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.