In the course of my research into the meaning of the word widdershins, as expected I came across numerous literary and historical references to the term but, unusually I have also discovered a beer called Widdershins (an English style barley wine brewed by the Left Hand Brewing Company of Longmont, California), a knitting pattern for a pair of woolly socks which seem to be knitted from the toe to the top, and a home for collie dogs. There is also some pretty weird stuff going on .... but this is a family page.
The common factor is the suggestion of contrary movement or behaviour. Not just contrary to the movement of the sun but right to left, bottom up, wrong way round and usually mischievous sort of behaviour which is contrary to the laws of nature.
Usually though it just means anticlockwise.
You may also have seen it written “withershins”,”widderschynnes”, “weddersinnes” or “widershins” but wherever and however, it usually suggests things are about to go awry.
As Wiki. tells us:
“Because the sun played a highly important role in older religions, to go against it was considered very bad luck for sun-venerating traditions.” - unless of course you are a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church in which case it is the normal way to process around your church.
In Childe Rowland, a fairy tale popularised by Joseph Jacobs (English Folk and Fairy Tales, 1892) Childe Rowland’s sister Burd Ellen was transported to Elfland after running round the church anticlockwise (right place wrong religion). Later in the saga she encircled a fairy knowe 'three times widdershins, crying, Open door! Open door!' to gain access to Elfland. This is surely the inspiration for our local tale of Thomas Skelderskew who circled a fairy toadstool ring nine times widdershins, before disappearing to live and work amongst the faeries and inadvertently named our ceilidh band.
The equivalent word for sunwise is deosil. (Not a bad name for a ceilidh band either.)
But, to get a feeling for its universality, Steven Wilson’s marvelous tome, The Magical Universe, Everyday Ritual and Magic in a Pre Modern Europe, makes frequent reference to circumambulation giving both the positive and negative effects of sunwise rotation. However, with every example of good fortune ascribed to a clockwise rotation is the suggestion of bad luck if you go the other way round.
Let's start up in the Hebrides with the planting of the seed and the hope for a bountiful crop.
'In the Hebrides, the seed was sprinkled with clear water three days before sowing in the name of the Trinity, the person sprinkling walking sunwise the while’.
Further north now to Orkney where "a farmer who wanted to ensure a bountiful crop lit a great heather cowe (or faggot) at the communal blaze and took care that it did not burn out before he had completed the sunwise circuit of his fields with it."
Harvest time has always been a time for thanksgiving.
“On Barra and elsewhere in the Highlands of Scotland, the first ears (of corn) harvested were made into a bannock called ‘Mary’s fatling’, which was baked on a bonfire and eaten by the family in rank order. A hymn to the Virgin Mary was then sung and the people walked sun-wise round the fire.
Widdershins was used to change the weather on Iceland.
“In the twelfth-century Icelandic Saga of Gisli, Audbjorg avenges an offence against her son by a man called Berg. She goes outside during a still and cloudless night and walks withershins about the house a few times and sniffs in all directions with her nostrils lifted. And as she was doing these things, the weather began to alter, and there came a heavy, drifting snowstorm, and after that a thaw; a flood broke out on the mountainside and an avalanche rolled onto Berg’s steading, and twelve men were killed there.”
Now that's bearing a grudge.
Back to harvest time in the Highlands.
"In the Highlands of Scotland on the day chosen for reaping, the whole family repaired to the field dressed in their best. The father took his sickle and, facing the sun, cut a handful of corn. Putting it three times sunwise round his head, the Reaping Blessing was sung.”
At Christmas and New Year begging entertainers or Guisers made trick or treat look like child’s play.
“But if the guisers were inhospitably treated,’they filed round the fire withershins and raised a cairn near the door’, a cairn of malediction. At the same time they wished ‘the malison of God and of Hogmanay’ on the household and called down on it the ‘scath’ of a variety of preditors, including the raven, the wild cat and the wolf.”
Give them the money.
Mind you things can get quite tasty, and not a little smelly in the Hebrides when the guisers come to call.
In the Hebrides in modern times, the guisers approached the house with loud shouts and went ‘sunwise round it’. At the door they blessed the dwelling and its inmates, and once inside they went sunwise again around the fire, and set light to a sheepskin or cow hide, with which they fumigated the room or rooms. They were given special food and drink and repeated their blessing before leaving.
I wonder what Health and Safety had to say about that?
Meanwhile in modern Ireland 'where St John's Eve fires were still lit util the 1950's, everyone carried home a burning stick from the fire ....... which was carried three times sunwise around the dwelling house .... which brought good luck.'
There's that three times link again. Clearly linked to the trinity and up it pops when ..
'The tenants of Knightlow Hundred walked three times round a great stone before paying 'Wroth Silver' to their lord.'
The Calus dancers in Rumania danced three times counterclockwise around the house, so that the evil spirits would not approach it'
But it wasn't just the Eastern Orthodox church that used widdershins as the prefered rotation it seems the folk of Men-an-tol in Cornwall used the 'hostile' magic of withershins in cures.
'...,for example, scrofulous children were passed naked three times through the holed stone there and then drawn three times on the grass, against the course of the sun.'
I believe I have got this far without mentioning witches so here's the remedy because 'witches were believed to move withershins in the accomplishment of their evil.' and this is even recorded in trial evidence when 'in 1671 Janet Macmurdoch of Dumfries '..went thrice widdershins round all the yards [of her neighbours], barefooted' causing illness in the animals.
Finally the swastika, that sign of evil is infact a talisman for good if the lines bend clockwise and for evil if they go widdershins.
We didn't know all this when we named the band, perhaps at the next gig I should suggest we change to Deosil.
Here I pause and invite you to add any widdershins facts you know. I will of course have to edit them but you will get the credit you deserve.
You could try to answer the oft asked questions:
Why do the majority of the following events take place widdershins?
* Races on tracks - run.drive ride
* Mexican waves
Please drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add them to the list.
What's In A Word?
A few more widdershins facts for the curious.