I'm not sure if this is the correct place for this question. I was reading some Lord of the Rings-lore the other day and it got me thinking about the location of "evil" in storytelling. In LOTR, Mordor is located to the east of where the protagonists of the story live and I got this feeling that this isn't unique to LOTR and is a common motif in many (Western) stories but I wasn't able to think of any of the top of my head.

Is this a common motif or am I just imagining this? If this is not imagined, is this reversed in stories told by Eastern authors, i.e. evil coming from the west?

  • I have never read LOTR so this may be an unrelated suggestion but it may have something to do with cosmology and the fact that the Earth rotates from east to west. Given that, the interpretation becomes one of myth and mysticism.
    – DJohnson
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 15:30
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    A counterexample that comes to mind is the Wicked Witch of the West.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 18:06
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    @PeterShor then again, Narnia has Calormen to the southeast, just like Middle Earth has Mordor to the southeast (and a wicked Vala from the West who settled in the East)
    – muru
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 2:36
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    Both Calormen and Mordor are inspired by the Near and Middle East, Calormen very overtly and Mordor more covertly. The Middle East is roughly southeast of continental Europe.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 21:16
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    @muru and then again, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a ton of influence on each other.
    – auden
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 21:25

4 Answers 4


Norse myth associates the east with evil...

From the Voluspa, 1999 Larrington translation:

From the east falls, from poison valleys
a river of knives and swords, Cutting it is called

(stanza 36)

In the east sat an old woman in Iron-wood
and nurtured there offspring of Fenrir;
a certain one of them in monstrous form
will be the snatcher of the moon

(stanza 40)

Hrym drives from the east, he has his shield before him,
the great serpent writhes in giant rage ...

(stanza 50; Hrym is a giant and captain of Naglfar)

A ship journeys from the east, Muspell's people are coming
over the waves, and Loki steers.
There are the monstrous brood with all the raveners,
The brother of Byleist is in company with them.

(stanza 51, Byleist is brother of Loki; this last line is a kenning, a common poetic device in eddaic and skaldic poetry)

It should be noted, however, that as per stanza 52, "Surt comes from the south" (the stanzas seem to be misnumbered in my edition or something, it goes stanzas 47, 49, 50, 51, 48, 52, and then carries on up from 52 as normal).

Anyway, evil does primarily seem to come from the east in Norse myth.

...but not many other types of myth seem to.

In Finnish myth, Louhi is a wicked queen of the land known as Pohjola; Pohjola is located in the far north; to quote the Kalevala: "In these dismal Northern regions / In the dreary land of Pohja". To quote wikipedia here:

the idea of an otherworldly far north is a widespread motif in both Classical and medieval European literature

There seems to be, at the minimum, no association of the east with the evil in Finnish myth as far as I can tell.

Greek myth was actually influenced a bit by the east, but the closest thing I could find to an association of evil with the east was Dionysus fighting all the way to India and then getting stopped there, but that had a sort of positive light, as it was a weird drunken revelry war thing. Dionysus is weird. Anyway, interestingly, as you move into Roman myth (which is obviously closely associated with Greek myth) it incorporates stuff from Eastern mythology:

For instance, the cult of Sun was introduced in Rome after Aurelian's successful campaigns in Syria. The Asiatic divinities Mithras (that is to say, the Sun) and Ba'al were combined with Apollo and Helios into one Sol Invictus, with conglomerated rites and compound attributes.

So not a negative connotation at all.

Tolkien influence explains this

Further, I can see very little beyond Norse association of the east with evil. This does make some sense wrt Tolkien though, because he was heavily influenced by Norse myth, and was one of his predominant studies. It should be noted that Tolkien was also heavily influenced by the Kalevala especially wrt the story of Turin Turambar. Another note, though, to quote Tolkien's letter 229:

The placing of Mordor in the east was due to simple narrative and geographical necessity, within my 'mythology'. The original stronghold of Evil [Thangorodrim] was (as traditionally) in the North; but as that had been destroyed, and was indeed under the sea, there had to be a new stronghold, far removed from the Valar, the Elves, and the sea-power of Númenor.

See also this sci fi and fantasy question.

  • 1
    This is certainly a plausible answer, but your section entitled "...but not many other types of myth seem to" isn't very detailed. You only talk about Finnish myth (and the Finns were, by the way, at least as far north as the Norse), but what about all the other mythologies in the world outside of the Fenno-Scandian peninsula?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 14:06
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    @Randal'Thor added some in about Greek/Roman.
    – auden
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 17:12
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    Sorry to harp on the same point, but even Finnish + Greek/Roman is a very small subset of the world's mythologies. You could change it to "not many other types of European myth", perhaps, but even that still leaves Celtic, Slavic, Balkan, etc. mythology uninvestigated.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 18:28

According to the Metzler Lexikon literartischer Symbole ("Metzler Lexicon of Literary Symbols"), edited by Günter Butzer and Joachim Jacob (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2012), the east has been a symbol for three things:

  1. salvation,
  2. barbarism and the uncivilised,
  3. threat.

Three real-world phenomena contributed to these meanings:

  • the association of the east with sunrise and salvation symbols,
  • the separation between the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire,
  • collective societies in the east (Slavs, Asia).

Below is a longer description of the origin of the concepts that the east represents as a symbol (still based on the Metzler Lexikon literartischer Symbole, p. 309-310):

  1. Salvation: In the Bible, Paradise was in the East; the three Magi came from the East; light, in a figurative sense, was associated with the east in the "ex oriente lux" motif. Even during the Enlightenment (see e.g. Montesquieu's Lettres persanes) expected to learn from cultures in the east.
  2. The barbaric and uncivilised: In Greek historiography, the uncivilised were located in the east, such as the Persian empire in Herodotus' Histories (ca. 440 BC) and Xenophon's Anabasis (ca. 370 BC). During the Middle Ages, the "East" was mainly the Ottoman Empire. During the Enlightenment, Europeans often located the border between their own "civilised" world and the eastern "uncivilised" world at the border between Prussia and Poland. For example, Goethe's Iphigenia in Tauris is situated in the Krim area, i.e. at the border of the civilised and the uncivilised world.
  3. Threat: After the Middle Ages, the association between the east and menace/threat due to the Turkish Empire (as it was then known). During the Vormärz in the 19th century, Russia also became associated with the idea of a menace, e.g. after the crushing of the November Uprising in Poland in 1830-31. Another infamous example of the "menace" idea is the yellow peril, an idea that became very strong after 1870.
  • (1) The Greek sources don't really paint the easy in an unambiguously evil light. Scythians, for example, were from the north, and Herodotus is much more nuanced than we used to give him credit for. But the idea that the east is "bad" really only arose in connection with the Persian empire, which was an existential threat to the Greeks for many years. Their antagonists were literally the east.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 15:10
  • (2) But then you get to the Romans and their chief enemies were from the north (Celts and later Germans) and south (Carthage), and the idea of the east being the home of the antagonists didn't arise again until it was literally so, i.e. with the rise of Parthia.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 15:10
  • (3) All in all, the "West" has had a complicated relationship with their eastern neighbors, and much of what was codified over the course of the Crusades and later was actually anachronistically retrojected onto antiquity as a whole.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 15:12
  • (Despite the objects, +1 for injecting more nuance into the discussion!)
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 15:14

In Ancient Greece the East (Anatolia, the "Orient") was stereotyped as a place of richness, wealth, immorality, power, luxury - the opposite of a more austere and humble life, but more virtuous, that the non-Anatolian (western) Greeks would live. Anatolia had rich states (Lydia) and its wealth came also to the Greek cities nearby. The oldest reference I know is the verse about the "Gold of Gyges" by Archilochus.
The Romans inherited this notion, and Cicerus has writings with the same motif.

The notion of the East being "barbaric" seems to appear for the first time in Aristotle, after Alexander's invasion, when he argues that while rich and magnificent, Persian cities weren't free, because they had a king, and considering this political condition - compared to Greek republics and democracies - a lack on "human character", so it's not any more a lack of virtue by excess of wealth, but a lack of humanity that makes them inferior humans - barbaric. It's a very violent ideology that Aristotle assigned, that made the "Orient" stereotype much more aggressive from there on.

This notion was very present in European literature in the XVIII century referring to the Turkish Empire. And even in the XX century there were attempts to appropriate this tradition by calling the Soviet Union a part of the "Orient".



Western storytelling is an incredibly broad category but there are certainly example of the antagonists being based in the East including the following:

Lord of the Rings - You've mentioned Mordor's location in the East but we also have the evil-aligned Easterings (hopefully no explanation needed) and the Corsairs of Umbar (whose base is relatively Eastern). It also doesn't take an especially detailed reading of the books to detect that dragons, orcs and evil humans all seem to become more common the further East you travel from the Shire, Grey Havens and Gondor.

His Dark Materials - The Tartars are portrayed as en evil and bloodthirsty nation and are clearly modeled on the real Russo-Turkic tribes of our world. They frequently act as ruthless mercenaries for the antagonists of Lyra's world.

Harry Potter - So you've got Hogwarts (the British centre of heroism where all the important events happen), Beauxbatons (home to hot French students) and Durmstrang (whose students are laconic east europeans and have a syllabus focussing on the dark arts and anti-Muggle racism. Spot the evil one.

Uberwald - Pratchett's eastern european analogue is a brutal, feudal place where Vampires and Werewolves hunt everybody else for fun and nutrition.

And that is just focusing on relatively recent fantasy. Looking further back you've got the evil, Indian temple of Indiana Jones, Conrad's Heart of Darkness in the Congo, Fu Manchu, yellow peril invasion stories, the anarchic eastern kingdoms of Kipling and various other forms of racist, anti-eastern sentiment.

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