- Jerry Brotton
- BBC Radio 4, “One Direction” series *
Few things seem more natural than the four cardinal points.
Wherever you are on the planet, you can see how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The North Star will tell you where the North is, while depending on the season or where in the world you are, the South can be located through the constellation of the Southern Cross or by checking the maximum inclination in the sky. of the sun with respect to the horizon. (zenith).
Without the cardinal points, we would be lost. Rather than dots on a map or compass, they are powerful ideas with political, moral, and cultural meanings.
But why did the north end at the top of most maps in the world?
Although the four cardinal directions of a compass are defined by the physical realities of the magnetic north pole (north-south) and the rising and setting of the sun (east-west), there is no reason why the north automatically receive this “distinction”.
The south and east could very well occupy this place, and they have done so in the past.
West on the map
Although it gave rise to one of the most powerful and intangible concepts — the West or the Western world — ancient societies refused to favor the West as a place where the sun sets.
The sunset personified the end of life’s journey, anticipating darkness and the realm of death, so that almost no culture chose it as a sacred pattern for prayer, let alone placed at the top. from their lists.
It was placed at the bottom of the maps, like the map of the world of Hereford, one of the great medieval maps, where looking down takes you west, where the final judgment awaits.
This position is associated with a feeling of end, omen, darkness and decay. And around the edges of the card are the letters MORS, the Latin word for “death.”
But if the west is at the bottom of the charts, the east is at the top.
The east and the sunrise
In the history of the cardinal points, it all begins in the east with the rising of the sun.
Orient has been a symbol of birth, of the beginning of the journey of life, from time immemorial. Orient comes from the Latin oriens, to appear, to be born. This is the root of the term “orientation”, the main way to position yourself in space.
The east was defined in front of the west along the horizontal axis that preceded north-south. In early Christianity, the east is the location of the sky, a powerful reason why it is placed at the top of many world maps.
On the world map of Hereford, below Christ, sitting on a rainbow, is the Garden of Eden. Below, the Tower of Babel and in the center, Jerusalem. Below, to the west, are the pillars of Hercules, which can be interpreted as the end of time.
Outside the terrestrial world, at the edges of the map, terrestrial time ends and is replaced by the eternal present of the sky, where cardinal points are no longer needed. And in the lower corner of the map is a character coming out of the frame, watching the world go by. The above inscription reads “continue”.
The figure seems to emerge from this life, but he looks anxiously at the map to the east, that place of rebirth where all life begins.
This world map was made of calfskin around 1300.
Covered with more than 1,000 inscriptions, illustrations of mazes and monsters, it is a vast visual encyclopedia of Christian knowledge and represents the biblical creation of mankind. Why it was created remains a mystery.
While this is not a conventional map, since instead of showing a physical path it traces a spiritual path, it is proof that maps could have both east and north.
Is that “housing is also a matter of identity, which is a spiritual and theological statement, not a geographical statement,” stresses Islamic maps historian Yossef Rappaort.
The south on the maps of the Islamic world
Geographical direction has been extremely important to the rituals of daily life since the beginning of Islam.
The “qibla” or “quibla” is the sacred direction of prayer for Mecca.
As more and more tribes north of Medina, the city where the Prophet Muhammad lived and taught, converted to Islam, the qibla settled in the south.
“It had an impact on the way they saw the world, so it made sense that when they chose one cardinal direction over the others, they would choose that one.”
That is why most maps of the Islamic world place the south at the top.
One of the most famous maps of the south at the top was made in 1154 by Al-Idrisi, who lived at the court of the Norman Christian King Roger II of Sicily, despite being a Muslim.
“On these maps, Europe is at the bottom and is often much smaller than we are used to,” says Rappaort.
Although not the subject of these maps, the European continent has a beautiful name: “‘The pleasure of those who aspire to travel on the horizon’. It is the literal translation,” says the historian.
Centuries later, the south reappeared on the summit, with works such as “Inverted America” by Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) and the iconic 1979 Universal Corrective Map by Australian Stuart McArthur.
MacArthur wrote on the map’s caption, “The south will no longer sink into a pit of insignificance carrying the north on its shoulders for little or no recognition of its efforts. Finally, the south emerges to the top.”
Why did the north start to appear at the top?
The north is the most contradictory of the cardinal points.
It is a desolate and dark place. An icy wasteland of exile, punishment, and even death. Monsters and demons filled the icy regions of the north with medieval Christian maps.
But it is also a region of austere beauty, which generates wonder, revelation, and, with the North Star, constancy, even salvation.
The north is also unique among the four cardinal directions, due to the physical pole of the Earth’s magnetic field. Convection currents combine electricity with the planetary core of iron and nickel, creating a geomagnetic field that orbits the planet and propagates through space.
However, because we do not have an internal neurological compass, from a scientific perspective, we do not have an innate sense of magnetic north.
So why it was left at the top of the world map by default is a question that still divides historians.
We know why the Chinese had it there, although the first Chinese compasses pointed south, which was considered more desirable than the dark north.
The emperor lived in the north of the country and always had to appear at the top of the map, looking at his subjects.
What about the other maps up north?
“If there’s one thing that explains why we tend to put the north first, I think it’s Polaris,” says Felipe Fernández-Armesto, an expert in the history of navigation and cartography.
“The real leap north came with the expansion of deep-sea navigation. This pole star was absolutely essential for sailors to be in these confusing seas, where there are no physical features to tell where you are.” . time to fix the north at the top of the world map, would be 1569 and the publication of the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator.
Its map, famous for being the first to take into account the curvature of the Earth (though not the first to put the north first), was designed to help sailors navigate the world, using latitude and longitude lines to draw a straight path. .
The North is at the top, but not because it matters more, on the contrary. The north and south poles projected to infinity and “didn’t matter,” according to Mercator, because it made no sense to sail toward them.
The Mercator chart has become the standard cartography for nautical purposes. In the 1970s, it served as a basis for mapping the surface of Mars.
Mercator of the North had triumphed even on distant planets. But back on Earth, at least as a cardinal point, this position is no longer so privileged.
Over the last few decades, most people have downloaded their own virtual atlas to their phone.
The most important point is this little blue dot in our map apps that we follow too carelessly with the directions of the compass or terrain we are crossing.
“With traditional cartographic mapping, it’s about getting an overview of your area of interest. You’re mentally placed there and navigating using the skills you learned as a child,” says Ed Parsons, chief space technologist. Google.
“On online maps, the cardinal points are less relevant.”
“With Google Maps, your phone knows where you are, and the map you see is oriented toward you. It’s focused on you. You’re in the center of the map, and the direction you’re facing is in front of you.”
“The generation that grew up with smartphones may never know what it’s like to get lost.”
Some observers fear, however, that we are virtually connected but environmentally separated from the physical world, inhabiting a confused realm of space illiteracy.
“Orientation skills have been essential to survival throughout our evolutionary history,” says science journalist Michael Bond.
“The relationship you have with the landscape you’re going through is not just following a set of instructions. Getting information about the place around you helps you build a cognitive map.”
For the first time in human history, we may be losing many of the space skills and tools that have sustained us for millennia.
In other words, we may be losing some of the north.
* This report is adapted from an episode of BBC Radio 4’s “One Direction” series by historian and author Jerry Brotton.