Never West

I’ve always loved maps…

I can remember, when a child, being bought a fold-out schematic of a town with streets, main roads, a river, a hill and a railway line. It was just a layout – a map – but I had lots of my own cars, a model train and some small figures of the right scale to populate the town with activity.

“Where are you?” my mother asked, shortly after I became joyfully lost in the richly-featured landscape on the carpet. I looked up, puzzled by the question. I picked up a plastic farmer and offered it to her.

“Are you there or here?” she asked. My mother was always good at making you think…

I can’t remember what my reply was – probably just to keep holding out the plastic farmer.

I grew up with a love of walking and cycling… and maps. I would spend my own pocket money to get a walkers’ map of my favourite places so I could pore over them, imagining, with increasing accuracy, what the landscape would look like. It never occurred to me to ask why north was at the top of the map. I knew from my spinning globe of the planet that the north-pole was at the top of the world, so, of course, all maps would be oriented with north as the top.

But it’s not always been so…

Understanding where we are in the world is fundamental to our survival.. and our sanity. It has psychological implications, too – most of them subconsciously acted on. Our brains are specially ‘wired’ to provide us with a continuously changing ‘map’ of where we are – usually relative to safety or ‘the known’.

Have you ever awoken from a disturbing dream and not known where you were for a second or two? It’s can be frightening; and gives us an insight into why our children cry when faced with the same or similar experiences. A dream has taken them out of the ‘familiar’ and they fear what is new, especially, as in the dream state, when rational thinking is unavailable.

The need for that ‘place of safety’ is hard-wired into our brain’s cognitive mechanisms. In so-called primitive mankind, the place of safety was a physical thing: a cave, or a dwelling in a sturdy tree, perhaps. It’s taken us thousands of years to become happy with the idea that we are somewhere safe (for example, staying in a hotel), rather than the actual location of the home.

Perhaps, seeing this, we become more sympathetic to those who lose their homes through economic or political upheaval. There are likely to be many more homeless people as the present Corvid-19 crisis works its way through our societies.

We are almost unique in trying to share the directions to home with others. The only other species with this is the honey bee. Insect species, like ants, leave chemical trails, but they don’t try to communicate through a language of place. Just us and the bees…

Humans have a long history of creating maps. The oldest examples discovered on cave walls are 14,000 years old. During that time, maps have been drawn, etched or scratched on stone, paper and, now, screened on computer devices – particularly portable ones, like phones and tablets.

(Above: This famous 1973 shot of the Earth, done by an astronaut who was upside down, was actually taken with south at the top. NASA decided to flip it to a normal north-up orientation before its release. Image NASA)

If we were to examine the Earth from space, we would immediately see how difficult it is to identity north. Unless you are long way from the Earth, there are no visual clues, apart from the point of a theoretically huge pencil around which the Earth rotates – the physical (geographic) ‘North Pole’. But this is not the same as the ‘north’ reading on that little pocket device the boy holding the plastic farmer would have got. The two would have been close, but not identical, as the vast and surging currents in the Earth’s iron core creates fluctuations in the magnetic field that swings the little needle on a magnetic compass.

The compass has been an essential part of the story of maps. It’s interesting that its inventors, the Han Dynasty in China (2nd century BCE to 1st century CE), used compasses that pointed to what we now view as south. South was the direction taken by the naturally occurring lodestone used in these early instruments. In ancient China, the ‘top’ of the map was therefore south.

Christian maps from the time of the Crusades were known as Mappa Mundi. East was at the top, towards the Garden of Eden and with Jerusalem in the centre – the geographic focus of their ‘holy wars’.

(Above: the Hereford Mappa Mundi, with Jerusalem and the east, at the top of the map, Source Wikipedia, Public Domain)

In ancient Egypt, the ‘top’ of the world was east – the position of the sunrise. The Islamic empire placed south at the top, like China. Most of the Islamic population lived north of Mecca, so it was natural to ‘look up’ to the south.

The west was left out of this history. The place to which humanity ‘looked up’ – the top of the map – was never west. So-called Pagan culture was and is closely aligned with all four cardinal directions, and the west is traditionally the point where the day ends, and mindful humans reflect and later sleep to renew. It also marks the end of the force of life (Solar), for that day, and by inference, eventually, the end of life.

It seems no-one wanted to ‘look up’ to the place where the Sun set.

Governments and their military forces have always been interested in maps. Battles are not always won with good maps, but they are certainly lost with bad ones. Google now dominates the world of computer maps, though there are alternatives. Google acquired a private company named Keyhole, who had US military backing to refine and develop the technology that became Google Maps. It’s a powerful product, and most of us have used it in one form or another. Google’s model with all its ‘Apps’ is to give them away and make revenue by selling your location and preferences to its advertisers. The financial cost is low, but it takes us into potentially murky waters. The average person knows little about what really happens with such data, nor who has access to it. Google recently fought a protracted revolt by its own employees, who considered its mapping developments were in danger of breaching the company’s famous ‘Do No Harm’ ethic…

Apple is the other big Tech player in this field. Apple’s business model is to charge more for premium devices but then guarantee to protect the user’s data. Apple did not back down on this – even when heavily pressured by the US government who wanted a ‘back-door’ into its primary security features for ‘anti-terrorism’ purposes. Many of my friends switched to Apple at that point and now view it as the only ‘safe haven’ for their information.

I use products from both sides of this divide. I like Google’s email and and spreadsheet products. But I use them only on Apple technology, then, at least, I have the tested integrity of its privacy promises. Google’s entire model is web-based, so their applications are not hosted in the device; only the browser is.

But the world is changing fast, as illustrated by Google and Apple now working together in the Covid-19 arena to provide a user-secure, distributed framework for ‘contact tracing’. Interestingly, the French government, one of the first to take this up, immediately demanded that the private user data be made available to their authorities. Both companies refused and the demand was eventually withdrawn. Even non-authoritarian societies struggle with these complex issues of privacy vs policing.

Science, like maps, doesn’t give us hard and fast answers. It provides a better-than-last-time fit of what might be happening, knowing that this iteration, too, isn’t perfect. For politicians to quote that they are being ‘led by the science’, as though that were a binary truth or falsehood, is a lie to an unknowing public.

Maps have become far more potent and powerful things. A map is a world. A map allows us to see a whole. A map invites us in… In many ways, it takes three ‘faces’ to make it work. The first is the nature of what is being mapped; the second is the style of representation, for example, figurative or actual.

We need to become the third face in the success of the map. We should enter into all these things, mindfully, knowing that commerce exploits without morals, that insular politics always leads to Fascism, and that the silent and caring voice of the majority cannot stay silent while our civilisation morally burns.

My mother, who now has dementia, wouldn’t understand the answer, but if she asked the boy-become-man studying the larger map of today’s political world the same question about where he was on that map, I might respond that he had to quickly outgrow the plastic farmer – the replica human – and become the fully empowered and fully responsible human by putting the small figure to one side, standing up and looking down at the whole map. If we don’t, then our star may set in the unsung west and humanity become a footnote in Great Nature’s experiments with Life.

That western horizon of our map is just around the corner… If we love the light, then we had better start running towards the ‘east’, and now.

(Opening picture: author-created overlay of two images from Pixabay. Originators: Skease and Philim1310)

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at