The Star Compass

Fundamental to the entire navigational system is the Star Compass, a basic mental construct to tell direction. The Micronesian version uses the rising and setting positions of fifteen stars or constellations to define thirty-two points around the horizon. Micronesian navigators use the stars both to name the directions around the horizon and to maintain direction at sea. The Hawaiian version developed by Nainoa Thompson is essentially our modern compass, but using Hawaiian names to label the thirty-two equidistant directional points around the horizon. These thirty-two points pinpoint the rising and setting position of stars and they provide information about winds, currents, ocean swells and the relative positions of islands, shoals, reefs and other seamarks.

The Hawaiian Star Compass

On the Hawaiian Star Compass, there are 32 equidistant directional points. Each point is 11.25 degrees from its neighbors (32 points x 11.25 degrees = 360 degrees). Each point is also the midpoint of a house, thus there are 32 houses on the compass (32 houses x 11.25 degrees = 360 degrees). The point and the house it lies in share the same name.

A diagram of the Hawaiian Star Compass
A diagram of the Hawaiian Star Compass

The four cardinal directions: Hikina (east), Komohana (west), Akau (north) and Hema (south). East is where celestial objects rise and west is where they set.

The four quadrants: Ko'olau (NE), Malanai (SE), Kona (SW) and Ho'olua (NW). The names are associated with wind directions.

The seven houses: La, Aina, Noio, Manu, Nalani, Na Leo and Haka. These names were devised by Nainoa Thompson.

To specify any of the 32 points around the compass, we append the house name with the quadrant. Therefore, from north to east, we have the following points:

Haka Ko'olau
Naleo Ko'olau
Nalani Ko'olau
Manu Ko'olau
Noio Ko'olau
Aina Ko'olau
La Ko'olau

Using this method, all the 32 directional houses can be named.

How it works

Near the equator, the stars rise and set on a north-south axis. Depending on their location on the celestial sphere, they either rise/set somewhere in the north or in the south. For example, a star rising from a "house" in the Hawaiian compass will set in a "house" of the same name. Thus a star rising from Noio Ko'olau (NE by E) will set in Noio Ho'olua (NW by W) and a star rising from Manu Malanai (SE) will set in Manu Kona (SW). Here, the rising and setting points of stars are clues to direction. If you recognize a rising/setting star and if you know the house which it rises or sets, you can know your direction. See the various rising and setting point of some stars on the Micronesian Star Compass for more information.

To head towards a particular direction, the navigator aligns his canoe to these rising/setting points. Actually he can orient his canoe using a star anywhere on the horizon, as long as he knows its direction. This is important, as the principal star might not be visible due to cloud cover. Moreover, since stars move about 1 degree across the sky every 4 minutes, the navigator has to constantly shift his principal star.

Why shift the principal star?

Only at the equator do stars appear to rise/set perpendicular to the horizon. The angle at which they rise and set from a line perpendicular to the horizon is equal to the latitude of the observer. In the northern hemisphere, the pathways of the stars lean south, in the southern hemisphere they lean north. Thus in Hawaii at 20 N, stars rise and set at a 20, their paths leaning to the south.

When a star is above the horizon, the navigator imagines a line drawn from the star to its rising or setting point. But if the star is too high (above 30), it is difficult to tell exactly where is its rising and setting point. Of course at the equator where stars rise perpendicular to the horizon, there is greater allowance and the star may be traced back to the horizon from a greater altitude.

Therefore, the navigator has to shift his principal star, i.e. find another star that's closer to the horizon, to help him determine the canoe's direction.

A star seen from Hawaii

The same star seen from the Equator

The same star seen from Tahiti. Notice the direction the path leans in different hemispheres. Notice how the star must be traced back to the horizon to get the true setting point.

The Micronesian Star Compass

The Micronesian Star Compass works the same way as the Hawaiian version in that they both use the rising/setting points of celestial objects to find directions. After all, Nainoa Thompson learnt the ancient Polynesian skill from Mau Piailug. A few differences exist, though. The purpose of the Hawaiian version was to prove that the ancient Polynesian method of wayfinding was possible, that we can navigate without elaborate instruments, but that does not preclude the use of maps and charts. In a sense, they could plan their voyage beforehand using modern maps and charts. Of course, during their time at sea, they could only use nature to guide them.

For traditional Micronesian wayfinding, the map is actually built in the compass. The navigators call this wofanu, "to gaze at the island". We know that every island (or any place on Earth for that matter) is at some compass point from home. That is, since the Earth is round, by following the compass point, you will reach your destination. The Pacific islanders did not travel straight to their destination, however. They did island hopping. Therefore, you won't find the direction for every single destination on Earth on one compass. The wofanu for every island contains the star courses to neighboring destinations. Here are two wofanu from The Last Navigator. We use star names from western astronomy.


Star course Destination
Rising Altair Truk
Rising Gienah Pulusuk
Setting Tarazed Lamotrek
Setting Orion's Belt Olimarao
Setting Pleiades Farailap
Setting Schedar Gaferut
Setting Kochab West Fayu
Rising Schedar Pikelot
Rising Pleiades Ulul
Rising Orion's Belt Pisaris
Rising Tarazed Puluwat

Map showing directions to the islands. Click here to see the star courses on the Mirconesian Star Compass. A picture of the Compass can also be found below on this page.


Star course Destination
Setting Gienah Namowiniur
Setting Orion's Belt Elato
Setting Pleiades Olimarao
Setting Dubhe Gaferut
Rising Schedar West Fayu
Rising Altair Puluwat
Rising Alshain Satawal

Map showing directions to the islands
Map showing directions to the islands

As we can see, the voyaging range for a navigator depends on his knowledge of the star courses. The knowledge is passed down from the navigator to his student. Mau Piailug have the star course from Satawal to Pikelot, then north to Hawaii. From Hawaii he have the courses to North America, South America, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Samoa and Japan!

The second difference is that the Micronesian version uses the stars or constellations to define the direction. Since their rising/setting points will change at different latitude, it follows that there is no single representation of the star compass. Shown below is the compass for Satawal. The user is at the center of the circle, the black dot.

Clickable Image
The rising/setting point of the principal stars at Satawal. Clck on any of the stars to view picture of the star.

To the Micronesian navigators, the compass is purely a mental construct. They know the direction of their destination by wofanu. As Piailug said, once you have the image of your destination in your mind, you would not get lost.

Thomas, Stephen D. (1987). The Last Navigator.
Camden, Maine: International Marine, c1997