Cardinal direction

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A compass rose showing the four cardinal directions, the four intercardinal directions, and eight more divisions. Brosen windrose.svg
A compass rose showing the four cardinal directions, the four intercardinal directions, and eight more divisions.

The four cardinal directions, or cardinal points, are the four main compass directions: north, east, south, and west, commonly denoted by their initials N, E, S, and W respectively. Relative to north, the directions east, south, and west are at 90 degree intervals in the clockwise direction.


The ordinal directions (also called the intercardinal directions) are northeast (NE), southeast (SE), southwest (SW), and northwest (NW). The intermediate direction of every set of intercardinal and cardinal direction is called a secondary intercardinal direction. These eight shortest points in the compass rose shown to the right are:

  1. West-northwest (WNW)
  2. North-northwest (NNW)
  3. North-northeast (NNE)
  4. East-northeast (ENE)
  5. East-southeast (ESE)
  6. South-southeast (SSE)
  7. South-southwest (SSW)
  8. West-southwest (WSW)

Points between the cardinal directions form the points of the compass. Arbitrary horizontal directions may be indicated by their azimuth angle value.


Direction determination refers to the ways in which a cardinal direction or compass point can be determined in navigation and wayfinding. The most direct method is using a compass (magnetic compass or gyrocompass), but indirect methods exist, based on the Sun path (unaided or by using a watch or sundial), the stars, and satellite navigation. [1]

Additional points

Degrees of rotation

The directional names are routinely associated with the degrees of rotation in the unit circle, a necessary step for navigational calculations (derived from trigonometry) and for use with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receivers. The four cardinal directions correspond to the following degrees of a compass:

Intercardinal directions

The intercardinal (intermediate, or, historically, ordinal [2] ) directions are the four intermediate compass directions located halfway between each pair of cardinal directions.

These eight directional names have been further compounded known as tertiary intercardinal directions, resulting in a total of 32 named points evenly spaced around the compass: north (N), north by east (NbE), north-northeast (NNE), northeast by north (NEbN), northeast (NE), northeast by east (NEbE), east-northeast (ENE), east by north (EbN), east (E), etc.


With the cardinal points thus accurately defined; by convention cartographers draw standard maps with north (N) at the top, and east (E) at the right. In turn, maps provide a systematic means to record where places are, and cardinal directions are the foundation of a structure for telling someone how to find those places. Additionally, in most languages this same cardinal-relative mapping is sometimes used in everyday usage when the speaker uses the cardinal directional term instead of the corresponding body relative directional term, even though a relative directional term already exists in that language.

That being said, in cartography north does not have to be at the top. Most maps in medieval Europe, for example, placed east (E) at the top. [3] A few cartographers prefer south-up maps. Many portable GPS-based navigation computers today can be set to display maps either conventionally (N always up, E always right) or with the current instantaneous direction of travel, called the heading, always up (and whatever direction is +90° from that to the right).

In Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, each direction of travel along a numbered highway is assigned a cardinal direction. This cardinal direction may not necessarily match the road's orientation at every given location (see Wrong-way concurrency).

Beyond geography

Cardinal directions or cardinal points may sometimes be extended to include elevation (altitude, depth): north, south, east, west, up and down, or mathematically the six directions of the x-, y-, and z-axes in three-dimensional space. Topographic maps include elevation, typically via contour lines.

In astronomy, the cardinal points of an astronomical body as seen in the sky are four points defined by the directions toward which the celestial poles lie relative to the center of the disk of the object in the sky. [4] [5] A line (a great circle on the celestial sphere) from the center of the disk to the North celestial pole will intersect the edge of the body (the "limb") at the North point. The North point will then be the point on the limb that is closest to the North celestial pole. Similarly, a line from the center to the South celestial pole will define the South point by its intersection with the limb. The points at right angles to the North and South points are the East and West points. Going around the disk clockwise from the North point, one encounters in order the West point, the South point, and then the East point. This is opposite to the order on a terrestrial map because one is looking up instead of down.

Similarly, when describing the location of one astronomical object relative to another, "north" means closer to the North celestial pole, "east" means at a higher right ascension, "south" means closer to the South celestial pole, and "west" means at a lower right ascension. If one is looking at two stars that are below the North Star, for example, the one that is "east" will actually be further to the left.

Germanic origin of names

During the Migration Period, the Germanic names for the cardinal directions entered the Romance languages, where they replaced the Latin names borealis (or septentrionalis) with north, australis (or meridionalis) with south, occidentalis with west and orientalis with east. It is possible that some northern people used the Germanic names for the intermediate directions. Medieval Scandinavian orientation would thus have involved a 45 degree rotation of cardinal directions. [6]

Cultural variations

In many regions of the world, prevalent winds change direction seasonally, and consequently many cultures associate specific named winds with cardinal and intercardinal directions. For example, classical Greek culture characterized these winds as Anemoi.

In pre-modern Europe more generally, between eight and 32 points of the compass – cardinal and intercardinal directions – were given names. These often corresponded to the directional winds of the Mediterranean Sea (for example, southeast was linked to the Sirocco , a wind from the Sahara).

Particular colors are associated in some traditions with the cardinal points. These are typically "natural colors" of human perception rather than optical primary colors.[ vague ]

Many cultures, especially in Asia, include the center as a fifth cardinal point.

Northern Eurasia

Northern EurasiaNESWCSource
Slavic [12]
China [13] [14]
Ainu [15] [16]
Turkic [15]
Kalmyks [17]
Tibet [15]

Central Asian, Eastern European and North East Asian cultures frequently have traditions associating colors with four or five cardinal points.

Systems with five cardinal points (four directions and the center) include those from pre-modern China, as well as traditional Turkic, Tibetan and Ainu cultures. In Chinese tradition, the five cardinal point system is related to I Ching, the Wu Xing and the five naked-eye planets. In traditional Chinese astrology, the zodiacal belt is divided into the four constellation groups corresponding to the directions.

Each direction is often identified with a color, and (at least in China) with a mythological creature of that color. Geographical or ethnic terms may contain the name of the color instead of the name of the corresponding direction. [13] [14]


East: Green ( "qīng" corresponds to both green and blue); Spring; Wood

Qingdao (Tsingtao): "Green Island", a city on the east coast of China
Green Ukraine

South: Red; Summer; Fire

Red River (Asia): south of China
Red Ruthenia
Red Jews: a semi-mythological group of Jews[ citation needed ]
Red Croatia
Red Sea

West: White; Autumn; Metal

White Sheep Turkmen
Akdeniz, meaning 'White Sea': Mediterranean Sea in Turkish
Balts, Baltic words containing the stem balt- ("white")
White Ruthenia
White Serbia
White Croatia

North: Black; Winter; Water

Heilongjiang: "Black Dragon River" province in Northeast China, also the Amur River
Kara-Khitan Khanate: "Black Khitans" who originated in Northern China
Karadeniz, literally meaning 'Black Sea': Black Sea in Turkish
Black Hungarians
Black Ruthenia

Center: Yellow; Earth

Huangshan: "Yellow Mountain" in central China
Huang He: "Yellow River" in central China
Golden Horde: "Central Army" of the Mongols

Arabic world

Countries where Arabic is used refer to the cardinal directions as Ash Shamal (N), Al Gharb (W), Ash Sharq (E) and Al Janoob (S). Additionally, Al Wusta is used for the center. All five are used for geographic subdivision names ( wilayahs , states, regions, governorates, provinces, districts or even towns), and some are the origin of some Southern Iberian place names (such as Algarve, Portugal and Axarquía, Spain).

Native Americans

In Mesoamerica and North America, a number of traditional indigenous cosmologies include four cardinal directions and a center. Some may also include "above" and "below" as directions, and therefore focus on a cosmology of seven directions. Among the Hopi of the Southwestern United States, the four named cardinal directions are not North, South, East and West but are the four directions associated with the places of sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices. [18] [19] [20] [21] Each direction may be associated with a color, which can vary widely between nations, but which is usually one of the basic colors found in nature and natural pigments, such as black, red, white, and yellow, with occasional appearances of blue, green, or other hues. [22] There can be great variety in color symbolism, even among cultures that are close neighbors geographically.


Ten Hindu deities, known as the "Dikpālas", have been recognized in classical Indian scriptures, symbolizing the four cardinal and four intercardinal directions with the additional directions of up and down. Each of the ten directions has its own name in Sanskrit. [23]

Indigenous Australia

Some indigenous Australians have cardinal directions deeply embedded in their culture. For example, the Warlpiri people have a cultural philosophy deeply connected to the four cardinal directions [24] and the Guugu Yimithirr people use cardinal directions rather than relative direction even when indicating the position of an object close to their body. (For more information, see: Cultures without relative directions.)

The precise direction of the cardinal points appears to be important in Aboriginal stone arrangements.

Many aboriginal languages contain words for the usual four cardinal directions, but some contain words for 5 or even 6 cardinal directions. [25]

Unique (non-compound) names of intercardinal directions

Cardinal and non-compound intercardinal directions in Estonian and Finnish. Notice the intermixed "south" and "southwest". Further intermixing between directions south and northwest occur in other Finnic languages. Ilmakaared+ilmansuunnat.svg
Cardinal and non-compound intercardinal directions in Estonian and Finnish. Notice the intermixed "south" and "southwest". Further intermixing between directions south and northwest occur in other Finnic languages.

In some languages, such as Estonian, Finnish and Breton, the intercardinal directions have names that are not compounds of the names of the cardinal directions (as, for instance, northeast is compounded from north and east). In Estonian, those are kirre (northeast), kagu (southeast), edel (southwest), and loe (northwest), in Finnish koillinen (northeast), kaakko (southeast), lounas (southwest), and luode (northwest). In Japanese, there is the interesting situation that native Japanese words (yamato kotoba, kun readings of kanji) are used for the cardinal directions (such as minami for 南, south), but borrowed Chinese words (on readings of kanji) are used for intercardinal directions (such as tō-nan for 東南, southeast, lit. "east-south").[ dubious ] In the Malay language, adding laut (sea) to either east (timur) or west (barat) results in northeast or northwest, respectively, whereas adding daya to west (giving barat daya) results in southwest. Southeast has a special word: tenggara.

Sanskrit and other Indian languages that borrow from it use the names of the gods associated with each direction: east (Indra), southeast (Agni), south (Yama/Dharma), southwest (Nirrti), west (Varuna), northwest (Vayu), north (Kubera/Heaven) and northeast (Ishana/Shiva). North is associated with the Himalayas and heaven while the south is associated with the underworld or land of the fathers (Pitr loka). The directions are named by adding "disha" to the names of each god or entity: e.g. Indradisha (direction of Indra) or Pitrdisha (direction of the forefathers i.e. south).

The cardinal directions of the Hopi language and the Tewa dialect spoken by the Hopi-Tewa are related to the places of sunrise and sunset at the solstices, and correspond approximately to the European intercardinal directions. [18] [19] [26]

Non-compass directional systems

Use of the compass directions is common and deeply embedded in European and Chinese culture (see south-pointing chariot). Some other cultures make greater use of other referents, such as toward the sea or toward the mountains (Hawaii, Bali), or upstream and downstream (most notably in ancient Egypt, also in the Yurok and Karuk languages). Lengo (Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands) has four non-compass directions: landward, seaward, upcoast, and downcoast.[ citation needed ]

Some languages lack words for body-relative directions such as left/right, and use geographical directions instead. [27]

See also

Related Research Articles

A solstice is an event that occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere. Two solstices occur annually, around June 21 and December 21. In many countries, the seasons of the year are determined by the solstices and the equinoxes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Compass</span> Instrument used for navigation and orientation

A compass is a device that shows the cardinal directions used for navigation and geographic orientation. It commonly consists of a magnetized needle or other element, such as a compass card or compass rose, which can pivot to align itself with magnetic north. Other methods may be used, including gyroscopes, magnetometers, and GPS receivers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Azimuth</span> Horizontal angle from north or other reference cardinal direction

An azimuth is an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system. More specifically, it is the horizontal angle from a cardinal direction, most commonly north.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North</span> One of the four cardinal directions

North is one of the four compass points or cardinal directions. It is the opposite of south and is perpendicular to east and west. North is a noun, adjective, or adverb indicating direction or geography.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Guardians of the directions</span> Deities of the eight directions in Hinduism and Buddhism

The Guardians of the Directions are the deities who rule the specific directions of space according to Hinduism, Jainism and Vajrayāna Buddhism—especially Kālacakra. As a group of eight deities, they are called Aṣṭa-Dikpāla (अष्ट-दिक्पाल), literally meaning guardians of eight directions. They are often augmented with two extra deities for the ten directions, when they are known as the Daśa-Dikpāla. In Hinduism it is traditional to represent their images on the walls and ceilings of Hindu temples. They are also often portrayed in Jain temples, with the exception that Nāga usually takes the place of Vishnu in the nadir. Ancient Java and Bali Hinduism recognize Nava-Dikpāla, literally meaning guardians of nine directions, that consist of eight directions with one addition in the center. The nine guardian gods of directions is called Dewata Nawa Sanga. The diagram of these guardian gods of directions is featured in Surya Majapahit, the emblem of Majapahit empire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bearing (angle)</span> In navigation, horizontal angle between the direction of an object and another object

In navigation, bearing or azimuth is the horizontal angle between the direction of an object and north or another object. The angle value can be specified in various angular units, such as degrees, mils, or grad. More specifically:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Magnetic declination</span> Angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north and true north

Magnetic declination, or magnetic variation, is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north and true north. This angle varies depending on position on the Earth's surface and changes over time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Compass rose</span> Figure on a compass, map, nautical chart

A compass rose, sometimes called a wind rose, rose of the winds or compass star, is a figure on a compass, map, nautical chart, or monument used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions and their intermediate points. It is also the term for the graduated markings found on the traditional magnetic compass. Today, a form of compass rose is found on, or featured in, almost all navigation systems, including nautical charts, non-directional beacons (NDB), VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) systems, global-positioning systems (GPS), and similar equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Earthly Branches</span> East Asian system of 12 ordinals

The twelve Earthly Branches or Terrestrial Branches are a Chinese ordering system used throughout East Asia in various contexts, including its ancient dating system, astrological traditions, zodiac and ordinals.

The points of the compass are a set of horizontal, radially arrayed compass directions used in navigation and cartography. A compass rose is primarily composed of four cardinal directions—north, east, south, and west—each separated by 90 degrees, and secondarily divided by four ordinal (intercardinal) directions—northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest—each located halfway between two cardinal directions. Some disciplines such as meteorology and navigation further divide the compass with additional azimuths. Within European tradition, a fully defined compass has 32 'points'.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cardinal mark</span> Sea mark indicating where safe water is near to a hazard

A cardinal mark is a sea mark used in maritime pilotage to indicate the position of a hazard and the direction of safe water.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Street layout of Seattle</span>

The street layout of Seattle is based on a series of disjointed rectangular street grids. Most of Seattle and King County use a single street grid, oriented on true north. Near the center of the city, various land claims were platted in the 19th century with differently oriented grids, which still survive today. Distinctly oriented grids also exist in some cities annexed by Seattle in the early 20th century, such as Ballard and Georgetown. A small number of streets and roads are exceptions to the grid pattern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Section (United States land surveying)</span> One square mile

In U.S. land surveying under the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), a section is an area nominally one square mile, containing 640 acres, with 36 sections making up one survey township on a rectangular grid.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Interstate 695 (Maryland)</span> Highway in Maryland

Interstate 695 (I-695) is a 51.46-mile-long (82.82 km) full beltway Interstate Highway extending around Baltimore, Maryland, United States. I-695 is officially designated the McKeldin Beltway, but is colloquially referred to as either the Baltimore Beltway or 695. The route is an auxiliary route of I-95, intersecting that route southwest of Baltimore near Arbutus and northeast of the city near White Marsh. It also intersects other major roads radiating from the Baltimore area, including I-97 near Glen Burnie, the Baltimore–Washington Parkway near Linthicum, I-70 near Woodlawn, I-795 near Pikesville, and I-83 in the Timonium area. The 19.37-mile (31.17 km) portion of the Baltimore Beltway between I-95 northeast of Baltimore and I-97 south of Baltimore is officially Maryland Route 695 (MD 695), and is not part of the Interstate Highway System, but is signed as I-695. This section of the route includes the Francis Scott Key Bridge that crosses over the Patapsco River. The bridge and its approaches are maintained by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) while the remainder of the Baltimore Beltway is maintained by the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA).

Railroad directions are used to describe train directions on rail systems. The terms used may be derived from such sources as compass directions, altitude directions, or other directions. However, the railroad directions frequently vary from the actual directions, so that, for example, a "northbound" train may really be headed west over some segments of its trip, or a train going "down" may actually be increasing its elevation. Railroad directions are often specific to system, country, or region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Day beacon</span> Unlighted nautical sea mark

A day beacon is an unlighted nautical sea mark. A signboard identifying it is called a day mark. Day beacons typically mark channels whose key points are marked by lighted buoys. They may also mark smaller navigable routes in their entirety. They are the most common navigation aid in shallow water, as they are relatively inexpensive to install and maintain. Navigation around them is similar to that around other navigation aids.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Street system of Denver</span>

The oldest part of Denver, Colorado, now the neighborhoods of Auraria Campus, LoDo, much of downtown, and Five Points, is laid out on a grid plan that is oriented diagonal to the four cardinal directions. The rest of the city, including the eastern part of downtown, is laid out primarily on a grid oriented to the cardinal directions. In this larger grid, from east to west, there are generally 16 city blocks per mile, except between Zuni Street and Lowell Boulevard in west Denver. From north to south, there are typically eight blocks per mile, although there are many areas with more blocks per mile. Addresses follow a decimal system, with addresses advancing by one hundred at each cross street.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rayleigh sky model</span>

The Rayleigh sky model describes the observed polarization pattern of the daytime sky. Within the atmosphere, Rayleigh scattering of light by air molecules, water, dust, and aerosols causes the sky's light to have a defined polarization pattern. The same elastic scattering processes cause the sky to be blue. The polarization is characterized at each wavelength by its degree of polarization, and orientation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Classical compass winds</span> Historical wind directions

In the ancient Mediterranean world, the classical compass winds were names for the points of geographic direction and orientation, in association with the winds as conceived of by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ancient wind roses typically had twelve winds and thus twelve points of orientation, sometimes reduced to eight or increased to twenty-four.

Direction determination refers to the ways in which a cardinal direction or compass point can be determined in navigation and wayfinding. The most direct method is using a compass, but indirect methods exist, based on the Sun path, the stars, and satellite navigation.


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