The entire title of this talk is: “From the East to the West: the Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon.”
Brant Gardner has written for FARMS review and is the author of “Second Witness: An Analytical and Contextual Commentary of the Book of Mormon.” He is an expert on Mesoamerican history.
He reminds that the Book of Mormon can plausibly be placed in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America). See John Sorenson’s work.
There is a problem with the directions. The references to East and West are skewed. One analysis says Sorenson’s claims have the sun going up and setting in the north and south.
Gardner has a possible solution to this issue.
In Mesoamerica, there were five cardinal directions. The fifth direction was the “center.” Mayans had a five-point concept. The center is important and central to how their sense of direction.
This five-point concept was central to the Mesoamerican world. Each home replicated the world and placed the family at the center. In Mayan culture, East and West are seen differently than we see them.
Western cardinal directions are a plus sign with N, S, E and W. For the Mayans, it is more like an X in a circle. There is a creation of quadrants based on the passage of the sun. Directions are based on the passage of the sun during the day. There are four quadrants surrounding the center.
The Aztecs believed Tenochtitlan was the center of the world and was portrayed that way in Aztec art. The only direction important to the Aztecs were based on the passage of the sun using a quadrant system similar to the Mayans.
Some Central American Indians described directions based on up and down the slope of a mountainside where they lived. North and South directions for the Mayans were nearly irrelevant.
Mayans say: “we are looking North when we stand with our left hand where the sun goes down.” There is no “north” in their system. It existed only as a quadrant on the left or right of the sun’s path.
In Hebrew, East is front, left is north, right is south and west is back.
So, how does this apply to the Book of Mormon? Joseph Smith used common vocabulary terms when translating. There is a specific phrase that replicates the Mesoamerican system: “from the East to the West” or “from the West to the East.” This phrase appears 10 times and implies solar movements. (examples: 3 Nephi 1:17 and Helaman 3:8)
“On the North and on the South.” There are no uses of “to the north” or “to the south.” Why “on” and not “to?” The words are couched in phrases and replicate the Mesoamerican system.
Alma 35:35-37 has some strange directions. A fleeing army heads both west and north. This fits Mesoamerican directions but seems strange to us.
Gardner also discussed the issue of the “sea east,” “sea west,” “sea north” and “sea south.” There are similar solutions when using Mesoamerican quadrants. The center of the directions are probably the city of Nephi. Sea east is a description based on Nephi as a center point. If the city of Nephi is the center, and is in the highlands of Guatemala, then there are four potential seas that are indeed in four different directions from there.
Other portions of the Book of Mormon may have used different cities (Bountiful, Zarahemla) as the center points. So, depending on where you are physically, there may be two different bodies of water that are the “sea east.” These are designations, not names.