The Cardinal Directions

Symbols and allegories.
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The Cardinal Directions

Post by Jiva »

Recently I’ve become somewhat fascinated in the way by which different cultures/mythologies interpret the cardinal directions, both in relation to the wider natural world (North, East, South, West) and from a human perspective (Ahead, Right, Behind, Left). In modern European culture these are basically aligned with each other, sometimes with good/heaven and evil/hell linked with North and South respectively. But there are, of course, many other ways of looking at things. I can only think of a few mainly European ones, but it seems that other models from around the world include things like colour and so on. Furthermore, as various types of the occult/esotericism are often expressed in terms of a Right and Left path or side, I also wondered if people have certain directions personal formulations related to this subject.

The Kabbalah

Naturally, the Kabbalistist have the most complicated version I know of. In the Bahir it’s mentioned that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are, in fact, one huge tree that merely emerges from the earth in two different places. In the East grows the Tree of Life; in the North the Tree of Knowledge. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge they empower evil, something which necessitates the strict, severe and judgemental side of god. Therefore, in terms of the sephirothic tree, the Eastern Tree of Life is actually the central pillar whereas the Northern Tree of Knowledge is the Left side, with a particular focus on Din/Gevurah.

In the Zohar this is extended to other incidents, e.g. when Balak and Balaam decide to begin their attack against the Israelites from the North/Left because Din/Gevurah is the sephira where the demonic forces that threaten Israel derive from. Balak also instructs Balaam to attack the twelve angels that they mistakenly think watch over the twelve tribes of Israel, represented by the twelve bronze bulls – the Molten Sea – which are “counted from the North”.

Old Norse Mythology

Although it is often thought to be quite obvious – evil in the South/Helheimr (which is actually vertically below anyway) – it is actually from the East/Járnviðr that demonic forces originate.

The Saami

I don’t know a huge amount about the Saami, but it would seem that many judged their primary direction (which I guess would correspond with our concept of Northwards) by the direction in which reindeer migrate, i.e. what we would call a Westerly direction. Basically, I just find it really interesting that their primary direction was often based on a natural migration rather than directly on the weather, or the sun’s movement or shadow.

In relation to Old Norse mythology, I guess the Saami’s Western migration is likely to be one of the sources for the concept of the Eastern Járnviðr.
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Re: The Cardinal Directions

Post by Heith »

Did we discuss this topic with you a while ago?

There's also beliefs in the Finnish system that East is a evil direction, alongside north. I've read quite many passages where it's said that diseases come from the east. This belief can of course be explained partially (if not wholly) with the deep-rooted suspicion over the neighbouring cultures and country.
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Re: The Cardinal Directions

Post by Kenazis »

How much there might the idea of "otherness" is evil, or opposite is evil, in these "directions of evil and good"? People of north see the south being evil, people from east see the west evil etc. As the left side is seen evil for the left handed being "the other". I have being studying more the different views and roots of the left and the right, than the directions, so can't say much about this interesting topic.

This reminded me (I don't remember exactly what tribe, but I'm pretty sure it was African) of a tribe who links future and back/behind and past and front/ahead instead seeing direction of future being ahead and direction of past being behind. There's some logic in this because you can't see your future but past you can see, and you can see what's in front of you, but you don't have eyes in your back.
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Re: The Cardinal Directions

Post by Yinlong »

Such an interesting topic! Before I noticed I found that I've been googling and reading different sources for the whole day after opening my computer in the morning. Well, it's a good start for the first day of my vacation. :) I try to summarize now some points from my little investigation.

In many languages the cardinal directions do not point to proto-languages, which suggests (actual) cardinal directions, or the encoding of them, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Roughly, the cardinal directions in all the languages can be categorized to be derived from following themes:
1. Celestial bodies and events 2. Atmospheric features 3. General directions 4. Environment specific features

Only Finnish with other Finno-Ugric languages seem to have quite good examples of basically all the above. Also, it is quite interesting how the cardinal directions differ in local dialects and neighbouring languages:

1. North is "pohjoinen", which derives from "pohja", bottom. For example, "pohjan poika", means a man from north, although literal meaning is "a man from bottom". The term could also have something to do when the sun is below, meaning midnight. In the traditional tent the bottom of the tent faces always northwards and the opening ("door") always southwards. The front opening is southwards for obvious practical reasons.

2. South is "etelä", which derives from "etu-", "ete-", "ede-", etc. all denoting something in front. Though, some dialects have used "suvi", which means summer, while others like our Estonian cousins use "lounas", "louna" instead, which in modern Finnish means Southwest, but notably also midday, the meal during midday etc. In Hungarian language South means also midday.

3. East has been almost uniformly "itä", which is related to "itää" (to grow, to come forth). So, there's is a clear connection to a growing, rising sun. Though, derivatives of "koi", "koiline" have been also used, which is still left in such phrases as "aamunkoi", the sunrise or morning. "Koillinen" is current Northeast in modern Finnish.

4. West is the most complicated one regarding how it has been used in Eastern and Western regions of Finnish speakers. Currently we use "länsi", which is related to proto-Germanic "lenze", which means spring season and long. During spring the days get longer. However, for example in Kalevala and in Eastern dialects a much more common word is "luve", "luuve", "luode", which is current Northwest, but also has connection to floods (currently "vuoksi" is high tide and "luode" is low tide, so exactly other way around than it used to be!). Worth noting is that Louhi, the (often but not necessarily always evil) witch queen from Kalevala has both connection to North and West with her names: Pohjan akka, Louhi, Lovetar, Loviatar, Louheatar and Lovehetar.

Other notes:
- "Meri", besides meaning the sea, in some dialects have also meant South and West. This is probably for obvious reasons if you look the map. Note above also the sea (that is causing floods), "luode"
- "Kaakko", meaning Southeast, is related to "kaakkuri" (gavia stellata) and the direction the birds migrate to after summer
- In Eastern Finland the common names for intermediate directions have also been the following NE: "päevännousu" (sunrise) SE: "uamiespäevä" (morning) SW: "puolpäevä" (noon) NW: "päevänlasku" (sunset)

Basically, in Fenno-Ugric languages and dialects the terminology has varied quite a lot regionally before "fixing" the official terminology.

Then to other languages...

1. What I found out is that the "natural position" of man is to face eastwards. In the examples I studied, many languages connect North with left (e.g. Cornish, Welsh, most Polynesian). However, only exception is Hawaiian languages and dialects, where North is associated with right. I wonder if this is because their Polynesian ancestors came from West. I need to study this further. Man facing the sunrise being such a natural thing, I guess it is no wonder that in Islam they have dictated that the prayers must be directed towards Kaaba/Mecca, so people wouldn't be worshiping the Sun.

2. What is probably worth noting when studying religions and mythology of the Egyptians, the language has connection of North with downstream and South with upstream, Nile being such an important navigational reference point. Also many American Indians have connections with the names for cardinal directions with rivers, mountains etc.

3. Partly related to winds, I studied mostly languages from Northern hemisphere, which connect North with cold and South with warm. I wonder how this is different for cultures living in the Southern hemisphere and close to the equator? Or do they have different tactics? This I need to look further when I have more time. The Lappish were mentioned, I remember them sporting a traditional hat named after the four winds. Eskimo languages seem to connect also cardinal directions with winds, like Polynesians. Connections with winds might tell a story of nomadic / sea-faring life of the ancestors.

4. Easter, Isis, Eshtar, etc. Well, probably this needs no more words.

5. I Ching's Baguas and the derived variations of similar systems have mappings to elements, directions, the seasons etc. For example, Li maps to the following: 1. Fire (nature) 2. Summer (season) 3. South (direction) 4. the Sun (celestial body) among other qualities.

So, being connected with such things as up, down, front, behind (future, past, as fra Kenazis pointed out), left, right etc. it is no wonder that cardinal directions play (more often than not) a certain role in mythologies and culture. Also, celestial/astronomical, mathematical and navigational knowledge seems to often go hand-in-hand in ancient times with religion, so I guess it is no wonder these often become intertwined with each other.

Next I try to tie this background investigation to religions, cultural concepts and mythologies with some examples. However, now I need to continue with other duties :) As a side note, thinking and studying directions in a foreign languages and cultures really mixes your head and inner compass, so I hope I didn't mix the directions while writing, and I can find my car :P
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Re: The Cardinal Directions

Post by Sothoth »

Interesting topic. In the Kabbalah there is the cube of space which is related to the Cube of Metatron and/or Demons' Cube. There are six major directions, north, east, south, west, above and below. Seventh is the center. These are the theosophical aspects in a way. Every direction corresponds to the 22 Hebrew letters which are too the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot.

Cool ponderings you have, fra Yinlong! I think in the Finnish mythology North corresponds to the Earth, East to the Air (the goddess Ilmatar has relation to the East wind), South to the Fire and West to the Water. Then there are "alinen" (below) and "ylinen" (above). Seventh point is the "keskinen" which is the world of us humans.
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