Compass tattoos have been popular for many decades. This instrument of guidance and orientation has been a key navigation tool for those who have ventured out onto the vast ocean, and it has brought them to where they need to be.
This tattoo isn’t just for seafarers, though. In fact, compasses weren’t even originally used for navigation.
Did You Know?
The compass was invented in China between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD, and had supernatural purposes.
“At first, it was used for divination, fortune-telling and geomancy, for finding precious gems, and in Feng Shui, but in time people discovered that it can be used for navigation and orientation,”History Of Compass
Europe introduced compasses to their ships in the 12th century, and ushered in the Age Of Exploration.
Who knows where we would be if it wasn’t for the compass?
The Meaning Of Compass Tattoos
Every tattoo can have a specific, unique meaning to the tattooee based on their own life experiences and the inspiration behind their chosen tattoo. So, the symbolism of compass tattoos can differ from person to person.
There are a few prevalent meanings that draw people to this design.
As this instrument was a key ingredient in the recipe for world exploration hundreds of years ago, it stands to reason that one of the main meanings behind compass tattoos is the desire to travel.
Another element that would work well with a compass tattoo that represents travel and adventure is a map.
“Bold and fearless, a compass and map tattoo combines bravery with a sense of discovery and optimism,”The Trend Spotter
With a compass, you can always find north and the direction you need to be heading. A compass can then represent guidance and navigating the journey of your life.
“In the early days, voyagers would use compasses to reach their specific destination. Hence, many people get a compass tattoo to remind themselves to go in the right direction that leads to their original roots. It also reminds you not to let time change you,”Wild Art Tattoo
Time Spent At Sea
With its history and purpose, this tattoo design can represent someone’s time spent on the sea in a nautical design.
To add to the seafaring theme, other elements such as an anchor, swallow, and nautical star are all great designs to add, as they have roots in traditional sailor tattoos.
Different Types Of Compasses And Their Meaning
There are a variety of different compasses to get inspiration from for your next tattoo.
Viking Compass Tattoo
The old Nordic civilization had their own compass that had an additional four points.
This eight pointed compass is made up of ancient rune symbols, and can be seen as an emblem of protection.
Also known as vegvísir, the Viking compass (or Nordic compass) can be dated back to 1600 AD, and was found in The Galdrabok, an ancient Icelandic book of magic. The word vegvísir roughly translates to pointing someone the right way.
“The history behind these compasses run deep in Icelandic traditions, but at the heart of it, they were used as protection symbols, guiding warriors on their path,”Tatt Mag
The design is made up of eight lines that branch out from the same point and end with a unique protective rune. These runes are letters of a Germanic language often compared to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Ancient Vikings had their own way of getting rune symbols onto their skin without ink. As Tatt Mag points out,
“Before the emergence of ink and tattoos, it was believed that these symbols were often carved into the Viking Warriors’ foreheads with blades, or less aggressively, drawn onto their foreheads using blood.”
Related Post: 7 Tattoos as Symbols of Protection
The Star Compass
The Micronesian star compass – developed by grandmaster navigator Mau Piailug – is divided into four parts and named after winds.
Tokerau refers to the north-east trade winds; Marangai refers to the south-east trade winds; Tonga, or Whakarunga (the head of the fish), refers to the south-west winds; and Whakararo (from the tail of the fish) refers to the north-west winds, as explained by the Science Learning Hub.
The horizon is also divided into 32 houses, with the four main houses representing north, east, south, and west.
“In addition to these houses, each quadrant has seven houses that further divide the horizon. Each house is replicated in each quadrant and helps with memorizing star position and paths. Stars appear to rise out of the eastern horizon, cross the north/south line (meridian) and set towards the western horizon. Individual stars will rise and set in the same named house,”Science Learning Hub
Some of the house names are: Rā, the sun; Kāinga, where the sun lives; and Ngoi, a bird used by navigators to find land.
The man behind the star compass, Mau Piailug, a traditional wayfinder from the Micronesian island of Satawal, navigated a vessel, without any modern instruments and using just traditional methods passed down from generation to generation, from Hawaii to Tahiti.
“He guided Hokule’a on its month-long journey from Maui to Tahiti in 1976, almost always seated in the same spot on the canoe, aiming toward an image of the island he kept in his head. He seemed never to sleep, synthesizing hundreds of data points—not only the rising and setting of stars, but also the movement of the sun and clouds, wind and swell, fish and birds,”Adventure Journal
Do you look up at the night sky and are amazed by the stars? Stars don’t only provide a bright tapestry to gaze upon, but they can be the key to finding your way.
While a magnetic compass points you towards magnetic north, an astronomical compass points you towards true north. But, what’s the difference?
“True north is a fixed point on the globe … Magnetic north is the direction that a compass needle points to as it aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field. What is interesting is that the magnetic North Pole shifts and changes over time in response to changes in the Earth’s magnetic core. It is not a fixed point,”Royal Museums Greenwich
An astrocompass knows where true north is because of the position of planets, stars, and other astronomical bodies.
This compass can be used as inspiration for a celestial tattoo, with planets and stars adding to the tatt’s theme.
Whether you want a tattoo to represent your life’s journey, or to signify your wanderlust, a compass tattoo is an amazing design to explore.