Ever had a clock that runs widdershins? Ever run widdershins around a church or ring of toadstools? If you’ve ever seen the sun going widdershins, you’re either in the Southern Hemisphere or you need to return your compass. It’s defective. Widdershins (also spelled withershins) means to move counter-clockwise or in the opposite direction of the sun, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. In English folklore, to move widdershins around something is considered unnatural and unlucky. It might even bring out the fairy people.
Widdershins is a chiefly Scottish word. The first recorded usage is from the early 1500s. Widdershins derives from weddersinnes, a Middle Low German word meaning to go against the normal way or in the opposite direction. The two parts of the word come from Middle and Old High German: wider, meaning against, combined with sinnen, meaning to travel or journey.
Running or dancing widdershins around something, particularly a church, figures in many English folk tales. One of the best known is “Childe Rowland,” popularized by Joseph Jacobs in his English Folk and Fairy Tales. Based on a Scottish ballad, Jacobs’s telling alternates between poetry and prose. The story tells how Rowland rescues his three siblings who have been imprisoned in the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower. The first sibling to be taken to Elfland is Rowland’s sister, Burd Ellen, who runs widdershins round a church when chasing a ball.
Childe Rowland kicked it with his foot
And caught it with his knee;
At last as he plunged among them all
O’er the church he made it flee.
Burd Ellen round about the aisle
To seek the ball is gone,
But long they waited, and longer still,
And she came not back again.
They sought her east, they sought her west.
They sought her up and down,
And woe were the hearts of those brethren
For she was not to be found
So at last her eldest brother went to the Warlock Merlin and told him all the case, and asked him if he knew where Burd Ellen was. “The fair Burd Ellen,” said the Warlock Merlin, “must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church ‘widershins’—the opposite way to the sun. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland; it would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.”
So be careful you don’t go walking widdershins, and if you do find yourself in Elfland, don’t eat the food.
Attribution: By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.