This department displays compasses for religious and esoteric use. We will try to describe their aim and use.
Please be patient - or ... help us and send us your own inputs if you want to participate in this project. Many thanks in advance.

Chinese Tradition and Feng Shui

Magnetism as discovered by the ancient Chinese is being described in many books, especially in The riddle of the compass, by Amir D. Aczel, 2001.
They used it mainly for divinatory purposes. They traveled mainly on rivers where a compass is not required. Even if sailors used a compass to navigate far away from the coast, this knowledge was kept secret since it gave their possessors an edge over the competition. As far as we know they mastered the technique since the begining of our time era. Unfornately, as it happened many times at several places in the world, the catholic church organized the destruction of many archives and the technical and historical information was not conveyed to us.

The various ways of dividing the horizon circle

Depending on the context, the Chinese (and the Japanese?) have used various systems of dividing the horizon surrounding them.
In the ancient Chinese astronomy, the cardinal points were described by symbolic animals and colours:
- North: black turtle
- East: blue dragon
- South: red bird
- West: white tiger

The description started with the rising sun in the East clockwise finishing with the North. These directions also had a room-time-related meaning:
Toung (East) was also called Chang, i.e. the upper side,
Nan (South) was also called Thsian, i.e. the fore side,
Si (West) was also called Hia, i.e. the lower side,
P (North) was also called Heou, i.e. the back side.

The positions between these four main cardinals were designated by the combined names.
Example: Toung nan = South-East. These eight directions were also replaced by the eight trigrammes called kwa (see below astrological compass or Luo pan)

There were further divisions in 12*, 16 or 24 rumbs. The 24 signs partition was used for nautical compasses (see example and explanations in this section). The 12 signs partition was used in Japan.
(See also Miscellaneous/Cardinals). 

The 12 signs on the back of turtle

Technical Data
- Dimensions: 100 x 70 x 40 mm
- Weight: 120 gr

The 12 signs on the face of a Japanese pocket compass

The 12 signs as described in Klaproth's booklet (in the inner circle: the 4 card. pts.):

Phonetic value, translation and resulting angle:

  1 - TSU (rat): north
  2 - Tcheou (ox): north 1/3 east
  3 - In (tiger): north 2/3 east
  4 - MAO (hare): east
  5 - Chn (dragon): east 1/3 south
  6 - Szu (snake): east 2/3 south
  7 - OU (horse): south
  8 - Wei (sheep): south 1/3 west
  9 - Chin (ape): south 2/3 west
10 - YEOU (chicken): west
11 - Siu (dog): west 1/3 north
12 - Ha (pig): west 2/3 north

These signs can be combined so as to build 16 directions by dividing each quarter of the full circle in four parts.
Example: Mao chn = east-south-east

Luo Pan Compass

Traditional Luo Pan compass
(19th c.)

Click on the picture for a full screen display
The astrological Chinese compass as described by Klaproth in his famous Lettre M. le Baron A. de Humbodt sur l'invention de la boussole (1834)

Link: The Luo-Pan in A. Schck's book Der Kompass (vol. 2, 1915)
Technical Data
- Diameter: 105 mm
- Depth: 11 mm
- Weight: 150 gr

In the first of the 15 concentric circles surrounding  the compass, the eight basic directions are represented by three-lines symbols called trigrams or kua of Fu Xhi.

Table above: the 8 Kua
(at left: Klaproth's study;
at right: Wikipedia)

Inclining Sundial

Description of the sundial panel and the compass's surrounding area based on the explanation given in J. Klaproth's famous booklet Lettre M. le Baron A. de Humboldt, 1834 (online HERE):
- The Adjustable Panel (sundial):
Above the gnomon: one illegible character; below the gnomon, the sign "bei" (north) and three concentric circles :
  • Inner circle: the 12 signs cycle
  • Middle circle: figures 1-12, repeated twice, clockwise.
  • Outer circle: (?)
- The Compass's surrounding Area (three concentric circles):
  • Inner circle: the eight kua or trigrammes of Fou Xhi (compare with the instruments above).
  • Middle circle: the same in classical characters (N-W in red).
  • Outer circle: the 24 Tcheou cycle (see cat. NAUTICAL compasses).

Description The compass has a grey metal base on which the meridian line is marked. It has a steel needle, reddened at its South end, and is covered by a glass plate, held in place by a black ring. Beneath the hour-plate is a toothed ratchet scale with 13 divisions, marked in black. A brass strut attached to the back of the hour-plate is set in this scale to position the hour-plate. The front has an hour scale for Chinese hours. Two red characters within this scale indicate that the compass should be turned to the North. There is a brass rod gnomon that folds flat when not in use, to be set perpendicular to the hour-plate. On the reverse side of the dial are nine Chinese characters (three in red) giving the name of the maker and the area from which he came.

Technical Data
Material: wood, lacquered
Dim.: 120 x 58 x 18mm

On either side of the 13 notches appears the 24 divisions of the chinese sun calendar (二十四节气  rshs jiq). Two are repeated (hence 13). The first and last represent the solstices and the middle one the equinoxes. Around this list are four signs in red ink ( 四序調元 ) meaning "the four seasons in harmony with the original Qi ". This is not a person's or an animal's Qi but the one of a place during a certain season.

Rear side


Qibla Compasses

Wherever they are in the world, Muslims must turn to their Holy City (Mecca, Saudi Arabia) for their ritual prayers.  This direction is called the  qibla and is represented in  mosques by a niche in a wall called the mihrab. The compasses described thereafter show the right direction.  

The Arabs had already been using compasses to this aim in the 13th century, i.e. before the crusades, and this knowledge was transmitted to the West about at this time. For more information read TWO EARLY ARABIC SOURCES ON THE MAGNETIC COMPASS (full text available, pdf).
The German Institute for History of Arab-Islamic Science (Institut fr die Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften) in Frankfurt/M. displays in its virtual museum reproductions of ancient compasses cited in the above-mentioned document. For pictures of al-Ashraf Umar's compass, click first HERE, then select Museum, then "8 - Nautik".

Instructions for use:
When the needle is oriented to any city name, the minaret will then point to Mecca.

(Click on the picture for a detailed view of the cities' names on the dial and HERE for their transcription in English)

Technical Data
- Diameter: 48 mm
- Depth: 10 mm
- Weight: 35 gr
- Date: 1st half of 20th C.

The face features four concentric areas:
- The exterior one contains the figures 1-11. The figure 12, which is not printed is represented by the minaret's roof pointing North (clockwise, sundial function - see also L'Abe-Lund).
- The 2nd one contains the cardinal points in red (see explanation under MISCELLANEOUS / Cardinal points)
- A dotted line separates the 3rd and 4th areas featuring city names.

The words left of the minaret mean: made by the Mint without indication of a specific country. The minaret's architecture and the red crescent and star in the center under the needle's axis indicate that this item was probably made in Turkey (see enlarged view)

Compassipedia thanks the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA, Paris) and THE BOREAL ARROW for the friendly help and translation.

The numbers in the arabic writing

Technical Data
- Diameter: 43 mm
- Depth: 10 mm
- Weight: 10 gr
- Divisions: 0-39 in arabic figures and "neskhi"

Instructions for use:
Each country or main city on Earth has its own reference number indicated in a handbooklet. This compass dial is divided into 40 segments. If you are in London, you must select area 25. When the magnetic needle points to this figure, the white arrow on the compass dial (zero) will then point to Mecca (marking: "Direction of Al Qibla") i.e. South-by-South-East.
Examples of compasses made by Houlliot (early 20th C.)
Robert PRETOT filed in 1952 a patent (no. 1,054,674 completed in 1955) for a modernized Qibla compass. Several versions were described (see images at r., full text available).


This item looks like a Butterfield-type sundial but features no hours chapter on which the shadow of the animal-shaped gnomon would point. Moreover, zodiac signs engraved in a circle on the face suggest it was rather intended for an astrological use or to find the Qibla. A freely rotating pointer is attached at the center of the face where the gnomon rotates. 

Probably genuine instrument featuring a camel-shaped gnomon
- Dia. 6" / 172 mm
- Engravings on rear face ?

NOTE - Many items are only replicas which you can easily tell when looking at the modern compass needle

Pictures courtesy antique-scientific-instruments

Pictures courtesy J. Grobovsek
(Click on the images for enlarged views)

Technical Data
- Dia. of case: 4" / 105mm
- Dia. of compass:  25mm
- Thickness: 1" / 23 mm
- Gnomon: goat
- Engravings on face: zodiac signs (conventional symbols and full name in Arabic language)
- Engravings on rear face: see pic at right
- Engravings on lid: click HERE
Rear face

Top face with gnomon and compass featuring zodiacal symbols and Arabic words

Rear face engraved 

Another interesting instrument is this watch with compass described in the section "Watches with a compass




Compass working like the ones above but indicating the direction of Jerusalem.



Pendulum with Compass

Description : This instrument was most probably used for spiritualism. When the medium holds the electrode at the end of the wire and the pendulum is hanging over a photograph (for example) of a beloved person, the magnetic needle points then towards a direction corresponding to the feelings of the person on the photograph. The indicated values are the same as on the postcard, i.e. cool in the North but hot in the South. By placing a magnet under the table and the photograph accordingly on the table, you can achieve very good results...

Pictures by courtesy of Arlete Anderson

(Click on the pictures for enlarged views)

Markings (on side):
Registr. 8548 K K Berlin

Technical Data
- Diameter (compass): 1 1/4" - 32 mm
- Height (pendulum alone): 2 3/4" - 70 mm
- Case: 5 x 2 1/2 x 2" - 270 x 68 x 5 mm
- Weight: 1.6 oz - 36 gr
- Electrodes: cylindrical rods, flattened at the end like screw-drivers, connected via a metallic wire, wrapped around the pendulum's "waist".

The instrument in a luxurious case with silk cushions