medicine wheel

Book Review – Medicine Wheel Plain & Simple: An Introduction to Native American Astrology by Deborah Durbin

December, 2018

Book Review

Medicine Wheel Plain & Simple: An Introduction to Native American Astrology
by Deborah Durbin


I had a flashback to the 1980’s when I opened this book. I saw the system familiarized in Sun Bear and Wabun’s The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, complete with correspondences to animal totems, plants, crystal and moon correspondences for each astrological sign. So, this book is “New Age;” don’t pick it up thinking that you will learn find a new (or rather, ancient) system of working with cosmic forces here. And you won’t gain any insight into the cultural astronomy or archeoastronomy of the indigenous people of the Americas – the mythic tales of the stars brought down to Earth and how those energies affect human affairs.

That said, you will have a fun tool for broad astrological divination by the equivalent of your sun sign to play with. Medicine Wheel Plain & Simple offers a different lens for examining personality types, strengths and weaknesses, than the zodiac wheel we are used to. Like Sun Bear and Wabun’s book before it, this book uses a Northern American perspective on a seasonal calendar: winter is cold, summer is hot. The calendar wheel is divided into seasonal quadrants with a “ruling” animal totem for each. The wheel is further divided into 12 signs, like the familiar astrological signs, but ruled by animal totems instead of constellations. So, if like me, you are born between April 20th and May 20th, I am a Beaver, member of the Turtle Clan, born under the Frogs Return moon in the Spring Season rule d by spirit-keeper Wabun – Eagle on the East of the Medicine Wheel. My sign is also associated with blue camas plant, the color blue and the mineral chrysocolla. There are many correspondences to investigate here! Interestingly, the description of a Beaver personality was reminiscent of my Taurus self: “slow, methodical, practical, reserved…easygoing and slow to anger, but once roused, they can have a fierce temper…” My compatibility with other signs is similar to my astrological compatibility – I am married to a Snake (Scorpio)!

Durbin has included a section on finding your personal animal totem. She discusses a shadow totem, one that terrifies you, that tests you and teaches you what you need to overcome. Interestingly, mine is Snake, the opposite of my Beaver totem, containing the qualities that Beaver most lacks. And being married to a Snake, I have learned a lot from our differences. She also includes a short section on working with predictive Medicine Wheel astrology by throwing pebbles or shells, noting where they land, and interpreting the energies and qualities of the quadrant and sign in that section of the wheel.

It’s unfortunate that the book purports to be “An Introduction to Native American Astrology.” There are so many beautiful star myths, tales and creation stories in the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And the ancient Mayans had a complex astrological and seasonal calendar. And to imply that all Native American cultures used a homogenous system is stereotyping of the worst sort. Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, the book on which this one appears to be based, sourced itself in earth-based cycles rather than representing a specific “Native American” system. Medicine Wheel Plain and Simple is a New Age overlay of North American animal, plant and seasonal symbolism on the common horoscope wheel. But it is fun to play with! If you didn’t come across Sun Bear and Wabun’s book in the 1980’s, this one’s worth a look!

Medicine Wheel Plain & Simple: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need on Amazon


About the Author:

Susan Rossi is a Practitioner and Teacher of Shamanism. She is a long-time explorer of The Mysteries – the connections between mind, body, spirit and how to live in right relationship to all of the energies streaming through the cosmos. She works with clients as an astrologer, coach, ceremonialist and guide to the wisdom that each of us has the capacity to access. Her focus is on guiding clients to unblock and rediscover their inner wisdom. , exploration of the birth chart, ceremony, legacy writing, hypnotherapy, energetic healing practice and creation of sacred tools are integral pieces of her practice.

Susan trained in Soul Level Astrology with master astrologer Mark Borax. She delights in exploring with individuals the planetary pattern under which their soul choose to incarnate.

Flying to the Heart

Open Channel Astrology:

WiseWoman Traditions

July, 2012

The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses

(Part Two of Five)



The East: Sweet & Bland


The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses begins in the East, place of the rising sun, place of dawning and beginnings, place of birth. The element of the East is air: it is the first breath, inspiration, laughter, singing, flight. The plants of the East taste sweet and bland. They are rich in sugars and starches, the two forms of carbohydrate.


The archetypal plants of the east are the cereal grasses. They were the first plants to be cultivated, and they continue to be the mainstay food of all the world’s peoples. Grain is the real currency of the world, not gold. In ancient Greece, at the temple of Demeter in Eleusis, mystery school initiates, when they were judged ready to understand the holy of holies, were shown the shibboleth: “an ear of corn reaped in silence.The resurrection of Christ is said to be patterned after the mystery of the grain, which rises three days after it is sown (buried). Likewise, Inanna is buried in the underworld for three days before she returns.


I define the plants of the east as: Plants that, by themselves, sustain life when eaten daily in any amount. The only plants that fit this definition are the seeds of certain grasses. Grain alone, unlike all other foods, and without assistance, is enough to sustain us. Though we wish not to live by “bread alone,” much of the world does get along eating nothing but a bowl of rice or millet a day. Grain supplies sweet, bland carbohydrates, some needed proteins (though incomplete), some vitamins, and some minerals, and some plant hormones (lignans, which are powerfully anti-cancer).


Sugar cane is a grass. Though we do not use the seeds of it, it is a plant of the East so long as we consume the entire plant (minus the fiber which we cannot use). Succanet is the evaporated juice of whole organically grown sugar cane. I use it instead of maple syrup (relatively cheap here in the Catskill mountains), honey, or malt (which is made from grain) in recipes where I need a granulated sugar and where I’ll enjoy the molasses-rich taste.


The goddesses of the East are the goddesses of Nourishment. Their many faces are the faces of the Corn Mother in her many guises. In Rome she was Ceres, from whom we draw the word “cereal.” Her feast day, Cerealia, in the middle of June, is still celebrated in parts of the British Isles. In Greece she was Demeter, the Barley Mother. In Mexico, she is known as Chicomecoatl, she of the seven serpents, guardian of childbirth and corn. In Peru, she is Pachamama. Among the Pueblo people, Ut Set, Spiderwoman, gave the people corn – explaining it was the milk of her breasts – and eagle feathers so they might travel safely. To the Algonquin-speaking peoples she is simply: Grandmother. And she is in charge of all food on earth.


The gate to the East leads to the realm of the animals: those who give us milk and meat. It appears that it was for them that we began to cultivate grain, and to harvest the grasses to make hay. The Great Goddess appears more often as a milk animal than in any other manifestation, according to Barbara Walker. She is the “wetnurse of humanity.” The cornucopia is her horn, spilling out nourishment in all its forms.


Plants of the East: Grasses


Wheat, spelt, rice, rye, barley, oats, millet, corn


1.      What part? The seeds.


2.      When harvested? When ripe and dry. No mould!


3.      How prepared? Cooked thoroughly to inactivate phytic acid, a nutrient-robbing phyto-chemical in all grains and beans. Or sprouted and then roasted (this is called malting), or ground into a fine meal and cooked, or sprouted and cooked, all of which inactive phytates.


4.      How much consumed? Unlimited amounts. Best to use many different species and types of grains to ensure a complete complement of amino acids (protein building blocks).


Change the answer to question 1 and move it to the South.


1.      What part? The leaves.


2.      When harvested? When the grass has jointed and the seeds are just starting to form.


3.      How prepared? Dried, then brewed with water; for instance, oatstraw infusion.


Or fed to animals as hay and then consumed as milk, cheese, yogurt, muscles and organs. The advantage of having the complete proteins found in animal foodstuffs (rather than partial ones found in plants) has caused people all over the world to feed all of the hay and most of the grain they grow to their livestock whenever possible.


4.      How much consumed? Unlimited amounts; up to one quart of oatstraw infusion daily.


Change the answer to question 3 and move it to the Southwest.


1.      What part? The fresh plant, just seeding.


2.      When harvested? When the grains are in the milk stage.


3.      How prepared? Tinctured in 100 proof vodka.


4.      How much consumed? 30-60 drops several times a day to relieve anxiety.


Change the answers to question 3 and 4 and move it the West.


1.      What part? The seeds.


2.      When harvested? When ripe and dry. No mould!


3.      How prepared? Sprout until starches are converted to sugar. Grind and roast. Use this malted grain to nourish yeasts which excrete alcohol as a waste product.


4.      How much consumed? Alcohol is poison, but a highly useful one that can be tolerated in small doses without harm. It is one of the most useful solvents for extracting alkaloids, the active ingredients in many plant medicines. Alcohol is, and was, safer to drink than water in most places, and throughout most of history. Fermentation of grains increases the nutrients available to us, vastly increasing the amount of B vitamins, for instance. Nonetheless, used lavishly, alcohol destroys the liver and robs the body of nutrients. Vodka is the least poisonous of the high proof alcohols. In Russia, people drink a liter or more of vodka daily for forty or fifty years. “Grain” alcohol, or 198 proof alcohol (vodka is made from grain too, but is only 80 or 100 proof) will kill you in two years, I am told, if you drink even two cups of it a day. Reasoning that I want to make myself healthy with herbs, I make my tinctures in 100 proof vodka and do not use, or recommend using, 198 proof alcohol in herbal remedies.


Plants of the East: Beans


Pulses, peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, pinto, anasazi, kidney, fava, and myriad other beans.


Also, clover, vetch, alfalfa, astragalus.


1.      What part? The seeds.


2.      When harvested? When the pods are ripe and dry.


3.      How prepared? Cooked thoroughly. Or sprouted and then cooked, to inactive phytates. Do not eat bean sprouts or alfalfa sprouts raw. Soy beans contain large amounts of phytic acid which are not destroyed by cooking. The safest way to eat soy is fermented; miso and tamari are foods of the east. Soy beans become foods of the west when they are processed.


4.      How much consumed? Limited amounts. The large amounts of indigestible sugars in beans cause flatulence and gas pains! Best to combine with grains to ensure a complete complement of amino acids (protein building blocks).


Change the answer to question 1 and move it to the Southeast.


1.      What part? The fresh plant, just seeding.


2.      When harvested? When the pods are still green and tender.


3.      How prepared? Cooked.


4.      How much consumed? Greenbeans can be eaten in moderate quantities.


Change the answer to question 3 and move it to the South.


1.      What part? Soybeans


2.      When harvested? When ripe.


3.      How prepared? Fermented for at least two years. The resulting bean paste is called miso; the liquid that rises to the top of the fermentation vessel is tamari.


4.      How much consumed? In small amounts daily as an anti-cancer protective.


Change the answer to question 3 and move it to the Southwest.


1.      What part? Soybeans


2.      When harvested? When ripe.


3.      How prepared? Soaked in alkaline solutions, rinsed with solvents, and turned into soy beverage, tofu, soy cheese, soysage, soy protein isolate, and other fake foods.


4.      How much consumed? The more consumed, the greater the risk to the health of the bones and the immune system. The narrower the diet, the greater the damage done by the consumption of soy fakefoods. That is, in a vegan diet, soy causes maximum harm; in a broad-based diet, which includes animal products, soy causes minimal harm.


Plants of the East: Edible Seeds


Sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, amaranth, quinoa, nettle, yellow dock, chickweed, lamb’s quarter, kasha (buckwheat)


1.      What part? The seeds.


2.      When harvested? When ripe and dry. No mould!


3.      How prepared? Cooked thoroughly. Or roasted immediately before consumption. Few phytates, lots of protein.


4.      How much consumed? Moderate amounts; up to a cup a day.


In a healthy diet, the occasional white sugar treat is not a problem. In a diet lacking real nourishment, white sugar is the wild card that disturbs our real cravings for food and makes it difficult to trust our body.


The first taste (after birth) is sweet. Have you ever tasted mother’s milk? There is nothing sweeter. Sweetness is the taste of life. The desire for sweet is the desire for life. We never outgrow our need for, or desire for, sweet. Because there are few sweet foods in nature, we are “programmed” (by the genes of our ancestors who survived) to search out and eat as much sweet as we can. Interestingly enough, it is hard to overeat natural sweets such as fresh and dried fruits, honey, and maple syrup.


When refined sweets are constantly available, our genetic program can’t say, “Stop”. Refined sugars contain no nutrients, so we continue to crave them no matter how much we eat.


I meet many women who tell me they are trying to eliminate sweets from their diet. Not only do I hope they will fail – for craving sweets is craving life, and if we don’t crave sweetness, we have somehow given up on life – I hope they fail quickly, before they injure their physical and emotional health in the attempt. In fact, I believe artificial sweeteners can trigger depression.

WiseWoman Traditions

June, 2012

The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses

(Part One of Five)

There is so much to learn about herbs and healing. How can we assure ourselves of our own competence? How can we feel safe in our recommendations? How can we know which herb is best to use for a particular person? Do we need a system of diagnosis interlocked with categories of herbs? (For instance, the four-humor theory that categorizes illnesses and herbs according to the humors, or the Ayurvedic system that divides people into three types and selects herbs accordingly.) These are questions that have concerned healers for thousands of years and still concern us today.

I do not think the answer lies in a license. I don’t think the answer is to study more, read more books or go to school, if what happens is that one picks up a dogma, and sticks to that. Neither license nor dogma guarantee that what we tell others to do for the sake of health will be safe or effective.

The answer lies in our commitment to ourselves as whole human beings and our commitment to ease the suffering of others, in truth and beauty, in change, in compassion. When we commit to the wholeness in ourselves, we become open to the wholeness of all life, especially the wholeness of the green nations. Science divides things into parts so we can comprehend them. Art and nature teach us wholeness.

Yes, the final say on how to use them is the plants themselves. The ultimate authority in herbal medicine is not a teacher, nor a book. The information you can trust is “from the horse’s mouth”, in this case, the plant’s mouth.

Learning to understand the language of the plants (some say the songs of the plants) is a long study, and it is not as easy to teach as scientific facts. Paradoxically, the rudiments of this language are easily learned and rapidly applied. Hearing the language of the plants requires hearing with the inner ears, looking with the inner eyes, and using the senses of taste and smell and touch.

The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses is a teaching tool I created to help us understand the language of the plants. It gives us a system by which to understand the different properties of plants. It provides us with confidence that we are hearing them correctly. Like all medicine wheels, it is a multi-purpose tool, and there are many lessons to be learned from it, but let us start with the title.

First: I must admit to overstatement. This wheel does not include all possible uses for plants. Furthermore, it narrowly focuses on flowering plants, excluding mosses, ferns, mushrooms, yeasts, and other primitive plants. Dye plants, commercially useful plants, lumber plants, basketry plants – in fact any plants not consumed by humans – are not included. I might, more truthfully, have entitled it the “Medicine Wheel of Uses for Flowering Plants You Can Put in Your Mouth.”

Second: What is a medicine wheel? It is not a round drugstore or a wagon full of medicine. It is a sacred pattern, a kind of mandala. My native American teachers use medicine wheels to help students remember the lessons. When they say “medicine,” they mean power or energy, not a drug or a strong plant (unless they are discussing peyote, a very strong plant, which is not referred to by name, but as “medicine”).

Third: And a wheel? Well, a wheel is a circle in motion. Although this medicine wheel is a circle on a piece of paper, we must remember that it moves. Or, more precisely, the plants move around the medicine wheel. What makes them move? The four moving questions:

1.      What part of the plant is meant?

2.      When is that part harvested?

3.      How is that part prepared?

4.      How much is consumed?

So I could have, less poetically, called my teaching tool “A Diagram of the Moving Power of Flowering Plants You Can Put in Your Mouth.”

When we look at any medicine wheel, we notice that it is divided into the four directions: East at the right, South at the bottom, West at the left, and North at the top. Each direction is associated with many symbols, and those symbols change according to the culture and homeland of the teacher and student. In this particular medicine wheel, the directions are associated with tastes and with symbols that work for me. If they are different from the associations that you normally use, I hope you will be willing to work with my choices, as changing them would change the integrity of the wheel as a teaching tool.

Taste is one of the oldest senses. It is strongly linked with smell. In terms of recognizing plants, taste is one of the most dependable clues. The shape of a plant may change throughout its growing season, or life. But the taste (and the smell) remains remarkably consistent and clear.

Though we can distinguish thousands of tastes (and smells), there are not a lot of words for tastes in English. The tongue is said to be able to distinguish sweet, sour, salty and bitter. To these we could add tastes that are also sensations, such as hot, sour, astringent, burning and sticky. And tastes that are colors such as green. Japanese includes two interesting taste words: shibui, the taste of nut skins or an unripe persimmon, and egui, the taste of raw asparagus, amaranth, and Jerusalem artichoke. And then there are spicy tastes and pungent tastes and resinous tastes and aromatic tastes and terrible tastes (fetid, rank, rancid, rotten, mouldy, burnt). Important: Tastes and smells which are disgusting or strange are a potent indication that the plant is not good to put into your mouth. So don’t. And if you already have, spit it out. Immediately. Thanks.

In this medicine wheel, we will work with four primary tastes (blandly sweet, salty, horribly bitter, and aromatic) and four secondary tastes (fruity, green, edibly bitter, and spicy).

The taste of the East, place of newness, is sweet and bland. Mother’s milk is sweet and bland. The cereal crops (wheat, rice, corn) are sweet and bland. The East is Food, and it connects to the realm of the herbivores. The plants of the East give us NOURISHMENT.

Salty is the taste of the South, place of sweat and blood. Seaweed and miso are salty, just as amniotic fluid is salty. The South is Tonics, and it connects to the realm of the ocean. The plants of the South are a TURN ON.

In the West, place of death and the ancestors, the taste is intensely bitter, horribly bitter, inedibly bitter – a bitter that increases even after you spit it out. Bitter as gall. Medicinal drugs are bitter. Poisons are bitter. The West connects to the realm of the mushrooms, those non-flowering plants that live on dead and decaying matter. The plants of the West can CHANGE YOUR MIND.

And in the North, place of deepness and clarity, the taste is aromatic. Here are the herbs you buy at the grocery store; most of them are in the mint family. These are the herbs your mother uses, the seasoning herbs, the ones loaded with aromatic oils. The realm of the oils connects to the North. And the plants of the North give us WISDOM.

In the following four articles, we will look deeply at each of the directions, its taste, the Goddesses who guard it, the realms it opens, and the lessons each has to teach us.

The Four Moving Questions:

The answers to these questions will change where a plant appears on the medicine wheel.

1.      What part?

The leaves and berries of Phytolacca americana (poke) can be eaten, the roots and seeds are used cautiously as medicines but are considered poisonous. The petioles of rhubarb are eaten, but the leaves and roots are not. Burdock root is sweet, the leaves are incredibly bitter. One of my pet peeves: herbals that tell me to use a particular plant but give no clue as to the part of the plant I should use.

2.      When harvested?

The amount and type of constituents in a plant differs at different times of the year. Perennial roots store winter food in the form of carbohydrates. Dig poke roots in the fall after the first frosts (cold weather concentrates the carbohydrates into the roots) and tincture it immediately in 100 proof vodka, and the alkaloids will be buffered by the sugars and starches (which precipitate out and must be shaken from the bottom up into the liquid before use). Roots dug in the spring will have a higher percentage of alkaloid, and may be more poisonous or more medicinal, depending on the plant. Even rhubarb changes as it grows (oxalates concentrate in it throughout the growing season), so it usually harvested only in the late spring, early summer.

3.      How prepared?

If you harvest the right part of the rhubarb in the right season, but serve it raw instead of cooked, it would be unpalatable. If you harvest poke leaves at the right time (early spring), you could still poison yourself, unless you cook them in three changes of water.

Different methods of preparation draw out different constituents from plants and move their position on the medicine wheel. If sugar cane is prepared by refining all the minerals out of it, it moves from the east to the west; it no longer nutritive, but now poisonous.

Water is the universal solvent, so many herbs are dried and used as teas or infusions. Minerals, vitamins, sugars, starches, hormones, tannins, volatile oils, and some alkaloids (caffeine, for instance) dissolve well in water, given sufficient time or high enough heat. Fresh herbs are the best sources of volatile oils and are best made into teas. Dried herbs are better sources of nutrients and medicinal properties and are best made into infusions.

Alcohol will dissolve and extract resins, oils, and alkaloids. It does not extract nutrients such as vitamins or minerals, but it does extract sugars, starches, and hormones.

Vinegar is the best menstruum for dissolving minerals out of plants. Apple cider vinegar – pasteurized, please – is my favorite choice.

Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of an herb, many of which are strongly antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and wound-healing.

Traditional Chinese Medicine has many methods of preparation, and even the manner in which the herb is cut for drying is considered critical to the medicine. In addition to the commonly available forms of herbs (teas, tinctures, ointments, capsules), they also roast herbs, smoke herbs, fry herbs, and cook them with honey.

4.      How much to take?

At last, a wonderful rhubarb pie! But better not eat more than one piece, or you’ll be on the toilet all night.

*   Plants of the East can generally be eaten in any quantity, even daily if necessary.

*   Plants of the West need to be used in tiny amounts and rarely.

*   Those from the South and North are used moderately, to correct and enliven the diet.

The closer to the west the plant lies, the more critical the question of dose becomes. The difference between one cup of coffee and two is not so great, but the difference between one cup of digitalis and two is. The difference between 10 and 20 drops of most herbal tinctures is inconsequential, but the difference between 10 and 20 milligrams of a drug may be the difference between life and death. The question of dose is one that is hotly contested among herbalists, and, of course, the answers to the first three questions change the potency of the preparation and thus the answer to the fourth question.

The difference between an herbal tea and an herbal infusion, or “standard brew” as Juliette de Bairacli Levy styles it, was for me, the difference between dabbling in herbs and using them effectively. So please pay attention here. This is important.

To make an infusion:

*   Place one ounce dried herb in a quart jar and fill it to the top with boiling water.

*   Screw a tight lid onto it and allow it to sit, just like that, for at least 4 hours. (Can you hear the minerals dissolving, ever so slowly?)

*   When your infusion is done, strain the plant material out, returning it to the earth, and drink the liquid, hot or cold or at room temperature.

*   What you don’t consume after straining is best kept in the refrigerator. Drink it within 48 hours.