A cartographic history of why North, not East or South, is up
February 18, 2014 2:46 PM   Subscribe

How the north ended up on top of the map is an article by Nick Danforth, author/curator of (The/Mid) Afternoon Map blog, detailing how the north-up orientation came to be the default orientation, looking beyond Eurocentrism to Byzantine monks and Majorcan Jews who set the path for modern cartography. If you want more information, you might enjoy the Wikipedia article on the history of cartography, or you can really dig deep with the three-volume text, The History of Cartography, which is available in full from the University of Chicago Press online, split into individual PDFs for each chapter.

In the main article, Danforth starts by noting that early Egyptian maps placed south at the top, likely oriented by the flow of the Nile, and that Arab map makers, including Muhammad al-Idrisi, may have followed some practices of previous Chinese cartographers who also oriented south at the top of their maps (Google books preview). Alternatively, early Christian maps from Europe orienting maps with east at the top, the direction of Paradise, as seen in the Ebstorf Mappamundi.

"Mappa mundi" is the any medieval European map of the world, and can be very roughly translated as "cloth or napkin (of the) world". The most common were tripartite (Gbp) or T and O maps, named so because they split the known world into three parts, and contained the world in a circle. On top was Asia, the lower left was Europe, and the lower right Africa. (And thus, the maps were oriented with east at the top.) The Don (Tanais) river separated Europe from Asia, the Nile (or the Red Sea) separated Asia from Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea separated Africa from Europe.

There are more complex versions of the usually small T-O maps, often called Beatus maps, as they were inspired by or copied from the original map by Beatus of Liébana, found in the illuminated copies of his Commentaria In Apocalypsin, or Commentary on the Apocalypse. Again, east is at the top of these maps.

The third category of medieval maps are the "complex" maps, larger and more detailed than the tripartite T-O maps or the quadripartite Beatus maps. One example is the Psalter World Map, which retains the east-at-top orientation, and serves as "a visual encyclopedia, embracing ancient history, politics, scripture and ethnography as well as geography" (best viewed with Flash to experience all the features of this online presentation).

All this is not to say that there are no historical maps with north at the top. One of the earliest remaining maps is the Babylonian "map of the world," which was oriented to the prevalent winds, with northwest at the top. Then there are the Macrobian World Maps, which are generally based on hemispheric maps of Macrobius from the fifth century, depicting a spherical world, divided into different horizontal zones (sets of examples: one, two, three).

Portolan charts (deep link; framed site) were a distinctly different sort of map, "made to get seafarers from home to another place and back again safely." And they are surprisingly accurate, given the technology available at the time, as long as you didn't try to use them to get across the Atlantic. Replicating the curvature of the earth on a flat map tended to skew the attempts to map longer distances.

At first, these charts, though useful for navigating, were not consistently designed, with no real up or down, and no consistency in the direction of images or text, but all included a compas rose that clearly indicated north. Enter the Majorcan cartographic school, who weren't so much a formal group as they were a local association of predominantly Jewish cartographers, cosmographers and navigational instrument-makers and some Christian associates who experimented and developed their own cartographic techniques. Amongst them, the tradition of the compass rose pointing to the North Star, much as a compass would.

Interesting tangent: China first developed a compass, known as the South Pointer, in their in Warring States Period (475-221BC). Refined versions included the the south-pointing spoon and fish, and finally the marine compass, which made its way to Europe by way of nautical Arabian traders.

Still, in the 15th century, maps were made with varying orientations, east, south (best with Flash), and north, yet all remain centered on or near Italy or Jerusalem. But thanks to a 13th century rediscovery and (re)creation of maps from Ptolemy's Geography by the Greek monk Maximus Planudes, the world was set with north on top. The example was followed by such notable map-makers as Gerardus Mercator, Henricus Martellus (Germanus) and Martin Waldseemüller (whose map "named America").


If this leaves you wanting to know more about the history of cartography, you can read:
posted by filthy light thief (28 comments total) 123 users marked this as a favorite

Holy balls this is an awesome post.

And speaking of Mercator, this is one of my favorite scenes from West Wing: Why Are We Changing Maps?
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:55 PM on February 18 [8 favorites]

I'd like to second Lutoslawski's holy balls.

On a slght highjack, though, what I want to know is this: Is there any consistent North/South standard applied to deep space photographs? Is there any sense in which such photos can be said to be the right (or, for that matter, the wrong) way up? And, if so, right and wrong relative to what? Or is it all a matter of the individual image's provider exercising a purely aesthetic preference on this issue?

I've been asking this question for well over a decade now - once of a prominent astrophysicist - and no-one seems able to give me a straightforward answer. Enquiring minds want to know.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:04 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Danforth's article. Explanations of how seemingly simple things came to be are often complicated and interesting, and the simplest narratives have a way of leaving out the contributions of already marginalized people.

I also can't help but wonder if another contributing reason for the North-South orientation is that, historically speaking, latitude has been much easier to determine than longitude (basically, the easiest way to figure longitude is to calculate where in the earth's rotation you are by measuring the time at a fixed reference point versus local time, and this is not exactly easy to do if you're on a ship in the middle of the ocean). If you have to choose an axis with greater fidelity than any other, I imagine a left-to-right or right-to-left reading culture would likely choose horizontal over vertical or something else. That's just half-assed speculation, though.
posted by Copronymus at 3:08 PM on February 18

I was lead to believe it was because Santa Claus.

...I see now this was not the case.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:14 PM on February 18

But if you're putting a direction other than east at the top, can you really call it oriented?
posted by ckape at 3:14 PM on February 18

But if you're putting a direction other than east at the top, can you really call it an orientation?

It's exactly this sort of attitude that lets me dominate orienteering with ease. Everyone else is fiddling with their dumb maps for some reason rather than running eastward at top speed.
posted by Copronymus at 3:20 PM on February 18 [9 favorites]

I distinctly remember being told to draw a map in the fourth grade. I drew it upside down, but drew the compass rose so that south pointed "up". My teacher told me I had to redo it.
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:21 PM on February 18

I'm not sure when it dates from, but there's a tapestry map in the Alcazar at Seville that puzzled me for a minute before I figured south was up.
posted by LionIndex at 3:26 PM on February 18

Fantastic post!
maps and cartography are endlessly entertaining for me, i can't wait to dig in. thanks.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:43 PM on February 18

Holy globes! Filthy light thief, you did it again. Thanks!
posted by ouke at 3:47 PM on February 18

This is the best post/cloth/napkin of the napkin/cloth/map of the world. Thank you, filthy light thief!
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:10 PM on February 18

Great post. It's amazing how startlingly different things look when a map is rotated 90 or 180 degrees -- we get very used to seeing the world a certain way, and as with the tapestry above a simple rotation makes things look almost unrecognizable.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:25 PM on February 18

In Wales, north is to the left.
posted by popcassady at 4:31 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

It's a bit of a derail, but this prompted me to deliver a brief plug for Larry Gonick's excellent Cartoon History of the Universe, which is where I first heard about ancient China's emphasis on things pointing south rather than north. If you're into history at all, check it out--it's a lot more informative and educational than it sounds.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:34 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]

The Cartographers for Social Equality blow CJ Gregg's mind. Outside of the community of geographers, people have no idea. Thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by emilypdx at 4:46 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

I always figured it had something to do with the idea of Jerusalem as the center of the world. Wow I was wrong.
posted by Hactar at 5:26 PM on February 18

the three-volume text, The History of Cartography, which is available in full from the University of Chicago Press online, split into individual PDFs for each chapter.

posted by threeants at 7:38 PM on February 18

Oh, great. Another post tagged "Planudes" and "Germanus."
posted by psoas at 7:44 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Paul Slade: Is there any consistent North/South standard applied to deep space photographs?

From the Ryukyu Astronomy Club: Which Way Is Up? - there are a few primary direction-setting methods:

Planets, moons and views of the solar system from the outside follow the right-hand rule
Looking at the rotating object, whether a planet, moon, or spiraling solar system, wrap your right hand around the object with your fingers pointed in the direction of the rotation. Stick your thumb up like you are hitchhiking and your thumb is pointing north for that object.
The Night Sky and the North Celestial Pole line up with earth by pinning NCP on Polaris
Directions in the celestial sphere must be based on the NCP since terrestrial (Earth-based) directions applied to the sky would change as the Earth rotates. So, if an astrophoto is printed "north is up", you would hold the photo up against the sky to cover the location of the object and orient the top of the picture so that it is pointed towards Polaris.
The Galactic Up is based on the left-hand rule
Like all spiral galaxies, the Milky Way rotates. So, you would have thought they would just follow the right-hand rule and keep things simple. Nope, instead it is just the opposite - the left hand rule applies. This seems to have been done since that direction in space most closely matches the north of our Solar System. Hard to say what they have done with directions in other galaxies, especially those that don't rotate properly like irregular dwarf galaxies...
And then views through different types of telescopes can really get you turned around.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 PM on February 18

Is there any consistent North/South standard applied to deep space photographs?

Yes. North is up, and east is to the left. People do use random orientations at times (particularly if the image was taken at a weird angle), but unless I have a good reason to deviate I always stick with it. This is in celestial coordinates (again, unless there's a reason to deviate.)

You must have been talking to a theorist.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:40 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Oh, to answer the rest of the question, there's no deeper reason why we do this other than to reduce confusion when looking at different images.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:45 PM on February 18

"Mappa mundi" is the any medieval European map of the world, and can be very roughly translated as "cloth or napkin (of the) world"... On top was Asia, the lower left was Europe, and the lower right Africa. (And thus, the maps were oriented with east at the top.)

Mapping The Newest Old Map Of The World
posted by homunculus at 11:41 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Awesome post! I knew Nick way back in college (though we didn't go to the same school, I am not smart enough for that). He recently wrote a great piece about new classical music. Also, an Atlantic article that's actually more on point about maps.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:40 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Filthy Light Thief, you are wise. Many thanks for the Ryukyu Astronomy Club link.
posted by Paul Slade at 8:39 AM on February 19

Thanks for the kind words, but my efforts are largely elaborations on the original article by Nick Danforth, along with a tangent into Mappa Mundi.

Paul Slade, that was just a page I found, and it sounds like they know what they're talking about, though I have no idea if they do ;).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 AM on February 19

Thanks flt. I was at the soon-to-finish free *Mapping our World* exhibition at the National Library of Australia in Canberra last weekend and we were wondering about the north-on-top convention.
posted by peacay at 3:05 AM on February 24

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