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Why is north up? Did the early explorers, mapmakers, astronomers, and the like get together and vote, or did it just sort of happen? Does everyone on earth think of north as up, or could a Northern Hemispherian like myself travel south of the equator and buy a globe with Antarctica on top? –David Johnson, W. Arlington

By cracky, David, I think you’re on to something here. With a few minor exceptions, which we shall get to directly, mapmakers throughout the world invariably put north on top, even if they were born and raised in Tierra del Fuego. What we are dealing with, in other words, is a case of blatant, institutionalized directionism. The unfairness of it cannot help but rankle any right-thinking person. Why should the big N always be on top when there are hundreds of other directions–thousands, if you get down to seconds of arc–that have an equally legitimate claim on our affections? I grieve to think of the shattered dreams of, say, south southeast.

For that matter, think of the effect on people who live in the south southeast. Our friends the Australians, for instance. They inhabit a place known far and wide as the Land Down Under, which brings to mind such peppy, upscale associations as crotch jokes and garden slugs (“Cripes, Margaret, will you get a load of what just crawled out from Down Under?”). Generations of northern schoolchildren have grown up thinking the big problem in Australia is how to keep from falling off the planet, all because of the wholly arbitrary convention that north is “up” and south is “down.”

To be sure, if you talk to Australians about this (and needless to say I have), you get the impression they couldn’t care less. Be not deceived. An Aussie friend of mine once showed me a world map printed up by her countrymen that had south on top, thereby putting Australia, as she rather ominously phrased it, “in its rightful place.” Mark my words, someday the slogan “Down with Yankee imperialism” will have shocking new meaning.

But getting back to your question. The notion that north should always be up and east at the right was established by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (90-168 AD). “Perhaps this was because the better-known places in his world were in the northern hemisphere, and on a flat map these were most convenient for study if they were in the upper right-hand corner,” historian Daniel Boorstin opines. At any rate, by the time Southern Hemispheroids had become numerically significant enough to bitch, the north-side-up convention was too well established to change.

Cecil, you were wrong! I refer to the question concerning the historical roots of the swastika. You informed us that it was an ancient Indian symbol. In reality, however, the Indian symbol was not the Nazi swastika but rather a mirror-image symbol called the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life turns in a clockwise direction. Hitler, who was fascinated by the occult, deliberately reversed the ancient symbol of power so that it turned counterclockwise, or “widdershins.” Traditionally this is supposed to give the symbol a “black magic” sort of power. Please, try not to be wrong again–I can’t handle the disillusionment. –West McDonough, Atlanta

Time to lay off the airplane glue, West. As the briefest glance at a history book would have shown, the Nazi symbol was oriented in a clockwise direction. So, as often as not, was the ancient good luck/sun symbol sometimes known as the Wheel of Life. It’s true that swastikas come in both clockwise and counterclockwise versions, and some scholars maintain that they represent opposing principles–e.g., yin/yang, male/female, and presumably good/evil. On occasion, as you correctly note, the counterclockwise swastika, more properly known as the sauvastika, has had black-magical significance, symbolizing night and/or the terrifying goddess Kali. But you can find examples of both types of swastikas being used in what are clearly benign contexts. In any case, the wicked sauvastika was not the Nazi symbol. Try not to get confused about this in the future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.