The Symbols Of The White Buffalo And The Red Heifer Essay
The Symbols Of The White Buffalo And The Red Heifer
Every culture has its own set of norms and beliefs that serve as guide and standard of living for its people. Each culture is being protected and kept sacred by the people and is being passed by generation to generation. Even as the world goes on to its fast changing global trend, although some of the world’s ancient cultural traditions have already vanished or at least faded away, some remained strong and were kept, observed and regularly celebrated today.
While Greek and Roman mythologies are integrated in the modern culture (such as the names of the heavenly bodies), the legends and myths which main characters are animals can still be traced in the modern cultural traditions held by the people. Two of these examples are the legends of the White Buffalo and the Red Heifer, animals which symbols are held sacred even unto this day.
The White Buffalo and the Red Heifer are animals that are held symbolically sacred by the Native Americans and the Jewish people, respectively. While their legends are held by completely different cultures, these animals symbolize quite the same sacred values of hope, change, life and death. Before we can make further comparison of the two different cultures, it is important that we first have to look into the stories behind their cultural symbols.
A brief narration of the story of the White Buffalo Woman, which is believed to have been the origin of the symbolic importance of the White Buffalo in the culture of the Sioux or the Lakota tribe, will be briefly narrated here before we will try to extract the symbols deep inside the legend. We will be taking the highlights of the legend from the story as told by John Fire Lame Deer, a man believed to be a Heyoka, and a holy man of Lakota (John Fire Lame Deer, 1967)
In one summer, the seven sacred council of fires, called Oceti-Shakowin,of the nation called Lokota Oyate encamped. The chief of the one of the bands (Itazipcho or “Without-Bows”), Standing Hollow Horn sent two of his men to hunt for food. In a high hill, they came across with a woman, floating with two round red dots of face paint on her cheeks (John Fire Lame Deer, 1967). In John Fire Lame Deer’s own words:
“She wore a wonderful white buckskin outfit, tanned until it shone a long way in the sun. It was embroidered with sacred and marvelous designs of porcupine quill, in radiant colors no ordinary woman could have made.”
The woman was identified as Ptesan-Wi, White Buffalo Woman. One of the men had a sexual desire of the woman and tried to touch her but was struck by lighting and was burnt until all was left of him was a “heap of blackened bones”. Other version of this part says that the young man was eaten by the snakes which were under the feet of the sacred woman and all was his skeleton. The other young man was told to return to camp and tell the “buffalo nation” to prepare for her coming.
The chief then ordered the people to gather and prepare for the coming of the holy woman and the medicine lodge with twenty-four poles was made as ordered. After four days, the White Buffalo Woman arrived in the camped, entered the medicine lodge and then taught the people many things. They made an earthen altar (made of red earth) with a buffalo skull. The holy woman then opened the bundle containing the sacred pipe called chanunpa and then taught them how to use it. She also taught them the proper words and gestures of prayer to how to sing the pipe-filling song.
The White Buffalo Woman also told them that they are the “living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above.” She then turned to the stone in the bowl and said, “Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of man. The buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters. Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg.
The Sacred Hoop will end when all the hair and legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover the Earth.” The White Buffalo Woman also told the women that the works of their hands are as great as the warriors, taught them how to fire the hearth and the way the corn and meat should be cooked. To the children she said that they are the most important and most precious ones. As the purest of all tribes, she told Lakota that it was the reason why sacred piper was given to them. Before the White Buffalo Woman left, she told Standing Hollow Horn these words:
“Remember: this pipe is very sacred. Respect it and it will take you to the end of the road. The four ages of creation are in me; I am the four ages. I will come to see you in every generation cycle. I shall come back to you.”
The ending of the legendary story might have been the one held symbolically important up to this day. The White Buffalo Woman left the tribe, rolled over and stopped four times. On each stop, the holy woman turned into different colors of a buffalo. First she turned into black, then to brown, to red one and then to a white female buffalo. In John Fire Lame Deer’s narration, the legend ended this way: “And from that day on, our relations, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they needed meat for their food, skins for their clothes and tipis, bones for their many tools” (John Fire Lame Deer, 1967).
In the midst of the highly urbanized Western culture, the legend of the White Buffalo Woman is still alive in the culture of the plains tribes in America. Based on the moral value of the story and the economic situations of the native Americans, there is no reason to doubt that the White Buffalo is more than a legend and cultural symbol in the lives of these people. For the poor people of America, the White Buffalo is “a symbol of sacred life and abundance” (Kagrise, Sarah 2005).
The tribes of Lakota, Dakota, Nakota and Sioux regard the white buffalo as an important element of their traditions and prophecies (Schwartz, Stephanie M. 2006). If we are to go back to the legend, we have noted that the White Buffalo Woman left a promise to the nation that she will see them again and that promise is what the Native Americans are still waiting for unto these days. Held as a prophetic sign, these people are literally waiting for the birth of a white buffalo, an omen which signals the beginning of a sacred hoop of life (Kagrise, Sarah 2005).
Why should one even expect that in the midst of the highly urbanized American culture, people will be amazed with the birth of a white buffalo and was even named “Miracle”? On August 20, 1994 a white buffalo was born in Janesville, Wisconsin farm-an event which struck the American people that they rushed to the see the white buffalo with their gifts (Menagerie, Steve). One practical reason that is, if we are to examine the event out of the context of culture and tradition, is that white buffalo is biologically or genetically rare.
Buffalos are already considered 1nearly extinct as early as 1893 wherein it is estimated that there had only been 300 buffalos left in North America. Despite the fact that Miracle has changed color from white to blonde on its third year, the people around still continue to see her. On her death ten years after, Miracle left the Native American community shocked. Two years later, another white buffalo was born in the same farm which they named “Miracle’s Second Chance.” These events were held as significant omens by the Lakota tribe.
A spiritual leader of the Teton Oglala Lakota named David Shallow interpreted these omens by critically examining each phase. For Shallow, the name of the second white buffalo is by no means a coincidence because it carries the message of a second chance for all people and since Miracle’s Second Chance was born during a thunderstorm, Shallow believes that the destruction of evil is near (Shallow, David cited in Schwartz, Stephanie 2006). For the Native Americans, the birth of a white buffalo is the starting point of the healing process, a symbol of hope for the poorest people of the American nation (Kagrie, Sarah).
After Miracle and Miracle’s Second Chance, there were still born white buffalo calves named White Cloud (July 10, 1996, a two-year-old found in South Dakota), Medicine Wheel (May 09, 1996) and Rainbow (April 27, 1996). From here, let us further consider one great prophecy by the Lakota: “When four white buffalo have been born, then the old ways will return and the earth will be saved. White Buffalo Woman herself, in the myth, promises to return at the end.” From Miracle (1994) to White Cloud, Medicine Wheel and Rainbow (1996), there have been four white buffalos born. The prophecy, if we are to examine has already been fulfilled even before Miracle’s Second Chance was born in 2005. What changes, as salvation suggests, have happened since then are still unclear.
Like the White Buffalo, the Red Heifer is also highly regarded by the Jewish culture as sacred and symbolic. Although both the animals came from one family, one can notice that the there are physical differences in these animals that also mark the differences in their symbols to the two cultures. First, their color as Lakota culture regarded white as sacred and holy while the Jewish culture still consider the red heifer holy and sacred despite its being literally red.
Another thing is that white buffalo in the culture of Lakota is not allowed to be hunted (their near extinction seem to be the contrary) while the Red Heifer is literally being killed as a holy sacrifice to God of the Jews. Genetically speaking, a White Buffalo is unhealthy, since its white color is due to its being albino while the Jews chose the unblemished, healthy and young rd heifer in order to make the sacrifice pleasing unto the Lord.
The ritual of the Red Heifer is Biblical, that is, it is contained or written in the Bible, in the Torah (in the portion called 1Chukat), particularly in the book of Numbers, Chapter 19. The description of the ritual being conducted when the red heifer is being offered is clear and specific in the book of Numbers.
“It is the ritual slaughter of a red cow with no blemish, and the burning of the cow together with cedar wood, hyssop, and red thread. The ashes of this cow are mixed with water and used as part of a seven-day ritual to purify those members of the community who have come in contact with death.”
It was said that the water to which the ash of the cow have been mixed is the “Water of Impurity” or what the Jews called, mei nidah (Hammer, Jill). Those who are being sprinkled with such water will become pure while those who have administered in the water will become impure, a process which suggests that the ash of the red heifer makes the impure pure and the pure impure (J. Hammer). In other accounts, the water mixed with ashes is being drunk by sinners for the purpose of redemption (Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain). Before we come to grasp the real meaning or symbol of the heifer, it is first important that we will be able to have a background on how does the offering of the red heifer originated.
As quick answer, the ritual of the red heifer came from the Jewish tradition of offering in the Temple of Solomon: “In the days of the Temple, all who entered it had to be made spiritually clean by being sprinkled with a substance whose main ingredient came from the ashes of a red heifer burned in its third year” (Bronner, Etan 1997). The Temple of Solomon is considered to be the center of the Jewish life despite its destruction by the Romans according to Bronner. For the Jews, the Temple serves as the direct link between the chosen people and God (E. Bronner 1997). This might have been the reason why the significance of the red heifer, as a sacrificial animal in the temple days, still holds relevance in the life of the Jewish people.
Going back to the red heifer itself, the red cow represents a change agent (J. Hammer). Consider the cycle of making the impure pure and the pure as impure through the sprinkling of the water with the ashes of the red heifer. If we are to closely look into the process, we can say that the red heifer, though it has been reduced to ashes, served as an agent that allows somebody to change.
In the words of Hammer, the red heifer “brings life into death and allows death to return to life.” Who else can make something change as bringing life to death and the other way around? God alone and God is Divine. If the red heifer symbolizes this cycle of change, then the Red Heifer is the symbol of the Divine and therefore, God. It is also important to note that in the Jewish tradition, all the sacraments and religious rituals are done exclusively by the Levites, the family of priests. Having such, the Levites are the ones who act as “humans who are part of the cycle of mortality and fertility, but who also touch the eternal” (J. Hammer).
For the Jewish people, even the destruction of the temple, its rebuilding and its final destruction also have something to do with the Red Heifer. The destruction of the temple is regarded by the Chosen People as a symbol of the recreation of their religious life (E. Bronner). Let us remember that the history of the people of Israel have come a long way from being fruitful descendants of Abraham and Jacob, to being slaves in Egypt, liberated by Moses and were promised to have the Land of Canaan.
These people have come through their ups and downs all because of their stubbornness. They always go back to their usual sin of polytheism and of worshipping other gods other than Yahweh. Based on these facts, it is not surprising that these people held religious or spiritual rebirth truly important. They recognized their need to cleanse their spiritual lives and their need for a Savior. For the Jews, the Red Heifer and its ashes are the “prefiguration” of the coming Redeemer, the Messiah they have been waiting for (Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain).
There few good reasons why the Red Heifer is a sacred symbolic not only for the Jews but also for those who are into the religion of Christianity. Although the Red Heifer only serve as symbol, as opposed to the White Buffalo which birth is believed to be an omen, it embraces realities of human’s spiritual life. First, the realities of life and death teach the Jews to exert much effort in making and keeping themselves clean and pure before the eyes of the Lord. This is the only way they believe they can get into the House of God. This belief is evident in the modern Jewish custom of washing their hands in a bowl of water at their doorsteps after they came from the graveyard (J.Hammer).
After having the origin and symbols of the White Buffalo and the Red Heifer, it is also important that we have them compared in order to examine which one is symbolically significant unto this day. In his commentary, David Yarrow sees evident and significant similarities in the two animals. First, the White Buffalo and the Red Heifer are both females and both represents fertility, health, hope and abundance. Second, both symbolize the need to live a sacred, holy life in order for human beings to be pleasing or worthy in the eyes of God.
Third, both represent changes in the cycle of life and recognize the reality of death, that is, spiritual death in order to be spiritually born again. Fourth, they both recognizes the presence of the Supreme Power and allow that Sacred Entity to rule over the lives of the people. This reality establishes the presence of the link between God as the Creator and humans as creatures. Lastly, both had kept the believers of the culture and the legend waiting-for the redeemer who will bring good tidings to those who are physically and spiritually afflicted.
There is however realities in the White Buffalo that somehow made me prefer to believe in the symbolic significance of the Red Heifer. Consider that the biological existence of the White Buffalo is inherently rare. This is because a white buffalo is born albino which gives it its white color. This means that white buffalo is actually an expression of unhealthy birth because albinos do have genetic disorder which make them different from the rest of the specie. Consider also that being unhealthy, white buffaloes do not usually live long as in the case of White Cloud and Rainbow although Miracle lived ten years.
With these realities therefore, I can say that the birth of a white buffalo should not be seen as an omen. In fact, the Lakota prophesy of having four born white buffalo after which will mark the near coming of the near end cannot be held solidly true. There have been more than four white calves born around the world and yet the prophecy seemed unfilled so far. Another thing is that the first well-known white buffalo, Miracle, have turned blonde as she grew old.
In the case of the Red Heifer I can see that the Jewish culture regard the animal as purely symbolic. Compare to the white buffalo, the red heifer is a common animal in the Jewish culture, although the poor people during the Biblical times cannot afford to sacrifice one. Anther thing is that not all red heifers can be sacrificed because only the female and unblemished and is under 18 months old can be worthy to be sacrificed.
There is nothing held miraculous in the birth of the red heifer and thus it poses no significant marker of a time. Unlike the white buffalo, the red heifer does not say something about the near future. This is especially important in the spiritual lives of the people. Without the red heifer saying something about the future, the Jewish people are encouraged to keep their lives sacred at any point of their lives because of the uncertainty of the time when the Redeemer will come.
I believe that the Red Heifer is more significant today than the white buffalo. Because it recognizes the realities of life and death and the need to consecrate man’s life to God, the Red Heifer embraces all cultures, even those who do not literally believe in God. This is because the red heifer reminds us that human beings are mortals and that as spiritual beings, we are in need of also dying from our sinful lives to give way to our spiritual rebirth. Let me borrow the words of David Yarrow, in his analysis of the symbols and implications of the white buffalo and the red heifer in our lives: “While white buffalo and red heifer portend time to build a Temple, the only way to build a true new Temple on the Mount is to follow the Peacemaker’s instructions: bury the hatchet, plant a tree and unite.
A shrine in Jerusalem must not be just for Jews and Israel, but of, by and for all the peoples of the Middle East—and the West—all the Earth” (Yarrow, David). Yarrow stressed that both animals pose a great challenge for all human beings to share our earthly gifts as custodians of God’s blessings unto the earth. There should only be just one thing for us to do. Whether we believe in the White Buffalo or the Red Heifer, the existence of our one Creator should be enough to unite all the cultures of the world. Yarrow concluded, “Harmony needs all things in natural balance—including the power of masculine and feminine in church, culture and government” (Yarrow, David).
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Schwartz, Stephanie (2006). Lakota Spiritual Leader
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Yarrow, David. Holy Cows!! The Unity of Biology and Ecology with Spirit. A Commentary. Retrieved on October 26, 2007 from http://www.championtrees.org/yarrow/holycows.htm
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 March 2017
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