The Symbolism Of Cardinal Direction

The cardinal directions have quite different associations in Asia and in each culture around the world this post focuses on the Western literary tradition, which is heavily influenced by the Bible. One thing all ancient cultures have in common: cardinal directions are in some way sacred.

Not all cultures have those same four basic points of north, east, south and west. The Zuni tradition has six points the Western four plus one above and another below. Eastern cultures connect animals of the zodiac to their cardinal directions: Rat for north, rabbit for east, horse for south, rooster for west. By coincidence, the Christian tradition also uses the rooster on weather vanes, not because of any particular association with the west, but because Pope Gregory the first said that the cock (rooster) “was the most suitable emblem of Christianity”, being “the emblem of St Peter”. (And Saint Peter is the patron saint of travellers, who need a sense of direction to get them home safely.)

The Story of the Weathercock by Evelyn Sharpe 1907 illustrated by Charles Robinson
The Story of the Weathercock by Evelyn Sharpe 1907 illustrated by Charles Robinson
John Patience - The Snow Queen
John Patience – The Snow Queen

In the Bible, the cardinal directions tend to have both good and evil associations. This is apparently to do with the idea that you find evil everywhere, all over the place.


We often orient ourselves by facing north. North = correct orientation, knowing where you’re going, having a firm plan.

North = permanence/eternity. The polar stars were permanently visible in the sky. It is the place of God’s celestial dwelling.

North = disaster, represented by the left hand. (North came from an ancient European language with a term that meant “left”.)

In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destruction. False kings come from the north.

North = cold, wintry, inhospitable.

Whenever The Dark Lord rises to gather his armies and bring destruction upon the lands of men, elves, dwarves and the race of funny midgets, he always, always, always does this from a stronghold built in the most frigid, dark, frigid, remote, frigid, cold, benighted corner of the wasteland that in most cases is simply called “the North”.This trope may stem from how generally inhospitable the North often is to human (and other) life (at least in the Northern hemisphere). While a gentle cover of snow can imply romance, and snow can often be used to create an incredibly beautiful and peaceful otherworldly air, when taken to blizzard-level extremes it becomes an icy hell.

TV Tropes, Grim Up North

It seems quite common in fantasy worlds to have an arctic or temperate climate in the northern hemisphere, and a tropical climate in the southern hemisphere, i.e., a cold north and a hot south.In reality, it doesn’t quite works this way. You have a cold north… and a cold south. The only “hot” part is in the middle. This representation probably comes from the fact that 90% of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, where that trope seems true.

TV Tropes, North is Cold, South Is Hot

As someone from the Southern Hemisphere, I can confirm that we are well-used to Northern normativity and hardly even think about it. But it did take my daughter until she was about five or six before she stopped hoping for snow at Christmas here in the low-lying tablelands of Australia.

The North In Britain

Northern England. To those of the metropolitan southeast in particular, a strange and alien place full of salt-of-the-earth lower-class types who talk funny, notable only for football, pop music and flat caps. To some Londoners, this is anywhere north of the M25, the motorway surrounding Greater London, forgetting about The Midlands. Geographically, the North is usually classed as Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, Merseyside, Lancashire, Durham, Tyne & Wear, Northumberland, Cumbria and parts of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire.It’s less crowded than southern England, but not half as rich or full of TV bosses. The media sometimes portray a stereotypical place of urban deprivation, coal mines and men in flat caps. Expect stories about working-class struggle, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, and old men having humorous adventures. There may well be trouble at t’mill. The setting of many a Kitchen Sink Drama.

TV Tropes, Oop North

There’s a separate entry for North East England.

The North In America

The American counterpart of Oop North is Ap Nort, which is a parody of the dialect spoken in the Twin Cities.


But the real American north is Alaska, America’s modern frontier. It is by far the least densely populated state of America.

Most people who live there aren’t actually born in Alaska. (Only about 40 per cent of Alaskan residents were born there.) It’s considered a place where people travel to, or escape to. Much of Alaska’s population is transitory.

Useful Notes On Alaska from TV Tropes.

Shirley Kite - New Moon (1927) New Yorker cover 1938
Shirley Kite – New Moon (1927) New Yorker cover 1938

In children’s literature, Alaska is where the Cullens go to hunt in Twilight. Jack London’s stories were set in Alaska, as was Julie of the Wolves. In all three cases, there is hunting and wilderness, and the environment brings the wildness out of the characters.


The cover of the September 1963 issue of Down East
East of Eden book cover
The novel East of Eden explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to and many parallels with the biblical Book of Genesis (especially Genesis Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel).
Cover illustration for the book,  East of Eden
Cover illustration for an edition of East of Eden

The Sun rises in the East everywhere on Earth. Sometimes a little north of east, sometimes a little south of east, but always east. It’s likely that the word East came from a word that means ‘shining’.

East = Beginnings. Because that’s where the new day begins. Metaphorically, east = an awakening, vision, ascension.

In the ancient world the point of orientation was east. The east was before them, the west behind, the south to the right, and the north to the left. This convention has been completely inverted in a modern (20th century) Western-style picture book such as Wheel on the Chimney. When Tibor Gigely illustrated Margaret Wise Brown’s story about the Southern European tradition of affixing cartwheels to chimneys in the hope that they’d nest there and bring your family good luck, Gigely depicted the storks flying ‘West’ (backwards) through the book as the storks flew South to migrate. In this way, Gigely subtly linked ‘West’, ‘left’ and ‘South’.

The importance of the east as the main point of orientation may be related to the rising of the sun and its importance in the religions of the ancient Near East. In the Bible the East’s symbolism emerges for the first time in Genesis. The Garden of Eden was placed in the East and its entrance faced east.

After sinning, Adam and Eve left the garden and went east.

This eastward movement continued with Cain and culminated in the movement of the human race toward the east.

That said, the east is symbolically ambivalent. The garden placed there symbolized safety and security. After sin, when it was the direction of the exile, it represented a condition of alienation from God. It was also the place of the wilderness, from which destructive winds came, threatening life.

To the prophets the east was a symbol of Babylonian exile and the saving presence of God. He traveled to Babylon and ultimately redeemed His people. The east became a place where God intervened on behalf of his people, bringing them salvation.

From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
Hordes From The East

“The East” comes from the typical placement of the “others” in Real LifeWestern Europe. The usual candidates for the hordes include Mongols, Muslims, Huns, Hungarians, Scythians, or Russians, or Fantasy Counterpart Cultures of them. Like several of these cultures, they’re likely to have been Born in the Saddle. They’ll sometimes look stereotypically Asian, but they aren’t criminal masterminds like the Yellow Peril – they’re just a mass of Mooks born to be mooks.A culture can even be on both sides of the trope. Russians are a source of Hordes for Western Europe, but they themselves endured Mongol control for some centuries – it’s a popular trope in Russian folk tales.The Hordes from the East will often act like The Horde, but they don’t have to. Hordes from the East will always be presented as a feared foreign danger, but their behaviour can vary. There’s a chance that they don’t pillage at all, or that they use clever strategies in big struggle instead of just brute force.Some cultures have their own tropes involving attacks from a particular direction. For example, an attack would have always come from the North/West in China, from the North-West in India, and from the North in Rome. Another variant is to have hordes from up north, Vikings or Norse barbarians.

TV Tropes

The East vs West In America

New York and New Orleans have symbolic significance as “gateways” to America. Most of our American forefathers entered the new world of America through the eastern gateway of New York and then entered into the heart of America through the southern gateway of New Orleans. In this sense, one could say that New York represents the gateway to America while New Orleans represents the gateway to the “heart” of America. True to general east-west American symbolism, the cities of the east represent the old and traditional values of America while those of the west represent the new.

Symbolism of Place

The Wizard Of Oz/WickedCase Study

Since Elphaba is The Wicked Witch Of The West, why did Maguire choose to have her born in the East? Elphaba gradually makes her way West over the course of Wicked.

Did Maguire make use of the symbolism Bibically associated with cardinal directions? I believe he is influenced by directions as portrayed in Judeo-Christian thinking:

The sun rises in the east. It makes sense that in a work of fantasy, East = birth. The Garden Of Eden was in the East. And remember, it was only after Adam and Eve left Eden that everything turned terrible for us humans, according to the Bible.

In the Bible false kings come from the North. This is where Elphaba goes to university. Though she was presumably ostricised at school, too, this is where we see it. She is frozen out of Galinda’s social circle, relegated to the lunchtable with the Munchkin (the beta-male). Since most of the world lives in the Northern Hemisphere, the North is seen as cold. In Wicked, North is emotionally cold.

The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets. In other words, the West symbolises a green girl’s descent into evil.

Through Wicked, Maguire narrates the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and her life and experiences in Oz — which is not a fairytale place of happiness and joy, but a dark, oppressive police state full of political machinations. It’s a land where Animals, who are sentient and have voices, souls and minds, are persecuted and exiled. It’s a place where you are wicked if you are different; if you tell the truth.


Oz’ politics is as complex and often as ludicrous as it is in our world. The same is true of Oz’ religions and belief systems. The religion of the Un-named God, the pleasure-seekers, the followers of the time dragon, education, the different social and political causes — each has its zealous followers who have their own tenets of Right and Wrong, about Good and Evil.

East Coast To Scotland travel poster
East Coast To Scotland travel poster


Okay, so here’s the general rule: whether it’s Italy or Greece or Africa or Malaysia or Vietnam, when writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok. The effects can be tragic or comic, but they generally follow the same pattern. We might add, if we’re being generous, that they run amok because they are having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

This tracks with the history of white settlers sent to Australia. Most passengers on the first fleet were designated criminals, the first larrikins of colonial Australia. Send em south! They won’t bother us way down there.

In the passage above, Foster makes reference to:

  • Lawrence’s searchers
  • Hemingway’s hunters
  • Kerouac’s hipsters
  • Paul Bowles’s down-and-outers and seekers
  • Forster’s tourists
  • Durrell’s libertines
The Road front and back cover
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, father and son travel south ostensibly because it is warmer there, leading to more chance of survival. Metaphorically, however, the reason for going south in the book is slightly different.

South derives from a word meaning sun, alluding to warmer parts of the world.

Biblically, the south is primarily a negative symbol. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper.

To the south was Egypt, which opposed God’s power and oppressed His people. But the south was also the place where the Lord appeared to Moses, went with Him to Egypt, liberated His people, and appeared to them on Mount Sinai.

But the fact that it is represented by the right hand makes it also a positive one.

The American South

The Savage South

If you thought the north was bad, you haven’t seen the south. Down there, everyone is crude, their language indecipherable and their mannerisms are barbaric. The land is an inhospitable jungle full of wild beasts, barren desert, or nasty swamps full of crocodiles (sometimes it has all of the above). Also, don’t go swimming: there are sharks, or worse.The Savage South is when a southern area is seen as more barbaric than its northern counterpart. This shows up frequently in westerns, fantasy settings, horror films, and many other works and takes many forms. In milder versions, the area’s just unpleasant with rude, poorly groomed people. At worst, the people are hostile to any outsiders and the land itself is a nightmare realm just waiting to kill unlucky travellers.

TV Tropes
The Deep South

The Deep South: home of fat redneck sheriffs, hillbillies, moonshiners, The Klan, tobacco-chawin’ Good Ol’ Boys missing half their teeth, and all other manner of Corrupt Hicks, not to mention fire-and-brimstone preachers, iron-bound matriarchs, white-suited plantation owners, Southern Belles in flouncy gowns or short-shorts with crop tops, and possums. Some Kissing Cousins could also be in the mix somewhere.Although the real mid-Southern and Southeastern United States has a far wider range of locales and settings, the Deep South as it appears on TV is usually one tiny rural town after another, separated by miles of farmland or steep, forested mountainsides. Its inhabitants always seem to be about fifty years behind the times, at least as far as social issues are concerned

TV Tropes

(If the South is looking decayed, misty and/or possibly undead, then it’s Southern Gothic instead.)


Charles Clarence Beck (1910 – 1989) Weird Tales 1920 “Out of the west foul breezes sweep”

The word for West likely comes from another word meaning ‘to go down’.

Five Children and It cover

Edith Nesbit must have been a stickler for detail when she wrote:

And the sun was sinking slowly in the west. (I must say it was in the west, because it is usual in books to say so, for fear careless people should think it was setting in the east. In point of fact, it was not exactly in the west either – but that’s near enough.)

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

(In New Zealand, where I come from, the sun rises in the East but sets more in the North.)

According to the Bible, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River westward into the Promised Land. Note that the sea lies to the West. In fact, in the Bible, the term “sea” often referred to the west.

The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets.

West = evil and death.

But the West also pointed toward restored unity with God a return to the Garden of Eden. For example, when the Israelites traveled to and worshipped in the Temple they faced West to have the rising sun behind them.

King Arthur

King Arthur stories are hugely influential, even if you’ve never read any actual King Arthur stories. Upon his release, Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

The West End - London Underground Theatre District Advertisement - art by Ernest Michael Dinkel - 1931
The West End – London Underground Theatre District Advertisement – art by Ernest Michael Dinkel – 1931

In America: The Western Genre and ‘Manifest Destiny’

The Theme Park Version of the old west is a land of Indians, grizzled prospectors, scenic bluffs, Conestoga wagons, tough, shotgun-toting pioneers and buxom, be-feathered dance-hall girls. Also home to very lucrative sugar glass and balsa-wood chair industries, judging by the number of bar brawls which occur during a single episode of a typical western series. Bad guys and anti-heroes wear black hats, good guys and sheriffs wear white hats, shootouts on Main Street occur with the frequency of at least one an hour—with the sun at high noon each time—and everyone drinks sarsaparilla or whiskey. The real Old West was nothing like The Theme Park Version (which was originally the creation of 19th-century “dime novels”). There weren’t any huge shootouts, quickdraw duels were rare, and gun duels and violent gun-wielding criminals weren’t exclusive to desert-like “western” areas. Plus, since many guns were very inaccurate in those days, they sometimes tended to happen in significantly closer quarters than they do in fiction.

TV Tropes, The Western

I was entering a land of drifters: dreamers, losers, vagrants, crazy people – they all always go west in America. They all have this hopeless idea that they will get to the coast and make a fortune as a movie star or rock musician or game show contestant or something. And if things don’t work out they can always become a serial murderer. It’s strange that no-one ever goes east, that you never encounter anyone hitch-hiking to New York in pursuit of some wild and crazy dream to be a certified public accountant or make a killing in leveraged buy-outs.

Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
The Great Gatsby penguin edition

In American literature (e.g. in The Great Gatsby) moving West has sometimes symbolized gaining freedom, perhaps as an association with the settling of the Old West (see also Manifest Destiny).

What is ‘Manifest Destiny?’

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.

In popular children’s literature, manifest destiny can be seen most clearly in Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In adult storytelling, the entire genre of Westerns are about expansion and manifest destiny, though we’ve hardly seen a single straight Western since the second world war. (Modern ‘Westerns’ are ‘anti-Westerns’.)


In an Anti-Western the audience is encouraged to believe that expanding West is actually a grim and dangerous affair rather than a heroic one. The one exception is Shane, which is a straight Western, using all of the Western symbolism without irony.

Watch out for references to moving West when watching gangster films, too:

There are several gangster films in which a member of the gang says he’s got his eye on a farm or ranch out west, where he plans to get married and settle down. Anyone familiar with gangster films knows upon hearing this speech that this character will be dead before the story is over. Once you’re in the gang, you’re trapped, even if you’re its leader. Perhaps especially if you’re its leader.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Midwestern Values

These days you get a lot of American stories set somewhere in the non-specific ‘mid-west’ and that’s all we need to know about the place. For those of us who are not American, what does this mean, exactly?

What are Midwestern Values? is a question asked and answered on Quora.

Westerns and Children’s Literature

When it comes to Westerns and children’s literature, there was nothing for children at the time. Nothing excellent, anyway. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came along and changed that. (At the end of Huck Finn, Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story, and despite Sally’s plans to adopt and civilize him, he intends to flee west to Indian Territory.)

Weird West A New Genre

Weird West is a type of urban fantasy. It uses lots of Western tropes but makes use of magical realism/supernatural features. Westworld is a great example of Weird West.

For more see: Why The Weird West Works

 For anyone interested in literature from WESTERN AUSTRALIA in particular, more here, from The Book Show.


In the Bible, the four evangelists were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These guys were disciples of Christ who witnessed and wrote about events in the life of the Messiah. They are often presented as hybrid creatures rather than as men.

Each of these men corresponds to a different cardinal direction, as well as to the elements, the winds, the “astrological point” and the four rivers supposed to run through Eden. (Each one also gets his own sign of the zodiac.) All together, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John symbolise stability and the four pillars of the faith. This symbolism comes from Mesopotamian mythology.

Lemon girl young adult novella


3 Replies to “The Symbolism Of Cardinal Direction”

  1. Before reading this, I had vague knowledge that dulaities were perceived by ancient peoples in relation to cardinal directions. With the modern slang “south paw” I had assumed that south had always been equated with the left hand, because even slang can have its basis in historical wordage. I stand corrected ^_^. Thank you for the article, very interesting!

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