The compass has been used as a tool for navigation for thousands of years. They are always pointing North which allows those who are lost to find their way home or to their next destination.
The significance of the compass goes beyond practicality. While compasses are extremely practical tools for navigation (that are still used today by many travellers and adventurers to find their way), over the years since they have been integrated into many societies and cultures, they have also picked up many symbolic and spiritual meanings.
The significance behind the compass is actually rather profound which is why compass jewellery and pendants are so meaningful to those who wear them or give them as gifts.
In this post, you will discover the origins of the compass as well as the significance compass jewellery has to travel but also to a number of spiritual traditions such as the four directions of the Lakota tribe.
The History of the Compass
The magnetic compass is the most used and well-known type of compass. Its use dates back to the 11th or 12th century in China. The compass was used as a navigation device out at sea.
By the 13th century the compass had spread to Western Europe and the Middle East, making exploration and navigation a lot easier if the sun, stars or landmarks were blocked by clouds or bad weather.
However, over time explorers started using compasses as their primary tool of navigation as they became more reliable.
The construction and look of magnetic compasses have changed a lot over the decades however the way the compass works has stayed the same with a magnetised needle that rotates to line up with the Earth’s magnetic field. The needle always points north.
As engineers and scientists discovered more about the earth’s magnetism the compass needle was mounted and placed in the middle of a card that showed north, south, east and west.
This is where we get the famous compass symbol that we see so often on jewellery, clothing and tattoos in modern society.
The symbolism of the compass
The word compass itself has beautiful significance. The word comes from the Latin words com (together) & passus (pace or step) which when combined means ‘step together’ or ‘journey together’.
The compass is not only represented as the actual navigational instrument but is often portrayed as a symbol, known as the compass rose.
This image is used on maps and charts to display the orientation of the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west). This is also the symbol that is used in jewellery, fashion and tattoos.
Symbolic and spiritual meanings of the compass for travellers
The ability for a compass to always point north is also another point that makes the compass special for travellers as it symbolises always being able to find your way home or to your destination. It symbolises never getting lost.
You can already see why the compass symbol and compass jewellery hold a special place in the hearts of many travellers! Below is a break down of some of the most significant meanings of the compass symbol for travellers.
Safety & guidance
The compass also represents having a safe and secure journey and receiving guidance while out exploring the world. The compass is there to always point you in the right direction. If you lose your way, you will always be able to find the right path to take you safely to your destination. No matter how many detours or diversions you may take on your journey (literally or the journey of life) you will always reach your final destination, eventually.
Another interesting significant meaning of the compass is balance. The needle of the compass is able to move freely and balance itself on its pivot point in order to point you in the right direction. This means that in order to find the right path to your destination, one needs harmony and balance. This can be a beautiful reminder for those on long or challenging journeys as finding a sense of grounded balance can be easy to lose!
Motivation & inspiration
Compasses also represent motivation and inspiration. The compass can be a powerful symbol of motivation to a person who is feeling lost, either in their life or perhaps on their travels (especially if it is a very long trip). This can offer a sense of inspiration and hope to the carrier of the compass and encourage them to keep following their heart in order to find where they belong.
One of the big initiations for travellers (especially solo travellers!) is finding independence from the comforts and routines of home. When we travel we can really find a way to come into ourselves, find a sense of self push boundaries and stretch our comfort zone into literally unfamiliar territory. The compass signifies confidence and the ability to grow as you explore life.
Always finding your way home
Remembering where you’ve come from and finding your way home, back to your roots is another important spiritual meaning of the compass. This is especially important for younger people as they start to venture away from their home and for travellers or people who move to a new country.
The compass is seen as a device that will bring luck to someone who is lost by guiding them in the right direction. It motivates you by showing you the path ahead. The north direction symbolises progression and advancement which is the direction that the compass shows.
The spiritual symbolism of the cardinal directions of the compass rose
The compass rose, sometimes referred to as a Rose of the Winds represents significant spiritual meaning for many cultures and traditions around the world. The compass rose most famously represents spiritual direction, awakening and self-discovery.
Wearing the compass symbol around your neck as a jewellery pendant or as a tattoo or on a t-shirt is a request to the universe to guide you toward your true north, your right path and home to the essence of who you really are.
It is also a request for assistance in navigating the journey of life that is unfolding.
Meanings of the cardinal directions in different cultures
Different cultures have assigned different meanings to the four cardinal directions. These meanings can be infused into any compass rose symbol or jewellery as they pertain to the wearer.
In Chinese Feng Shui, each direction relates to the Chinese zodiac.
- North: Rat = adaptable, charming, social& creative
- East: Rabbit = Compassionate, trusting & sincere
- South: Horse = strong, adventurous & loyal
- West: Rooster = Confident, energetic, gritty & persistence
In Celtic tradition, the directions are revered in rituals and ceremonies. Nature based religions, such as paganism still honour the four directions in this way today. In Celtic traditions the directions represent:
- North: earth, home, security, fertility
- East: Air, communication, new beginnings, new growth
- South: Fire, energy, passion, creativity
- West: Water, emotion, psyche, movement
Different Native American tribes have their own meaning. The Lakota attribute the four directions to:
- North: Wisdom & thought
- East: Salvation & spirit
- South: Beginnings & purity
- West: Endings & fullness
In the yoga traditions such as classical tantra and hatha yoga (relating to Hindu traditions in India), the four directions have their own significance again. There are certain directions you should face to and away from during your yoga practice according to the tradition.
- North: Symbolises stability and conviction, as it is fixed and never wavers. This represents finding and giving direction in life
- East: Rising sun, source of life & inspiration. Waking up & being active, shattering fear & anxiety to move forward through the day. Spiritual practices should be done in the morning facing the east.
- South: Associated with death and complete rest. This is about learning to detach from our temporary physical vessel and connect to our eternal soul.
- West: Where the sunsets represent rest and replenishment. Represent calmness and tranquillity. Facing this direction is good for an evening practice of relaxing meditation or yoga Nidra (sleep yoga).
In western astrology the four directions symbolise different elements and corresponding star signs. North is air and relates to Aquarius, East is earth and relates to Taurus, South is fire and relates to Leo and west is water and relates to Scorpio.
When the directions are used in divination they each represent a time phase. North is infinite & beyond time, East is the future, South is the present and West is the past.
The symbol of the compass can represent all of these meanings! There are many different ways to assign meaning and spiritual significance to wearing or giving compass jewellery beyond just travelling!
It is easy to see why the compass has become well-loved for travel-lovers and people with all sorts of interests and beliefs around the world. Plus it looks amazing as a pendant on either a necklace or a bracelet.
The options are endless when it comes to different unique designs and metals used.
Browse our range of compass jewellery and pendants!
When to gift a compass pendant
Here are some ideas for when to gift a loved one an Off The Map Compass pendant:
1. Gift a compass pendant to a loved one or a friend about to travel or move overseas to symbolise safety, protection and good luck on their journey.
2. A gift for graduation to signify finding one’s path in life and moving in the right direction and finding independence.
3. A Valentine’s day gift to symbolise that you will always be there for that person and that you would be lost without them.
4. As an anniversary or wedding gift to a partner, suggesting that they are the compass of your life.
5. As a birthday gift for someone who is connected to the spiritual meaning of the four directions such as the Lakota, yogic or Celtic traditions.