(For Part 2 - The Division Systems, please click here)

The word cardinal is taken from the Latin cardo which means a hinge. The oldest names known (in the Mediterranean area) for the four cardinals are probably the ones used in ancient Egypt and in the Old Testament and were hence coined at least 4000-3500 years from now.
The Egyptians, like the Chinese (s. table below) by the way, defined the directions facing south (resut) and north (mehet) behind them. East and west were hence called like left (jAbt / yapteh) and right (jmntt / yemnet). South was not only the position of the sun (the god Ra) at noon, it was also the origin of the life-sustaining river Nile.
The ancient Maya language and calendar had many various representations of the cardinal points. The Indians in Mexico and Guatemala still perform the dance of Voladores (see Wikipedia) : the four ropes represent the cardinals, a fifth man on top of the pole symbolises the sun (sometimes, a sixth one stands for the moon). They rotate in 13 turns down to the ground. The product of 13 x 4 is 52 equaling the number of years in the maya / aztek calendar.
Picture at left: The cardinal point west (chik'in) courtesy ARTE, Deciffering the Maya code after M. D. Coe.
Picture at right:
„El Tajin Los Voladores fcm“ by Frank C. Müller. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons. File:El_Tajin_Los_Voladores_fcm.jpg#mediaviewer/ File:El_Tajin_Los_Voladores_fcm.jpg
The cardinals also were Israel's borders, i.e. the verdant mountains of Lebanon to the north (in Hebrew Tsafon), the barren mountains of Edom to the east (Kedem), the desert to the south (Negev) and the Mediterranean to the West  (Yam = sea)
Source: The riddle of the compass by Amir D. Aczel.

The linguist Guy Deutscher explains in the New York TIMES how the native speakers of the Australian aborinal tongue Guugu Yimithirr (North Queensland) use the cardinal directions to describe things where we usually say left or right, in front of or behind oneself, words that they don't know, and orientate themself immediately and automatically while speaking.

Symbolism of the cardinal points

The European civilisations and the philosophers have associated with the cardinals points common characteristics —often contrary— of the people living in the regions lying there. Examples: North was for the ancient Greeks the place where barbarians but also men of great wisdom lived, but for the people living there, south was characterized by the joyful life (sun versus fog) but also with the lazyness provoqued by the heat... The French journalist and philosopher Roger-Pol Droit published in Le Monde (July and Aug. 2014) fours articles about this topic (copies available).

The rose of the winds (or wind rose) was so named because the divisions of the circle were originally named after the main winds blowing in the Mediterranean. The four main ancient Greek wind names were: Boreas (cold north wind), Apeliotes (east wind), Notus (dry south wind), Zephyr (warm west wind) from the tower of the winds in Athens.  These wind names were later noted with their initial letter (see below and examples in the table : Spanish map dated 1583, and in the section Nautical Compasses the instruments signed by BAUDUF and ROUX). The names are indicated in full words in different languages on some descriptions, such as on the print at the top of page) generally in Italian, but also in Spanish, Provençal or Latin. The windrose at right also gives names for a further subdivision (32 points) like aquilin or zéphyr,  which should be well-known to all those who learned the famous French poems written by La Fontaine, Le Chęne et Le Roseau: " Tout vous est aquilin / Tout me semble zéphyr " (The oak and the reed: "What for you is a North wind is for me but a Zephyr").  
Pic. at right - This print was part of an ancient book by the famous French cartographer Nicolas Sanson d'Abbeville (1600/1667),
re-edited bei TERRES in Naples in 1794. Click on image for enlarged view

At some time in Greek antiquity, only north and south were fixed directions. The names of the winds blowing in between gave birth to a total of twelve names in four groups (Aristotle, more details in Thomson - see Bibliography below):
Northern: Thrakias, Aparktias, Boreas
Eastern: Kaikas, Apeliotes, Euros
Southern: Euronotos/Phoinikias, Notos, Libonotos
Western: Libs, Zephiros, Argestes.

The letters for the eight winds were generally (clockwise in 45° steps):
- NorthT for Tramontane before the fleur-de-lys (heraldic lily) was generally used at some mome in the 16th c. Some authors like L. de Saussure presume that the fleur-de-lys design evolved from the uppercase letter T. Other names: bise (cold north wind in French), septentrio (Latin), also represented by seven stars. It was long argued that the origin of the lily might have been the fact that the makers of nautical compasses who lived in Naples (Italy) had maybe chosen this symbol because it was in the coat-of-arms of the "Anjou Empire" (i.e. France) whom the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples then belonged (13th C.) but this is historically inconsistent.
- N-E: G for Graeco (Greek), a wind blowing from Greece to south Italy/Sicily.
- East: sometimes L for levante, i.e. the direction of the rising sun as well as various decorations (see tables below). The symbol used for the East was a christian cross showing the way to Jerusalem but also the letter E for este (see below on the map of Puerto Rico). This information, which only had a religious background, is no longer used on contemporary maps or just for decoration. The most recent that we know of was printed on a Corfu, Greece, tourist map for the year 1990.
- S-E: S for Sirocco, a warm wind blowing from Africa
- South: O for Ostro (also austro = south, as in Austria and Australia) but also called meridio, vent marin, vent de midi (mezzogiorno),
- S-W: L for Libecchio, labech, lebeche, a wind crossing Italy and Corsica,
- West: P for Ponant, ponente (setting sun),
 - N-W: M for Maestro, Maestrale, Mistral (strong wind).

For more information read L'origine de la rose des vents et l'invention de la boussole by Leopold de Saussure, Geneva 1923, 64 p.: critical review and complement to the famous Lettre ŕ M. le baron Alexander von Humboldt sur l'origine de la boussole by J. Klaproth and also the The rose of winds: the origin and development of the compass card by Silvanus P. Thompson, London 1913, 45 p. (check also Miscell. / History and Literature).
Wind roses with decorated East cardinal on ancient maps:

Map of Puerto Rico
(drawn South up)

(Click on the picture for an enlarged view)
Portuguese map

Spanish map

Dutch map
(c. 1700)

Map of Corfou
(Greece, 1990)

East-decorated compasses - and a WEST-decorated one

Ship's compass by
J. B. Leroy, Jersey

Ship's compass by
David Stalker, Leith

Sundial by
J. Urings, London

Surveyor's compass by
J.& H. M. POOL, Eston, Mass.

(All pictures by Jaypee - priv. coll.)

Nautical compass by FLINT, with WEST-decorated rose of winds


Nowadays, the cardinal points of almost all compasses in the world are written in English (N-E-S-W for North - East - South - West). In ancient times though, the abbreviated Latin designations were used by Westerner compass makers and in many countries the cardinals were indicated in the national language. Here are some examples:



North: SE = septentriones
East: OR = oriens
South: ME = meridies
West: OC = occidens

For more details on this item,
go to Sundials/Equinoctial, Augsburg type

(Picture by courtesy of E. Tulchinsky/seattlesbestart)

Right: View of Rainkam castle (Bavaria) with a compass scheme by M. Wening, 1701 (picture Jaypee, click for enlarged view)


North: shamal, etymology: Sham-al = a statue / god which stood North of Arabia
East: sharq (q = hard k), etym. shoroq = sunrise
South: janoub, etym.: janb = side
West: raRb (pronounce the 1st r like in French and the 2nd like in Spanish), etym.: ghorob = sunset
(source: Yahoo! Q/A - Hakim)

See also category Religion (Islam)
Other example: OMI (Saudi Arabia)


In the picture above, East is written in the old way with the letter Q for qibla but on the compass dial the letter SHIN was used for both North and East.


Like Russian except for the East which is called (pronounce iztok) instead of BOCTOK (pronounce vostok).

CHINESE (= Japanese)

The different ancient systems are described in the sections RELIGION / Chinese Tradition and Nautical Compasses / China. A compass is called in Chinese Luo pan.

Traditional symbols in astronomy:
North = black turtle
= blue dragon
South = red bird
West = white tiger

North:   北 (Bei)
East:    東 (Dong)
South:  南 (Nán)
West:   西 (Xi)
Below: written names on compasses. Each sign is to be read from the compass center point.
NOTE: The transcripted phonetic value can strongly differ in the different languages (see the words used by J. Klaproth in 1834) in RELIGION and NAUTICAL compasses.

Classical characters (Click on image for enlarged view)

Modern characters (military compass)


South = JIH
West = ZAPÁD
Note : The dial features a graduation in 6400 mils (see Divisions/Mils)

Descr. : Bézard / Imitations / Czechoslovakia


North : nord
East : řst
South : syd
West : vest


North: Noord
East: Oost
South: Zuid
West: West

Pic at right: The harbour's official wind vane on the Holland Amerika Lijn house in Rotterdam (click on the image for a detail view)


Nord - Est - Sud - Ouest

These letters were also used in most roman languages like Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Romanian is a little bit different (see below)

                         TOP OF PAGE


North: Tuath
East : An Ear
South: Deas
West: An Iar

(Click on img. at right for full view of the 32 points)
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gaelic was still a common language in Scotland.


Nord - Ost - Süd - West

The cardinals' names are to be declinated (nach Norden fahren = to go north, Süderelbe = southern Elbe river in Hamburg) but the ending can be omitted in poetry (see drawing at r.: French- German war, 1870)
This compass features a division in 6400 Mils (see explanations in Divisions).


North: észak
East: kelet
South: dél
West: nyugat

On this compass, the zero/6400 MILS faces the South mark (D) and North (É) is facing 3200 MILS.
(See Bézard, Gamma and MOM for more explanations)


Engl. /  Urdu  /  Sanskrit (Hindi)
- North: (uttara) شمال   /     उत्तर
- East: (pūrva)  مشرق   /      पूर्व
- South: (dakṣiṇa)  جنوب  /   दक्षिण
- West: (paścima)  مغرب   /    पश्चिम

The dial of the compass at left features cardinals (only E, S and W, North being represented by a fleur-de-lis) both in Urdu and Sanskrit languages

Picture above left by courtesy of The Boreal Arrow - At right: a ship's compass card in Sanskrit
(Click on the images for detailed views)

JAPANESE (= Chinese)

North =   
East =    
South =  
West =    西
A compass is called in Japanese language: rashinban ( 羅針盤 ) i.e. tool for finding direction.

(see examples in pocket and wrist compasses here: Japan)


North :       Bug
East :   동 쪽       Dongjjog
South :  남 쪽    Namjjog
West :   서 쪽  Seojjog

The cardinals are related to the elements, the sound-producing parts of the body, the seasons and the music notes.

Picture at left: courtesy Le prisme des langues by N. Tournadre, p. 93, L'Asiathčque, 2014


North = PÓŁNOC



(Click on pic for enlarged view)



NOTE: This compass features a division in 6000 Mils (see explanations in Divisions).

This compass was made by IOR, see also Bézard


North:  Север (sever)
East:   восток (vostok)
South: юг (yug)
West:  запад (zapad)

Note: Sometimes the German abbreviations N-S / W-O are used instead of С-Ю / З-В.  This tradition dates back to Peter the Great who created the Russian Navy. The older ship compasses featured these markings and were even marked with a Z (for Zuid in Dutch) instead of S. Example: see "AZIMUT".
(Compare with Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian).


North:      sever
East:        istok
South:      jug
West:       zapad

Left col.: latin letters,
Right col.: cyrillic letters



North: norden
East: öster
South: söder
West: väster

NOTE: This compass features a division in 6300 Mils. (see explanations in SILVA and Divisions).


In Turkey, three different systems were used. During the Ottoman era, the Arabic alphabet (see below and pics at right) was used. After the Kemalist revolution the latin alphabet was introduced and some words of the language replaced by new ones. The cardinals points were among the latter (see 2nd row: Bézard Compass).

Depending on the transcription some letters may differ:

(Source: Wikipedia - click on image for enlarged view)

The cardinal points written in the Arabic alphabet in old Turkish on an antique compass. North is marked by a fleur de lis (heraldic lily) with the equivalent names in English.

(Compare with ARABIC above)

Picture by courtesy of Kornelia Takacs

English / Old Turkish / New Turk.
North = Şimal (Ş) / Kuzey (K)
East = Şark (SK) / Doğu (D)
South = Cenup (C) / Güney (G)
West = Garp (GP) / Batý (B)

The cardinals (only N, E and W) in old Turkish but in the latin alphabet on a Bézard compass dated approx. 1930

NOTE: We have no example of a compass with cardinals in modern Turkish. Thanks for sending us a picture.
(CONT'D: Part 2 - The Division Systems)