At the heart of symbolism

Orientation according to the sun and the stars


Traditionally, sailors navigated along the sun or star course

Various modes

Far from being simple whims, the orientation questions hold an important place within various traditions. Related to a whole set of notions, they play a key role in different initiation rites and mythical stories. The purpose of this article consists in looking at how various orientation modes decline in different traditions and how far they harmoniously fit together.

Although seemingly easy to understand, the orientation questions are nevertheless complex. If the luminous side seems generally to get the preference (in the human being world), it could not constitute a common rule to various traditions and times. Attention has not only to be paid to possible confusions between different modes:

  • Polar or oriented towards the celestial North Pole;
  • Solar or oriented towards the meridian Sun;
  • Eastern or oriented towards the rising Sun.

We have also to consider the adopted point of view within a single mode (Heaven or Earth, “up” or “down”) and to the pre-eminence rules. Thus, Heaven is above Earth in the Chinese tradition whereas the “down” or dead world takes over the “upper” or living world in the Celtic tradition.

Moreover, it is, for example, interesting to note that African and western languages deeply differ regarding orientation. Whereas western languages reflect an anthropocentric conception of the spatial position of persons and objects, a number of African languages treat objects as entities endowed with a proper spatial representation. In these languages, objects present front and back sides where the western languages make no distinction. It is consequently important to specify to whom or what the orientation refers. This is probably not difficult when considering a human being; however it could be quite different when considering an object. Does it relate to the observer's point of view ? Or, the view of the represented object as such, endowed with a human appearance or not ? All these questions can not be ignored if we wish to get a com-prehensive picture which brings together the various traditions from the orientation point of view.

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