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Widdershins

28 November 2008

“He turned to his right, knowing that is is unlucky to walk around a church widdershins, and followed the path close beneath the wall till he found himself standing by the west door”.

That sentence struck me as odd the first time I read it, in Dorothy Sayers’s novel The nine tailors a couple of years ago, and it still strikes me as odd today, on rereading it.

“He” was Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’s aristocratic amateur sleuth. Now admittedly he’s a fictional aristocrat, so it’s not as if one had a poll of the English aristocracy to see how many of them “know” that it is unlucky to walk around a church widdershins. But it’s still strange when even a fictional aristocrat gives credence to what sounds like a peasant superstition. And in a work of fiction, of course, it’s quite possible that the superstition itself is fictional.

So what I’m interested in finding out is how many people in real life have this particular piece of knowledge.

What strikes me as odd about it is that in the Orthodox Church there are quite often processions around the church, and they always go around the church widdershins, so why should it be unlucky?

If it is a superstition in the real world, it must be a fairly recent one, dating from well after the East-West schism, and possibly after the Reformation, because as far as I can tell, the word “widdershins” only entered the English language about the time of the Reformation.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 November 2008 8:01 pm

    Hi Steve,
    In the southern hemisphere, according to NeoPagans, ‘widdershins’ is actually clockwise.
    We take deosil as the way the sun appears to move in the sky – that is, anticlockwise, and widdershins is the other way.
    Love,
    Terri in Joburg

  2. 28 November 2008 8:53 pm

    Terri,

    That’s interesting, but do you regard one way as lucky and the other as unlucky?

    I remember getting a bit of a shock when I first saw a northern hemisphere sundial — it looked wrong to me, then i realised that that was probably why clocks went clockwise.

    But an even bigger cultural shock was seeing an illustration of the “wheel of the year” on some pagan blog, and that looked VERY wrong. It had March at 3 o’clock and September at 9 o’clock, and I’ve always pictured it the other way round.

  3. 29 November 2008 5:13 am

    I don’t consider either way lucky or unlucky, in common I think with many NeoPagans.
    One way is considered good for ‘doing’ and the other for ‘undoing’. Or ‘going to’ and ‘coming back’. Or ‘winding up’ and ‘releasing’.
    It’s nothing to do with ‘good’ and ‘evil’. At least, to me.

    I sometimes struggle with the north-south thing. I was brought up, and started becoming a Pagan, in the northern hemisphere, so while the Spring equinox at 3 oclock may look intrinsically wrong to you, it dosn’t to me – and then I have to contend with my mind telling me it’s wrong, on top of it!
    Love,
    Terri in Joburg

  4. 29 November 2008 7:12 am

    Steve, you needed a simple “no” option. Yes, I have heard of it. No, I don’t think its bad luck. But as an evangelical my stance has nothing to do with which way processions go.

  5. 29 November 2008 8:52 am

    Matt,

    I’d be interested in knowing where you heard of it, and in what context. It’s the folklorist in me, i suppose.

  6. 1 December 2008 2:27 am

    For what it’s worth, I know the Old Believers process in the opposite way from the non-Old-Believers (we turn . . . left upon exiting the church, they turn right.) I have a lot of trouble with left and right as it is, though, much less the shins of widders.

  7. 1 December 2008 9:18 am

    Peter,

    That’s interesting — I wonder which way the Copts go.

  8. 1 December 2008 4:44 pm

    Read the text, did the quiz, and still none the wiser.

  9. Porlock Junior permalink
    4 December 2008 9:51 am

    For me, “before reading this post” is a bit of a cheat, since I know and admire the Wimsey stories, and this one comes from the one most imbued with English Christianity. What’s odd is that I’m quite sure I knew of this notion or superstition or practice before I ever read the books.

    My first visit to England was a very long time ago, and memories get unreliable; but it was definitely before I read Wimsey. It was also the first time I visited many churches, and I recall avoiding the widdershins route, not from superstitious dread, but from a kind of respect for traditions. Which I think was Lord Peter’s motivation, though they were his traditions, while I was conforming to them as a guest.

    Sadly, I can’t answer your question. I have no idea where in my thoroughly unchurched American upbringing in the 50s – 60s I picked this up. Now it seems all the stranger, as it’s clear this is not widely known.

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