Vision Quest: Seeking the Spirit the Old-Fashioned Way
Author: Sunny Dawn
A vision quest is a challenge. The verb in Lakota literally means, “to cry out for a vision”. This means you have to suffer in exchange for a gift. The words “cry out” may also refer to songs or chants sung by the person undertaking the suffering. In my first coven, it was highly desirable, if not precisely required, for third-degree initiation, although I did not attempt a vision quest or receive third-degree initiation from my first coven.
A vision quest has little to do with astral travel or guided “journeys”. Anyone who has ever perused the shelves of a pagan bookstore knows there are plenty of books available on astral travel. Any pagan who has ever attended a workshop, retreat, or festival has probably had an opportunity to participate in a guided “journey”.
Vision quests involve a little more advance planning, and a lot more sacrifice. They can also have a high rate of failure. Both are good reasons why the vision quest tends to scare folks away. But the most important reason why vision quests are no longer that popular in terms of pagan spiritual practice is that there isn’t a whole lot of sensible, contemporary advice on how to do one successfully. With this article, I hope to change this perception a little. A vision quest isn’t easy, but it is more accessible than most pagans think.
First, let’s start with the question of what a vision quest is, and what it probably isn’t. A “vision” is something more than a vivid dream that is easily remembered upon waking. It can be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t had one, but a “vision” is usually of profound personal significance to the person who receives it. It is more than a dream that rehashes the person’s recent experiences. It is almost always a foretelling of one’s personal future. It is often accompanied by some sort of supernatural event (however mild) that “marks” the vision as more than a dream.
If this describes the “vision”, then what is the “quest”? Traditionally, the “quest” involved a four-day fast done outdoors without food or water, and without drug use of any kind. Tobacco was offered, but not consumed [see note below]. Deloria uses the term “fast-vigil” as well as the more common “vision quest”. It was undertaken by young people (more often men than women) as a rite of passage, and not just by children or teen-agers who hoped to grow up and become medicine men someday, but by anyone who was serious about their spiritual path [see note below].
Most people who did a vision quest simply expected to live their lives to the fullest with some protection from the spirits. Others sought to obtain powers that would enhance their capabilities, but this imposed additional responsibilities on them. These responsibilities set them apart from the everyday life of their community, so it is probably fair to say that most hoped for the “vision” and not much more.
Deloria reports that the vision quest was nearly universal among Native American tribes. Because it was difficult to determine the validity of a vision, youths would discuss their vision with one or more elders who would help them decide if this vision was the primary one meant to shape some important part of their future [see note below]. Then they would get help “re-enacting” it down to the smallest detail, to demonstrate their intent to make the vision a reality. In the case of Black Elk, his vision involved the whole tribe, so the entire tribe participated in the reenactment (but this was the exception rather than the norm) .
What does a non-Native American “vision quest” look like today?
It is probably fair to say that the seeker is a “youth” on his or her spiritual path (my primary vision came accidentally during my first year on a pagan path) . Three or four days are still the goal, but the fast is from food only. It should be done outside, but it can even be done at a crowded campground if you have no other options, since your dreaming is most likely going to occur at night when things are quiet. Any vivid dreaming which occurs during this time may be considered sacred, but you will have a pretty strong “feeling” about a dream that is actually a vision.
Even a fast from food scares off a lot of folks. Assuming normal health, it shouldn’t. The fast is a very important part of what you’re doing the whole long day. It will get successively harder each day, and it will leave you pretty strung-out on the second and third day. There is often some loss of motor control on the fourth day, depending on the individual. Fasting only from food is popular because it allows the seeker to undertake the three or four day quest without being attended by someone else, assuming adequate advanced preparation.
There is no requirement that you be bored to tears during the long days. You can read, or play an instrument, or take long walks surrounding yourself by nature on the second or even on the third day, or sleep more than usual (a very common phenomenon on a fast) . None of this is “cheating”.
Fasting makes you more aware of your surroundings, particularly on the second day. In the morning, the smell of wood smoke from a neighbor’s tent site permeates everything. A birdcall really does sound as if it is trying to tell you something. You notice the fresh smell of the earth that comes up at the end of the day and washes out the fish odor next to a river. You are more aware of that honeysuckle scent in a shady alcove along the water, or the sudden splash of a fish that cannot be seen.
You will definitely want to set aside some time to observe the sky at night, to see if there is a prominent star whose god or goddess is “governing” your vigil (this can be meaningful even if you have dedicated your fast to deities that have nothing to do with the Greek or Roman gods normally associated with the night sky) . On the night I observed the sky, Mercury was strikingly close to the Earth, and it made everything else look as if it had lost its batteries. This meant that Hermes, the god of merchants and thieves, and the psychopomp who guides the dead to their just rewards, was guiding my fast. After it was over, I was to find out what this meant.
Choosing a tobacco offering is important. Whether or not you smoke is irrelevant, because the tobacco isn’t for you. I considered buying a pipe, but decided that a pipe is very closely associated with the Thunder Beings, the most powerful natural elements on the Plains, and that I did not know enough about these deities to call on them appropriately. So I spent seven bucks on a fancy cigar instead.
Each night I wrapped it up in the small bag that holds my extra tent stakes so it would stay dry, and the next morning I withdrew it, and lit it as the first offering of the morning. A sage bundle is probably an acceptable substitute for those who cannot tolerate tobacco. Those who are concerned about the purity of their tobacco offering will definitely want to stick with loose pipe tobacco.
Fasting without water is not something I can speak to personally. It will be A LOT more painful, both physically and psychologically, particularly if it is your first time going without water. It is also essential to have someone attend the seeker who abstains from water (this may mean arranging for someone to take off time from work and compensating them for lost earnings) . Your attendant doesn’t have to camp right on top of you but you will want them close enough to check on you frequently. This “someone” had better have competent first aid knowledge, as well as knowledge of the various phases of dehydration from the swelling of extremities like fingers or toes all the way up to hallucination, loss of consciousness, and death. It goes without saying that if you have an extensive background in meditation; you are going to be able to slow down the dehydration progression. If you don’t, you may want to rethink this one.
Say I’ve got a posse with enough time and dinero to make a field trip out of this. Any advice?
The Lakota considered the Black Hills the sacred center of their world, and Native Americans still use the Black Hills extensively when they want to do a vision quest. So do quite a few non-Native Americans as well. On the western end of South Dakota, just north of the motorcycle stomping ground of Sturgis, is a popular spot called Bear Butte (a.k.a. Bear Butt) . It won’t be private, and you will see tourists walking by you on most days, but folks tend to be respectful because this mountain does get a lot of spiritual use. It also has a nice campground adjacent to the mountain that your group can use as a set-up base.
I can’t speak for Harney’s Peak, although I suspect it will be crowded due to its proximity to Rapid City, SD. As the highest peak in the Black Hills, it is very important to Native American spirituality. “Women Killer” General Harney made a sport of killing non-combatants, so the reader may imagine what most Indians think of having their sacred peak named after this dude. “Would you name the highest peak in New York after Hitler or Goebbels? Didn’t think so, ” one remarked to me.
Just over the state line in eastern Wyoming, Inyan Kara Mtn. is said to be less accessible than the other two peaks and therefore more heavily associated with spiritual use.
What is an “accidental” vision?
According to Deloria, visions that simply “came” were a transition between relying on dreams and actively seeking a vision during a traditional experience of four or more days of ceremony. As a young pagan, this is actually what happened to me. With a minimum of fuss, I did a simple ritual, and asked for a “vision”. At the time, I wouldn’t have even known how to go about a traditional vision quest. A few nights later, I got my wish.
Marshall relates that the teen-age Crazy Horse at first did not trust his vision, which was also “accidental”, because he had not pursued it the traditional way (through pain) . Visions that came without sacrifice were distrusted. Still, with his father’s encouragement, his people accepted the first vision.
The vision I received was a “culminating” vision, a fairly common category among visions. It showed me an unavoidable personal disaster, dealt with events that happen to me in old age, and showed me my descendents who are not yet born. Within the vision, it seemed to me that there were also tantalizing glimpses of things that could not be seen. It is of little surprise to me that many people wish to undertake a second vision quest at some point in the future after their original one, in hopes of potentially exploring these tempting gaps.
It can take a very long time to get confirmation of the events one sees in a vision (the first of my descendents was born to a sibling six years later) . A “culminating” vision was considered a special gift because it showed the seeker that he or she would live into relative old age, a precious blessing among traditional communities with high adult mortality. The other side of this is waiting a long time without “knowing” if any part of it will come true. This is rather ironic considering that “knowing” is the whole point of seeking a vision.
Seekers who get a lucky “accident” sometimes wonder whether they should attempt a second vision under traditional circumstances. Unfortunately, I can’t answer this with certainty, since my second attempt failed. The literature relates that Black Elk would say that the biggest mistake he ever made was attempting a second vision in hopes of supplanting the meaning of his original one. Crazy Horse did attempt a second vision some twenty years or so after the first, but his descendents said that no vision came to him.
Seriously, what’s it like going three days without food?
Honestly, somewhere between “no big deal” and “WTF am I doing this, where am I, and why am I in this hand-basket?” You are feeling pretty hungry during the second day, but it still fits the “not that bad” category. If you get hunger headaches, you need to decide whether or not you will permit yourself aspirin (I decided to “work around” my headache, but I don’t see anything wrong with aspirin if it helps.)
You also need to wear more layers at night than you normally would if you were camping outdoors on a reasonably warm night, because your body will be more sensitive to cool temperatures while fasting (I found that I needed four layers on my chest to feel comfortable, in addition to the blankets I was sleeping under.)
It is also important to pay attention to signs in the environment at the beginning of your fast, because these will give you clues to the outcome. As I was setting up my campsite, a pair of scissors I was using broke. One of the handles simply cracked off. My experience has been that when something out of the ordinary like this occurs right at the beginning of spiritual work, it is usually a sign that nothing will come of it. Then it is up to you to decide whether or not to continue, or call it off.
Initially, I thought I would do a four day fast. After this happened, a three day fast seemed more appropriate, because I suspected this would be a purification rite, which is pretty much what you end up with when a “vision quest” fails.
The third day is tough, but the thought that there is only one day left keeps a lot of people going. On the morning of the fourth day, I had trouble buttoning my jeans, and quite a bit of trouble tying the laces on my hiking boots. Having someone attend me if I had wanted to do another full day would have been wise. I broke the fast early the fourth day. You get nearly instant strength from eating, enough to dissemble a campsite. It takes an hour or so to see an improvement in motor control, however, and a strung-out feeling may persist for several hours (although caffeine helps – stash a Coke for the end of your fast) .
Deloria has an interesting point about fasting. He feels that the four days of fasting was not a determining factor. He notes that many Indians had fasted far longer than four days when on a hunt, so four days was not a challenge. Also, some people received messages on the first or second day of their ritual, before any real physical deprivation of their body began to alter perceptions of the environment. It was the intent to do a four day fast that mattered (and still, many would simply report a bird or insect came before them, signaling that their efforts had not been wasted, but there would be no profound communication or interaction) .
What about “failure”?
It can be really disappointing if you have not experienced a vision, and have doubts that you ever will. The powers designate their recipients themselves. Your earnest effort may not move them.
On the other hand, no sincere effort is really a failure. If you successfully complete three days of fasting, and never thought you could do something like that, the sense of empowerment is palpable. Also, pay attention during the days after your fast is completed. The gods have their ways of acknowledging you privately even if they don’t “gift” you with a vision.
What are some other common types of visions?
Seeing an animal was fairly common. In one of Deloria’s examples, a man called Le Bornge saw a graceful peace spirit, the antelope. He did not see a war spirit, like a wolf or grizzly bear. This meant he was to guide his people by counsels, and protect them from the evil of their own feuds and dissensions. He would not gain renown by fighting.
Seeing an animal would be meaningless for a lot of modern folks today. A vision usually comes in a context that the recipient can at least partially understand. You may not feel the need to “reenact” it to demonstrate intent the way traditional practitioners did. But it is a good idea to talk the vision over with someone on your spiritual path whose experience and wisdom you respect, if you have access to such a person.
In my case, I was able to talk about it with the high priestess of my first coven. The first thing she told me was not to “read too much into it”. This was actually wise counsel. Feeling filled with certainty about something as exceptional as a vision is a swell recipe for a big head.
She also helped me distinguish what made the vision “real”. After I described it, she told me flat out it sounded like a dream, not a vision. I felt differently. So I described it again. This time I realized it was important to tell her how I came awake after the first part of the vision, and heard the sound of drumming that seemed as if it was right outside my house. I described how I badly wanted to go downstairs and find the source of that drumming, but ended up going back to sleep and having the final portion of my vision.
When I awoke again, I could see gray morning light coming through the skylight, and the sound of drumming was still there. By the time I got downstairs it was gone.
My priestess gave me an intent look, and said she felt I had in fact had “something more than a dream”. The whole process of defending it to her made me recall it from various angles so I could see myself if it really was valid.
Why do a vision quest at all?
There are a few different answers to this question. Some of them come straight from the journal I kept during my recent vision quest.
On the first day I wrote:
“When a vision comes to you without asking, as it did for me many years ago, you have no idea what it is like to actually ask for one. What will the boredom be like? What will be the hunger be like on the second or third day? Will I do it a fourth day? You come out here to ‘know’ into the future, but there is so much not ‘knowing’.”
On the second night I wrote:
“My stomach is hurting. So is my head. Best thing to do is to stay in the present. If it teaches you anything, a fast teaches you to stay only in the present moment. Don’t worry about the next day of the fast. Just deal with what you are dealing with right now.”
Others expressed different reasons. These range from the pragmatic, to a hard-wired yearning for the future, to a profound respect for the best that an “alien” culture had to offer.
Deloria excerpts the vision of a young man called Siya’ka:
“I was not exactly singing, but more nearly lamenting, like a child asking for something. In the crying or lamenting of a young man seeking a vision two things are especially desired: First, that he may have long life, and second, that he may succeed in taking horses from the enemy.”
The second reason he gives is interesting. It implies he was facing a problem of scarce resources. Some of the warrior chiefs were facing far worse than this.
Dee Brown writes of Crazy Horse:
“Since the time of his youth, Crazy Horse had known that the world men lived in was only a shadow of the real world. To get into the real world, he had to dream….In this real world his horse danced as if it were wild or crazy, and this was why he called himself Crazy Horse. He had learned that if he dreamed himself into the real world before going into a fight, he could endure anything [see note below].”
John Mason Brown writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1886, observed:
“It cannot be denied that whites, who consort much with the ruder tribes of Indians, imbibe to a considerable degree, their veneration of medicine. The old trappers and voyageurs are, almost without exception, observers of omens and dreamers of dreams. They claim that medicine is a faculty which can in some degree be cultivated, and aspire to its possession as eagerly as do the Indians.”
A Few Personal Observations
Quests involving peyote or other shamanic plants are a different animal from the vision quest that involves no drug use. The former is “easier” to do, and certainly more popular in certain quarters. But every account I have read suggests that the seeker is more likely to receive general wisdom than a specific vision of their personal future. This does not mean that drugs could not be used to obtain a personal vision of one’s future with the spirits’ blessings. But it is worth considering how much of the vision is actually yours when it comes from a drug, and ends as soon as the drug is metabolized. When seekers aren’t hallucinating from the drug (or from thirst) , they have little doubt where their vision is coming from.
Why the emphasis on determining the “primary” vision? It is important to remember that the average layperson (non-medicine man) relied on many different types of omens from the natural environment, or visions for their divination needs. This meant they would do more frequent vision quests for mundane needs, such as determining the best time and place for finding buffalo, or the best way to raid the neighbor’s horses without catching an arrow or losing their scalp. It was important to acknowledge the more sacred nature of a “primary” vision, as well as its longer lasting impact.
Physical toughness combined with meditation skills acquired through bow-and-arrow hunting may explain in part why Native American youth could successfully handle a four day fast without water. Marshall relates that Crazy Horse learned his bow-and-arrow skills by shooting grasshoppers in high grass before he was old enough to join real hunts. Think about this for a minute. It requires incredible precision to hit a creature as small and quick as a grasshopper. He would have had to slow his breathing, and achieve incredible stillness before and during each shot, and he would have had to practice this over and over again to get it right. Hand me a hand-made bow and arrow, and I’d be lucky to hit the broad side of my cat at fifteen yards, let alone a grasshopper at that distance. Today’s adults no longer possess the meditation skills that Native Americans used to learn as kids.
Dee Brown was trying to explain why Crazy Horse “dreamed”, and his words resonate on an intuitive level. But Marshall relates that Crazy Horse took the name from his father, who gave up his own name because he sensed that his son would need its power. The father of Crazy Horse was then called by a weaker name, so that all power would flow toward his warrior son.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Henry Holt and Co., New York, NY, 1970.
Only a couple of references are made regarding the vision quest, so I won’t describe this book in detail. This book is considered the primary 20th century history of the Native American struggle to survive a holocaust.
Deloria Jr., Vine. The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, 2006.
This fascinating survey should be mandatory reading for any pagan who has even attempted a sweat lodge, let alone a spiritual quest. In the first chapter titled, “Dreams – The Approach of the Sacred”, the author writes about visions, shared dreams, and sacred intrusions, including many examples of both men’s and women’s visions. Remaining chapters don’t deal specifically with the vision quest, but they all seem to relate some wisdom that someone seeking a vision may somehow find useful. The author was best known for his 1970’s tongue-in-cheek classic, Custer Died For Your Sins. This final work was published a year after his death in 2005.
Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota Story, Penguin (Non-classics) , 2004.
This biography of the Lakota leader who was murdered when he was 35 years old was written by a tribal member who interviewed the descendents of Crazy Horse’s relatives. The author’s view of the great warrior’s legacy, and what it means to his people, is different from the way Crazy Horse is remembered by most whites. Crazy Horse’s vision is central to this story; the author alternates the words used to describe his vision with impressionistic glimpses of Crazy Horse’s surrender right before he was killed. Don’t miss the final chapter called A Story: The Lightening Bow, a moving look at the gift of sacrifice that a leader makes on behalf of his tribe, and what happens when the people don’t even understand how much that is worth.
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: New Edition, Bison Books, 2004.
It has been so long since I read this book that I hesitate to review it, but I do want to recommend it because Niehardt goes into elaborate detail on Black Elk’s original vision of the slaughter of his people, and his subsequent “false” vision of the Ghost Dance as a possible means of saving his tribe. Black Elk relates that his primary vision was so bitter that he could not bear it, but his subsequent vision was mere wishful thinking because he could not accept the truth. For anyone in search of a subsequent vision, this is wisdom worth pondering.