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How did people refer to clockwise and counterclockwise before clocks?

How did people refer to clockwise and counterclockwise before clocks?

In Northern Europe, the sun was perceived as moving in an arc from left to right. The farther north one goes, the more that is evidence. When facing south, the sun rose at the left (the east) and set on the right (the west). That motion is not unlike the direction that the hands of a clock take from 9 to 3.

Before clocks (and well after the invention of clocks), Europeans referred to the direction as “sunwise.” To do things in an opposite direction was referred to as “against the sun,” this was generally regarded as unnatural if not dangerous in some respect.

Here is an excerpt from my Introduction to Folklore addressing this:

There are choices one can make involving front and back and left and right. The front is positive, and the back is negative. Movements forward and backward have positive and negative values, respectively.

Similarly, the right hand and movements to the right are positive, and those involving the left are negative. By analogy, clockwise, a movement involving left to right, is positive and counterclockwise is negative. The direction of the sun in the Northern Hemisphere reinforces the basic assumption that left to right is the natural motion of the world.

The belief in the importance of front and back and left and right inspired day-to-day practices involving the supernatural and it dominated formal magical practices.

The back of the house was particularly vulnerable to the supernatural. It required special magical attention in the form of painted symbols or other magical practices to thwart possible dangers.

Movements backwards were considered malevolent. Parents told children not to walk backwards because they would “drag father and mother to hell.” A person taking a few steps backward would be told “you go wrong.”

Along these lines, cooks stirred food clockwise, and they cut and served from left to right. If someone turned his hand counterclockwise, he needed to turn his hand an equal number of times clockwise to undo the harm.

In the same way, popular warning discouraged twisting one’s thumbs around – what is called “twiddling one’s thumbs” – toward oneself. They should rotate in the opposite direction. Custom forbid dancing counterclockwise, an act that would inspire the warning, “You dance against the sun. Turn around.”

The right hand has traditional preference over the left, a fact reflected in language and practice. The idea that one should begin the day with the right foot out of the bed is echoed in the phrase, “he got out of bed on the wrong side today.”

All this resulted in day-to-day activities that respected the perceived natural order of the world and its preference for front over back, right over left, and clockwise over counterclockwise.

When wishing to manipulate the supernatural, however, the patterns were typically reversed. The left hand as well as backwards and counterclockwise motions gained importance. Walking backwards and counterclockwise around a church three times could give the power to see the future.

The same act around a well, combined with throwing an object representing an illness, backward over one’s left shoulder into the well, could restore health. A silver coin in the left shoe protected against evil.

These practices could quickly step into the sinister realm. Magical potions were stirred counterclockwise, particularly if something hurtful was sought.

The Stations of the Cross are arranged clockwise within a Catholic church. Walking counterclockwise inside a church, backwards, then reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards at the rear of the church with one’s back to the altar was sufficient to call up the devil.

By analogy with the idea of front and back, one avoided turning things upside down or inside out unless there was a specific need or desired result. When walking home in the dark, it might be wise to pull one’s pockets out as a barrier against elfin attack.

An intrepid soul might wear a coat inside out, thus acquiring supernatural sight to see the elves. This was not recommended since the supernatural beings frequently punished such audacity. The same act could produce different results, as described in legends, depending on the motive of the protagonist.

1. Written by u/itsallfolklore.
2. Introduction to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere by Ronald M. James
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