Santa Fe Stories and Tips

An Apache Fire Circle

Apache Circle Photo, New Mexico, United States

During my travels, I always try to visit Lutheran churches whenever possible. People who had heard about me usually invite me to speak, to give a lesson or just for a homey lunch; however, Santa Fe, being the Different City, prepared a very unusual experience for me.

"Hello, there is someone who wants to meet you," I was told in my third week in one of the local temples. Following a short talk, I found that I’ve been invited for lunch in one of the suburbs by Shanadii, Geronimo’s granddaughter. Not knowing who Geronimo was, I used the trip to get a brief update by the brothers who invited me and shortly after we arrived to a large house surrounded by a forest of pines, majestic Ponderosas and sturdy Pinions. Two years short of eighty, Shanadii turned to be a vigorous soul with a rare intelligence. "You want to drink something," she asked while leading me to the kitchen, where maybe two hundred kinds of teas were awaiting me. Looking at the wide choice and wanting to drink the same one as she, I asked which one was her choice; "I drink coffee, from the soluble kind," she shot while lighting a cigarette which was exchanged by others until I left a few hours later.

Next week, I was invited again, and after a couple of coffees, she told me: "I want to give you a gift; you are invited to our next Fire Circle." Fire Circles turned to be ceremonies of religious nature performed by the Apaches and other related groups in which a representation of their orally transmitted traditions is done around a central fire. When the time came, I arrived to the same site and around 5pm we had a magnificent potluck and waited for the weather to cool down a bit.

One hour later, we were led to a small opening in the forest, where a circle of stones awaited us. Thirty-two participants sat on the stones while Shanadii took an elevated seat just out of it and presided the ceremony’s different stages, which were performed by others. A central fire was lighted, and then the drawing of The Circle began. The drawing was done with grounded corn and created sharp yellow lines on the pastel brown ground; after putting the corn on the ground and drawing the desired shape, the line was redrawn with a finger following the corn path, so that each line got a depression on its center.

The corn is considered a sacred plant due to his many uses in their culture. All the drawings were done at the rhythm of a slow, deep drumming. The first drawing was a circle around the central fire; it represented the Earth and was drawn, as most of the other pictograms, from the east through the south. Following was the Creator’s Circle, wider and containing the first one. Four short lines, each one marking a compass direction, crossed the circles and then Infinity Lines were added at the intersection of those with the outer circle. The Infinity Lines were shaped as an "X" with their center at the exact intersection point and they represented the gifts of the Creator to us.

Two short lines connecting the inner part of the X’s to the compass line were added and represented our thanks to him. Shanadii asked from the drawers to explain the meaning of their doings and sometimes added a few words. Following, two Pipes of Peace were added in each quarter and represented the different people; they represented a kind of New Covenant between the Creator and the People, following an old downfall. The pipes had a feminine and masculine side and their symmetry showed a perfect equality among the genders. A third circle was drawn between the pipes, showing the unity among people. Then two shapes were added in each quarter, next to the outer circle. First, a symbol for the trees and another for the bushes were drawn at the southeast quarter, then one for the four legged creatures was drawn at the southwest quarter, and then symbols for the sea water creatures and the birds in the third quarter. In the last one, symbols for the fresh water and crawling creatures were added.

Shanadii explained then that we are living in a transition year, and the mark for two-legged creatures (humans) was added next to the four-legged one. In other years, the human’s symbol is not drawn. Ending the circle, a symbolic eye was added at the outer part of each "X" and a blue point, the only non-yellow point in the whole drawing, was added to each. They represent the constant watch of the Creator over his creatures.

Once the drawing was finished, a fourth circle—the four being a sacred number in their culture—was created on the central fire and was dedicated to the Creator. Then, everyone stood up around the external circle and prayers were said, the fire was left to burn and we left. At 9pm, already in darkness, we devoured the rest of the food and traveled home, not without an invitation for the coming Solstice Circle.

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