Chapter 14: The Horse Dance
In the Gospel of John, the author recounts a “voice from heaven” which is interpreted by some listeners as thunder and by others as an angel (12:28-29). Previously, I have discussed this heavenly voice as the divine voice that defends and protects society’s victims. For those who enjoy political and religious power that is built on the backs of victims, this voice sounds like thunder and judgment. For the victims themselves, the voice sounds like a saving angel.
I recall this “voice from heaven” as I read Black Elk describe his fear of the thunder beings. DeMallie explains that these thunder beings offered individuals particular powers that could be used either for personal glory and success or for the good of others. However, in order to activate those powers, one had to enact the vision ceremonially as a public testimony of the dream experience. Otherwise, the person would risk death by being struck by lightning.
According to this understanding, an individual is not punished because he or she uses power for personal glory as opposed to protecting victims. Rather, a person risks punishment and even death for not activating the powers that have been given to the individual in dreams. In order to activate the powers, one had to perform a communal ceremony that included preparatory fasting and cleansing in a sweat lodge (“They told me I must not eat anything until the horse dance was over, and I had to purify myself in a sweat lodge with sage spread on the floor of it, and afterwards I had to wipe myself dry with sage,” 101).
(DeMallie says that sage was called phezi hota or “gray grass” in Lakota and was used extensively in rituals. This fragrant plant was also used as medicine since its odor was said to drive away evil spirits.)
In Black Elk’s vision re-enactment ceremony, spirit horses appear and dance around the circle of the teepee. After the ceremony, Black Elk says, “The fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me. Everything seemed good and beautiful now, and kind” (109). What he initially experienced as horrifying thunder, he now experienced as a “relative,” an angel. After this, Black Elk began to tap into his healing powers as a medicine man.
This chapter makes me consider the insistent importance of our dreams and our rituals. Perhaps we should be paying much more attention to our dreams and to the powers given to us through them as well as to the rituals of prayer, meditation, Eucharist, etc. by which we activate the healing powers endowed to us in our dreams. If we continue to ignore these gifts, we might risk spiritual and even physical danger. If we attend to these gifts, our vision and understanding might change so that those things which we once thought to be dangerous and threatening might become loving and generous, like a relative, or even like an angel.
How can we attend more fully to our dreams and visions? And how we can activate the powers therein through ceremony and ritual? And how can we experience the thunder in our lives as angelic relatives?