Alice C. Linsley
Anthropologically, the roots of religion are in the primitive soil of man’s most fundamental experience of and response to earthly phenomena. Early man made distinctions based on what he observed and experienced: hot and cold, night and day, and east and west, male and female. These distinctions ordered their world and observing them was essential for survival. The ability to determine direction was important when migrating, and to find hunting grounds, and to mark the boundaries of tribal lands. The cardinal poles are important in all tribal religion, and because all peoples were originally tribal, these continue even today to influence our religious ideas.
From the binary oppositions of east-west and north-south, archaic man was able to assign names to phenomena that he perceived as belonging to certain quadrants on a sphere. An example is the designation of winds that proceed from directions between the 4 cardinal poles: a southwest wind or a northeast wind. To each wind was given a name indicating a socio-metaphysical meaning. Winds proceeding from the west were regarded as a positive omen. Theophrastus, a 4th century BC scholar wrote, “Zephyros, the west wind, is the most gentle of all the winds and it blows in the afternoon and towards the land, and is cold.” The east wind (called “Sirocco” in Arabic) was less welcome as it brought heat and dust carried on strong winds.
In the Afro-Asiatic scheme, quadrant 1 would be that space on earth where sunlight falls as the sun makes its journey from east to north (morning). Quadrant 2 would be that space on earth where sunlight is seen as the sun journeys from north to west (afternoon). Quadrants 3 and 4 would be those associated with the sun’s hidden activity from the setting of the sun (quadrant 3) to before the sun’s rising again (quadrant 4). Thus, according to ancient Egyptian hymns, the sovereign Deity was both immanent and transcendent and “double-concealed.”
The key reference points in the Afro-Asiatic cosmology are the sun’s rising and the polar star. The polar or North Star never changes its place in the sky. When you face it, you are always facing north. So east and north are the primary astronomical and religious points of reference and are associated with Divine arousal and judgment. Among Abraham's people the sun was the emblem of the Creator. Genesis reveals their cosmology. Were the writers of the Bible from the Paleo-Siberian culture, for example, where there are long periods of darkness and long periods of daylight, we would find a different theological perspective, one reflecting that phenomenon.
The cosmology that we find in the Bible pertains to the experience of peoples of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion. It is from them that Jews, Christians and Muslims receive the tradition of facing east in prayer. The notion of the shrine of the heart as the sacred place of the indwelling god is evident in Egypt as early as 1200 BC, when personal piety entailed facing the rising sun, thereby inviting the most sovereign Deity to dwell in the person. Even earlier, the Pharaoh was called “son of Re,” the celestial creative principle whose emblem was the sun. Rulers were not chosen based on hereditary bloodline (Egyptian texts never mention an earthly "father of the king"). Kingship was a manifestation of the solar deity’s cultic overshadowing of noble women.
The cosmology of the Afro-Asiatics is represented in the Egyptian Ankh. I believe that the loop at the top was once a rounder circle, symbolizing the sun. The cross bar represent the sun's daily journey from east to west. The Ankh has affinity to the Agadez Cross of Niger (shown at left) and to the Sign of Tanit of Carthage (shown at right.) A similar image with the TNT inscription was found in the temple of Eshmun near Sidon. It dates to about the 5 century B.C. Assignment of the name 'Tanit' is guess work, however, since no one knows how TNT should be transliterated.
All the images shown here have the solar symbol over a horizontal bar representing the east-west movement of the sun. The sun is shown at the mountain top at the sacred center (high noon - as James explains, "In Him there is no shadow..."). We already know that mountains were a meeting place between God and man. Consider the many incidents of biblical heros ascending mountains and there experiencing theophanies.
The horned altar is a negative image signifying the same view of God's sovereignty over the earth, only here the circle has disappeared and God's presence is instead evident in the negative space. The upright horns are similar to those on the Tanit symbol shown at right.
Interestingly, the metal working chiefs of the Inadan who live in the Air Desert surrounding Agadez, maintain 2 wives in separate households on an north-south axis, as did the chiefs of Abraham's people. They speak a secret language which they call TeNeT (National Geographic, Aug. 1979, p. 389).
The binary distinctions, based most fundamentally on the four directional poles, must have impressed upon early humans the reality of their limitations, since they had no power to make the sun follow a different course or to move the polar star. Early man recognized that a greater Power had established night and day, the seasons, and the rising and the setting of the sun. So it is that the great structures of antiquity were oriented to welcome the rising light. The layout of the Temple in Jerusalem was arranged taking the path of the sun into account, and the great pyramids of Egypt face east.
The metal-working chiefs of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion knew true north because they had discovered the pattern of polarized iron filings. These chiefs maintained two wives in separate households on a north-south axis rather than an east-west axis, out of deference to the Sovereign God, who journeyed daily between his wives: Dawn and Dust. This sheds light on Lamech (Genesis 5) whose 2 wives were settled on an east-west axis. Lamech’s wives’ names were Adah, related to the word “dawn” and T-Zillah, related to the word “dusk.” So the braggart Lamech is guilty of claiming equality with God and in his mind this claim justified killing another human being.
It is evident from the Genesis text, when one knows what to look for, that this cosmology prevailed in Abraham’s time. It was this mystical symbolism that guided Abraham in deciding what to do after he had been in the land of Canaan for a while. Genesis 12:8 says that Abraham proceeded “to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord.”
Bethel means “House of God” and is associated with the east, the direction of the sunrise. Yet we are told that Abraham pitched his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. This mysterious orientation represents a reversal. The word Ai suggests a mystical explanation. In Jewish mysticism, “Ain soph” is Hidden God and “Aima” is great reproductive Mother. Ain is one with Aima in a mystical union that signals that something new is about to be born. This is the forward motion of Abraham’s life.
Now we must remember that Abraham had come into this land as a stranger and did not possess a territory. In this vicinity was the Oak of Moreh near “the navel of the earth” (Judges 9:37). “Moreh” means instructor or diviner. In other words, Abraham went to the Diviner’s oak for guidance about how he was to become established in the land.
In Jewish mysticism Ain soph is associated with north and the number 1 and represents the Hidden God. Aima is associated with south and the number 3 and represents creative union. In pitching his tent where he did, the house of Ain (Bethel) has moved to the west, which means that south has moved to the position of north. We have a reversal of directional poles that places south in the position of priority. South presents marriage and reproduction. In the very next verse (Genesis 12:9) we are told that Abraham heads south, making “his way stage by stage to the Negev.” The text appears to be telling us that this is when Abraham took Keturah as his second wife. Now with Sarah in Hebron and Keturah in Beersheba, he was able to establish control over a territory on a north-south axis, following the pattern of his forefathers.
We have further confirmation of the association of 1 with north and 3 with south in I Kings 7:23-26 and II Chronicles 4:1-4. Here we read that the altar in Solomon’s temple was to rest on 12 oxen: 3 facing north, 3 facing west, 3 facing south and 3 facing east. We note that north heads the list, having the position of priority. Then comes west (associated with the numbers 9 and 10) and then in the third position we have south.
Are the directional poles the “esse” of Christianity? No, but the Afro-Asiatic cosmology foretells Messiah's appearing and the poles remind us that we must face the only Great God who alone can save, the uncreated, preexistent God who stretched out the heavens and made the sun to shine on the wise and the foolish, the same Eternal One who will make the new heaven and earth. Blessed be his Name!
(For related articles, go here and here.)