(This article appears in AXIS MUNDI Vol 3 Issue 7 – SPRING, September 2010)
Confusion sometimes arises about the direction in which a sacred circle should be cast in the southern hemisphere. It is now generally accepted by the Pagan communities of Australia that the seasonal festivals be adjusted by 6mths in comparison with the northern hemisphere — eg. our Spring Equinox and associated festivals occur in September as opposed to March in the northern hemisphere — so it makes sense that we might also adjust our circle casting accordingly, to suit local conditions.
The act of casting a circle mimics the sun (not the clock) which is why circle casting generally starts in the East where the sun rises and continues to follow its direction through the sky. Until more recent times the majority of books, websites and general instruction in Witchcraft were based on northern hemisphere teachings where the words sunwise and clockwise are often used interchangeably, and I believe this to be a great source of confusion when transferring this information to a southern hemisphere setting.
Difficulty can also be encountered when people lack a basic understanding of the astronomical or spatial relationship between the Sun and the Earth. The sun always rises in the East and sets in the West, regardless of hemisphere. Unfortunately even this fact was misconstrued by well-known northern hemisphere based Wiccan authors, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, when discussing in their book, Progressive Witchcraft, whether the circle should be cast counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere:
“Also, should the Elemental/cardinal point correspondences be changed due to the fact that the sun rises in the West, is at its mid-point in the north, and sets in the East?”
Another important point to remember is that the positions of the cardinal points on the compass never change, regardless of which hemisphere you are in. I have seen this cause confusion for some people when trying to adapt a northern hemisphere ritual to southern hemisphere conditions. At one circle I attended the actual compass directions of north and south were swapped within the circle, leaving east and west in the original positions, instead of just swapping the elemental correspondences of Fire and Earth and casting the circle in the opposite direction.
I mention these examples, not to make light of peoples’ genuine mistakes, but rather to illustrate some of the common misunderstandings there can be on this issue. Also, in modern times use of the archaic terms deosil and widdershins simply adds to the confusion, especially if the different relationship between sunwise and clockwise in the two hemispheres is not understood.
Deosil, Sunwise or Clockwise?
On most occasions a sacred circle is cast in a sunwise direction, whether in the northern or southern hemispheres. In Scottish folklore, Sunwise or Sunward was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. In the northern hemisphere, “sunwise” and “clockwise” run in the same direction, probably because of the use of the sun as a timekeeper on sundials etc, whose features were in turn transferred to clock faces. Another influence may also have been the right-handed bias in many human cultures. This is descriptive of the ceremony observed by the druids, of walking round their temples by the south, in the course of their directions, always keeping their temples on their right. This course, deiseal [Irish, from Old Irish dessel, from Old Irish dess (“right, south”) + sel (“turn”)] was deemed propitious.
“In the eyes of our early forefathers the daily course of the Sun, bringing about the alternation of light and darkness and the regular succession of the seasons, was the most striking example that man had of that divine order of the universe which served as a model for order and justice in terrestrial affairs. Hence to go dessel or righthandwise, thus imitating the course of the sun, was not only the right way to make a journey, but was likewise beneficial in other affairs of life, and was likely to lead to a prosperous result; whereas to go in the contrary direction would be a violation of the established order and would lead to harm.” — T. F. O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, Dublin (1946), pp. 296-297.
Wicca uses the idiosyncratic spelling deosil, however this is not used in any of the three Gaelic languages.
The Elemental Correspondences
Various religions and traditions have each developed their own spiritual cosmologies, a part of which are the four elemental realms, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. These are each visible in humanity’s surroundings, resulting in them becoming associated with the four cardinal points, due to the environment people live in. For example, in Northern Europe the South is associated with Fire because of the position of the sun at midday. The sun, a source of heat and fire, marks an overhead arc from east to west through the southern skies. Water is associated with the West in Europe because of the Atlantic Ocean, East with Air because of the Eastern winds and North with Earth because the facing sun nourished its fertility.
Casting the Circle
The northern hemisphere elements and correspondences are usually assigned in the following way: East/Air/Sunrise, South/Fire/Midday, West/Water/Sunset, North/Earth/Midnight. The circle is cast in a sunwise (clockwise) direction, starting in the East then going through South, West and North (see diagram 1).
Northern Hemisphere Circle Casting
Deosil = Sunwise = Clockwise = East -> South -> West -> North
However, in the southern hemisphere the sun passes from east to west through the northern part of the sky, so it makes more sense to assign the element of Fire to the northern quarter instead of the south. The directional correspondences often used in the southern hemisphere are: East/Air/Sunrise, North/Fire/Midday, West/Water/Sunset, South/Earth/Midnight. Again the circle is cast in a sunwise direction, starting at East then going through North, West and South, but it can be seen that in the southern hemisphere sunwise does not run in the same direction as clockwise (see diagram 2).
Southern Hemisphere Circle Casting
Deosil = Sunwise = Anti-clockwise = East -> North -> West -> South
Within Paganism there is a lot of variation in the way people do things, and circle casting and assignment of the elements to the four directions is no exception, with the Elemental correspondences often being varied to suit different localities. For example, on the east coast of Australia some people might prefer to have Water in the East because of the Pacific Ocean, Earth in the West, for the Great Dividing Range/Blue Mountains, and Air in the South for the strong southerly winds. In this example Fire would remain in the north because the sun always travels through the northern part of the sky over Australia.
However, not everybody in the southern hemisphere casts circle this way, or attributes Fire/sun to the North. Sometimes circles here are cast according to northern hemisphere tradition. For example, in the book “Seeker’s Guide to Learning Wicca: Training to First Degree in the Southern Hemisphere” author Amethyst Treleven describes the way in which her South Australian coven, Oak and Mistletoe, cast their circles. Although the title of the book specifies “Southern Hemisphere” their preferred direction of circle casting appears to be that traditionally used in Europe, as they attribute Fire to the southern quarter and cast circle in an anti-sunwise (for the southern hemisphere) direction, going from East, to South (Fire), West then North (Earth). Their circle casting direction is described as deosil which is defined in this book as being “clockwise” rather than sunwise, which although this may be correct (based on the etymology given earlier), does cause confusion here “Down Under” as it doesn’t agree with the “sunwise” meaning of deosil.
For instance, if we take the primary definition of deosil to be sunwise, then to walk clockwise in the southern hemisphere cannot be deosil as it is not sunwise. But deosil also means clockwise or “to the right” therefore walking sunwise in the southern hemisphere is not deosil, as it is not clockwise. Confused? For southern hemisphere purposes it would be far easier to define deosil purely in terms of the apparent movement of the sun and forget about clocks and hand directions altogether.
Closing the Circle
The opposite to deosil was known as widdershins (sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) and means to take a course opposite the apparent motion of the sun. In the northern hemisphere this meant going counterclockwise, lefthandwise, or to circle an object, by always keeping it on the left. Like the word deosil, widdershins creates the same confusion if sun direction and clock and hand directions are all combined in its definition. Again it would be simpler to use only the definition of widdershins that pertains to the apparent movement of the sun.
Closing down a sacred circle in the northern hemisphere would be done in an anti-sunwise (anti-clockwise) direction, starting in the North then going through West, South and East.
Northern Hemisphere Circle Closing
Widdershins = Anti-sunwise = Anti-clockwise = North ->West -> South ->East
In the southern hemisphere, a circle is usually closed down in an anti-sunwise (clockwise) direction, starting in the South then going through West, North and East.
Southern Hemisphere Circle Closing
Widdershins = Anti-sunwise = Clockwise = South -> West -> North -> East
There may also be occasions, such as banishing rituals, where it is quite appropriate to cast circle against the sun and close sunwise: to go against the flow so to speak. In the book Materializing Religion: Expression, Performance and Ritual by Elisabeth Arweck, William J. F. Keenan, the following definitions are given:
‘Widdershins’ refers to working with energy in a flow that goes against the natural tides of the earth, particularly in relation to the Sun. ‘Deosil’ refers to a working that goes with the natural flow. Thus in the northern hemisphere, a Deosil working is one in which the circle is cast clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere, Deosil is anti-clockwise.
This may all still seem a bit confusing until you realise that all you have to do is forget about the clock! Perhaps here in the southern hemisphere we should also dispense with the use of the words deosil and widdershins as their dual definitions do not fit easily within a southern hemisphere perspective and only create further confusion due to the difference here between sunwise and clockwise.
Circle Casting Mimics the Sun
To try to make some sense out of all this, just remember that clock-face directions really have nothing to do with circle casting and that the act of circle casting was originally based on the direction of the sun’s apparent movement across the sky: circle casting mimics the sun. So if you want to cast a circle according to your geographical location, place the Elemental correspondences on the four compass directions most appropriate to your local (or greater) area and then cast your circle sunwise, which in the southern hemisphere begins in the East through the Northern part of the sky then to West followed by South. Complete your ritual then close your circle in the opposite direction. Of course, if you want to cast your circle differently, then by all means do so.