The Four Points of the Compass: The Unexpected History of Direction

Coming soon
Published by Allen Lane on 5th September 2024

North, south, east and west: almost all societies use the four cardinal directions to orientate themselves, to understand who they are by projecting where they are. For millennia, these four directions have been foundational to our travel, navigation and exploration and are central to the imaginative, moral and political geography of virtually every culture in the world. Yet they are far more subjective and various – sometimes contradictory – than we might realize.

The Four Points of the Compass takes the reader on a journey of directional discovery. Jerry Brotton reveals why Hebrew culture privileges east; why Renaissance Europeans began drawing north at the top of their maps; why the early Islam revered the south; why the Aztecs used five colour-coded cardinal directions; and why no societies, primitive or modern, have ever orientated themselves westwards. He ends by reflecting on our digital age in which we, the little blue dot on the screen, have become the most important compass point. Throughout, Brotton shows that the directions reflect a human desire to create order and that they only have meaning, literally and metaphorically, depending on where you stand.