Before there were clocks, what did people say to describe the clockwise and anti/counter-clockwise directions?
Whilst we're on the subject, when was the word "clockwise" first used?
Etymonline says that the word clockwise arose in 1870, much later than clocks. Before that, the word sunwise was used, but it appears to have been fairly rare.
There were words (e.g. deiseil and tuathail) for these concepts in the Celtic languages, since in Celtic cultures the directions clockwise and counterclockwise are quite important, but English seems not to have felt a great need for these concepts, and used sunwise on the rare occasions the concepts came up. All the pre-1850 Google books hits I can find for sunwise or sun-wise are describing Celtic, Hindu, ancient Roman, or American Indian customs. The earliest reference I can find on Google books for sunwise is 1775.
From The origin and history of Irish names of places, by Patrick Weston Joyce (1875):
If sunwise had been a common term at the time, or if there had been another commonly-understood word meaning clockwise, the author would not have felt the need to explain it by "i.e. from left to right".
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Deosil and widdershins, for one instance. (For clarity: deosil is clockwise, widdershins is counterclockwise.)
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As per @Nieszka link, "sunwise" would have been the most common, but also "widdershins" and "deasil". This seemed to serve them well enough, where most of their needs could be described with reference to the ground.
The problems of trying to work out which way is which when, for example, you are upside down were not major issues for them. They only really needed it for plotting on the ground, and working where the direction was clear.
According to Merriam, it was first used in 1888.
Well, the OED dates withershins from 1513 in the sense of "against the usual direction", and from 1545 in the sense of "against the sun's direction; but it does mark it as "dial, chiefly Sc.", i.e. dialect, chiefly Scottish. It seems unlikely that it was in general use before the 20th century.
And the only synonym I know for clockwise, deasil appears to have been borrowed from Gaelic in the 18th century: the OED gives it from 1771, but again the examples are mostly from Scottish sources.
So though these words existed, I don't think either of them was in general use in English until well after clockwise and its congeners.
Clockwise and counterclockwise it dates from 1888, with anticlockwise ten years later. (Anticlockwise has been preferred over counterclockwise in Britain since 1940, according to Google ngrams, but counterclockwise has just caught it up).
Most often, right, with left being the most common term for the opposite.
In some specific contexts, these can seem abiguous, but only when actually trying to consider the turning without a bias to either part of the clockwise- or counterclockwise-turning object. This doesn't actually come up all that often.
In order to ourselves turn around something clockwise, we turn to our right. If we view a rotating object along its axis, and bias our perspective to favour the top (which we tend to do naturally), we will say it is moving to the right.
It's ironically clocks themselves that give our main exception, since a clock's hands are rotating on a point close to one end, it's more reasonable that we would perceive a hand near the 6 as moving to the left, one near the 3 as moving down, and so on. But overall, it is more common for rotating objects to rotate on an axis closer to their middle.
We also have more rotating pieces of machinery where their direction is important, than people once did.
And so, right and left are still commonly used as such today. There is no confusion in how to operate a steering wheel, because we're well aquainted with the idea that clockwise and right correspond. We remember what way the most common sorts of screws and other rotating fixtures work as "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" not "clockwisey-stuckwisey, anticlockwisey-eh, the other one".
Now, some words have been suggested as answers, and they do indeed have those meanings (among others), but they were relatively rare.
Sunwise is the one straightforward one, means what it says, (and hence corresponds only if you are far enough north of the equator to notice a clockwise orientation to the sun's movements), but is relatively rare.
Widdershins has two separate etymological roots.
The main one is widder meaning "back against" and sinnen meaning "way", and so widdershins means in the wrong way. With a bias toward turning right (which is also why we have the same word for right, as for "correct") this would generally have meant turning left or counter-clockwise, but in a given context could mean the opposite.
Widersonnis used to exist as a separate word, explicitly meaning "against the sun":
Or in present-day English:
Widersonnis died out, because it was close to widdershins in sound and 99% of the time in meaning, and so it was absorbed into it. However, it did differ in being more specifically about the clockwise direction (as long as you're far enough north).
Deosil, deasil, and other spellings have been used in some dialects of English, but were not very common. Notably, the word in Irish and Scottish Gaelic that it comes from does not specifically mean "clockwise" or "sunwise". It means "right", "correct", "south" (on the basis that if you're facing the direction of sunrise, the south is to your right) and only means "clockwise" for the same reason that right can in English. The spelling deosil is common today, but not found any earlier than the middle of the 20th Century - long after clockwise was a commonplace.
The pairing of deosil and widdershins as antonyms is also modern, owing to their being commonly used in modern paganism.
Ironicallly, deosil is often explained to be "sunwise" and hence to mean counter-clockwise if you are in the southern hemisphere. As seen above this is not historically the case, and this again is a late 20th Century view, coming from the word's use in modern paganism, particularly in Australia and New Zealand (where the distinction is obviously considered more important than in the New Forest and London covensteads of the first groups to use the pair of words in this way).
So, while we did have other words with such senses, the most commonly used and most widely used in terms of dialect, where right and left.
*The difficulty in translation is that the present day doesn't have quite the same amount of scandalous reaction to sark alane. While it wouldn't be as shocking as nudity, and perhaps appropriate to see a sister or daughter in such a state of undress, it would still have been more shocking than today. "In her nighty" would just sound funny, but remember that it was just over a hundred years ago that riots were triggered by the word shift upon audiences in Dublin and New York hearing "It's Pegeen I'm seeking only and what'd I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?" (John Millington Synge, "Playboy of the Western World", 1907).