Sunday, August 10, 2014

More on the spiritual significance of firesticks

In light of the foregoing post examining the profound importance anciently attached to the bringing of fire to humanity, its association with the constellations of Orion (who may well represent Prometheus-Kronos-Saturn-Osiris) and Gemini (who may represent the "celestial fire sticks" and the hollow reed in which Prometheus hid the fire when he stole it away from the realm of the gods and brought it down to earth) and the lost Golden Age, and its esoteric and spiritual significance, it is more than noteworthy that numerous Native American prophets or medicine men in past centuries reported visions in which they received a message from the spirit world to stop using the white man's steel and flint to kindle fires, and to return to the traditional fire sticks.

In his first-hand account of the Ghost Dance Religion and the massacre of Native Americans by the US Army at Wounded Knee, James Mooney (whose work of trying to record and preserve details of Native American culture and spirituality was also mentioned in this previous post) goes back to the mid-1700s in his examination of the roots of the Ghost Dance.

Mooney begins his examination of prophets who were given visions which advocated a union of all the various tribes and "a return to the old Indian life" with an individual known to Mooney only as the Delaware Prophet but identified today as Neolin or "the Enlightened One," who in 1761 sought a spirit vision and fell into a deep sleep in which he went on a long journey to the other realm, where he received specific instructions that he brought back and began to relate, and which subsequently spread from tribe to tribe, eventually playing a central role in the conflict known as Pontiac's War.

According to the account of John McCullough, who had been captured at the age of eight and adopted into a family of the Delaware people in northeastern Ohio, and whom Mooney cites at length regarding the details of the message of the Delaware Prophet:
It was said by those who went to see him that he had certain hieroglyphics marked on a piece of parchment, denoting the probation that human beings were subjected to whilst they were living on earth, and also denoting something of a future state. They informed me that he was almost constantly crying whilst he was exhorting them. I saw a copy of his hieroglyphics, as numbers of them had got them copied and undertook to preach or instruct others. The first or principal doctrine they taught them was to purify themselves from sin, which they taught they could do by the use of emetics and abstinence from carnal knowledge of the different sexes; to quit the use of firearms, and to live entirely in the original state that they were in before the white people found out their country. Nay, they taught that that fire was not pure that was made by steel and flint, but that they should make it by rubbing two sticks together.  . . . It was said that their prophet taught them, or made them believe, that he had his instructions immediately from Keesh-she-la-mil-lang-up, or a being that thought us into being, and that by following his instructions they would, in a few years, be able to drive the white people out of their country.
I knew a company of them who had secluded themselves for the purpose of purifying from sin, as they thought they could do. I believe they made no use of firearms. They had been out more than two years before I left them. . . . It was said that they made use of no other weapons than their bow and arrows. They also taught, in shaking hands, to give the left hand in token of friendship, as it denoted that they gave the heart along with the hand. [Mooney, 668; ellipses in the original].
Superficial accounts of the message of the Delaware Prophet will typically include the restrictions against drinking the white man's alcohol (mentioned in numerous other accounts of Neolin's message) and the admonishment to return to the bow and arrow and to traditional garments of skin rather than using European clothes, but the specific requirement to abstain from making fire with steel and tinder, and to use none other than the rubbing of two sticks, is often omitted. 

And yet it is no doubt of great importance, for the exact same admonishment was received in a vision reported in 1805 (forty-four years after the vision reported by the Delaware Prophet) by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, the brother of Tecumseh. Based upon contemporary reports, Mooney relates the vision of Tenskwatawa as follows:
[. . .] one day, while lighting his pipe in his cabin, he suddenly fell back apparently lifeless and remained in that condition until his friends had assembled for the funeral, when he revived from his trance, and after quieting their alarm, announced that he had been to the spirit world and commanded them to call the people together that he might tell them what he had seen. When they had assembled, he declared that he had been conducted to the border of the spirit world by two young men, who had permitted him to look in upon its pleasures, but not enter, and who, after charging him with the message to his people already noted, had left him, promising to visit him again at a future time. [Mooney, 673; my ellipses].
The details of the message with which Tenskwatawa said he had been charged were related by various witnesses of the era as follows:
The firewater of the whites was poison and accursed [. . .]. The young must cherish and respect the aged and infirm. All property must be in common, according to the ancient law of their ancestors. [. . .] The white man's dress, with his flint-and-steel, must be discarded for the old time buckskin and the firestick. More than this, every tool and every custom derived from the whites must be put away, and they must return to the methods which the Master of Life had taught them. 672.
Whether or not this message was derived from the message of the Delaware Prophet, which it resembles very closely in almost all of its details, the fact remains that the admonition to use only fire generated by the old method of using firesticks was a central part of the teaching. In fact, in the portrait of Tenskwatawa painted by the American artist George Catlin in 1830 or 1831, the prophet is shown holding his fire-sticks in his right hand, and his sacred string of beans in his all-important left hand, the hand which was connected to the heart, the beans with which those who accepted the vision would pass through their own left hands in a solemn ritual known as "shaking hands with the prophet" (described in Mooney 677-679).

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

It is certainly interesting as well to note the similarities of this account with contemporary accounts given by many survivors of near-death experiences, in which many have reported that they met personages at the entrance to the other world who allowed them to see some things but then explained that they had to go back now and could not go further, as it was not their time to leave this world. For further examination of the NDE phenomenon, see previous posts such as this one and this one, as well as Chris Carter's outstanding examination of the topic in Science and the Near-Death Experience.

In light of the discussion in the previously-linked post about Prometheus and the gift of fire, and the identification of the fire-sticks found in mythologies the world over with the stick-like constellation of Gemini the Twins (almost certainly the constellation being depicted in the Panel of the Wounded Man in the Cave of Lascaux as a figure composed of two parallel lines, an identification brilliantly argued by William Glyn-Jones and discussed here and here), is it not also most remarkable that in the vision reported by Tenskwatawa in 1805 his guides in the spirt world are "two young men"?  

In light of the undeniable importance attached to using two sticks to kindle fire in the historical accounts of the visions reported by both Neolin and Tenskwatawa, it is not unreasonable to conclude that there may have existed an ancient sacred tradition, passed down through the generations, of the spiritual significance of the kindling of fire using the two sticks -- and perhaps also the connection of this tradition to the heavenly Twins of Gemini.

For those who wish to follow the visions received by the Delaware Prophet and Neolin, and use no fire but those derived from a fire that was started with firesticks, the method is demonstrated in the video above (as well as many others available on the web today).  If you were to kindle a fire using this method every day, you would no doubt become an expert at it in short order.

Two different methods of fire making without matches using a vertical fire-stick along a horizontal fire-stick (pramantha and arani in the Vedas of ancient India, whose importance as a spiritual symbol of human existence simply cannot be overstated, and which are also discussed in the aforementioned post about Prometheus) are shown in this page from the Air Force survival manual that I used to read frequently while I was growing up (and mentioned in this and this previous post):

Of course, the methods shown in the top panel (flint and steel) and in the left-hand lower panel (burning glass and electric spark from a live storage battery) would not be approved methods according to the visions of Neolin and Tenskwatawa; those in the square panel at the lower right of the page all involve two sticks and thus would be -- that panel is enlarged below:

Of course, the 1960s Air Force clothing depicted would probably not be looked upon with favor by those eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century visionaries.

Below is a recent music video from the fantastic musician, poet, songwriter, teacher, and advocate for human freedom and justice Michael Franti (and SOJA) in which he is seen making fire using a version of the two-sticks method. He holds the lower stick between his feet -- Michael Franti has chosen to walk this world barefoot for at least the past fifteen years:

The concept of the fire-sticks has deep connections to the concept of human consciousness, of raising greater awareness of our purpose here in this incarnation (in which we can be seen as sparks which have come down to inhabit the matter of our bodies within this material realm), and -- as can be seen from its importance in visions which centered around resistance to the injustice which was being inflicted upon the Native American inhabitants of this continent and the destruction which was being wrought upon their way of life -- of the mindfulness we should take in our lives to align ourselves with the right path.