The magic of widdershins

In North Yorkshire (where I was born), if you dance nine times counterclockwise around a ring of toadstools it was believed you will come under the spell of the fairies. I remember this story from my childhood although it was a ring of mushrooms of which we needed to be wary.

In the ancient folklore of pagan Britain, to go widdershins (widershins or withershins), was to walk around an object counter-clockwise. In a magical sense it was to walk against the light, or in the opposite way to the movement of the sun. Therefore it was an act contrary to God (in the Northern Hemisphere at least). To go widdershins while reading prayers backwards was considered to be a way of connecting with the devil.

In religious senses walking around an object for sacred purposes is called circumambulation. It is very much a part of modern religions, in Islam pilgrims circle the Kaaba in Mecca. Hindus circle shrines as a form of prayer, and in Judaism the priests will circle the altar in one direction. However, the direction and number of times vary between religions.

The Victorians (19th century England) revived a lot of the pagan myths and folk stories as so-called fairy tales (and thus we assume avoided the ire of the church). One folklorist was Joseph Jacobs (an Australian-born Jewish scholar educated at Sydney Grammar and Sydney University). One of Jacobs’ best known fairy tales is Childe Rowland that clearly explains the consequences of going widdershins.

Rowland and his elder brothers lose their sister, Burd Ellen, when she disappears after chasing their football around a church. Rowland seeking an explanation goes to the “Warlock Merlin” who tells him that she:

… must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church “wider shins”–the opposite way to the sun.

Childe Rowland, after both his brothers fail, rescues his sister. The story ends with:

And they reached home, and the good queen, their mother, and Burd Ellen never went round a church widershins again.

Which is good sense, considering all the trouble everyone had gone to.

In Scotland there were many forms of pagan circumambulation being practised up until about 150 years ago. Among them were circling the fields with torches at Halloween to ensure fertility the following year; circling a patient three times before administering cures; or circling to approach a grave during a funeral. These rituals involved circuiting deisual (or making the deasil), which meant in the direction of the sun, which was therefore sacred. This is the opposite to widdershins.