Native American Mythology-Four
In the European tradition, there are three challenges, three princesses, three princes, three warnings, three this, three that…
It’s all about the number three when European stories are concerned, but if you’re reading Native American mythology and legends, the number four is where it’s at.
What’s different about the number four? Why is it the number for Native Americans?
A cursory glance would equate it to the four directions, which are repeatedly mentioned over and over again in Native American stories. The four directions are what seems to ground culture and conscience.
As it turns out, Native American stories are not the only place you’ll find the number four prominently featured. There are four elements, traditionally. There are references to the number four in Buddhism. There are four gospels in the Christian religion, four Vedas in Hinduism, four arch angels, and there are also four corners of the world. Four is everywhere, but when we think of a magic number, of wishes for example, we think of the number three.
Four tends to have a cross in it somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a cross in a religious sense, but the number four typically has one line running nearly perpendicular to another line. Thinking of four as the four directions, this does make sense. To make a compass, the four directions must cross and form what we call a compass, but it does not necessarily hold religious symbolism.
Going on, the number four has long symbolized something that was solid, something that could be touched. In other words, something real, something to ground you in reality. The four directions were very important to Native Americans. It was how they oriented themselves in their lives. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. Certain stars were in certain parts of the sky. When a story of creation came about, there was almost always a nod to the fact that the four directions were involved. If you take into account that everything is in a direction, then the four directions encompass everything; they encompass the whole world.
If you look to the north, the south, the east, and the west, have you not seen all that there is to see? Is there another direction you can look that you haven’t seen? You could be a smart alec and say up or down, but let’s think in terms of a gyroscope. A gyroscope also encompasses the four directions, but in a more three-dimensional sense. Thinking in terms of three-dimensions, if you’ve looked west, east, north and south, you have seen it all.
Four is everything.
Repeatedly in these stories there were four people, or four challenges, or four ghosts, or what have you. There were four of whatever it was. The story was not complete without including the complete number, which in this case would be four.
This may not seem like a big deal, but imagine you rub a magic lamp and instead of getting three wishes, you got four wishes. Ooh-la-la—what thing would you waste three wishes on that didn’t matter? We all know the final wish, in this case the fourth, is the one that really matters. Instead of going on just three quests, you go on four, which seems like one more quest too many if you ask me, but that’s probably because I’m used to the European mindset of things.
It’s not a lesser thing or a better thing that these stories use the number four instead of three, it’s just a cultural thing, but it’s an interesting cultural thing.
So saddle up and let’s go on those four quests, in the four directions, to defeat the four enemies and get four rewards.