How Cardinal Directions were Identified in the Ancient World?

Cardinal Directions in ancient civilisations
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Have you ever came across a question about the cardinal directions. Certainly, many of you already came across but for me, it took a very long time to face this question. Recently I started thinking about, why we have only 4 cardinal directions? What are the ways in ancient times to know the direction?

To know the answer, I started reading about the cardinal direction and the history behind it. A few of the things which I got to know really surprised me. So I thought why not share my findings with you in a simple and conclusive way. 

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Why do we call them the cardinal directions, anyway?

Cardinal” comes from the early 14th century and was derived from the Latin cardinalis (“principal, chief, essential”)

How Cardinal Direction Got their Names?

North, South, East, and West are English words, derived from Germanic, which was itself derived from Proto-Indo-European.

NorthNorth originates from ner, which means left.  Earlier people were highly dependent on the Sun position in the sky.  North would have been to the left of the sunrise.
SouthSouth originates from sunthaz or sunnon.  Basically these words mean sun, but they don’t refer to the direction of the sun in the sky.  They instead refer to the pleasant, sunny areas of Southern Europe. 
EastEast originates from austra; which means facing the sunrise/sunshine
WestWest comes from wes, meaning to go down (as in the sun setting).

Climatic and Land Changes Suggested by The Ancient Maps

Current Cardinal Directions

So the most important question which I had was, why we have only 4 cardinal directions? Why not some other number? 

As the earth is round, so logically there can be infinite directions but still for convenience people have found one or other ways to create directions. 

The easiest way to find the direction is to mark the point where the sun is rising. But as the sun changes its rising point throughout the year, so to get the precision in this method is difficult.

So for us, people on earth have only one direction North which remains fix throughout the year. Other directions are logically created. 

Why Only North?

Polar Star
Polaris the Polar Star

In Northern Hemisphere, one can observe that all the stars rotate around Polaris, which is the only (effectively) constant body in the celestial sphere. 

Because Polaris lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis “above” the North Pole the north celestial pole Polaris stands almost motionless in the sky, and all the stars of the northern sky appear to rotate around it.

Therefore, it makes an excellent fixed point in the sky. One who is looking at Polaris can say looking at the north direction.

Once the direction of the pole has been established as “North”, the rest of the directions follow logically. 

Why We Identified Only Four Cardinal Direction?

The simple reason is that we exist in three dimensional space. Therefore we have three axes that can be moved along in two directions each.

Gravity makes the third (up-down) relatively useless to us (Before the invention of airplanes, it was obvious that we will be in the same position with regards to up/down direction. So was useless to count it as a direction).

So that leaves two useful axes (forward-backward and left-right) with two directions each.

Cardinal Directions in Ancient Civilization

Directions are the most fundamental thing we use every day. From finding a way to home to city planning, directions play an important role.

Almost every culture have there own way to identified cardinal directions which reflect in there day to day lifestyle. Here I have listed a few ancient civilizations and their methods to identify the cardinal directions.

Mesopotamian Winds

The ancient Mesopotamian civilizations (Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia), reaching back to before 3000 B.C., did not develop or possess the notion of the “cardinal” astronomical directions N, E, S, and W until the relatively late date of about 700 B.C., in contrast to the Greek and Hebrew civilizations of antiquity.

Instead, the peoples of the region had to rely on various natural indicators such as the stars, Sun, and winds to approximate the four directions of the compass points. 

Orientation was determined by the directions of four principal winds, namely, the “regular wind,” the “mountain wind,” the “cloud wind,” and the “Amorite wind.”

These could be described as, respectively, an NW, a NE, a SE, and an SW wind or as winds from the northwesterly, the northeasterly, etc., quarters.

In the Assyro-Babylonian language, the same word designated a principal wind and the direction from which that wind blows.

Sumerian Vocabulary

  • South Wind – Elam
  • North Wind – Akkad
  • East Wind – Subartu Gutium
  • West Wind – Amurru
Mesopotamian Cardinal Direction Clay tablet
Mesopotamian Cardinal Direction Clay tablet

A very intriguing tablet (BagM. Beih 2 no.98) was unearthed from Uruk which contains a diagram showing the geographical locations of sunrise and sunset, the four winds, and their correlates to the seasons of the year.

Only half of which is originally preserved – a circle contains a square, inside of which are triangles located at each of the four corners.

Each triangle is labeled with the name of a wind and on the left and right sides of thesquare are indicated sunrise and sunset respectively.

In the circle on the outside of the square,each side contains a range of 3 months appearing to correspond to the a time of the year when that wind predominates.

For example, between the south wind and the west wind triangles, the outside circle inscription says:

‘From the 14th of Adar to the 5thof Sivan [the spring season], a …wind’. Unfortunately, none of the winds blowing in the seasonal sections of the circle are identifiable by name.

Cardinal Directions in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, river Nile was the source of all fundamental direction. The source of the Nile was the Front which is equivalent to todays South direction. If the person looking at the origin on Nile river, he is looking South/Front direction. After that every other direction was logical.

Opposite of Front was Behind/North, left hand became Left/East and right hand became Right/West direction.

The head is associated with upper and elevation whereas the feet are associated with lower and decline. In Ancient Egypt, the words for RIGHT and WEST are the same which confirms this orientation.

Egyptian Vocabulary:

  • iAbtt2 iAbtt – EAST, left side, left hand.
  • rsy2 rsy – SOUTH, head, beginning, upper, elevated, upriver.
  • imntt2 imntt – WEST, right side, right hand.
  • mHtt2 mHty – NORTH, feet, end, submerged, decline, downriver

This is a very fundamental way used by ancient Egyptian but certainly, Egyptians had developed more advance and sophisticated methods by the time to get the precise directions and angle of the direction. This is clearly visible in the Egyptian architecture.

Ten Directions of Vedic Culture

Way to Find North Direction in Ancient India
Way to Find North Direction in Ancient India

To find direction in ancient India in the 7th century a pointed vertical pole (gnomon) was centered in a circle drawn on a levelled surface.

In the forenoon, when the shadow tip of the gnomon which had been beyond the circle, shortens and reaches the circle, it is marked.

In the afternoon of the same day, it is once again marked as it lengthens and leaves the circle.

The point at which the shadow entered the circle is westward, and where it left, eastward.

The north-south direction can be found by taking the mid-point of these two marks and aligning it with the base of the gnomon.

This can be done without geometry, i.e., simply by half a cord, as shown in fig. Once the North direction is found, the rest directions can be found logically.

Ancient Indian Mathematician Baudhayana’s Theorems and Practical Usage

Why ancient Indian people were trying to find North direction? Its answer lies in one constellation known as Ursa Major.

There is a huge importance of Ursa Major constellation in India which is also known as “Sapt Rishi Taramandal“.

This signifies the seven ancient sages who contributed greatly to Santana Dharma and the formation of Hindu scriptures.

Probably ancient Indian people were well aware of the properties of Ursa Major and Ursa minor as described above which makes the North direction more important than other directions.

Directions in Vedic tradition are called as Diśā, or Dik. There are four primary directions and a total of 10 directions.

NorthUttara, Udīcī
SouthDakṣīṇa, Avāchip
EastPūrva, Prācī, Prāk, Aruna
WestPaścima, Pratīcī, Aparā

In Vedic culture, people worship all the ten directions including the four cardinal and four ordinal directions on a compass. 

The oldest record of 10 directions in Vedic culture can be found in Rigveda 10.90 hymn which is also known as purusa hymn.

“Purushasuktam” is one of the most popular Vedic hymns.The first few verses describe the omnipresence and omnipotence of the God:

The Purusha (Supreme Being) who has thousands of heads, thousands of eyes and thousands of feet enveloped the earth on all sides and stood beyond it in ten directions of space.

A THOUSAND heads hath Puruṣa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.

On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

Rigveda 10.90.01

Ancient Mayan Civilization

Cardinal Direction in Mayan Civilisation
Cardinal Direction in Mayan Civilisation

The directions in the ancient Maya world were north, west, east, center, and south when used together, all of these directions make what is called a quincunx.

These directions in the eyes of the ancient Maya followed the sun’s “path,” which would mean that north was not just north but up as well (aka zenith) and south was down (aka nadir) as well as being south. 

Of the directions, the ancient Maya looked at north and south as having less meaning than east and west.

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Names of the Directions

  • North or “xaman
  • West or “chik’in
  • East or “lak’in” or “lik’in
  • South or “nohol.”

South Pointing Chariot, China

South Pointing Chariot China
South Pointing Chariot China

The south-pointing chariot (or carriage) was an ancient Chinese two-wheeled vehicle that carried a movable pointer to indicate the south, no matter how the chariot turned. Usually, the pointer took the form of a doll or figure with an outstretched.

The ancient Chinese invented a mobile-like armored cart in the 5th century BC called the Dongwu Che (Chinese: 洞屋车). It was used for the purpose of protecting warriors on the battlefield.

The mechanism had no magnets and did not automatically detect which direction was south. The pointer was aimed southward by hand at the start of a journey.

Subsequently, whenever the chariot turned, the mechanism rotated the pointer relative to the body of the chariot to counteract the turn and keep the pointer aiming in a constant direction, to the south.

The invention of this device clearly indicates that people were well aware of cardinal directions in ancient China and how to use them efficiently.

As we have already seen that knowledge of one direction is enough as other directions can be derived logically.


Certainly, there can be many other ways to identify the cardinal directions but here I have included 5 oldest ways to identify directions just to give an idea to readers about the ancient methods.


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