Deosil and Widdershins

Last early start tomorrow, back on civilised hours next week. Tonight, then, just a quickie.

Further to yesterday’s ramble, there is much more changing than just the simplification of money and measurement (and yet the percentage of people who can’t understand any of it is increasing – so much for ‘education, education, education’).

There are youngsters around now – and I don’t mean five or six years old, I mean fifteen or sixteen – who cannot tell the time using a clock. They can tell time perfectly well on a digital display and  they grasp 24-hour time probably better than we did at that age. Not really surprising, 24-hour time is hardly intuitive from a 12-hour clockface, but it’s easy with a digital clock.

Faced with my pocket watch (I developed a metal allergy in my forties which meant my old wristwatches started dissolving my wrist – different story) the young ones in Local Shop are fascinated and baffled. Most of them thought the chain leading into my pocket was some kind of fashion statement. Nope. It has my watch on the end of it. With Roman numerals just to push the confusion blade in that extra inch. Oh, and a picture on the face of a man with a dog… and a rifle.

Incidentally, I still have my grandfather’s watch chain, adorned with coins from the countries he shot people in during the first world war. It’s solid silver, hallmarked on every link. That’s not the one I use for work, that one is locked away. Very locked away. The work one is cheap chromed steel.

Back to the point. Many youth hear the terms ‘clockwise’ and ‘anticlockwise’ and it means nothing at all to them. Clocks are just a display of numbers so where is the direction element? ‘Anticlockwise’ to them means time going backwards. Or perhaps a clock that is going back to the shop.

“This clock is no good. It’s going backwards.”

“Oh, sorry sir, we appear to have sold you a Doomsday Countdown clock by mistake. Here is your refund.” [looks at clock] “I’d spend it quickly if I were you sir, and not on another clock.”

Before clocks were invented, people needed terms to describe the direction around a circle. They had built all these stone circles while drunk and bored and had decided to get drunk again and dance around them. Come on, don’t tell me you believed all that ancient religion stuff? Those were party stones. The solar and lunar alignments were because they set them up with one bloodshot eye closed and used the only available source of light to line everything up. Lunar or solar alignment depended on whether or not they drank until dawn.

There was a problem. Some danced one way, some danced the other way and they bumped into each other and fights ensued and the police were called. Since the police had yet to be invented by the long-not-born Robert Peel, it took them at least 2000 years to show up, so something had to be done in the meantime. Some means of describing which way to dance around the circle.

With the invention of the clock also at least a thousand years away, nobody came up with ‘clockwise’.

Their terms were deosil and widdershins. Deosil is what we now call ‘clockwise’ and widdershins is ‘anticlockwise’.

With the modern reliance on digital clocks, perhaps it’s time to revive those terms. Put them on the school curriculum. What say you, Mr. Gove? Then we can come full circle and dance drunk around rocks in the moonlight again.

It does have a certain appeal, you have to admit. Change doesn’t have to all be bad news.


36 thoughts on “Deosil and Widdershins

  1. “The solar and lunar alignments were because they set them up with one bloodshot eye closed and used the only available source of light to line everything up. Lunar or solar alignment depended on whether or not they drank until dawn.”

    Only you Leg. Only you.



  2. You just made my day. There was I believing for years all that stuff some American mathematician came up with in the ’60’s about how Stonehenge was a gigantic calendar/primitive calculator and now all is clear!

    (First time I’ve had a good laugh in two days as well!… Thank you)


    • Stonehenge happened because of village rivalry. The first drunks stood one stone on end, the next lot three, and then they started making more complicated arrangements in circles, then double circles then balancing other stones on top.

      Stonehenge was the ‘That’s it, this game is finished’ final winner.

      They had similar games in Egypt and South America, but they just stacked stones in pyramid shapes.


      • Actually, the very first stones at stonehenge were brought all the way from Wales, possibly because if you hit them with another stone, they made a funny noise (rang like a bell). Thus the very first stonehenge was built by rock drummers, which answers many questions.

        The big sarsen stone monument seems to have alignments to the midsummer sunrise, and to the midwinter sunset. Stoned hippies prefer the midsummer one, as partying all night al fresco is more pleasant and less lethal in summer.

        Archaeologists, on the other hand, discovered a huge temporary village dating to the time of Stonehenge’s construction. The rubbish pits were sorted through and analysed in minute detail; as far as can be told, this place only came to life in the middle of winter, when it turned into an enormous party. The main food seems to have been young pigs, born that year and carefully fattened up. Some of these animals had dental disease; their owners had been feeding them sweet things to flavour the pork.

        Most amazing of all was where they came from. Strontium isotope analysis can show where an animal or person grew up, and some of the pigs had been brought all the way from Orkney. That’s a hell of a way to come for a piss-up, so it must have been a bloody amazing party back then; it pretty much guarantees that beer had been invented by then or it wouldn’t have happened.

        The timing of the party makes sense, if you understand that the stonehenge people were all farmers. Midsummer not a great deal is happening; all the livestock has bred, but it isn’t quite harvest time yet but there isn’t a glut of food at that time. Midwinter there is plenty of food from the harvest, but the livestock needs thinning out and you’ve all lived through the weather getting crap and the days shortening. A message that this was stopping happening and the days would get longer, combined with an almighty piss-up plus other events (I reckon quite a few funerals got conducted at the start of the event, using pre-cremated bodies, and quite a few marriages got going during the piss-up as well).


        • “I reckon quite a few funerals got conducted at the start of the event, using pre-cremated bodies,”

          Somewhat off-topic, but cremation has always seemed weird to me. OK, something needs to be done with dead bodies or they get all icky, but why burn the bodies of those you loved? Burial just seems much more peaceful. My first thought would be for purposes of hygiene, but early human societies weren’t so concentrated and large that you couldn’t cart the bodies to a place a couple of miles away, and the hygiene aspect is also argued against by such things as the catacombs where entombment seemed pretty workable.

          I’m just wondering if they’ve ever tracked down the roots of it all and discovered if it was religious or something.



  3. One can find the modern equivalent, I suppose, in the direction those young people choose to circulate in the local shopping mall.

    Retail theorists have devoted much time to ascertaining that ‘Roughly 90 percent of your customers will enter your store, turn right and walk through the store in a counterclockwise direction.’

    GIven the ancient superstition of bad luck attached to widdershins progression, perhaps we need look no further for the cause of all society’s ills.


      • Funnily enough, when I was recently in Thailand, wifey and me went to a local night market, which stretched along a couple of streets that were closed off on market nights. Because traffic was excluded, the stalls would be set up not only on the sides of the street, taking up the pavement, but also down the centre, leaving two quite narrow) pathways either side of the centrally located stalls. So anyway, I ploughed into this market, instinctively (I guess) taking the right-hand avenue. It was only after a few minutes battling with oncoming pedestrian traffic that I turned to my wife and said “Funny, everybody else seems to be walking in the opposite direction to us…”.

        Yup, sure enough, I’d chosen the wrong lane. Nor this market encompassed a sort of cross, and basically the meme seemed to be that you would enter from the main street and take the left-hand path. when you reached the crossroads, you would turn left and follow the stalls for 50m or so and return down the other side until you reached the crossroads again, when you would once more turn left etc etc, and you would finally end up where you started, albeit on the other side of the road. So essentially, you were describing a circle. But the accepted direction of travel was clockwise, or ‘deosil’ if you prefer.

        Interesting that my unthinking instinct was to go the other way, ie turning right. Also interesting that the Thais had established a system going the other way.

        But they drive on the left, same as UK.


        • Here you can cause mass confusion by trying to walk past oncoming pedestrians on the left.

          Same with escelators. You just want to stand and let the machine do the work, you do that on the right. The left side is for those dip shits that do not understand the whole POINT behind escelators, and think they are on a stair case.


  4. What about levo- and dextrorotation? Clocks predated the dicovery of chemical chirality, but were these terms shoehorned in, like ‘hysteria’, or did the Romans have their own word for it?

    My Latin never extended to (counter)clockwise, and all I can manage now is ‘pullae in taberna sunt’. Intrigued, I checked online: No results found. No definitions found for the term anti+clockwise.

    So you have taught us something today, doctor – deosil and widdershins it is.


    • In Latin, the right was dexter and the left was sinister. They knew what was coming.

      I think – someone is going to correct me on this I’m sure – I think ‘levo’ and ‘dextro’ were Greek.

      In this job I have met people whoi don’t know that sugar dissolves in water and who think ‘ambient’ means ‘shelves’. I’m not going to try to explain chirality to them!

      Or maybe I will, if I can come up with a new definition…


      • Not sure about Classical Greek, but in modern Greek, right is ‘dexia’ (δεξιά) and left is ‘aristera’ (αριστερά). Which I believe is very similar to the Latin.


        • Science nicked its labels from Latin or Greek so it could look clever, but it might have nicked them fronm other places too.

          If I had been in charge, chirality would have been ‘lefty-windie’ and ‘righty-windie’ and there would have been no problem.


  5. XX “This clock is no good. It’s going backwards.”XX
    XX Their terms were deosil and widdershins. Deosil is what we now call ‘clockwise’ and widdershins is ‘anticlockwise’.XX

    My shaman Grandmother was into this in a big way.

    What I could never understand is the fact that everything Shamanistic goes by the path of the sun/moon, and that is “good.”

    To do anything “widderschins” indicates “bad.”

    Yet, the sun/moon path IS anti clockwise (Widdershins.)

    As to watches/clocks going backwards……

    I can not wear a wrist watch, or carry a pocket watch.

    On my 21st Birthday my Grand-Father gave me a brand new Rolex. I wore it for two days, and it LITERALY started going backwards! (NO Joke! It DID!)

    The firm replaced it, as is their garuntee, and the same happened.

    Eventually they gave us (my Grand-Father) the money back.

    NO watch, be it pocket or wrist, survives longer than 2 weeks on/by me.

    It was also a ship rule, that when testing the compass, I was NEVER allowed on the bridge. I can put my hands around a ships compass (NOT TOUCHING IT, just “close”), and change it by 10 °

    If the fact that I also have serious problems with static has anything to do with it is questionable, but may be worth investigation.


  6. “With Roman numerals just to push the confusion blade in that extra inch.”

    Ha, ha, simply excellent.

    Young people can’t read clocks though. Seriously? I don’t know what to think now.


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