Naming the Wind Names

Since everyone during the Middle Ages traveled the seas on ships with sails, the direction from which winds blew was very important to wayfinding. Europeans had been naming the winds since before the Roman Empire flourished. Yet by the 1500s and 1600s, there was still no naming convention.(1) The method by which cartographers indicated the direction of winds on their charts also varied.

In 1558, Venetian cartographer Niccolo Zeni placed the names of the wind at the four edges of his chart. He placed the northern wind, Tramontana, at the top; the eastern wind, Levante, on the right edge; the southern wind, Ostro, on the bottom edge; and the western wind, Ponente, on the left edge. As we know, Levante became one of the names for the Middle East, Palestine, or the Holy Lands.

North Atlantic by Niccolo Zeni/Zeno, 1558.(2)

Zeni employed the same place names that Abraham Cresque had used on his Catalan Atlas in 1375. But Cresques named eight different winds, not just four.

In 1584, Lucan Jauz Waghenaur in Leyden, Holland, drafted a chart using a different set of names for the winds, indicated by a beautiful compass rose. Below we show you his map of the west coast of Portugal [oriented with north on the left rather than at the top]. Lines radiate out from sixteen points, four of which are labeled Occidens [west], Meridies [South], Oriens [East] and Sepentrio [North]. The term Occidental, which came to mean things from the west, originated from this name for the western wind, Occidens. The term Oriental came from Oriens, meaning from the east.

Lucan Jauz Waghenaur’s Map of the west coast of Portugal, 1584.(3)

The Compass Rose

Back in the Roman era [100 BCE to 400 CE], the compass was divided into twelve parts instead of sixteen. The twelve parts represented the twelve Latin names for the wind directions: Sepentrio (North), Aquilo (North North-East), Caecias (NE), Subsolanus (E), Vulturnus/Eurus (SE), Euronotus (SSE), Auster/Notus (S), Libonotus (SSW), Africus (SW), Favonius/Zephyrus (W), Corus/Argestes (NW), and Thrascias (NNW). Ptolemy used this convention for the world map he drafted in 150 CE. To illustrate this, he drew curly-headed men blowing the winds in the different directions.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(4)

For the Romans, each twelfth was an even 30 degrees apart, adding up to 360 degrees. During the Middle Ages, it was thought that sailors were not smart enough to figure that out. So they simplified the compass rose by dividing the four parts once each, to make eight, and again, to make sixteen.(4) Unfortunately, that made it difficult for the sophisticated navigator because 360 divided by 16 came out to an awkward 22.5 degrees for each division.

Longitudes, Latitudes, Degrees, and Minutes

By 1630, navigators were accustomed to pin-pointing their position on Earth using latitudes, longitudes, and the smaller divisions, minutes. [There are sixty minutes in each degree of latitude and longitude.] Zero latitude will always be the equator. But the English moved the Prime Meridian for longitude [zero degrees longitude] from the Cape Verde Islands to Greenwich, England, London’s principal dock on the River Thames.

Sometimes English cartographers indicated locations by their relationship to the location of London, for example: “45 degrees west longitude from London” or “22 degrees east longitude from London.”

Placing the Prime Meridian at Greenwich gave navigators sailing from London, versus other ports, a slight mathematical advantage. It was easy to start counting from zero when they recorded the distances they traveled east or west. [Most likely, Arabic captains used a different system.] Master Beecher of the Talbot knew that to reach Cape Cod below the Bay of Massachusetts, he must point the ship to the position where 41 degrees, 40 minutes north latitude met with 70 degrees, 12 minutes west longitude [as shown on the globe above].

Next article: Charts Available to the Pilots of Winthrop’s Fleet.


  1. Windy Cherubs.
  2. Zeni, Niccolo. Map of the north Atlantic, Venice, 1558. {{PD-90/it}} Map in the public domain for USA and Italy. Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama. High resolution file available at []
  3. Waghenaer, Lucas Jansz. “Portugal”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1584. Image held by the University of Texas, Arlington Library. {{PD-Old}} Public domain in USA and the Netherlands.
  4. Ptolemy’s World Map, redrawn in the fifteenth century. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain, The British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. Image source: )#mediaviewer/File:PtolemyWorldMap.jpg