups of water poured on the hot stones represented the arms and legs of the First Worker, drawing His presence to this place in body. The second seven cupfuls represented the Big Dipper or our connection to the whole universe. The third ten cupfuls represented the cluster stars and the places beyond this world, the Other Side Camp where our ancestors live on. The fourth water pouring was an indefinite number of cupfuls representing a “million wishes” or countless blessings upon the participants and all brothers and sisters.
The prayers that were offered by the participants focused on their desire to see with the eyes of the heart. They believed that if they were fully purified they might receive a vision from Spirit. Leaving the lodge at its finish was leaving ignorance and darkness behind. They were born anew to go walk in the light that had now been given to them. The final prayer was that this be a blessing on the entire nation of peoples. Often upon leaving they would plunge themselves into a cold river or stream or even roll in the snow to cleanse themselves of the sweat and leave the old behind once and for all.
All things used in the sweat lodge ceremony are sacred and must be understood if true purification is to be accomplished as it is in the act of symbolism and intent that the power of the sweat lodge resides.
To read more: Spirits of the Plains by Thomas E. Mails
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