The Horse Dance

There are those among the Plains Indians who insist that they had horses long before any Europeans reached the plains. Their authority is disputed by academic and governing bodies because the fossil evidence shows that horses in the Americas died out about 12,000 years ago. I am quite sure that this people did have horses since the dawn of human time, just not necessarily on the North American continent. It is far more likely that these people were fleeing persecution in Spain and brought their horses and their living traditions across the ocean. Because they were an indigenous people with a long history of sending out ‘bachelor bands’ much like colts leaving their home herd to find new  pastures they easily and thoroughly melded into the peoples of their new home. Their history of persecution (click here) meant that they were both motivated and practiced at blending in.

Looking into how much information about hidden practices of the Horse Tribes the medieval Germanic author Wolfram managed to include in his tale of Parzival, especially his conclusion where the many conflicting parties are brought together in a lengthy ceremony of circling their gathering on horseback, impelled me to also compare the more recent Oglala Indian holy man Black Elk’s version of a horse dance with my old Greek version of Revelations. That gave me a glimpse into the Horse Tribes activities in what we now call the Middle East in 400 ad, in Northern Europe in 1200 ad, and North America  in the early 1900’s as Black Elk was born in 1863 in what is now Wyoming and died in 1950. 

Black Elk’s horse dance took place when he was seventeen. That would have been in 1880, so historically, we talking very much in the present tense. Granted Black Elk has elks where Revelations has lions. However Black Elk is elk clan, while Revelations is talking about a Lion of Judea.  Given that, there is a remarkable and amazing correspondence of detail.

There are layers and layers of meaning, history, and context for each of the colors, riders, and attributes. Some are based on the pragmatic observations of astute horsemen and breeders. The scholarly argument that the horse tribes did not practice selective breeding, presumably since they kept no written pedigrees, seems unlikely to me. Selective breeding is as simple as keeping the horses that you like and getting rid of the ones that you don’t.  Their breeding principles and practices are contained within their stories and traditions. What is desirable in a horse leads directly into the cultural contexts.I simply can not buy the idea that such similar rituals would spring up separately on three different continents two thousand years apart.

I have taken some small liberties with word order in Revelations to make it easier to follow, but I have stuck closely to the sense of both texts.

Black Elk says: ‘First they sent out a crier who told the people to camp in a circle in special spot. In the center a sacred teepee was set up, built of clouds and sewn with lightning.’

Revelations says: ‘ I  heard a voice saying I shall make known to you what must be done, and a throne was placed in the sky and encircling the throne were twenty-four thrones for the ancients.’

Black Elk says: ‘ Over the door of the teepee they painted the flaming rainbow’

Revelations says: ‘ A rainbow encircled the enthroned god.’

Black Elk says:

  • To the North they painted a white goose and the herb
  • To the South they painted the hoop of nations and the flowering stick
  • To the East they painted the daybreak star and the sacred pipe
  • To the West they painted a cup of water and a bow

Revelations says:

  • ‘I saw four divinities standing at the four corners of the earth.’
  • I saw and I heard a lone eagle and a great star named wormwood (artemisia sage) that made the waters bitter.
  • I saw and I heard a vast multitude from among every people of all nations and tongues carrying palm branches in their hands
  • I saw a great star flaming like a torch. I saw and I heard a golden censer and the smoke of the incense took  up the  prayers of the devotees.
  • I saw and I heard the libation saucers poured out. The one who had a bow was given a crown and he came forth a conqueror.

Black Elk says: ‘ They painted horses, elks and bison on the teepee. They told me I could not eat and I must purify myself in the sweat lodge and rub myself down with sage.’

Revelations says: ‘There were four beings around the throne, a lion, a bull, an eagle and one with the face of a man.  I wept much because no worthy one was found to open the scroll or even see it.’

Black Elk says: ‘ We were in the teepee all alone, and nobody dared come listen. I sang all the songs I heard in my vision. While we were in there singing we could hear low rumbling all over the village and we knew the thunder beings were glad and had come to help us.’

Revelations says: ‘ No one, in the sky, on the earth, or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even see it. From the throne went out lightning, thunders and voices. The Beings gave glory, honor and thanks to the god seated on throne, to him who lives throughout the aeons of aeons. One of the ancients said to me  ‘Do not weep. Behold, the lion of Juda, the root of David, is worthy.’

Black Elk says: Now it was time to dress and paint for the dance. All sang this song together:

  • Father paint the earth on me
  • A nation I will make over
  • A two-legged nation I will make holy
  • Father paint the earth on me

Revelations says: I saw and I heard myriads of myriads, the universe summed up in them, saying with a great voice:

  • Worthy is the Lamb to receive
  • force, wealth, skill, strength, honor, glory, and praise
  • To the one seated on the throne
  • be the praise , the honor, the glory, and the dominion
  • throughout the aeons of aeons

The Horse Nation itself appears in the next step of the horse dance. They arrive from the four quarters and are identified by their color.  The  Black Horses whose riders carry a bow are the first to arrive with the thunder-beings, shooting lightning, hail and rain, then the White Horses appear with the white geese that guide the soul from one world to the next, then the Pale Horse with the elk (or lions in Revelations), the Red Horses appear with the buffalo, and last but not least is the Unseen or Medicine Horse whose rider holds the Key to the unseen realms and is the guide on the journey to the Seven Cities.

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