The East possesses a general symbolism as the ancient world where civilization was born. In fact the middle east is known as the "cradle" of civilization. Ancient cultures and values are associated with the east and wisdom associated with the far east. The west represents the direction of scientific progress and advanced cultures. It has been the major direction of exploration by world explorers culminating with the discovery of America by Columbus. This symbolism has gained such a wide acceptance that one can talk of a western and eastern world view.
The western direction is universally associated with death. J.C. Cooper notes in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia, that it symbolizes autumn, the dying sun and middle age. In China, west symbolizes dryness and sorrow and the element metal, the color white and the animal the White Tiger. In Eygptian mythology, the "western lands" are the territory the souls of the dead make a hazardous pilgrimage to in their quest for immortality.
Beyond the general symbolism of birth and death represented by the East and the West, Jung suggests that East and West symbolism might relate to aspects of inner and outer and upward and downward. In this sense, East and West symbolism may have a spatial dimension in addition to a temporal dimension.
One of the major aspects of Jungian theory is the proposition of the extrovert and the introvert. In Psychology And Religion: West And East Jung makes the following observation:
"In the East, the inner man has always had such a firm hold on the outer man that the world had no chance of tearing him away from his inner roots; in the West, the outer man gained the ascendency to such an extent that he was alienated from his innermost being."
Later in this book he speaks of the "extraverted tendency of the West and the introverted tendency of the East." In another part of Psychology And Religion Jung uses vertical spatial symbolism in comparing the two directions of East and West. Jung notes that the "West is always seeking uplift, but the East seeks a sinking or deepening. Outer reality, with its bodiliness and weight, appears to make a much stronger and sharper impression on the European than it does on the Indian. The European seeks to raise himself above this world, while the Indian likes to turn back into the maternal depths of Nature."
In America, the symbolism of direction has continually played out throughout our nation's short history. The north has represented the industrialized part of the nation while the south has represented the agrarian part of the nation. This dicotomy was greatest during the Civil War. The west has represented the new and undiscovered and less civilized while the east has represented the traditional and civilized. This dicotomy is seen most clearly in the genre of the American western film. A lawman from the east comes to tame a lawless town of the west. Soldiers from the east come to the west to tame the lawless native indians of the west. Culture throughout American history is established in the east and then travels west.
Perhaps the major contrast in ecosystems are those which possess the life of vegetation and those which are devoid of this life. As noted in the Deluxe Atlas, forests, grasslands and deserts form the world's generalized natural areas. On the one extreme, are the deserts and mountain tops which are devoid of life and on the other extreme are the forests and jungles which are full of life.
Vegetation is a symbol of life. In his book The Role Of Place in Literature, Leonard Lutwack notes that:
"Vegetation has a most important influence on the quality of places. Vegetation is life, and its degree of density indicates the amount of life a place harbors. Places devoid of plant life are associated with deprivation and death, places of abundant vegetation are pleasant and erotic. Deserts and mountain tops present the terrifying aspects of lifeless matter whereas the forest is life in an active, wild state..."
The life and the spirit of people are affected by the contrasts in vegetation. Consider the symbolism of ecosystems to the continents and the nations of the world. There is a certain asceticism or stoicness to desert, mountain and polar ecosystems. The cowboy of American westerns reflects the place of the deserts he populates. The same asceticism has a religious aspect for the peoples who have inhabited the Sahara desert of the mideast. Consider the stern, pragmatic spirit found in the mountain ecosystem of Switzerland or the northern Indian landscape of Tibet.
On the other hand, standing in contrast to these lifeless ecosystems are jungle, forest, prairie and ocean ecosystems of southeast Asia, south America, Africa, Europe and Australia and Japan. These possess a certain erotic and exoticness in contrast to the asceticism of the other areas.
The major places where deserts are found in the world is in northern Africa, western North America, Australia, the middle east and western part of south America. Not all deserts are hot and sandy wastelands. Some are cold and others are rocky. Some are contained in vast canyons like the Colorado Desert in America. Others are sandy wastes like the deserts of the Middle East. Most deserts include one or more of several basic features: steep, rocky mountain slopes, broad plains, basin floors dominated by dry lake beds or sand seas and canyon-like valleys. All deserts lack moisture for most of the year.
The symbolism of deserts offers a counterpoint to the symbolism of forests and tropical places containing jungles. Forests and jungles are places where life and vegetation run wild but a desert's major characteristic is that it is a place without vegetation where life is difficult.
Deserts are associated with many of the aspects of place symbolism we will discuss later in this book. One of these is the place symbolism of space and the place symbolism of phenomena. These aspects are represented by the horizontality of the desert and the fact that it is a place without the phenomena of shadows. In her book West of Everything, Jane Tompkins gets at some of desert's uniqueness in juxtaposition to forests:
"When a man walks or rides into a forest, he is lost among the trees, can't see ahead, doesn't know what might be lurking there. The forest surrounds him, obscures him with shadows, confuses itself with him by its vertical composition and competitive detail. But when a horseman appears on the desert plain, he dominates it instantly, his view extends as far as the eye can see, and enemies are exposed to his gaze. The desert flatters the human figure by making it seem dominant and unique, dark against the light, vertical against horizontal, solid against plane, detail against blankness."
The openess of desert space also symbolizes infinite access. As Tomkins notes, "There is nothing to stop the horseman's free movement across the terrain...Distance, made palpable through exposure and infinitely prolonged by the absence of obstacles, offers unlimited room to move. The man can go, in any direction, as far as he can go. The possibilities are infinite."
The desert has served as an ancient background for stories such as Aladin's Lamp and moral fables. The series of The Arabian Nights stories are set against a desert background. This is a background which puts the character in a narrative against the forces of nature which is mainly heat and a lack of water. A desert is a place without any life and the challenge of characters in this background setting is to exist. There are few roads and markers to show the character the way in a desert and the markers that exist are often covered quickly by sand from unrelenting winds. The desert, like the ocean, for men of western culture, is often something to be crossed rather than lived in. In this sense, it is a type of barrier to a particular promised land.
Symbolically, the desert is related to purification and has a strong connection with the Bible. Prophets of the Bible, in order to counter the agrarian religions based on fertility rites, never ceased to describe their religion as the purest religion of the Israelites when they were in the wilderness. J.E. Cirlot notes in A Dictionary of Symbols:
"This confirms the specific symbolism of the desert as the most propitious place for divine revelation ... This is because the desert, in so far as it is in a way a negative landscape, is the realm of abstraction located outside the sphere of existence and susceptible only to things transcendent. Furthermore, the desert is the domain of the sun, not as the creator of energy upon earth but as the pure, celestial radiance, blinding in its manifestation ... burning drought is the climate par excellence of pure, ascetic spirituality - of the consuming of the body for the salvation of the soul."
This spiritual importance of the desert is underlined in Bendicta Ward's book The Desert Christian which describes the founding of Christian monasticism.
Around the year 400 A.D., St. Anthony the Great, the hermit of Lower Egypt, gave all he had to the poor and devoted himself to asceticism under the guidance of a recluse for several years. At the age of thirty-four he went into the desert to live in complete solitude for the rest of his life. In upper Egypt, communities of brothers living in the desert, united to one another in work and prayer, formed the basis for later organized monasticism. In Nitria and Scetis, desert monks lived together under the direction of a spiritual father, or "abba." And in Syria, Ward writes that monks "deliberately imposed on themselves what is hardest for human beings to bear: they went about naked and in chains, they lived unsettled lives, eating whatever they found in the woods,...(choosing) to live at the limits of human nature, close to the animals, the angels, and the demons."