Which way is up?

Yesterday we were having breakfast in Marcoola when Carol said how nice it is to ‘come down the coast’ and then quickly corrected herself to ‘up the coast’. She was referring, of course, to the fact that we were north of home. From Brisbane, ‘down the coast’ means the Gold Coast, that seething den of drugs, vandals, violence and tourists whereas ‘up the coast means the Sunshine Coast, the bright, friendly strip of sun-washed beach towns. ( I hope my geographic bias is not showing.) However, since Brissie is 10km inland and up-river it is actually downhill in either direction. As John Masefield said:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

There is no mention of north or south here. Who decided that north is up and that all maps should be drawn that way? Was there a worldwide convention at some time that reached such an agreement? I have read that the Chinese may at one time have felt otherwise and that the word ‘north’ is derived from the German ‘nor’ and the earlier ‘ner’ which actually means ‘down’.

If someone had decided to paint the south pointing half of a compass needle red instead would everything be different? On further rumination I have decided that since the majority of early astronomers lived in the Northern Hemisphere they probably noticed that the stars seem to revolve around a point in the sky which probably seemed like a good start to navigation.

Here in the south in Australia, previously Terra Australis which means Land of the South, we have had an indigenous population for 30,000 years. Much of their art consists of abstract representations of their homeland in the form of maps or aerial views. I wonder whether they are oriented with north upwards. Does anybody know?

In the meantime, as Canned Heat once sang, I’m “Going up the country.”

Cheers
Spike

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