The Legend of the Four Guardians – North, South, East and West
By Nancy Monnya
There is a legend that I have heard both from many native people, my people the BaPedi of South Africa as well as the Native Indian communities of America have variations of this legend, with the same core values and here, I will be sharing a story incorporating both legends I have heard, using the present tense because to me, this is the reality of the world we live in today.
There are four siblings, each with a duty; they are the guardians of the elements of nature; water, fire, earth, and air. In the beginning, the siblings knew that their duties were complementary and that they needed each other to be able to perform them well. They all had differences, noticeable of which was their skin color. But, their skin colors had nothing to do with their inner character but more to do with the environment they were found in, as well as the amount of a pigment called melanin found in all living organisms. Other than this, they were similar in many ways and they only saw their differences as a necessity to highlight their different duties.
It so happened that during the course of history, brother North, who is the guardian of the Fire, became too aware of his capability to destroy and as this greedy fire grew within him, he forgot about his siblings and the pledge they made to live in harmony and balance each other out, and avert calamity.
He began to rage and devoured all that was in his path. Through his devouring, he decimated his own land and lost the protection and sustenance it had provided him from the beginning of time. By now he had become an inferno that could not be controlled and he thought by devouring, his thirst would be quenched. His siblings were initially unaware that he was raging out of control. He began to spread in search of more to devour, leaving his land in smoldering ashes. Where could he go to quench his now massive thirst? Of course his siblings’ lands!
He reached sister West’s land first and unable to hold himself, he began to rip through his own sister, blazing. Sister West as the guardian of the Earth and the plants that grow from it thought she could prepare some medicine to calm his brother down and reduce the inferno. Realizing that brother North was conquering everything, burning even the herbs they wanted to use to make him better, she retreated and began to hide to preserve herself. But by then brother North had ravaged her land. Looking around for more to devour, he headed towards sister East who had heard that brother North was now out of control.
As brother North began to spread east, he left parts of himself that continued to blaze on whatever else was still left alive in an attempt to fill his insatiable belly. Sister West, wise woman as she was, knew that all she had to do was bury herself, and as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the ashes brother North left will cool down and slowly the Earth will be reborn. More will grow. All she had to do was cut off all living things from the fires still blazing to starve them of energy.
Brother East prepared himself. He is the guardian of the air; the winds. As bother North raged on, he began to blow. At first he underestimated the savagery of his brother. Just like sister West, he was shocked at what his beloved brother had become as he began to spread and devour all in his path. Brother East quickly recovered from his shock and summoned all the winds from within and around him and began to blow fiercely. What this did was keep brother North from proceeding which made him frustrated so he decided to take a detour.
He headed towards sister South. As the guardian of the Waters, she was not bothered by her brother’s fierceness and actually sat by with arms folded laughing at his stunts. He called him confused and swore that brother North will get tired and eventually leave.
She was also aware that should she be in rush and unleash his powers on his brother, she will smother and kill him. This was not to be as it will not benefit the world to be rid of Fire completely. Brother North raged on and by the time sister South took him seriously, he had spread in all directions. Her strategy was to keep her brother from going anywhere else to devour again, knowing that sister West is still recovering and will begin to grow again and brother East does not want to deal with brother North because all he can do is blow him which turns him into an inferno or manages to send him towards someone else. She could not afford to have him be blown towards West again or be completely smothered.
At a conundrum, she began to retreat afraid of killing his brother and her brother found her land far more welcoming because where there is water, there is more living things to consume, so he stayed longer. To this day, sister South cowers in fear but it has been so long that she has forgotten why she is cowering from brother North and all the siblings have come to believe that she is a weakling because only she can put an end to brother North but she has forgotten. They all seem to have forgotten but there is one who cannot forget because one wrong move, he gets reminded daily how the guardian of the Waters can render him into nothingness. So he does all he can to keep sister South cowering and scattering at every move the guardian of the Fire makes. This keeps her from thinking clearly enough to remember.
Why is this legend a representation of our reality?
Brother North, the guardian of the Fire, found in the regions of Europe, has gone round the world destroying, burning to the ground, decimating and simply taking everything in his path selfishly disregarding his fellow human beings. Currently he is still blazing, with little left to devour and is being fueled by a system he has created to keep himself fed. It does not satiate him, but rather makes him want more. After burning everything, he is becoming aware of the stench he has left behind and more aware of lack of more lands to conquer. He is also aware of the unsustainability of his system and he is fearful that eventually he will have nothing to consume but himself or be starved to death. His other greatest fear is the day the guardian of the waters wakes up from his confusion, because then he knows his reign would come to an end.
Sister West, the guardian of the Earth and all that grows, found in the regions of the Americas, has mastered the art of herbs and understanding plants. You want to learn the secrets of the green ones that grows? It is the Native Americans you must ask. They know it all; from healing herbs to ceremonial herbs. They hear the songs of the ancient ones and understand when they reveal the secrets of their leaves, roots, fruit and bark. The conquers destroyed most of what they hold sacred. Their cultures were nearly wiped off the face of the earth and it is only recently that we see them rekindle their power and connection with mother earth and openly live their truth.
Brother East, the guardian of the Air and Winds, found in the regions of Asia, has mastered all that has to do with air and breath. Meditation, yoga, tantra and all that has to do with subtle energies, the East has mastered it. They know how to transcend the physical by manipulating these subtle energies at will. They have had some confrontation with the guardians of the Fire, but he was unable to do as much damage as he has done to the guardians of the Earth. They managed to repel him and much of the traditions of this region remain intact and what he had touched can be dug up and reassembled with much more accuracy.
Then we have sister South, the guardian of the Waters. She still cowers today not understanding that only she can stop the fire. Water will put out fire, even if it is an inferno, you must be strategic about it. She is found in the regions of Africa. Everyone fears her. Her strength and prowess is apparent. Like water, she can nurture but she can also destroy. She can wet the Earth and allow new life to grow but she can also clear it just as easily. Air will only move her around or churn her into raging storms. Fire will have no effect on her. What she lacks is the cunning nature of her brothers. She has as nurturing a nature as sister West and both of them have suffered more from their brother. She is the keeper of the secrets of life and like the secrets of the deepest seas, even she has forgotten what she carries. They say she carries too much melanin and she complains about it forgetting that she carries that which makes up black matter. She is the beginning of life and even mainstream science cannot help but acknowledge this. Yet she doesn’t know this and allows her younger siblings bully her.
Perhaps sister West is angry that her elder sister stood by and watched her get destroyed when she has the power to stop it. Perhaps brother East mocks hier because she is an elder sister who seems to have gotten lost. Brother North on the other hand fears for himself and has good reason to keep her cowering.
In all of this, brother North is actually the little brother. Most legends by native communities refer to him as ‘little brother’, because only a little brother finds delight in taking his siblings’ things. Only a little brother will think it is ok to break other’s toys and then cry foul. Only a little brother will steal and eat what is not his and blame others. Only a little brother will steal the works of his elder siblings and claim it as his own. But above all, he is little brother because he was came last and still has more to learn about life and how to maintain balance.
As we wait for the guardian of the Waters to stop cowering, we can only imagine a reality where there is balance, because excess of either one of the elements will eventually lead to destruction.