I was unfortunate enough to imagine an ancient setting upside down. I started out with small features and, after connecting them, got the following:

sunrise <---+---> sunset

Which basically means that we are located in the southern hemisphere.

How do I explain this to a reader/player/watcher with as little disruption as possible (aka principle of least astonishment)?

  • Keep telling that south=cold, north=hot;
  • Keep telling that south and north are swapped;
  • Rename south/north directions to e.g. midday/midnight;
  • Mirror-image the whole world to make it in line with Middle-Earth/Earthsea/Westeros/whatever fantasy setting humanity invented?

Also if I ever draw a map, should I swap East <-> West ("mirror image") or should I swap South<->North ("Argentina")?

The former makes more sense as the inhabitants tend to live on hills/mountains, so "cold=up" makes sense to them. However, a plausible post factum explanation may be found for any map orientation.

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    $\begingroup$ What situation less you to the conclusion of this being an issue / necessary to be 'fixed'? $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Apr 15, 2019 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ Since you are asking how to explain your story setting to you readers, I wonder if this is better suited for writing.SE. I even think I saw a very similar question already there. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 15, 2019 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ We draw our maps as if the Sky God was looking down towards the Earth. You can still be in the northern hemisphere if the map is drawn as if the Earth God was looking up towards the surface. (Note that this is how we draw maps of the sky; if you have ever seen a celestial map you may have noticed that east is right and west is left, but south is up and north is down, because we draw the map as the sky is seen when we tilt our heads upwards.) And then, maybe Hanno the Navigator had established a colony in South Africa 2500 years ago... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 15, 2019 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ No idea why there is a problem here... but then I live in the Southern hemisphere $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Apr 15, 2019 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T this is a good question actually. Why should I even worry? If I get enough following for this to even be an issue, I must be happy. Until than, let's just draw an upside down map. $\endgroup$
    – Dallaylaen
    Apr 15, 2019 at 12:20

3 Answers 3


You could simply write that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but is due north at noon (not necessarily in the same sentence). Since the people in the world aren't likely to speak English, "east", "west", "north", and "south" will be translations of local words, and it then makes sense to translate them to Earth standards.

It makes absolutely no sense to swap east and west on a map unless you also swap north and south, basically turning the map 180 degrees (as with some early maps). If you only swap one axis, it would be very difficult to use the map, since it wouldn't correspond very well with the real world (try making a mirror image of the map of you local city and navigate with that). Turning is fine, however, and you don't even need to make the map corners align with the four corners of the world as long as you include a compass rose. In fact, you map may align to magnetic poles that need not be all that close to the rotational poles.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun takes place on the southern atmosphere on a far-future Earth. You might read that for inspiration.


Why do your characters know the difference?

In a Medieval/Ancient/Fantasy setting, why would your characters have a firm concept of East and West as it relates to the world?

It wasn't common knowledge of common to human experience in those times to envision the world as a sphere, much less a rotating one, in which the absolute definition of East and West (or North and South) make any sense.

In personal experience terms, East is where the sun goes up, and West is where the sun goes down. North is the point around which the sky rotates and South is the opposite direction from north. If your civilization is in the Southern Hemisphere of a spherical world, the definitions are still the same, and nobody knows the difference from how things are in the Northern hemisphere.

Now, and important aspect of this statement regarding North and South is that, on Earth, advanced civilizations developed in the Northern Hemisphere only. There was almost no travel past the Equator. If your civilization developed in, say, the equivalent of the Great Rift Valley of Africa, or the Amazon Rainforest Basin, then the common experience would have to reflect that the point around which sky rotates is different at different ends of the known world.

But, overall, the same things that you see in the sky in the Northern hemisphere, you also see in the Southern. So from an individual's personal experience, in a world with no knowledge of the rotation of the Earth around its axis, there is no difference in the Hemispheres.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, for a world's inhabitant these "natural" definitions of NEWS make sense. Say a character walks to the north all night and they turn to the left and see a beautiful sunrise. For the character, it's normal (just as you say). However, for the reader (player, watcher) it's a mental hiccup that requires going back and recalling they are in the southern hemisphere. But the character (just as you say) doesn't know what a "hemisphere" is and it's another mental hiccup for the poor reader. $\endgroup$
    – Dallaylaen
    Apr 15, 2019 at 22:46

I am guessing that you want to have some sort of drawn map and that is why you think it would be confusing to just arbitrarily rename things.

I think the easiest thing would be to have the planet rotate in the other direction so the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

  • $\begingroup$ Rotating in "the other direction" doesn't work. East and west are defined by the rotation. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 15, 2019 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ The planets rotation defines large scale factors such as winds and humidity distribution, and those in turn affect how the cities are situated and those affect directions of roads, streets, and houses, and thus changing the rotation direction is equivalent to making a mirror image of the whole world. I wish I could "just" do that but I can't re-imagine it that way. $\endgroup$
    – Dallaylaen
    Apr 15, 2019 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf East and West are defined by rotation? Interesting. Did not know this convention, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – genesis
    Apr 16, 2019 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Dallaylaen I don't disagree but I am surprised that this is noticeable in your world. It seems that in our world wind, humidity and such factors are mostly determined by mountains, ocean proximity, ocean currents and similar things. Which may in turn be determined by rotation of the planet but the connection is extremely hard to see. $\endgroup$
    – genesis
    Apr 16, 2019 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ As others said, a retrograde spin would actually have a lot of influence upon climate and winds and basically everything. It isn't that easy to just go retrograde when you design climates for a prograde world, as that would then make all of the prograde climate zones inaccurate. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2023 at 13:54

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