History of Mandalas
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Mandalas are found among the most ancient art forms created by human beings. Rock carvings found all over the world incorporate the circular form and its variations such as spirals, crosses, concentric circles. It is thought that they express worshipful awe of nature’s cycles and the mysteries of life and death. The alternation of day and night, the ever-changing moon, and the rhythms of the seasons are aptly expressed by circular designs. These natural occurrences became the foundation for a worldview based on circles. This point of view is eloquently expressed by Black Elk, the Dakota elder:
"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves" (cited in Neihardt, 1961:32-33).
The attempt to orient oneself in the world probably gave rise to the early mandalas that consist of a cross inside a circle. We can imagine how this might have come about. As our ancestors took to the high ground for a clear view, they saw that the horizon line appears to be a circle with themselves at the center. In order to move safely about in large land areas, they would have devised ways to orient themselves within this vast circle. It would have been natural to use the center of the circle—one’s own body—as the point of beginning for a system of directions. The body offers a consistent focal point for organizing the space within the circle of the earth’s horizon.
The bilateral arrangement of the limbs and organs of the body creates a right and left side. With arms outstretched in opposite directions away from the body, one might imagine lines extending beyond the outstretched arms to the horizon. This establishes two opposite directions in the circle. The placement of the eyes in front of the head naturally suggests the line of sight as another direction, and implies its opposite as a continuation of this line extending behind. Thus we can imagine the classic mandala pattern consisting of the horizon line (circle) and four lines radiating outward from the body in the center.
This scheme for dividing up space was utilized by Etruscan soothsayers. They interpreted events according to where within this imaginary mandala design the happenings took place. The use of the body to establish directions is also suggested by the Native American custom of including the center point of the self as another direction in their system of orientation. Native Americans also add the directions up and down, suggested by the vertical stance of the body, giving a total of seven directions.
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