Widdershins means ‘anticlockwise’. It dates back to the early 1500s when it first turned up in written form in a translation of ‘The Aenied’. It comes from an old German word ‘weddersinnes’, which literally translates as ‘against the way’. That’s because when you go round something anticlockwise, you’re going the opposite way to the sun, which was an important part of lots of pre-Christian religions. Hence the ‘against’.
You might well have come across ‘widdershins’ if you’ve ever read any fiction with a witch in it – they’re always running round stuff widdershins when they’re doing spells. Or if you’ve read any of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series – it’s one of the four basic directions (the others being hubwards, rimwards and turnwise).
Doing anything widdershins – i.e. to the left – was generally seen as wrong or bad luck. Here in Blighty, it was thought to be unlucky to go widdershins round a church – see the fairy tale ‘Childe Rowland’, where Rowland and his sister are whisked off to Elfland after she does just that.
The left has long been associated with bad luck and even evil. The Latin word for left is ‘sinistra’, which is where we get ‘sinister’ from. Left-handed people were often considered ‘touched by the devil’ (with apologies to my left-handed mum and any left-handed pals), I presume only because they were in the minority. The left was also often associated with femininity (for example by the ancient Celts who treated it as sacred), which might be another reason that people later became suspicious of it. I KNEW IT WOULD BE THE PATRIARCHY’S FAULT. There’s an interesting article about all that here.
I’m going to go and run round a church the wrong way now in search of Legolas.