What Is a Map Direction Symbol Called?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Apr 8, 2020 10:46:23 AM ET

A map direction symbol is called a compass rose, and a simple compass rose symbol may only depict the four cardinal directions of north, east, west and south. A compass rose has been used on charts, atlases and maps by navigators since the 14th century. A more detailed compass rose can show many other directions.


A compass rose also can show the direction of southeast, northwest, southwest and northeast, which are called primary intercardinal directions. The compass rose can contain secondary intercardinal directions that are eight cardinal points found between the cardinal and primary intercardinal directions. Some of these cardinal points include north-northeast, east-southeast and south-southeast.

Compass rose devices date back to the 1300s when sailors used them for navigational purposes. The compass rose was derived from the wind rose that was utilized to show wind direction. A wind rose had eight major wind directions that were then subdivided to give 32 wind directions.

The names of these 32 compass points are given using a direction and azimuth. For example, north is given by the point direction 0 and azimuth of 0 degree and 0 seconds. Moving clockwise on the compass rose, west corresponds to an azimuth of 270 degrees and 0 seconds. In the past, seamen had to learn all these compass points. Most compass rose symbols seen today on maps may not contain these 32 cardinal direction points.