Compass Symbolism:  You Don’t Need A Good Sense of Direction To Figure it Out

Old fashioned compass in gold casing main

The compass was first invented by ancient Chinese scientists over two thousand years ago. A compass symbolizes a sense of direction to travelers of all kinds, as well as the idea of a “moral compass” for everyone. The compass also symbolizes science and invention. The architect’s tool known as a compass, which draws circles, is also a special symbol of Freemasons. The directions of a compass also often have their own special meanings. 

A favorite scientific experiment for school children is making a simple compass.  The wonders of science are shown with a few simple objects. The compass was an ancient invention that served a range of functions.  It is also a common symbol, including the term “moral compass.”

The Invention of The Compass 

The wonders of nature were learned over generations by humans observing and experimenting.  

Early sailors, for instance, noticed that they could use certain stars to navigate.  The “North Star” is so named because it was used by travelers as an early directional marker.  

The Chinese over two thousand years ago made the first magnetic compasses. Chinese scientists discovered that a lodestone (a magnetized metal) would always point in the same direction.  

The Chinese did not use them for navigation but largely for feng shui, the proper arrangement of things that matches an excellent flow of energy.  

Sailor’s Friend

We talked about the importance of the compass in the Age of Exploration on a companion website.  Check it out.  There is a lot of good stuff there.  

The compass is a very important tool.  It is used by travelers on land and sea.  The compass is used for navigation, exploration, and traveling.  A compass symbolizes all those things.  It is an important tool for sailors, but also for travelers of all types.  It symbolizes a safe journey.

A compass is a good symbol for someone who is starting a new journey.  Compass rings, pendants, charms, and even tattoos, for instance, are appropriate for a new college graduate or someone starting a new job or marriage.  They are travelers in firm need of direction!

Science and Invention 

The Age of Exploration went hand-in-hand with the Scientific Revolution.  The compass is a wonder of science.  Studying the workings of a compass, including magnetics, is science in action.  

The child who uses a science book to make a simple compass to float in a bowl that they might have used earlier for their breakfast cereal can be a future scientist who makes a life-changing discovery.  A compass is a symbol of science and the scientific method.  

black compass with gray background and the word moral overlay

Direction: Physical and Moral 

A compass can be a lifesaver.  It provides “true north” even in cloudy weather where the old stars’ navigation method can not be used.  The compass became more and more complex.  The basic concept remains the same.  To point you in the right direction

A compass can also be something that points us in the right moral direction.  A common term here is a “moral compass.”  For many, this would be their conscience.  It can also be God, a special person, or a principle.  Who or what is your moral compass?  

A compass guides us in the right direction.  It symbolizes the right path (Muslims use the term “shariah” to mean a “straight path” or right conduct).  A compass symbolizes being guided by the right things in life.  It symbolizes a good, balanced life.  

male hand holding a compass

Camping Tools 

A compass is also a basic tool for a camper.  A well-prepared boy or girl scout would surely have it on hand.  A compass symbolizes camping and personal exploration.  

A compass is one of those things you know that you need to have.  They symbolize the small essential things in life that seem so simple but are so fundamentally important.  

Freemasons and Compasses

The word “compass” itself means to go around, to form a circle.  This also gives the name to a different type of compass, a drafting instrument that is used to draw circles and arcs.  

My dad was a builder.  He built my childhood home.  So, this item has particular relevance to me.  

The compass is also a special symbol of the Freemasons, a society that originated as an association of stonemasons.  They later also had a reputation as a secret society.

Final Thoughts 

The four basic directions (north and south, east and west) themselves have a lot of symbolism.  

The directions arise from simple observation.  Put out your arms.  Your arms face two directions with the front and back of you the other two.  Spin around some, you can have more directions.  

The north, often visualized as “up,” often has positive symbolism.  This can be problematic if you look at a map.  Is North America and Europe more important than South America and Africa?

One early Christian writer argued that four gospels are appropriate because we have four directions.  I have found various arguments that each direction means a range of things, depending on who you ask.  Too complicated!  I have enough trouble finding my true north. 

Do I need to figure out what my south by southwest means now?