Why North is Up - the Seasons and the Calendar

Dear Cecil,
Before we give in freely to the Southern Hemispheroids or those South Southeast whack jobs and start changing the maps and globes of the world I would like add to the discussion on why north should be up on a map, the seasons. If we change the orientation of maps you’re going to need to change the calendar too.

As far as I can tell a majority of cultures current and historic follow the seasons in a progression of Spring to Winter, birth to death. With the major calendars of the world; Gregorian, Chinese and Islamic following this progression. Making the South the top of the globe will just be word play unless the calendars are also changed along the whole way the majority of the world looks at progression of the year.

So I think some part of North may be based historically on the location of principle cities, I think fundamentally it’s based on the calendar/seasons and in the Northern Hemisphere the season follow the calendar in correct progression.

It be interesting to know which came first the calendar or the map. Maybe the whole bias of the progression of the calendar/seasons comes from some caveman mapmaker who just didn’t like southies.
Ryan M.

First of all, nobody uses a progression of spring to winter. It’s spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and winter to spring. Second, this is true of the northern and southern hemispheres alike: In the south, you have spring in September, October, November, or so, then summer in December, January, and February, then fall in March, April, and May, then winter in June, July, and August.

I was expecting to see reference to Polaris - within a degree of a projection of the earth’s axis, I would have thought it would be an obvious visible reference point which map makers would use to measure bearings (from the entire northern hemisphere).

BTW, would Cecil comment on the fact that geometry uses the right side of the page as zero and degrees increase counterclockwise, while navigators begin with top of page as zero and degrees increase clockwise. (+45 degrees being the only bearing in common.) It can be confusing if you alternate disciplines.

Just a technical nit-pick: the Islamic calendar follows the moon, not the seasons. Their calendar is out of sync with the solar calendar: a year is 12 lunar cycles (that is, a month is the period from new moon to new moon), regardless of seasons. Thus, Ramadan comes out roughly 11 - 12 days earlier each year. It’s currently in August (2010), but in a few years will be in July, etc.

The Jewish/Hebrew calendar follows the seasons, although there are two “new years” – the official calendar year actually begins in the autumn (Northern Hemishpere) with Rosh Hashonah, but the naming of months and the religious year begins in the spring (Northern Hem) with the month of Passover.

Dude, that’s what he meant. He listed the beginning point (spring) and the end point (winter), skipping the intermediate steps. Like saying “A to Z” rather than “A to B to C to D…”. I grant you it could be misleading and interpreted to mean spring directly to winter, then presumably to autumn, and finally to summer.

In that case, he’s still wrong, since he’s implying that spring as the starting point of the calendar is universal, when most of the world currently starts some time in the Northern Hemisphere winter.

Heck, the English-speaking world didn’t decide whether the year began on January 1[sup]st[/sup] or March 25[sup]th[/sup] until 1752!

As to navigational degrees vs. geometrical degrees, I’d say it’s almost certainly that[ul]
[li]navigational degrees start with north because that’s where a compass starts, and then go clockwise because clockwise is “natural” (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, while[/li][li]geometrical degrees start with right because that’s the “natural” order (in left-to-right languages) of X. The “natural” order of Y is more fluid. On the one hand, going up means that “higher” numbers are – higher. On the other hand, text is written, in western languages, in lines that go top to bottom. (This has actually been the subject of quarrels in software design for the last few decades.) But once you posit that Y is up, rather than down, all else follows, and Z = ρ cis θ, as all wise children know it should, and everything is Good and C. of E.[/li][/ul]

Yes, Chronos, it is weird that the calendar starts in January - mid winter - yet when we list the seasons, we typically list them “spring, summer, fall, winter”. There’s still a cultural element to starting with spring.

I can see how stating the progress of the year from Spring to Winter is confusion, I apologize if my logical and colloquial short hand was confusing. I was simply stating that a large number of peoples thinks of the seasons as progressing from Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter, in what I thought was an understandable short hand, Spring to Winter.

Second the Winter Solstice occurs at towards the end of December with the days growing longer thereafter. It be a whole other can of worms to argue about if this is the middle of winter or the start, etc. Regardless, I feel most view the start of the longer days as a progression towards summer, or the start of the progression of the seasons.

Third, I was incorrect the Islamic calendar is not synchronized with the seasons being lunar based. I am in no way purport to be a knowledgeable on Islam, but it appears that in antiquity the calendar did follow the seasons, which would have affected the cultural concept of North relating to the season that I’m advocating. The Chinese is lunisolar and does follow the seasons as such.

Finally with regard to Polaris, I gave no weight to that simply because I like the Southern Cross better as a celestial marker. I also made no argument of the equator being the division between top and bottom, because I felt it was self evident. I also use no reference to the compass needle, because wait long enough and will change, and North was North before the magnetic compass came into use.

The fundamental argument still stands though if the Southern Hemisphere is made the top then the Calendar will need to change too.

I still don’t understand why you think the calendar would need to be changed if maps were flipped. The climatic season should have no bearing on the calendar day. Or are you saying that most of the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t agree that today is January 18 (or 19, depending on time zones, of course)? What, exactly, would your proposed new calendar look like?

Or – is it that because Spring is metaphorically the season of “rebirth,” it must be the first full season of the calendar year? You want July 1 to be New Year’s Day? Is it really that important to Southern Hemispherians?

The obvious answer why North is up is Polaris. In order to use a map, you have to know which direction is which, and having a star that’s almost always due North is a great place to star. Sure, at the time of the very ancient Greeks, the pole star was more along the lines of Beta Ursae Minoris, but you still had a star that almost always was in the same direction.

And, once the compass arose, orienting a map to the North was made even easier. Yes, there were a few maps that put East on top, but in order to first find which direction Jerusalem was in, you needed to see which way was North.

Yes, you could make the same claims about the Southern Cross, but let’s face it: Most of the civilizations that practiced map making skills were located North of the Equator. This includes all four cradles of civilization, most of the African civilizations, and of course Europe whose cultural influence is felt all over the globe. By the time someone was in the Southern hemisphere drawing up maps, the North orientation was firmly established.

JQuaffer, I was trying to understand your concern, but thanks to Wheelz, I think I finally get it.

The cultural cycle of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter - with those beginning and end points - and the cycle of rebirth, growth, then death is an old recognition.

The cycle of the New Year beginning starting on Jan 1 as opposed to March is, as John W. Kennedy points out, fairly modern. In fact, the older pattern matches more closely the model you mention - with the new year starting at the beginning of “spring”. So we already have broken the pattern that you describe.

There’s really no reason the same progression couldn’t have been built by a southern-centric society. It is merely due to the population and development centers being in the northern hemisphere that north got the nod rather than south.

Wheelz and Gazwart,
I think my argument boils down to that if the South becomes top, i.e. the top dog hemisphere. Then the Southern hemisphere’s Seasonal Progression would be the one the world would follow since its top (its what we do now with North being the top). If we follow the Southern Hemisphere progression of the seasons many calendars no longer makes sense. So changing of South to top would mean the Calendar would need to take a 6 month skip (forward or back) so that the Seasons of the Top Hemisphere match the many of the calendars the world uses.

As for Polaris being the reason for North I would say that much of the very early map use was during the day, during which Polaris was not a factor for orientation of North. Fundamentally I’d say the reason North is up is since the easiest marker to use during the day is the Sun and using the progression of the sun across the sky (I can’t find a reference to any culture referring to the sun traveling up or down the sky), using a right hand dominance and preference to follow things from start to end. Then if you were drawing a map or giving directions you would orient you right hand east (rising Sun), left west (setting Sun) therefore you end up looking North as up.

So the North Hemisphere it top because of the seasons and on a map north is up because of right hand dominance and a preference to follow things from beginning to end.

One might add that most people over the age of five and under the age of 18, 22 or so tend to think of the year as starting in the fall. Except in the late 40s and the 50s, when it was more likely to start with summer, in the US.

So, the calendar itself wouldn’t change per se, but 2011 ends on June 30th, and then instead of July, we move directly to January 2012? Is that it? How exactly would that be southern-centric? I still don’t get it.

Sorry, I’m not trying to be obtuse; I’m truly having trouble grasping exactly what it is you’re proposing here.

I don’t know of any calendar that would have a problem with that. I mean, after all, Australia uses the same calendar as Europe and the US, and it doesn’t cause them any trouble. Could you give an example of what would happen?

More practically, if you’re holding the map so the Sun is at your back (to make it easier to read), you’re probably facing northish. This is true regardless of dominant hand.

I don’t have access to any Chinese maps on hand, but if memory serves correctly, the sacred direction was South, which was the direction the Emperor faced. (In fact, the Chinese for compass is “South-pointing needle”.) And thus the vassal nations were required to face North in deference of the Emperor.

I’m currently reading The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings, a fictional account of Marco Polo’s travels in the 13th century. The book states that Muslim maps – at least, at that time – always have south at the top. His father and uncle, whom Marco is traveling with, have one that was made by the famed mapmaker Muhammad al-Idrisi, and they’re always having to turn it upside down to read it “properly.”

The Wikipedia entry for Early World Maps gives at least one example: The 10th-century-AD Ibn Hawqal map, pictured here.

That entry for some reason shows al-Idri’s map upside down, showing north at the top without explanation. The map’s own entry makes it clear that right side up is with south on top.

I’ve got a much better explanation for why North is up: it depends what’s on the map.

The best Western illustration of this is the Fra Mauro map, based, if I remember right, on Arabian or Asian maps, which at the time were much more detailed than European maps.

It’s an upside-down map, south is at the top. Apparently that was the convention of its sources.

It’s fairly easy to see why it’s a south-up map: there’s more southern stuff on it. On the southern end, there’s most of Africa, Arabia, India, China, Southeast Asia, Japan. Not much of southern Africa, though.

To the north, there’s less and less. Europe, of course, is there, including the Finns, and east to parts of Russia, and central Asian cities like Kandahar. But big, fat, wide Siberia is mostly a blank. Seems nobody at the time really knew what was there in north Asia, how big it was, what its coast looked like.

Maps contain words and are drawn on paper, where literate people tend to look at the top first. If you’re gonna write something, and there’s not enough on the page for symmetry, you generally start writing the words on the top of the page. If there’s gotta be blank space, you put the blank stuff on the bottom. Why should early maps have been different? People tend to look at the top of the page first. So, put the part of the map with the most stuff on top.

The Egyptians probably used north-up for the same reason. They knew much more about what was to their north, east and west than to their south. And to their southeast was a big ocean.

Why doesn’t anyone print the world map upside down today? Not even southern hemisphere cartographers do that. Because most of the land is north of the equator, by far. If south was at the top, most of the land would be at the bottom. You’d usually have to look to the bottom of the page to find a location, and that’s annoying. It’s even more annoying if you’re looking at a globe.

On the other hand, what if the only continents on Earth were South America, Africa and Antarctica. I don’t think north would be up in that case, except on early maps from when the northern hemisphere hadn’t been discovered yet.

I haven’t seen those east-up maps, but if you look at a map of Eurasia, well, same deal. Asia just gets fatter and fatter till it reaches its endless Pacific coast.

You tell em. North-up has not always been the convention, not at all.

In fact, Europe’s maps were pathetic until Fra Mauro borrowed his world map from the Muslims, helping spur Europe’s age of exploration. It’s south-up.