A Hypothesis Regarding Book of Mormon Directions

A key criticism of John L. Sorenson’s geographic model has been that the directions seem to be off. Sorenson has consistently maintained that directions are cultural, that no given direction system is “obvious” and that we ought not assume that the directional system of the Nephites was identical to that of our own culture. Some have not found this explanation satisfactory, but Brant Gardner has built on that work, showing how certain aspects of Mesoamerican directional systems may help explain at least some of the apparent anomalies.

William J. Hamblin thought of a particularly interesting solution that involved how the Egyptians oriented themselves. As Hamblin reports, Egyptians would use the head of the Nile river, which was to the south, and consider that “face/front,” north thus being “back/back of the head,” and left and right being east and west respectively. The same terms for south and north would, naturally, be used to mean upstream/downstream. Hamblin then hypothesized that the Nephites might have used these Egyptian terms, but oriented by facing the rising sun. Thus, the Egyptian term for “south” would be used for east, “north” for west, “east” for north, and “west” for south. This novel suggestion would seem to fit the relationship of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, as outlined by Sorenson.

Another possibility, however, is that the Nephites did exactly as the Egyptians did: they used the major river in their area as a means of orientation. The only river mentioned in the Book of Mormon is the Sidon. If Sorenson’s correlation is correct, based on a meticulous reading and comparison of the text, then the Sidon is the Grijalva River, and Zarahelma is in the Grijalva River Basin. This river largely runs Northwest/Southeast, as does the valley or basin that would be the greater “land of Zarahemla.” Most travel probably ran along the river, thus in practical terms, upstream/downstream would probably be the most useful directions. If we assume, then, that the Nephites used the flow of the river as a means of orientation, facing the head of the river, like the Egyptians, then their north/northward would have been more northwest, while their south/southward would have been more southeast. Facing the head of the river, to the left would be their “east” while to the right would be their “west.”

Map 9, from Mormon’s Codex, John L. Sorenson © 2013.
Graphics by Curtis L. Sorenson.
Notice the east sea and eastern settelments to the north.
This might account for a particular feature of Sorenson’s geography. The “eastern” settlements (i.e., Moroni, Lehi, Omner, Jershon, etc.) are actually due north in Sorenson’s correlation. If we imagine, for a moment, that the Nephites would have traveled to these lands by following the “downstream” of the river until the valley opens up and allows straight north travel, the instructions on how to get there might have gone something like this (left being from a facing-the-head-of-the-river perspective): Travel downstream (“northward”) until the you reach the point where the valley opens to the left (“east”). Then travel leftward (“eastward”) until you reach the land of Lehi (or Mulek, or whichever land/city you are traveling toward).  

The result is that these lands (and the sea they were next to), although literally north of Zarahemla, would have seemed “east” or “eastward,” because they would have to turn toward the left (“east”) to reach them. Hence, they might have feasibly considered this area to be “the east.”

While the river turns at this point and also flows more directly north, a Nephite living down by Zarahemla probably would not have changed the directional meaning of upstream/downstream when they reached that area. (To have utility, the meanings must have consistency, regardless of location.) This is analogous to the Egyptians who, as pointed out in Hamblin’s note, still used upstream/downstream for south/north even when they came to the Euphrates river, which flows in the opposite direction. So, the river itself would have been considered as turning off course toward the left (east).

Because this only works from a Zarahemla point-of-view, and the Sidon/Grijalva didn’t go down into the land of Nephi, this explanation would seem to have some limitations. Still, these initial observations (above) would seem to indicate that this hypothesis has some potential worth pursuing. Careful reading of Book of Mormon directional statements in comparison with Sorenson’s Mesoamerican correlation to see if this perspective accounts for all or most directional relationships would be necessary before this idea could be advanced with more confidence.  


  1. As I was researching this exact thing this morning, one idea keeps coming to me: The face of the world was changed during the Crucifixion. I'm not sure our assumptions of what went where will ever be totally accurate until we can somehow find a reference that dates post-Crucifixion.

    1. Hello Ammon, and thank you for commenting!

      When it comes to Book of Mormon geography, this is naturally one of the first thoughts people have as they begin to look into the issue. What we have to realize, however, is that others who have been studying that topic have already thought about it and found satisfactory answers and moved on. For someone like John L. Sorenson, whose recent book "Mormon's Codex" reflects the culmination of 60 years of research, you can bet he has already accounted for that kind of thing.

      There are, generally, two things to keep in mind:

      1. The changes probably were not as dramatic as we think. There is no geological evidence for massive changes to the earths surface around AD 34. Geologists who have studied the Book of Mormon feel strongly that the writers are describing a volcanic eruption, or perhaps multiple such eruptions. All the types of destruction mentioned have been known to happen during volcanic eruptions, and there is evidence that such eruptions happened around the time of Christ in Mesoamerica.

      2. We also need to remember that most of the geographic information is prodivded to us through Mormon's abridgement, who lived in the fourth century AD. So we already have post-Crucifixion references to their land. Mormon and Moroni also have no trouble tying features of their world to the records that they have. For example, they knew that Cumorah was also Ramah, the hill where the Jaredites were destroyed in some centuries BC. How did they know that hill was the same hill? Or, if the destruction really was so drastic as to make the lands unrecognizable, how was it that the same hill as still there? This is just one example.

      The point is, we know enough at this point to be able to make some confident proposals despite the destruction that took place around the time of Christ.

    2. I would add that the BoM states just the "face" of the land was changed. To me that implies the surface, and not the underlying structure or configuration. Even dramatic changes like cities being covered by mountains were likely mudslides due to the volcanic eruption(s), rather than a mountain being lifted in the air and moved and dropped like Yoda moving an X-Wing (which is how I imagined things when I was younger).
      I realize we believe in miracles and it's possible the Lord could do whatever he wants to re-arrange things, but it's likely the means was natural and the explanation of volcanic activity fits very very well with what's described.

  2. using Egyptian terms . The head of the Sidon would have been the delta not in the mountains as most assume using the English meaning for the word.

    1. Actually, the Nile delta is at the mouth, not the head, of the river, where the Nile drains in the Mediterranean. Delta is a modern term referring to the sediment left behind by a river, usually near its mouth, as it flows into standing water. The Nile delta is significant because the river breaks into multiple branches near it's mouth, creating a fairly large and very fertile area. It is doubtful, however, that the ancient Egyptians understood the process or even had a word for "delta" (though I could be wrong; after all, I ain't no Egyptologist). The word delta itself is certainly not Egyptian (its Greek, and was likely first used by Greeks to describe the area near the mouth of the Nile).

      The head of the Sidon is believed to be in the mountains because the Book of Mormon indicates increasing elevation as people move upstream and that the head is in an elevated "wilderness," people had to pass "over" to reach the land of Nephi, understood to be a rugged mountain range.

  3. Interesting speculation. My wife and I just saw a Maya exhibit yesterday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and I was pointing out Gardner's hypothesis that the directions were related to the solstice lines. Your explanation is intriguing though because if it turned out to be right, it would definitely line things up a lot better, and would place all of the traditional maya sites of the time (such as El Mirador) well away from the Nephite lands.

    Definitely interested in hearing any future research supporting (or contradicting) this hypothesis.



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