Chapter 16: Heyoka Ceremony
In this chapter, Black Elk describes the role of the heyoka (the sacred fool) in more detail. He says, “Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas” (117).
In the Heyoka ceremony, they would have thirty heyokas (one for each day of a moon) who would be “doing foolish tricks among the people to make them feel jolly. They were all dressed and painted in such funny ways that everybody who saw them had to laugh” (118). They are equivalent, in some ways, to clowns.
He then explains specific ways that the heyokas would make people laugh. He says, “For instance, two heyokas with long crooked bows and arrows painted in a funny way, would come to a little shallow puddle of water. They would act as though they thought it was a wide, deep river that they had to cross; so, making motions, but saying nothing, they would decide to see how deep the river was. Taking their long crooked arrows, they would thrust these into the water, not downwards, but flatwise just under the surface. This would make the whole arrow wet. Standing the arrows up beside them, they would show that the water was far over their heads in depth, so they would get ready to swim. One would then plunge into the shallow puddle head first, getting his face in the mud and fighting the water wildly as though he were drowning. Then the other would plunge in to save his comrade, and there would be more funny antics in the water to make the people laugh” (119- 120).
This reminds me of a scene in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which Robin Hood and Little John fight above a tiny, trickling stream. When Little John gets knocked into the stream, he flails about in fear, yelling, “I can’t swim! I’m drowning!” Although I can’t say the film is my favorite Robin Hood film, I must say that I found this scene to be hilarious. Also, like the heyokas, Little John’s unnecessary fear reminds us of the many times that we make mountains out of mole hills or oceans out of puddles.
I have been personally anxious about the upcoming Christmas Eve service at my church this Saturday, worried that there might not be enough kids for the impromptu pageant, and also worried that I might say something stupid or embarrassing in front of the many people who will likely come to visit. In many ways, I am making an ocean out of a puddle and, like the heyokas, I am afraid I might drown in this puddle. Heyokas and other sacred fools give us helpful perspective by reminding us how small our worlds are and how limited our visions.
Another heyoka-like parable is of a man who walks into a cave and paints a tiger and then looks at his painting and screams, “Ahh! Tiger!” and runs away in fear. The parable teaches how quickly imaginations can play tricks on us and terrify us. We laugh at the heyokas, who help us relax by inviting us to laugh at ourselves and to understand how foolish our anxieties can be. In this way, the heyokas are revealed as the sages and the audience as the fools.