Happy Summer Solstice! Thinking about the sun (and I’m not currently seeing it where I am!) made me think about the ancient Celtic tradition of turning sunwise or deisol, as P. W. Joyce puts it in his A Social History of Ancient Ireland. To be fair, Joyce points out that this tradition was not only practiced by the Celts, but by other ancient people as well (Latins and Greeks.) He says it was just as common among the Christians as it was with pagans.
What Is Sunwise Walking?
One makes the deasil (yet another spelling for the word) by walking three times in the direction of the sun (turning to the right) around whatever it was the walker wanted to bless or heal or consecrate. Usually this was done three times. The Irish have an affinity for the number three. But it could be walked longer with no set ending. In Joyce’s day (late 1800’s to early 1900’s) the Irish still practiced this when burying their dead. Maybe some people still do this today.
St. Patrick Set the Example
Apparently St. Patrick walked sunwise around the site where the Armagh Cathedral was built, dedicating the entire area to the service of God. Other saints did the same when establishing their centers of worship. Legend even says warriors walked sunwise for protection before entering battle. Joyce says the Cathach or Battle Book “was always borne three times right-hand-wise round their army before battle, to assure victory.” He says this was done as late as the 15th century.
We can see possible evidence for the ritual in such writings as the Carmina Gadelica, a 19th century collection of poems, prayers, blessings, and incantations gathered by Alexander Carmichael.
Put Thy salve to my sight,
Put Thy balm to my wounds,
Put Thy linen robe to my skin,
O Healing Hand, O Son of the God of Salvation.
There are many more examples, but can’t you envision one rotation for each “Put Thy”?
Sunwise Walking For Today
This “sunwise walking” undoubtedly served a purpose. As a former preschool teacher, I understand how moving helps the body pay attention and movement, rhythm, and rhyme help with information retention. I’m thinking it might be time for me to start moving. And guess what? The sun has just come out again. Just one more lesson from the ancients!
Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.