“The heyoka were different in three primary ways from the other sorts of clowns. They were truly unpredictable, and could do the unexpected or tasteless even during the most solemn of occasions. More so than other clowns, they really seemed to be insane. Also, they were thought to be more inspired by trans-human supernatural forces (as individuals driven by spirits rather than group conventions), and to have a closer link to wakan or power than other clowns. And lastly, they kept their role for life – it was a sacred calling which could not be given up without performing an agonizing ritual of expiation. Not surprisingly, these unique differences were seen as the result of their having visions of Thunderbird, a unique and transforming experience.
Testimony of Black Elk: the heyoka and lightning:
The Oglala Indian Black Elk had some interesting things to say about the heyoka ceremony, which he himself participated in. Black Elk describes the “dog in boiling water” ceremony in some detail. He also describes the bizarre items he had to carry as a heyoka, and the crazy antics he had to perform with his companions. He also attempts to explain the link between the contrary trickster nature of heyokas with that of Thunderbird.
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm… you have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better. And so I think this is what the heyoka ceremony is for … the dog had to be killed quickly and without making any scar, as lightning kills, for it is the power of lightning that heyokas have.” (quoted in Neihardt 1959: 160)
Today, of course, Western physicists describe the dual nature of electricity. An object can carry a positive or negative electric charge. The electron is simultaneously a wave and a particle. Electricity and magnetism are thought to be aspects of the same force, and as is well know with magnetism, it comes in polarities, with opposite poles (north and south) attracting. Though the Indians did not have access to our modern scientific instruments, they are likely to have observed some of the same properties in lightning. Thus it would have been intuitive to link the dual spiritual nature of the heyoka (tragicomedy – solemn joking – joy united with pain) with the dual nature of electricity.”
(via Heyoka Magazine)