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ORIENTATION . Symbols of space and its order most clearly illustrate the religious act of orientation, that is, the fundamental process of situating human life in the world. Orientation is the conscious act of defining and assuming proper position in space. Fixing the human place in existence in a significant way is a religious act when it orients a human being toward the sacred. This fundamental disposition toward the sacred extends its significance from the points of orientation to all individual and social acts, as well as to all cosmic structures. In relation to the sacred, inhabited space and history become apprehensible. Various kinds of human living spaces define their order and meaning in relation to the sacred: the cosmos, the city, the village or residence space, the house, and the individual. They are described together with those manifestations of the sacred toward which they are oriented.

Symbolic Forms

The technology of calculation and measurement used in orientation would make an interesting and controversial study in the history of science. It would include treatment of geomancy, astronomic calculation, use of the gnomon, the astrolabe, and the plumb line, canons of measure derived from human body measurements, and determinations of magnetic north, among other techniques. However, this article's purpose is limited to the religious meaning of the act of orientation and a description of the sacred nature of the points toward which the human situation is aligned. Because orientation involves relating an entity to a reality other than itself, it always entails a conjunction of beings and, in this sense, creates a center where all realities meet.

According to Latin historians, Romulus founded the city of Rome by drawing a circular furrow around the Palatine hill with a plow. The trench around which the furrow was cut, and toward which it was oriented, was called the mundus ("world"), the same name applied to the universe. The mundus was a pit, an opening between the earthly world and the underworld. For the living it provided a link not only with the sphere of the dead but also with the celestial sphere, for the outline plan (limitatio ) of the city, especially its division into four quarters, was based on a model of heavenly origin. The mundus itself, being a detailed image of the cosmos, was divided into quadrants. Rome was habitable because the city was built in the image of the cosmosaccording to a heavenly model of the universearound a life-giving center, a navel of the world, which permitted contact with all realms of being.

The universe itself possesses a place where communication among all cosmic realms is possible. It is to this center of the world that all other meaningful structures in the cosmos are directed and from which they derive. For the religious life of Indians in the Qollahuaya region of the central Andes, Mount Kaata is the sacred center of all reality. Everything that is whole, whether it be the microcosm of the human body or the universe itself, may be identified with it. Indeed, all integrity derives from it. An individual's life cycle begins when a person's soul emerges from the highland springs; continues while it descends to its burial place at the mountain's foot; and prepares for recycling as it reascends the interior of the mountain along inner waterways, after death. This contemporary belief continues an older idea found in the Huarochiri manuscript, a sixteenth-century Quechua text that reports that Kuntur Qutu, the Mountain of the Condor, stands at the center of the world and at the center of tahuantinsuyo, the four quarters of the Inca world. All significant powers, both cosmic and divine, find their place and carry on their powerful processes on this mountain. The cosmic mountain, marking a center from which all creative life in the universe takes its bearings, is a widespread religious theme found throughout the histories of Europe, Asia, the Near East, Oceania, and the Americas.

For the Ngaju Dayak of southern Borneo the universe is centered on the tree of life, of which the inhabited world is only a small part; for the tree encompasses all existence, the totality of being, and the godhead itself. It also includes every possible period of time. As a result, all ceremonies of transition (birth, marriage, initiation, death) center on the tree of life. This allows the human being to return to the period of divine creativity, so that he or she may issue once again from the tree of life as a new creature.

The temple often extends the same symbolism of the sacred mountain toward which life is oriented. For instance, the Mesopotamian ziggurat was explicitly likened to the cosmic mountain. Its seven levels symbolized the number of heavens. The goddess Ningal promised the divinity Nanna that, when he had filled the rivers with waters and brought life to the fields, forests, and marshes, she would join him in his ziggurat in Ur: "In your house on high in your cedar-perfumed mountain, I will come to live."

All of these images of the center toward which reality is oriented call attention, at one and the same time, to the vertical plane of the universe. In short, the world is oriented not only toward the center on a horizontal plane but to the heights of the heavens. This connecting point of heaven and earth may be envisaged as a sacred ladder, rope, liana, or bridge. In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star becomes a crucial indicator of the center of heaven. Directly below it is oriented the sacred center of the world, where celestial and terrestrial powers join together. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way at its zenith often pinpoints the center of heaven. In Mismanay, near Cuzco in Peru, for example, the Milky Way is seen as an immense river of semen that, when it is in its zenith, runs through the center of the sky. Mismanay is sited directly below the center of the heavens. It is bisected by the Vilcanota River, the earthly counterpart of the fertilizing river of stars in the heavens. From the center one is able to determine the four points where the sun rises and sets during the solstices. Using the center of the sky marked by the Milky Way at its zenith, the people of Mismanay are able to situate themselves at the center of an organized space and ordered cycle of time. All spaces and life cycles (of humans, animals, rainbows, and supernatural beings) derive their creativity from and relate to one another through the center.

Two important ways of orienting oneself in space bear close relationship to the act of creation, as it is conceived by a culture to have taken place. In the first instance, the center has prestige as a key position for orientation because it is the first place, the place of origin of life. It is the omphalos, or navel, around which life takes shape. A second mode of orientation involves sacrifice to consecrate a sacred place. It draws attention to the fact that, at the beginning of time, a primordial being was sacrificed and dismembered. From its parts derives the ordered integrity of the cosmos. In this sacrificial cosmogony, orientation in the universe derives from the very structure of a primordial body, ritually positioned in space. The universe, then, has the same set of relations among its parts as does the human body when consciously shaped in the deliberate acts of ritual. In either case, the points of orientation draw their prestige from their association with creation.

Taking their cue from the structures of the universe as they were created, other entities are located in space and time with reference to the same manifestations of sacred power; that is, following the cosmic model. The village often becomes a small image of the ordered space of the universe, and the same is true even for a house. The Na-Khi, a Tibeto-Burman people living in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River valley of northwestern Yunnan Province in China, perform most of their important rituals at the center of the universe in their homes, which are purified and transformed into the image of Ngyu-na shi-lo ngyu, the cosmic mountain (Mount Kailāśa), by the installation of sacred ritual objects in the house (Jackson, 1979, pp. 113ff., 209). In order that the ritual objects be effective, they are empowered by means of lengthy chanting of their myths of origin.

Planners of cities aligned them to sacred forces, which filled them and made them habitable. In ancient China, at the moment when a sacred city was founded, the king was beseeched to come and "assume responsibility for the work of God on High and himself serve at the center of the land and from there govern as the central pivot" (Wheatley, 1971, p. 430).

The capital and the king became the points from which direction and sacrality emanated throughout the entire kingdom. The power of creation passed out through the city gates to the four quarters and the cycles of time.

Orientation is also a way in which the individual personality becomes aware of the objective in relation to the self. The Ñandeva, a Guaraní group of southern Brazil, picture the human soul as a carefully oriented spatial entity. The soul is composed of three shadows (naneʿa, "our shadow") that are all oriented on a vertical plane toward the heavens, the source of light that brings them into existence. All the faculties of human intelligence and action are accounted for by the soul's orientation in space. Ayvú-kué-poravé ("the good word that we speak") is the shadow that falls directly in front of or directly behind the personality. This central shadow-soul is of divine origin and returns to its celestial source after death. The second shadow-soul is the atsy-yguá, the carnal essence of life, which humans share with animals. It is cast to the left of a person. To the right falls the shadow known as the ayvú-kué ("the word that sprouts"), which accompanies and obeys the central ayvú-kué-poravé (M. A. Bartolomé, 1979, pp. 111112). The personality is oriented to the center of the celestial realm, the source of light that brings the shadow elements of the person into existence. It is this orientation to another realm of being that enables a truly human consciousness to come into proper existence.

Orientation and Human Consciousness

All of the entities in the above illustrations are oriented to and, paradoxically, derive their meaning from modes of being other than their own. The various forms of orientation to sacred reality highlight the human desire to inhabit a sacred world, a world as it was created in the beginning, new and powerful.

The kind of orientation situates human living space in meaningful relation to the beings around it. It requires a grasp of the total human situation, a sense of the whole of existence at all its levels. This fundamental stance toward being constitutes a consciousness able to distinguish and evaluate supernatural modes of being for what they are. Orientation effects what it symbolizes: the proper relation of the human situation to the very ground of being within which human life finds itself. For this reason orientationtaking one's place in the worldis conceived of in many religious traditions as the first act of fully human beings living in habitable space. By symbolically assuming one's proper position in the world, one communicates with significant powers at work in the cosmos and gains a sense of one's unique significance in relation to all else.

See Also

Center of the World; Cities; Geography; Geomancy; Home; Human Body, article on Myths and Symbolism; Mountains; Sacred Space; Trees.


The constancy of the symbolic complex of the mountain is presented in Joseph W. Bastien's Mountain of the Condor: Metaphor and Ritual in an Andean Ayllu (Saint Paul, Minn., 1978). Other studies of orientation in the Andes may be found in R. Tom Zuidema's The Ceque System of Cuzco: The Social Organization of the Capital of the Inca (Leiden, 1962) and "The Inca Calendar," in Native American Astronomy, edited by Anthony F. Aveni (Austin, Tex. 1977), pp. 219259, as well as in Gary Urton's At the Crossroads of the Earth and Sky: An Andean Cosmology (Austin, Tex., 1981), which discuss the techniques and meanings assigned to orientation in the Andes in both rural and urban settings throughout history. Anthony Jackson's Na-khi Religion: An Analytical Appraisal of Na-khi Ritual Texts (The Hague, 1979) illustrates clearly the way in which the house may serve as a point of cosmic orientation when ritually linked to the acts of creation. The orientation of the individual is described in Miguel Alberto Bartolomé's "Shamanism among the Avá-Chiripá," in Spirits, Shamans, and Stars: Perspectives from South America, edited by David L. Browman and Ronald A. Schwarz (The Hague, 1979), pp. 95148. Paul Wheatley's The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Chicago, 1971) is a singularly important work for understanding both the methods and meaning of orientation not only in China but around the world. Also helpful in this respect is I-fu Tuan's Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974). Mircea Eliade addresses the question of the religious meaning of orientation in The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959), esp. pp. 32ff. and 79ff. Heinrich Nissen's Orientation: Studien zur Geschichte der Religion, 3 vols. (Berlin, 19061910), remains a valuable resource of materials. Still stimulating is Ludwig Deubner's "Mundus," Hermes 68 (1933): 276287. Further bibliography and portrayal of more recent approaches to the question may be found in Joseph Rykwert's On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History (New York, 1972) and The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World (Princeton, N.J., 1976).

New Sources

Carmichael, David, ed. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. London, 1994.

Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Bloomington, Ind., 1995.

David, Bruno, and Meredith Wilson, eds. Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place. Honolulu, 2002.

Dodds, George, and Robert Tavernor, eds. Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Jacobson-Widding, A., ed. Body and Space: Symbolic Models of Unity and Division in African Cosmology and Experience. Uppsala, 1991.

Mircea Eliade (1987)

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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o·ri·en·ta·tion / ˌôrēənˈtāshən/ • n. the determination of the relative position of something or someone (esp. oneself): the child's surroundings provide clues to help in orientation. ∎  the relative physical position or direction of something: two complex shapes, presented in different orientations. ∎  Zool. an animal's change of position in response to an external stimulus, esp. with respect to compass directions. ∎  familiarization with something: their training and orientation comes out of magazine and newspaper distribution. ∎  a program of introduction for students new to a school or college: she attended freshman orientation. ∎  the direction of someone's interest or attitude, esp. political or sexual: a common age of consent regardless of gender or sexual orientation.DERIVATIVES: o·ri·en·ta·tion·al adj.


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orientation. Planning, siting, and arrangement of a building with reference to any special point of the compass, especially in relation to the rising and setting of the sun. It was significant in church architecture, where the altars were usually sited to the east. Churches arranged with the chancel not to the east are nevertheless described as though orientated correctly (liturgical orientation).


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orientation (or-i-en-tay-shŏn) n. (in psychology) awareness of oneself in time, space, and place. Orientation may be disturbed in such conditions as organic brain disease, toxic drug states, and concussion. See also reality orientation.


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orientation A change of position by an animal or plant in response to an external stimulus.


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orientation A change of position by an animal in response to an external stimulus.