It made sense for priests to use elements of the natural environment to teach initiates about man’s connection with universal energy. Nature harbours the same behaviours and elements that are inherent in each of us.
Whilst the four directions use the basic fundamentals of symbolism, they are not strictly nature per se. They do, however, bear the attributes of universal energies – and more precisely the evolution of conscious thought.
The esoteric symbolism within the four directions encompasses the relationship and the similarities between man and the Universe. The same elements found in the microcosm of man are also present in the Universe, the macrocosm of everything in existence.
Robert Fludd’s 16th-century woodcut of ‘Vitruvian man
The axiom also holds true when applied to mankind. Whatever energies you project from the unconscious (below), come to the surface (above).
Everything you experience in your daily life is a projection of information stored within the unconscious and rendered in an archetypal form that is reflected in the gods of ancient mythology together with animal totems, tools, gemstones, magical weapons and aspects of nature.
When the four cardinal points is mentioned in mythology, there are hidden meanings.
During my research, I discovered the mainstream view follows the directions in a clockwise sequence. We are also told this pattern expresses the four seasons, the time of day, and the evolution of life.
I have a different theory.
Like many aspects found in nature, the four cardinal directions, or four winds as they are also known, are given symbolic meaning in numerous cultures around the world. Wind, or air, incidentally relates to states of mind.
Traditions such as the ancient druids of Northern Europe, shamans in the Americas, Asian sages, Indian yogis and African witchdoctors all use the four directions for symbolic purposes.
Other examples of four symbolism in relation to physical nature include the four emotional states of the body; physical, emotional, sensation and spiritual, the four states of matter; gas, liquid, solid and plasma, and the four forces of nature that bind matter together; strong, weak, gravity and magnetic electricity.
To reveal the esoteric mystery of the four directions, however, it is pertinent to analyse their meanings alongside the four elements and their corresponding chakras. By doing this, you find deeper truths – which I believe esoteric symbolism is designed to obscure.
Both the exoteric viewpoint and my esoteric theory relate to cycles of life, hence the common relationship between the four cardinal points, the seasons and time of day. For nature to survive and thrive, everything flows in patterns to its own natural rhythm.
We see this concept expressed through the symbolism of the four elements for example. Science reveals through the Universal Laws of Nature, that everything is in a constant state of flux (the law of impermanence) and everything vibrates at its own frequency (the law of vibration).
But this is not the conclusion you would ordinarily reach by following the exoteric viewpoint related through mainstream channels. And the internet is full of website publishing these semi-fragments of information.
For the purpose of this article, I am going to unfold the four directions in the clockwise sequence typically iterated in spiritual practices in mainstream circles. Later, I will explain how I interpret this symbolism differently.
I’m unfolding the story this way to demonstrate how subtle differences in the interpretation of symbolism creates a canyon between opposing points of view. By the end, I hope to have revealed how the esoteric meaning of the sequence reveals more about your psychology.
You can, of course, use this symbolism both ways:
Firstly, the exoteric sequence will help you integrate this knowledge into your life on a practical level. The opposite, esoteric, sequence explains how you create your experience of life. When you know this, and where you are in your cycle, you can make better-informed decisions.
The typical sequence of the four directions starts with the east and flows in a clockwise direction. Each of the directions is thus associated with a time of day, together with a stage in life (child, adolescent, adult, old-age.) It is obvious why symbols are interpreted this way.
The direction of the East is associated with new beginnings. Because time and energy move in cycles there are always new beginnings. From the point of view of self-development, new beginnings for us means a change in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that essentially generate new energies and subsequently create new experiences.
Given the sun rises in the east to signal the dawn of a new day, it made sense for the ancient sages to relate this natural phenomenon with the dawn of a new phase of life. On a deeper level, the appearance of the sun also relates to illumination – shining light on places that were once in darkness.
It is through the characteristics of the sun that modern words meaning to acquire knowledge or to understand something are derived; illumination, enlightenment. We still use light as a symbolic mechanism to represent ideas; think lightbulbs in a skull.
In the bible, east is repeatedly used as a symbolic tool in the creation story of Genesis. The famous garden was built in the east of Eden, and the main entrance faced the east. When Adam and Eve were dismissed they headed east in search of a new home.
Michelangelo’s Fall and Expulsion of Eden
Air is related to mental states, namely creativity and intellect. It is through there qualities of mind that we generate new ways of being. Likewise, air can also be chaotic, destructive and uncontrollable – much like the runaway mind that cannot be silenced. And it is so important that you are mindful of your thoughts.
Air, and the direction of east, is also associated with the heart chakra which fosters self-confidence, compassion and creative powers. Chakras impact your emotional and psychological condition. A balanced heart chakra enables you to transcend material desires and release the limitations of ego.
More on that later.
Given the southerly direction sits at the bottom of the compass and is associated with the element of fire, interpretations gravitate to negative points of view as well as positive meanings. In truth, all four directions have a positive and a negative meaning.
Negative interpretations in relation to the south can certainly be found in Christian interpretations of the Bible. Egypt – the enemy of the Israelites – is south of the promised land (of enlightenment). Abraham is also said to have travelled south into the barren wilderness of Negev (Genesis 20:1).
In the New Testament, the relationship with the southerly direction is given a positive meaning:
“The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” ~ Matthew 12:42
The Queen of the South here is referring to the solar plexus chakra which is just below the heart chakra. King Solomon, known for his wisdom, is associated with the heart chakra. The Seal of Solomon, composed of two interlocking triangles, represents the merging and balancing of male and female, positive and negative energies. Remember the heart chakra is associated with the element of air, and air is required to stoke a fire.
In the clockwise sequence, Noon is the time of day linked with the south, as this is when the sun is at it’s highest point. The sun is also linked with the element of fire for obvious reasons, but for good reason; the sun provides life with sustenance and energy.
Fire is also associated with strength, activity and the life-force that provides us with the courage and motivation we sometimes need to head into new experiences with confidence. We have an innate fear of the unknown because we lack faith in ourselves.
But fire also has the power to consume impurities and purify energies. It is a transformative power and produces light. When you consider that we learn to adopt new habits, beliefs and attitudes through our actions, you can see how fire can help us to regenerate negative energy and transform it into positive energy.
The solar plexus chakra is the command centre and source of imagination. You can use this chakra during meditation to burn away past experiences and attitudes you do not want.
So remember this for later: the south relates to transformation.
The west is a curious direction. During the research for this article, I noticed that other commentators on this subject sometimes provide the same meanings for west and east – most notably new beginnings.
There is a reasonable explanation for this once you understand the deeper meanings of symbols. The west corresponds with the season of autumn which is associated with letting go. This is the time of year trees and plants shed their leaves, and nature essentially dies.
When you let go of old values, beliefs and attitudes, energy transforms and you adopt new values, beliefs and attitudes.
Ancient sages observed these patterns of nature and use them in symbolic terms to reflect the cycle of conscious awareness. In order for us to improve our quality of life, we have to evolve by gaining knowledge and wisdom. In order to do this we must first shed old values to make way for new views of the world.
Therefore, we see the confusion between the east and west. The symbolism basically explains the process of death and rebirth. But essentially, the rebirth occurs in the east, but dies in the west. Another concept I will reveal that shows the clockwise sequence does not work.
In Shamanic traditions, the west is associated with Spirit Keeper of Death. In terms of self-development, Death is often a positive symbol. Old values “die” when we acquire superior knowledge. With this knowledge, we behave differently and physically create new beginnings (which is the symbol of the east).
The west is also considered a place of darkness which comes with the setting of the sun. However, the west wind is also associated with lightning – a symbol that connects “heaven and earth” or the ethereal realm with the physical realm.
Other traditions relate the west to a time when you have to look within and observe what is happening in your life. Doing this type of self-analysis enables you to observe the energies you are projecting. It is direct communication with the subconscious mind – a major clue to the esoteric interpretation of the four cardinal points.
The west is also associated with the element of water and the sacral chakra, both of which are related to emotions. The ancients considered the sacral chakra to be the seat of emotions.
This is why it is linked with the element of water – because all life comes from water. But water, by its very nature, is also destructive, thus associated with death and rebirth.
But water is also a symbolic mechanism for the unconscious. And when you know this, the cycles of existence portrayed by the four directions makes much more sense. But more about that later. Just remember, the west relates to the subconscious mind which produces life (from its waters).
At first glance, analysing the symbolic meanings of the north from exoteric interpretations, there appears to be some discrepancy.
The Freemasons associate north with darkness, which in turn is symbolic for ignorance. Ancient shamanic tribes, however, recognise the north is illumination.
Yet, some commentators writing about the symbolism of the four directions say that east represents illumination. Or is it the south when the sun is at its highest point in the sky..?
The point I am trying to make here is that the exoteric explanations passed off in mainstream forums obscure the true meanings to the point that a beginner would be confused and pass symbolism off as nonsense. And they could not be further from the truth. Esoteric symbolism can be used as a useful tool for self-realisation.
There is no doubt that the direction of the north represents darkness, emptiness, or nothingness and eternity. This is where we get our first clue of what the four directions really mean and in which direction to follow the compass.
Darkness is symbolic for that which you cannot see. In relation to consciousness, what you cannot see are the aspects of your true nature that is in your unconscious. The unconscious is typically described as emptiness, nothingness, the void or the Abyss.
Bible scholars also relate the northern direction with permanence. Like the Egyptians, Christians associate the north with the Pole Star which is always visible in the night sky. It is the dwelling place of God from where he descends in all his glory:
“Out of the north he comes in golden splendor; God comes in awesome majesty. The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress. Therefore, people revere him, for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart?” ~ Job 37:22-24
From a negative point of view, the north is also recognised as a place of chaos and disaster that brings destruction and “false kings”. But this is the dual nature of the gods and thus energy.
The law of duality dictates that energy manifests as various degrees of good luck or bad luck. How you manifest energy is determined by your thoughts emotions and actions. And it is in the symbolic north where energy begins and ends its cyclical journey.
The question is, which direction does it take?
The northerly direction is also associated with the element of Earth which shares similar symbolic motifs.
One of the fundamental aspects of the earth element is the potential for transformation. We plant seeds into the ground and nurture them to fruition just as we have to do with our plans and desires. The north is therefore where the initial idea is generated and the rest of the cycle is how we nurture the desire to fruition.
When the energy goes a full cycle a transformation takes place and we have a “new beginning”; new idea, new attitude, new belief, new start in life. In essence, a new aspect of reality which is what the Earth motif represents.
Although nothing is certain, the earth element, and its correspondence with the root chakra, gives us grounding and stability. Mother Earth provides us with the foundations and sustenance to grow. If we ask for it, she will also provide us with the nourishment we need to succeed.
Towards the top of this article, I mentioned the sequence in which mainstream commentators follow the symbolism in relation to the wheel of the four directions flows in a clockwise direction.
Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim traditions also circumambulate in rituals. In Sanskrit this practice is known as Pradakshina and was devised because it is said to reflect the natural direction of motion in the northern hemisphere.
Furthermore, following the directions in a clockwise direction is said to reveal the cycle of life from childhood to adulthood and the times of the day, albeit, the overarching meaning of growing old is the acquisition of wisdom.
But we don’t need symbolism to explain these facts. Nor does it make any sense to create symbolic mechanisms to reflect these aspects of life. Furthermore, the explanations provided by established authorities have discrepancies that do not piece together.
For example, if the east is the dawn of new beginnings, (ie ideas, projects and new phases of life), and the south is where we grow these ideas and projects, following this line of enquiry suggests that everything is destined to fall in the west and disappear into the northern darkness where it stays eternal.
Shamanic teachings at least try and offer hope by saying the north is related to “illumination, logic, discovery and mental wisdom.” But they also say that about the east. They say the west is a time for learning, but call east the great teacher – and the point of awakening.
The point of awakening is the awakening of knowledge in the conscious mind and not the act of waking in the morning.
The process of death and rebirth is distinctly evident in the symbolism of the four directions. However, I believe taking an anti-clockwise route explains the process better than taking a clockwise route – based on the principles of how the mind works.
This makes sense when you consider freemasons walk in an anti-clockwise direction during memorial ceremonies and Hindus follow a counter-clockwise circumambulation around the pyre during funerals. It also explains why American tribes dedicated the West to the Keeper of Death.
In the process of self-development, it is important to study how the subconscious mind works so we can identify weaknesses, attitudes and traits of character that no longer serve us. The four directions help to explain how we do that.
On the shamanic medicine wheel, north is considered to be night and “a place of nothingness where we return to the Great Mystery which will be ignited in the East.” The north represents purity, meditation and intuition – sometimes called “Soul Retrieval.”
Not only that, but whilst we sleep, the subconscious mind is hard at work. Brain imaging technology shows the brain is active whilst we sleep thus the subconscious mind is still sending signals to the brain.
What is important to remember is that the subconscious mind behaves to the patterns of your conscious thoughts. Whatever you think habitually during the day sinks into the subconscious and sends it instructions. It is thought that the conscious mind responds to these instructions.
Furthermore, the subconscious mind is the creative mind and promotes experiences in relation to how we habitually think. Past experiences are stored within the neural programming. Thoughts also evoke emotions which compel us to take action.
In his book, ‘The Power of the Subconscious Mind’, Joseph Murphy explains that everything that happens to you is a result of the thoughts that you impress on your subconscious mind:
“Within your subconscious depths lie infinite wisdom, infinite power. It waits for you to give it development and expression. If you begin now to recognise the potentialities of your deeper mind, they will take form in the world.”
Conscious thoughts, therefore, arise in the east and take a clockwise direction until they return back to the subconscious mind in the north. This is how most people live their lives without even realising they are creating their own experiences.
If you want to improve the quality of your life, you should follow the path of the four cardinal points in an anti-clockwise direction. This path draws information you need to know from your unconscious and enables you to change your habitual thinking and behaviours.
Let’s take a closer look at this idea and analyse the symbolism of the four directions from a counter-clockwise viewpoint.
To strengthen my argument for following the Wheel of the Four Directions in counter-clockwise sequence, allow me to draw your attention to the symbolism assigned to the directions within a Masonic lodge.
It’s also worth noting at this point that the layout of a Masonic lodge is designed on the biblical Temple of Solomon. The Masonic Dictionary website tells us the north side of the temple was used for stabling, slaughtering and cleansing.
This basically means identifying thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that generate low-vibrational energy, change them (slaughter), renew them, (cleanse) and hold positive beliefs in your conscious mind (stabling).
Members of Masonic orders enter a lodge in the north-east. They are told the symbolic reason for this is because this is the part of the temple with the least light – light being code for knowledge thus the north-east symbolically representing ignorance.
It makes sense for us to enter in the north-east section also. The north-east implies you are still awake and have some conscious thought. Symbolically, this cardinal point implies setting an intention prior to meditation, saying a prayer or making a wish before you go to sleep.
So let’s take the masonic path in an anti-clockwise direction.
Enter the north and silence your thoughts. Remember, the north represents darkness, emptiness, or nothingness. This state of stillness is when you are most receptive to your higher conscious Self.
“The bliss of truth comes when the mind is not occupied with its own activities and struggles.”
Following the counter-clockwise sequence of the Wheel of four Directions, the north-west would be the point where consciousness begins its descent into the mind of man. This is what Freud term ‘precognition’. Shamanic tribes relate the west with “new awareness.”
In meditation, when you ask your higher consciousness to reveal your Truth, the answer typically appears as a responding thought or in a vision. If, or when, your conscious awareness has evolved to the higher realms, you will hear a voice in your mind’s ear.
When a newly entered initiate first joins the temple, he is made to stand in the north-east corner of the temple which, incidentally, is also the corner upon which the cornerstone is laid.
Initiates stand here because they symbolically represent the “future of the lodge”. In other words, this is the future state of mind they must strive to acquire.
Interesting enough, the north-east corner is also regarded as a symbol of sacrifice and beginning. We must sacrifice old ways of living to bring in new attitudes, habits and traits. Physical attributes are reflected in the element of Earth.
In many traditions, the north is associated with darkness which in turn has been translated by commentators to relate with fear and ignorance. Jeremiah 1:14 says that “evil” comes from the north. “Evil” is code for energy with poor information.
But all energy transforms and has an opposite – good or positive energy. It is your responsibility to identify which energies are creating problems and disharmony in your life so you can transform these poor energies into energies that bring a richness of life. You start this process through meditation, prayer or making a wish.
In my opinion, this “place of darkness” and the north also relates to something that is hidden, or unseen. The subconscious mind is an invisible force until it reveals its energy in the form of thoughts, emotions, instinctive actions and experiences.
You create good luck or bad luck (evil) as a result.
The west is associated with lightning – a symbol that connects “heaven and earth” or the ethereal realm with the physical realm. With that in mind, it is clear to see that the west symbolically represents the point when thoughts and emotions enter the conscious mind from the subconscious mind.
Furthermore, the west is associated with the element of water which in esoteric symbolism is used to represent the unconscious and emotions. In every ancient myth that recites a creation story, water is always present.
Hebrew scholars claim that before the Bible was doctored by Christian scribes in the 3rd Century AD, the opening passage of the Bible inferred that water existed before heaven and earth.
“When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light.’”
Heaven and earth are symbolic for mind and body respectively. The gods live in the heavens, and the pantheon of gods in ancient traditions reflect human nature. We are what we think.
Furthermore, in ancient symbolism, the element of water is associated with the female principle, a Goddess in many guises which represents love-based emotions, dedication and nurturing. Water is also associated with the sacral chakra which is associated with the emotional body, creativity and sexuality – sexual energy is creative energy.
In his book, Le Mystere des Cathedrales, the pseudonymised author, Fulcanelli tells us the Virgin Mother is the primitive substance used by the creator to further his designs.
“An epithet in the Cathedral of Paris dedicated to the Mass of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin reads:
‘The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his way. I existed before he formed any creature. I existed from all eternity, before the earth was created. The abysses were not yet and already I was conceived. The fountains had not yet come out of the earth; the heavy mass of the mountains had not yet been formed; I was begotten before the hills. He had created neither the earth, nor the rivers, nor strengthened the world on its poles. When he prepared the heavens. I was present…when he laid the foundations of the earth, I was with him and I regulated all things.’”
The Virgin Mother, of course, is characterised as Mary Madonna but represents pure energy. In other words, the True Self which is not polluted by poor information stored in the personal unconscious.
Personal development and healing starts by exploring the depths of your unconscious and identifying blocked emotions so that you can release them.
Let us also consider the qualities of water and compare its attributes with consciousness. Water drips, flows, gushes, nourishes, and destroys. Water can be so soft you barely feel its touch, or so powerful it knocks you over.
When you try to grasp water, it escapes from your hands and is so flexible it always finds a path around obstacles. Water can be tranquil or it can be fierce, and when left unattended becomes stagnant and polluted.
You can apply these conditions to consciousness. Ancient cultures teach us to allow consciousness to guide you because it will lead you to Self-realisation.
Unless you cultivate your mind and evolve, you become stagnant, energy dams up in the body and you become victim to illness and “bad luck”.
The south is traditionally associated with growth, or as I pointed out earlier, transformation. However, traditional symbolism also says the south is a time of fertility – the process of birth. Birth comes before growth.
To be fair, some commentators suggest the south is a time for bloom because the south is associated with summer. My view is that this is the moment where realisation becomes conscious in the mind because it is during the summer that the sun reaches it’s highest point. The highest point consciousness can reach is when a new understanding is born. The moment of fertility.
Furthermore, the south is linked with the element of fire and it is from this point onwards that you have the choice to rise Phoenix-like from the flames.
Allow me to explain a little further.
The English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer said life is a continual adjustment of internal relations to external relations. What we think we become.
Spencer also asserted that infinite intelligence is always evolving. Energy takes form, disintegrates and reintegrates. Thus we have cycles of life and the transformation of energy. Thoughts, ideas and understanding also evolves. The south is the point in which energy reaches conscious awareness – a fully-formed thought pops into your head; the moment of realisation.
However, as you will be aware, it is what we do with knowledge that is the important factor. And herein we move to the east – where the thought is awakened in consciousness with the potential to develop into new beginnings – just as nature returns to life in Spring.
When you act on illuminated thoughts (represented by the south), you reinforce it by acting upon it and sending the energy back into the subconscious mind which is represented by the north. It is in the subconscious mind where you personal programs are updated.
In his book, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall tells us air comes from water and fire. We know water is consciousness. Fire is a vital energy that brings consciousness to life. Air represents mental states.
Mental states cannot appear in the conscious mind until they have emerged from the unconscious and becomes a realisation in the conscious mind.
The creation story in the Bible asserts the same thing. Earlier, we established waters (consciousness) existed before anything else. In the third verse, God says, “let there be light” (fire). In Genesis 2:7 we are told:
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Genesis 1:5 also states:
“God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening (west) and there was morning (east), the first day.”
Evening comes before morning. West comes before east.
In Shamanic traditions, the “entry gateway to the sacred circle”, is in the east but you should be entering with a new understanding of yourself before you can safely walk the path.
Once you have self-awareness, you can follow the path in a clockwise direction. Until then, you must follow the anti-clockwise route, look within and find the next missing piece of your emotional puzzle.
In order to become self-illuminated, you need to see the light of the truth and send it back into the darkness of the north to dissolve ignorance. The more you act on your illuminated thoughts, your beliefs and attitudes become reinforced in the subconscious mind and surface as your experience of the world.
Whatever you create in your life is acquired by your attitudes, beliefs and application. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made. To achieve the results you want, you have to apply the right attitude and beliefs. This happens in the east.
“Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the East is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” ~ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – The Spirit of the Liturgy
If your personal programs are polluted with the false Truths fed to you by society, parents, teachers, political leaders, the media and church dogma, make the decision to transform your corrupted programs now and replace them with programs that will enable you to cultivate a richer, superior quality of life.
When you follow a counter-clockwise course around the Wheel of the Four Directions, you have a better understanding of how the process works. And that’s the best place to start.