Widdershins: Turning Back the Clock
widdershins (adv.)1510s, chiefly Scottish, originally “contrary to the course of the sun or a clock” (movement in this direction being considered unlucky), from Middle Low German weddersinnes, literally “against the way” (i.e. “in the opposite direction”), from widersinnen “to go against,” from wider “against” + sinnen “to travel, go,” from Old High German sinnen, related to sind “journey”.
Widdershins is a term meaning to go counter-clockwise, to go anti-clockwise, or to go lefthandwise, or to walk around an object by always keeping it on the left. The word also means “in a direction opposite to the usual” and “in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun”. The opposite of widdershins is deosil, or sunwise, meaning “clockwise”. To go against the sun was considered bad luck for sun-worshiping traditions.
In early Britain, It was considered unlucky to travel in an anticlockwise direction around a church. In the folk myths, Childe Rowland, the protagonist and his sister are transported to Elfland after his sister runs widdershins round a church. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale “The Song of the Morrow”, an old crone on the beach ‘dances widdershins’.
In Judaism, circles are walked anticlockwise. When a bride circles her groom seven times before marriage, when dancing around the bimah during Simchat Torah, when the Sefer Torah is brought out of the ark, the ark is approached from the right, and departed from the left. This has its origins in the Beis Hamikdash, (the temple in Jerusalem) where, in order not to get in each other’s way, the priests would walk around the altar anticlockwise while performing their duties. When entering the Beis Hamikdash the people would enter by one gate, and leave by another. The resulting direction of motion was anticlockwise. In Judaism, starting things from the right side is considered to be important, since the right side is the side of Chesed (kindness) while the left side is the side of Gevurah (judgment).
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is normal for processions around a church to go widdershins.
The Bönpo circumambulate in a counter-clockwise direction, that is to say, counter to the apparent movement of the Sun within the sky from the vantage of the ground. This runs counter to Buddhism and orthodox Hinduism. This is in keeping with the aspect and directionality of the ‘Sauvastika’ (Tibetan: yung-drung), sacred to the Bönpo. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Bonpo practitioner is required to elect whether it is ‘going counter-clockwise’ (which is deosil in the Southern Hemisphere), or running opposites to the direction of the Sun (widdershins in the Southern Hemisphere) is the key intention of the tradition. The resolution to this conundrum is left open to the ‘intuitive insight’ of the practitioner.